NBA stars going overseas a bad sign

So Deron Williams wants to play in Turkey if the NBA season doesn’t start on time, which is certainly his right. In theory, it’s a decent way to spend a few months: Hang out in Europe, make money and play basketball while the NBA bickers its way through a lockout. It sounds so good, in fact, that within minutes of Williams’ agent confirming the agreement, superstars ranging from Carmelo Anthony to Kobe Bryant indicated an interest in joining him overseas.

But just by entertaining the idea of a European exodus, NBA stars are already showing the kind of selfishness and greed that will ultimately undermine the Players Association in what could be a long, ugly labor war.

A number of basketball people reacted the same way to the news Williams had agreed to play for Besiktas: They’ll believe it when they see it. But even if Williams never makes it to Turkey, the mere notion of it has already caused problems for players on the margins of the NBA.

With the possibility that legitimate NBA players and even some All-Stars could sign for the duration of the lockout, there are some early indications that players who typically go overseas may be squeezed out until European teams see who they can get.

“I don’t believe you’ll see an influx of players going over, but it’s going to make those teams pause in what they’re doing to a degree because there’s a possibility,” said one agent who specializes in placing American players with European teams. “I don’t buy that Deron Williams is going over there, but that’s just another job that is gone. It just adds another factor into an already haywire situation.”

There are two issues at play — one moral/philosophical, the other strategic — and both suggest Williams and any other NBA stars who follow him will sacrifice the rank-and-file for their own self interests.

Is it certainly the right of rich NBA players to take the jobs of fellow Americans who spend year after year trying to scratch out the best living they can, leaving their families thousands of miles away. Yes. But is it right?

Even before the lockout, it was more difficult for an American to get a well-paying job overseas than most people think. With the tough economic conditions in Europe right now, several teams are in bad financial shape, struggling to pay players what they’re owed. Even the Turkish team that Williams signed with — reportedly for $5 million if he plays the whole season — recently had to make a $180,000 back payment to Lonny Baxter under orders from FIBA.

Moreover, most leagues only allow two American players per team, and some allow one. Roster spots are so scarce, the agent said, that many Americans resort to buying fake passports so they don’t count against the quota.

“The last couple years, the overseas market has been atrocious, just incredibly difficult to get guys jobs,” he said. “Back in the day, if you had a guy that could play, they were clamoring for them. It’s just not like that anymore.”

The prospect of an NBA exodus is adding another layer of uncertainty for guys like B.J. Jenkins, a starting guard the past two seasons for Murray State, which went 54-14 in that span and beat Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament. Jenkins wasn’t drafted last month and is unlikely to get a serious look in the NBA, so typically Europe would be a better-paying option than the NBA Developmental League.

It was already going to be difficult for Jenkins to get a good contract; now, Williams signing in Turkey could trickle down and make it even harder.

“It’s just a different year, a tough year,” Jenkins said. “(Williams) loves basketball just like me. If he can’t have a season and he wants to play, I’d never knock anybody for trying to play ball. Hopefully I can get a chance and have an opportunity to make the best of it.”

Williams made nearly $15 million last season with the Utah Jazz and New Jersey Nets and will likely be in line for a raise once he hits the free agent market in 2012. But if he’s so willing to go to Europe and take the job of a guy just hoping to make six figures, you have to wonder how this is all going to work out at the negotiating table when the owners inevitably pit the superstars against the masses and wait for them to cave.

And if the owners get what they want — a hard salary cap, shorter guaranteed contracts and an immediate salary rollback — the result will be similar to what happened in the NHL coming out of its 2004-05 lockout. There are now two distinct classes of players in the NHL: The stars make huge money, and there’s a big gap to everyone else left fighting for scraps. Rosters are unbalanced, a bad contract can kill a franchise and it’s almost impossible to keep good teams intact. But the stars still get paid.

At some point, when the lower-level players can’t miss any more paychecks and the stars realize a hard cap won’t hurt them, they’ll make a deal and the owners will win. Playing in Europe isn’t a strike at the owners; it’s the beginning of class warfare within their own ranks.

If the NBA Players Association really wanted to put the pressure on, they’d make sure more players who can’t afford a long lockout — not guys like Williams and Kobe Bryant — have jobs in Europe this fall so they could withstand missing an entire NBA season.

“But they don’t think like that,” the European agent said. “If you’re unprepared, you’re unprepared. It’s every man for himself.”

Last month, roughly 50 NBA players emerged from a players association meeting in New York wearing t-shirts that said “STAND.” But who are they really standing up for?