Sekou Smith, the excellent Hawks beat writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is reporting that the man with the maddest ‘fro this side of the Afro-Samurai will sign with Olympiakos, and for more than the above-the-mid-level contract Atlanta was offering (rumored at $33 million). Atlanta retains his NBA rights for two years, and the contract contains opt outs at the end of each season.
Considering Childress’ deal alongside Brandon Jennings’ recent deal with Pallacanestro Virtus Roma raises the question of whether this is a trickle in what could become a steady stream of players leaving the NBA for other pro leagues under the FIBA umbrella. It is difficult to know, but any seasoned NBA fan can tell you that the path from the NBA to overseas leagues is already well-worn; but mostly by foreign-born and US-born fringe NBA players (e.g., Carlos Delfino and Anthony Parker respectively). Jennings and Childress represent a somewhat different (though perhaps not categorically different) kind of US-born Euroleague signee. They are highly-regarded talents who walked away from two entrenched institutional practices that have quasi-legal status: the NCAA’s virtual monopoly on entry to the NBA for US-born players and the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement (specifically restricted free agency). Although a direct comparison between Jennings and Childress to baseball’s Curt Flood would put too fine a point on it, their their willingness to move outside–way outside–the NCAA/NBA nexus could ultimately take on similar significance. (Rather than challenging a clear violation of the law as Flood did Jennings and Childress have exposed a clear point of vulnerability for both the NCAA and NBA: competition.)
Since KB has already written about Jennings I’ll limit my remaining comments to the Childress signing. First, globalization doesn’t just work for the US. Legitimate competition for US-born athletic talent is to my mind a good thing. In fact, sports may be one of the very few arenas where it’s possible for those who labor to gain enough leverage to negotiate salary and working conditions on a vaguely equal footing with management. When one of these guys wins at that game I can’t help but root for him. Second, at the risk of engaging in some Schadenfreude, this couldn’t have happened to a more deserving ownership group. The Atlanta ownership situation continues to be an embarrassment. Their players, to their everlasting credit and Mike Woodson’s, have developed in spite of the considerable obstacles created by ownership. As a Knicks fan I have complete empathy for Atlanta’s fans who think, “What did we ever do to deserve this?” Or, my personal favorite, “What else can go wrong?” Third, I hardly anticipate a mass exodus of US-born players to the various European leagues beyond what we currently see. The culture shock is considerable, and at the risk of stereotyping, many athletes are if nothing else creatures of familiarity and habit. If anything, I expect to see even fewer European stars jump across the pond to the NBA. The dollar is just too weak. If the structural weaknesses in the US economy aren’t the sort of thing you pay attention to, consider the Childress signing as yet another indication that the economy will probably get a lot worse before it gets better.
I eagerly anticipate the owners’ response to this and then Billy Hunter’s. This isn’t just about losing Childress, who may not be worth what he’s getting. (I’ll leave that to another post.) The bigger issue is that Childress and Olympiakos exploited the NBA’s failure to really consider that talent pipelines can travel in both directions. Olympiakos works without salary cap restriction and Atlanta has no “right” to match Childress’ offer (the essence of restricted free agency); a point of vulnerability that had up to this point only impacted foreign-born draftees and fringe players. Now you can bank it that the owners will use this issue to push for any number of unrelated concessions in the CBA under threat of lockout; it’s what they do. More to the point however, I expect that some teams will now look to place buyout clauses in player contracts where possible.