Commentary

Childress' deal could signal increasing lure of Euro cash for U.S. players

Originally Published: July 23, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN Insider

Josh ChildressRocky Widner/Getty ImagesIs Josh Childress pointing the way for other U.S. players to what could be greener pastures in Europe?

Josh Childress' agent interrupted somebody during a conference call Wednesday to make sure everyone understood that the contract Childress signed with Greek club Olympiacos was worth in the neighborhood of $21 million over three years after taxes.

That's nearly $7 million a year in take-home pay, which amounts to some $2-3 million more per season (when you account for U.S. income taxes) than the Atlanta Hawks were willing to offer.

And with his anxious client already turned off by the way the Hawks did not seem to be sharing his sense of urgency, Childress shocked the NBA and the international basketball world Wednesday by signing what is believed to be the most lucrative contract ever offered to an American player to head overseas.

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Already this offseason, NBA players Bostjan Nachbar, Juan Carlos Navarro, Carlos Delfino, Primoz Brezec, Tiago Splitter, Jorge Garbajosa and Pops Mensah-Bonsu have decided to pursue the almighty euro rather than the dollar, joining the likes of Vassilis Spanoulis, Arvydas Macijauskas and Sarunas Jasikevicius (who departed the NBA for Europe in the summer of '07) in turning their backs on the NBA in favor of a continent where the money is often better and the passions often run higher.

"Our main rivalry is with Panathinaikos, and it's like Duke-Carolina times five," Childress said from Greece, where he said he was looking forward to expanding his horizons as an individual and buying into what he perceived to be a stronger team concept than what he has experienced in America.

Europe has traditionally been a destination for NBA players on the tail ends of their careers, as well as for fringe players who came out of college undrafted or failed to make it out of NBA teams' training camps.

But the landscape is changing, and Arizona recruit Brandon Jennings made headlines last week when he decided to play overseas rather than spend one year with the Wildcats before becoming eligible for the NBA draft -- a move other high school graduates may follow as a result of the NBA's increased age limit removing the preps-to-NBA option that was available to players until 2005.

Childress has spent each summer after his four NBA seasons traveling with friends to Europe, giving him a broader world view than many of his peers back in the States.

His agent, Lon Babby, said Childress will have the opportunity to opt out of his contract each of the next two summers without having to pay a buyout, though the Hawks can maintain his NBA rights and keep him a restricted free agent in perpetuity as long as they tender him a qualifying offer each summer.

"I've talked to a few guys, and it could become a trend. I'm not so sure that it won't," Childress said. "It's different. We thought out of the box a little on this one, and players see a fellow NBA athlete move overseas and adjust to the culture, some might ask 'Why not me?' So I'm interested how this might turn out for some of the other restricted free agents."

Among the restricted free agents still sitting unsigned are Emeka Okafor (Charlotte), Ben Gordon and Luol Deng (Chicago), Delonte West (Cleveland), Sasha Vujacic (Lakers), Nenad Krstic (Nets), Andre Iguodala and Louis Williams (Philadelphia), Ryan Gomes (Minnesota), and Andris Biedrins and Monta Ellis (Golden State) -- although a source told ESPN.com that Ellis has agreed conceptually to a six-year contract to remain with the Warriors.

Nets president Rod Thorn has said Krstic is currently weighing offers from overseas, and Vujacic is one of the most highly sought European free agents following what for him was a breakout season with Los Angeles.

But one prominent player agent told ESPN.com that he does not believe the Childress signing will become a trend because there are not enough European clubs willing to spend money on an NBA level. Olympiacos is one of them, having offered Chris Webber a two-year contract that would have netted him around $10-12 million, and a source told ESPN.com that representatives of a Greek club made calls last season wanting to know what it would cost to buy Leandro Barbosa out of his contract with the Phoenix Suns.

Another big spender is Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow, whose players celebrated their Euroleague title this spring by spraying $650 bottles of Cristal champagne on each other, and there are at least a half-dozen teams -- Efes Pilsen in Istanbul, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Dynamo Moscow and Khimki Moscow, along with Panathinaikos, that have loosened their purse strings considerably in the past two years to compete for American players they believe would be a good fit for their system.

But Olympiacos has clearly been the team most willing to make a major splash, and it did so with the Childress signing.

"If you believe in the globalization of the sport, there's no reason the path can't travel in both directions," said Babby.

Euroleague teams are not hindered by a salary cap or a luxury tax, but there are a limited number of owners with deep enough pockets to operate their teams at a substantial financial loss in order to sign the caliber of players needed to consistently remain among the top European teams.

But with the euro recently at an all-time high against the dollar, it takes a lot fewer euros than it did just a couple years ago to make an offer that, dollarwise, seems over the top.

And while NBA players are making more money than they ever have -- 2007-08 player earnings topped $2 billion for the first time ever, sources told ESPN.com -- there is a dearth of salary-cap space that, along with the luxury tax serving as a sort of hard cap for a majority of teams, has shrunk the pool of available dollars.

"I think there will be a lot of American players shaking their heads over this, wondering why there are [European] teams willing to pay $4, $5 or $6 million when the most NBA teams are willing to offer is the biannual exception, which is less than $2 million. How could you not consider that? I can't say how many players will go, but I think a lot will explore this," agent Marc Cornstein said.

NBA commissioner David Stern has consistently said he is comfortable with the notion that there are some players who can make more money in Europe and would prefer to play there, saying the majority of the world's best basketball players still seek the allure of playing in the world's most prestigious league.

But what was once a trickle of players choosing Europe over America has started to become a flow, and in the years ahead it'll become a question of whether the NBA will decide to loosen some of its salary-cap rules that have hindered player movement, especially among restricted free agents.

"The level of concern is low," NBA president of basketball operations Joel Litvin told ESPN.com in a phone interview. "This is what happens when you have a global sport and a global marketplace for elite players, and we're confident that the NBA remains the gold standard for professional basketball. Businesswise, it's good for us, because it means more basketball fans will be watching basketball, and those fans will find the NBA because that's where the best of the world plays."

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.