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

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images
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.

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.

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.

But now, these players are drawn back to Europe. “Basketball is now closer to soccer than ever before,” says Ferdinando Minucci, president of the Montepaschi Siena club and Euroleague executive of the year last season. With no history of fan violence, basketball is perceived as family-friendly, making it an attractive investment for big companies, he adds.

And with the increased popularity of the game in Europe, continental clubs are now willing to invest in players.“These teams are spending money they don’t have, just to compete,” says Capicchioni. As a result, a handful of clubs are competitive in salary terms with their NBA counterparts.

While the NBA continues to attract the top performers worldwide and pays them accordingly, “mid-level European players in the NBA have recently discovered that they have a much bigger market in Europe, particularly Russia,” Mr. Ricciotti points out.

“The top 20 are Americans – Europeans are not as good. But in the middle [of the NBA], Europeans are very close,” adds Mr. Minucci. “The star system in Italy is not as important as in the NBA,” he says, which makes it easier for mid-level players to make the jump across.

As a result, young players on the verge – not in the twilight – of success are attracted to top European clubs. Mr. Navarro, for example, fulfilled every player’s dream of playing in the NBA. But after one successful season playing for the Memphis Grizzlies, which included being named to the NBA All Rookie second team, the Spaniard decided to head home to finish his career where it started, in Barcelona.

His new four-year contract dwarfs his NBA salary, which topped $500,000 last year. His current earnings are reportedly 10 times that amount.

Two other players represented by Capicchioni’s Interperformances agency also bolted the NBA for European windfalls this summer. Bostjan Nachbar opted not to re-sign with the New Jersey Nets in favor of a reported three-year, $14.3 million salary with Russian club Dynamo Moscow.

Similarly, Jorge Garbajosa left the Toronto Raptors to join the Russian club BC Khimki, where he’ll join fellow Raptor Carlos Delfino next year. No team has been harder hit by player defections than the Toronto Raptors, which has lost three people this offseason to big European contracts. “The money is so high, you can’t turn it down,” says Capicchioni.

Others who took the trans-Atlantic jump include Josh Childress, a forward who left the Atlanta Hawks for Olympiakos in Greece, and high school phenomenon Brandon Jennings, who will play in Rome next year rather than at the University of Arizona.

But there are tradeoffs. Many of the players opting for big contracts are not joining teams that play at the continent’s highest level, the Euroleague. “They’re putting aside personal goals for financial security,” says Ettore Messina, the coach of CSKA Moscow, a top Russian club and last season’s European champion.

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