From the Sidelines: Scheme team

Published 8:01 pm Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Call it a dream. Call it redemption. Call it about time. However it is perceived, members of this year’s Team USA Basketball look to be on a mission and all the necessary proof revealed itself soon after the Beijing games tipped off.

Not a believer yet? Fair enough. To fully understand the goals of these players, one must look beyond the thrashing of China in which the Americans still managed to shoot a paltry 7-for-29 from beyond the arc. To grasp where these guys are coming from, and where they’re wanting to go, the obligatory dispatching of Angola cannot even enter the equation.

No. It isn’t what these superstars do on the court that matters in this instance. Rather, it is what they say and, more specifically, what they imply that provides the greatest indication of their goals.

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NBA players have long been frustrated with certain aspects of The Association’s game. But it’s not the game between the lines that has annoyed them as much as it is the one that surrounds the ever-frustrating process of negotiating contracts.

The league’s policies regarding restricted free agents, coupled with an awkward combination of a salary ceiling and a luxury tax allowance have turned free agency into a nightmare for many players.

Take this summer for example. Atlanta Hawks sixth man Josh Childress achieved restricted free agent status and looked to cash in on his versatility, upside and stellar production. Childress could honestly serve as the top 2-guard on a handful of teams in the NBA. That prospect surely was more appealing than playing another year on his rookie contract while coming off the bench for the hapless Hawks. But, given the sad condition of NBA financials these days, few teams had the salary cap space to offer Childress a considerable contract. Moreover, Childress would have run into similar problems as an unrestricted free agent next summer. To make matters worse, the Hawks knew they held all the cards in the standoff and dealt with Childress accordingly.

Essentially, they backed the swingman into a corner, expecting him to fold. So Childress did what no other American player had thus far had the gumption to do. He bolted for Europe. He took a more lucrative offer from Olympiakos, who faces no salary cap restrictions, choosing to bow out of the circus that is NBA free agency.

His relocation play came on the heels of prepster Brandon Jennings’ decision to compete in Europe rather than spend his mandatory year between high school and the NBA in college. Now, the Arizona commit can be paid to play while he determines whether or not he wants to test the NBA waters next season.

Then, just last week, Charlotte Bobcats reserve point guard Earl Boykins agreed to bail on his team in lieu of a European offer.

Does it seem like a trend is forming? Maybe not just yet. After all, as solid of players as they may be, Childress and Boykins are no stars. So the league could stand to lose them.

However, when the leaders of Team USA, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, stepped up over the weekend to say they would each test the European market once their current contracts expired, the league was forced to take notice.

And that is precisely what they meant for such statements to do, grab attention. But, don’t misunderstand their intentions. The two biggest superstars in the game certainly do not lack for press. On the contrary, these statements seem far more calculated than spur-of-the-moment, attention-seeking spout-offs. Kobe and Lebron are each well aware of the clout they carry within the league.

That is not to say that either is bigger than the league. But, in reality, the league needs them more than they need the league. So they can threaten to test foreign waters and expect for such warnings to make an impact.

That fact is that neither Kobe nor Lebron has any intention of playing in Europe. If it were about making more money, the pair could cross the Atlantic now. While they are still under contract with their respective NBA franchises, they remain free to bail on their agreements and compete in other leagues. Their respective NBA franchises would simply retain their contractual rights should they ever decide to return to the league.

Stephon Marbury made a similar threat two summers ago when he admitted to thoughts of playing in Italy. The difference in Starbury’s case was that no Italian team wanted to sign him nearly as badly as the Knicks and the NBA wanted him to leave. In fact, there are still plenty around the league who are hoping the point guard soon makes good on his threat.

But while Marbury’s meanderings didn’t garner a response, Kobe’s and Lebron’s comments have already found their intended target. See, these Team USA members are not only looking to find gold in the Far East, they are aiming to strike it on the home front as well.

Unlike the departure of Childress, the prospect of losing any one of its most marketable stars is a very serious concern for The Association, which has labored for years to both clean up the image of its players and fill the Jordan void.

That fear could very well lead to NBA owners abandoning their monopolistic “only game in town” mindset that has traditionally left players in undesirable situations. In short, Kobe and Lebron measured their comments, hitting their intended targets with the silky smooth delivery of a step-back jumper from the elbow.

And now NBA commish David Stern and league owners will be challenged to revisit the rigid and often absurd policies and practices that have put players in bad situations and saddled teams with untradable contracts.

Like it or not, the era of the salary cap in professional sports has nearly drawn to a close. Baseball, a sport known for offering the most bank-breaking contracts, will never be able to implement a payroll ceiling without suffering another work stoppage. And now the NFL, long considered the most well run professional sports league in the country, faces uncharted territory when its salary cap expires with its current collective bargaining agreement.

So it stands to reason that the NBA is the next in line, which could prove to be a good thing. Under its current conditions and with the ever-declining value of the dollar, lucrative European offers are now even more valuable. And, with the disparity of competition between the two hemispheres seemingly lessening each year, the jump continues to become even easier for American players. Simply put, the league can’t keep up if it continues along its current path, meaning Childress would prove just the first in a long line of players looking for greener pastures.

Whether Stern and company like it or not, Kobe and Lebron have seen the wave of the future and in their own methodical way, have taken the next step in pushing their league toward it while, perhaps, saving it in the process.

Jeremy D. Smith is the sports editor of The Times. You can reach him at 334-289-4017 or