Dirk Nowitzki became the latest NBA star to declare that if NBA owners lock out players as expected on July 1, he will spend the season playing in Europe. Other NBA players, including one-time Italian league benchwarmer Brandon Jennings, have said that instead of waiting on the sidelines while owners push for massive salary rollbacks and withhold pay, they will sign contracts to compete in Europe's myriad pro leagues.
But as Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin noted this morning, that's easier said than done.
[T]he only way any player under contract can sign and play with a team anywhere else in the world would be to get FIBA to sign a Letter of Clearance. FIBA sets up the rules and when a guy is under contract in one professional league he can not sign with another without that permission slip.
If you think FIBA - or Mark Cuban and the Mavericks - are going to sign off on such a letter, well, you probably thought Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson got screwed over not getting an Oscar nomination for his work in Tooth Fairy.
That's mostly right: A player under contract in the NBA would need a letter of clearance to play in a FIBA-sanctioned league. But an investigation of international and NBA rules and a chat with FIBA officials reveals that the idea NBA players could move to Europe or other locations isn't entirely far-fetched.
The central question that will decide whether players under contract are allowed to take their talents across the pond is whether the NBA cancels the 2010-11 season. Florian Wanninger, FIBA's top spokesman, told SBNation.com that the devil lays in the details as to whether players are under valid contract.
"In the event of an NBA work stoppage or players' strike, it would have first to be determined whether the players are still under a valid contract," Wanninger said. "If this were the case, players cannot play elsewhere. A contrario, if contracts are not valid any longer, they are free to transfer."
If it looks like FIBA's position contains wiggle room, it's because it does. The cancellation of the entire 2011-12 NBA season could go a long way toward determining that the league's player contracts for that year are invalid -- players will not have gotten paid to the terms of their contracts.
Courts may ultimately decide the matter, as NBA team owners could be expected to attempt to block their contracted players from risking injury in other leagues. The union and its players would have a fair case, though -- the NBA would be not only withholding pay during a labor impasse, but effectively preventing players from earning any wages in their chosen profession. (That's where the union's threat to decertify and bring antitrust action against the league comes in. The argument here would be that by having a monopoly on American professional basketball and preventing contracted but locked-out players from earning wages in the world's top leagues, the NBA is unfairly asserting its market dominance. That's the argument, at least.)
There is some precedence for a European exodus during a American lockout: NHL players ventured to Europe in huge numbers during that league's 2004-05 lockout. As many as 350 NHL players, many of them born in the Old World, competed in European-based league during the lockout, and a number of American and Canadian players competed in domestic minor leagues.
The NBA's agreement with FIBA and the NHL's more diverse player base makes the scenarios quite different, but hockey's situation at least provides the NBA union with some historical cover.
The other option open to NBA players looking to play ball and stick it to owners would be to play in non-FIBA leagues. The NBA's agreement with FIBA covers only sanctioned leagues; there are a number of leagues around the world and in the United States -- albeit minor, ramshackle leagues -- that could look to pull in locked-out NBA players, if there was interest. Whether players would risk guaranteed contracts to play for relative peanuts in what would likely be lousy gyms remains to be seen.
Free agents, of course, have no such limits on moving to Europe, South America or Asia. Carmelo Anthony, for instance, could play in the Puerto Rican league without a hitch should the NBA lock out players and 'Melo decide to stay in the game. Many NHL players who fled to Europe structured their new contracts to include opt-out clauses in case the NHL and its union solved its impasse. Those clauses don't exist in NBA contracts just yet, but if players look to play elsewhere in 2011, the coming NBA labor negotiations might just set a new precedent.