Thursday, June 19, 2008

Whither the Spanish National Team?

There were two interesting bits of news in the last few days that flew under the radar due to the Lakers-Celtics hoopla.

1) Jorge Garbajosa was bought out of his contract with the Raptors. This was probably bound to happen, there has been a lot of disagreement among the Raptors, Garbajosa, and the Spanish national team ever since Garbo's injury in March 2007. He played in the (seemingly meaningless, since Spain had already clinched an Olympic spot) FIBA tournament that summer before his leg/ankle were fully healed (against the wishes of the Raptors), then reinjured his ankle and had to have another surgery early in the 2007-2008 season (in December 2007). The second surgery led to a dispute between the Raptors and the Spanish national team about insurance payments payments and who should be held liable. His decision to go ahead and play for the Spanish national team in the Olympics this year was sort of the last straw, and now he's a free agent. Will he stay in the NBA? Mark Cuban also has thoughts about international competition.

2) Juan Carlos Navarro is going back to Spain. Reportedly, he's getting 5 years for either 10 million euros or $25 million (depending on which report you read) to play for FC Barcelona.

These stories aren't particularly related, and the Navarro story is more what I want to discuss. He is a pretty solid player who had some good moments for the Grizzlies this year. He can shoot out to the three point line as well as create off the dribble. Per 48 minutes, he averaged 20 points, 4 assists, and almost 5 rebounds, and shot 36% from 3 -- similar numbers to Ben Gordon's rookie year. All of this is to say that this isn't nothing.

So short story: Navarro was good enough to be a first round pick, but had some injuries and was randomly drafted by the Wizards in 2001 or 2002 (I can't remember which) way down in the second round. Already playing professionally in Spain, he chose not to come over. His rights were traded to Memphis last year, and the Grizzlies lured him over with Pau Gasol (who was then traded a couple of months into Navarro's rookie season). Because of the rookie salary scale, Navarro (a 28-year old) only made $538,090 last year (compare to what he'll be playing for next year in Barcelona).

So. I think what I'm wondering about is what becomes of non-superstar Euro players in the next several years. The rookie salary scale allows only lottery picks to make around the midlevel exception, everyone else is paid much less. The better (non-lottery) European players, who've been playing professionally for a few years before they get drafted, often have the opportunity to make much more overseas, but are treated as rookies even if, like Navarro, they are veteran professionals. And given the strength of leagues in Spain and Russia, there's now a financial alternative (hence, Tiago Splitter turning down the Spurs). In a sense, Portland is LUCKY to have Rudy Fernandez coming over next year.

The loss of Navarro seems small. But I want to keep my eye on what happens with Garbajosa, who is kind of a national hero in Spain but unknown here. And could something similar happen with Sergio Rodriguez (drafted at the bottom of the first round)? Marc Gasol? Guys like Dirk Nowitzki and Andrei Kirilenko are probably making far too much money here to turn down, but some of these mid to late first rounders (and all second rounders) might consider skipping the American rookie experience altogether -- especially those who could be stars in their home leagues.

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