Deron Williams, in his decision to suit up for the Turkish club Besiktas next season should the lockout continue, has officially opened the door for other locked out NBAers to seek employment elsewhere. The notion that top NBA players could jet across the Atlantic to play in European leagues is no longer a mere possibility; those reluctant to be the first to make commitments overseas now have their lockout role model, and could follow Williams to Turkey, or to China, or to any team in any country willing to temporarily invest in NBA talent.
But perhaps the oddest element of Williams’ exodus is how his unique circumstances enable him to make the jump. He’s not exactly a typical NBA player — Williams is the centerpiece of his current team, and holds a considerable amount of power as a result. He’s not even a typical star — Williams has more influence and leeway than most due to both his incredible skill and his impending free agency. The Nets are trying to convince Williams to stay with the franchise for the long haul, and — lockout or not — aren’t in any position to contest his bid to play overseas nor to void his contract. In this case, Williams holds most of the cards, if not all of them. Once he decided on playing in Turkey, there weren’t many actors capable of stopping him.
All of that makes Williams’ act a tough one to follow. How many players can command the kind of impunity that Williams does? Fringe NBA players — those likely most interested in securing some extra coin during the season by playing elsewhere — risk simply having their deals voided. The league’s top players hold the same sway that Williams does, but would only earn a fraction of their NBA salaries while playing overseas and risk possible injury in the process. Essentially, those for whom it makes the most financial sense to play in other leagues may be limited from doing so, and those who have the least compelling motivations for seeking that kind of employment hold all of the power to do as the please. There are dozens of shades of gray in between (Zaza Pachulia, a solid but unremarkable NBA big man, will join Besiktas along with Williams, for example, and will likely suffer little consequence), but the enabling and limiting factors on the extremes of the NBA spectrum create a pretty strange dynamic.
The potential wild card: rookie scale players. The threat of a contract void (and it may be little more than a threat; it’s unknown just how seriously teams would consider cutting their players loose) doesn’t seem to apply to team building blocks, a convenient fact which would theoretically offer young, talented players a bit of protection. However, players on their first NBA deals could still have the financial motivations to play overseas, depending on their individual situations and their expectations for their 2011-2012 NBA salaries. If anything, it’s the players on rookie scale deals — particularly former mid-late 1st round picks or second rounders — who would seem to have the most to gain. They could supplement their income, continue playing professional-level basketball, and further refine their skills in a different setting, all with seemingly little risk.
But outlining possible motivations and benefits for young players heading overseas is very different than that outcome actually occurring. There are a million legitimate and half-legitimate reasons NBA players could use to talk themselves into staying the course and trudging through the lockout, and many will be kept stateside as a result. The power structure of the NBA already restricts the sensible candidates for overseas contracts, but the wide variety of interests and caveats across even the viable options should dwindle those who intend to play overseas to a minimum. Williams may have opened the door, but many can’t even cross the threshold, and some would rather he close it and not waste what’s left of the A/C.