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Best international players? They're not necessarily in the NBA.

By Elliot HannonContributor / August 15, 2008

Juan Carlos Navarro (l.) played for the Memphis Grizzlies last year but then returned to play for Barcelona. His new salary dwarfs his NBA paycheck, which topped $500,000 last year.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

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Basketball fans following the Beijing Games will notice that many of the best international players on the court do not compete in the National Basketball Association (NBA) – because they choose not to.

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In fact, on Saturday, when the United States Olympic team takes to the court against Spain, their opponents will include Juan Carlos Navarro, who played last year for the Memphis Grizzlies but has since joined FC Barcelona.

More players are flocking to European teams, lured by high salaries, tax breaks, and other perks. While this migration to the continent is largely motivated by a need to ensure financial security, it has increased the competitiveness of European play. Indeed, European leagues are emerging as a viable alternative to the NBA.

“It’s the new market,” says Luciano Capicchioni, president and CEO of the San Marino-based Interperformances sports agency, which he estimates represents 500 basketball players worldwide. “You have to go where the money is. Players fire you if you don’t tell them what’s out there.”

What’s out there, players and their agents have discovered, are increasingly lucrative earnings from European clubs. Fueled by a steady rise in the level of play and an infusion of cash by wealthy team owners, salaries doled out by top European teams are reaching sums once reserved for the continent’s top soccer stars.

The European pot is sweetened by the euro’s sizzle. “The trend obviously has to do with the economic crisis [in the US] and the difference between the Euro and the dollar,” explains European agent Antonio Ricciotti.

Salaries are also high because there are fewer restrictions on expenditures. While the NBA flourished financially by ensuring that the league’s rising financial tide would continue to lift all league franchises – namely, a salary cap – European clubs are not similarly constrained. “In Europe, an owner can spend as much as he wants. He doesn’t have any limitations. The NBA has limitations: the luxury tax and salary cap,” says Mr. Capicchioni.

He points to other advantages for European players. For instance, clubs often pay taxes on player salaries. An apartment, a car, and airplane tickets are also included in the bargain, according to Capicchioni. “In Europe, we’re always talking net, not gross money,” he says.

Previously, European leagues were seen as nothing more than a minor league novelty in the United States – think cold showers, long bus rides, and irregular paychecks. European squads were made up of American college players looking to play a few more years before moving on to regular jobs. Often, these players were not good enough for the NBA, while their European teammates never stood a chance. In the past decade, however, international interest in basketball increased, with Euroleague attendance going up by 250 percent. Competition for coveted Euroleague spots intensified and clubs in Europe’s top leagues – Spain, Russia, Greece, and Italy – looked for talent. NBA scouts also began to scour the continent. The tactic worked: the NBA beckoned and foreign players came in droves.

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