Links: Atlanta’s Greek Tragedy

by July 23, 2008

by Lang Whitaker

Maybe you’ve heard by now, but SLAM columnist Josh Childress is leaving the NBA and heading for Europe, signing a three-year deal with Olimpiacos in Greece yesterday. For Hawks fans (such as, ahem, myself), this is tough news to swallow.

As soon as the Hawks were knocked out of the Playoffs in the first round after pushing the Celts to seven games, Hawks ownership stressed that their main priority this summer was to keep the core group of players together. Josh Childress was a restricted free agent and a key part of that core group. He was a rookie four years ago when the Hawks totaled 13 wins. He saw the rebuilding through, played hard every night. And Atlanta Spirit promised the fans they were going to do whatever it took to keep this team together.

So it doesn’t exactly jibe when, earlier today on a conference call, Josh says things like, “I felt like there was no urgency and no drive to get anything done. We pushed to make something happen.”

Well, something happened, alright: Josh Childress left town.

How did it happen? According to Lon Babby, Josh’s agent, when Josh hit the marketplace, there was “considerable interest” from the Hawks and around the NBA. Babby said Hawks made a “calculated decision” to “stand on their rights” and that “the pace of the offer” from the Hawks basically forced Josh to look elsewhere.

“The initial offer from [Hawks GM] Rick Sund was below what I felt like I was worth,” said Chillz. “After that conversation with my agent, they told me to come back with an offer.”

“But there was never any mention of the offer having to be from an NBA team. I was a bit frustrated in the process due to the lack of…hurry by anyone. But in regards to sign-and-trades, there were two championship caliber teams willing to make deals, but things moved slowly.”

Meanwhile, the Greeks came a-calling. Olympiacos made contact with Josh’s camp and began a conversation because the team thought Josh would be a great fit for their uptempo style of play. Josh’s team of people met up with the Olympiacos in Las Vegas, then went to Athens on Sunday. Olympiacos was “aggressive” and the “beauty of Athens” helped sell Josh on their offer.

According to published reports, that offer was a three-year deal worth a total of $20 million, with an opt-out clause (not a buyout) after each year of the deal. (And yes, the contract is in dollars, not Euros, confirmed Jim Tanner, one of Josh’s agents. So for Olympiacos, they’re actually paying him about 13 million Euros for three years, which isn’t a bad deal at all. Ryan goes deeper into the financial ramifications here.)

It is very important to understand that this contract is loaded with perks, from a car and a house to the team actually picking up the taxes on the contract. So, in terms of value, it might be worth a little more than $20 million, total. With NBA guys having to pay tax on their salaries, a three-year, $20 million contract is actually more like a three-year, $12-14 million deal.

From what I’ve heard, the offers Josh was getting were around the range of the mid-level exception ($5.5 mil). For the sake of argument, let’s say Josh signed a three-year, $20 million deal with a NBA team. After taxes, that’s not even close to what he’ll be making in Greece. To match what he’ll clear each year in Greece, Josh would have to get a contract from an NBA team worth about $12 million a year, more than double the mid-level. So financially, it was a no-brainer for Josh. And in a way, it was a no-brainer for an NBA team not to sign him, if he can make that kind of money elsewhere.

But money ain’t everything. He’ll be thousands of miles from his home, friends and family in California. And he’ll be playing in a league, perceived or not, that is seen as subpar to the NBA.

Childress understands: “The NBA is great, some of the most fun four years of my life. That obviously isn’t gone. But I think this opportunity is great.”

Being completely objective, as an NBA player on the Atlanta Hawks, Josh Childress is not irreplaceable. He averaged 29 minutes a game and finished averaging 11.3 ppg. He was a great spot-up shooter and weak-side rebounder, and he had the versatility to play a lot of positions without ever being too exposed.

At the same time, Josh had trouble creating his own shot and never developed the strength to take the ball to the rim in traffic. His 11.3 ppg ranked 112th in the NBA last season, putting him behind guys like Jamaal Tinsley and Ronnie Brewer.

If you were an NBA GM, would you pay a guy who is coming off your bench almost $1 million a year per point per game? I wouldn’t either.

Still, as a teammate and person, Josh Childress is going to be extremely tough to replace. He’s one of the smarter guys in the NBA, he never gets in trouble, and he always represented the franchise well. Finding that three weeks into the free agent market is like finding a needle in a haystack.

The thing is, I don’t think it needed to come to this. The Hawks didn’t have to pay him as much as he’s making in Greece, but they had to pay him something, anything. It just wasn’t happening, according to Josh. “I had conversations with Rick and ownership and that was my number one goal to return to Atlanta,” Josh said. “But I wanted to get my contract done early, but when that didn’t happen, I was kind of forced to explore my options.”

One glaring deficiency with Atlanta Spirit has been their inability to move swiftly on almost everything. In the NBA, as in the business world, the most successful companies are usually the ones that are streamlined and able to shift or change directions on a dime. Meanwhile, the Hawks, with their bare-bones budget and full-house ownership group, are like the Queen Mary, steaming along at half-speed while little speedboats blow past them. They might eventually make it to the finish line, slow and steady, but they’re getting lapped in the process.

In the meantime, for Josh, I think that at the end of the day, this really was about an opportunity to make the kind of money he just couldn’t make here in the NBA. Sure, he’s not happy that the Hawks didn’t jump to sign him up, but Olympiacos came hard after him (he said they told him they scouted him over 50 times last season; “I was in awe…they did their research…they were about business”) and made him feel wanted. And Josh understands the value of money — this is a guy who spends most of his cash on sneakers and video games, hardly bank-breaking items. Case in point, from Josh’s column in SLAM 120:

My next purchase is probably going to be a watch with this money I saved up. Marvin Williams and I played a per diem game all season, trying to see how much money we could save. Each day we get like $98 to pay for our meals. And when you’re at hotels like the Ritz, room service breakfast is like fifty freakin’ bucks. So Marv and I tried to eat more normal meals and get out from the hotel, maybe going to nearby diners or whatever, and instead of spending $50 we’d spent like $7. For the whole season, I ended up saving $4,100. He had like $3,400. (We went on the honor system.) It made me realize that I don’t need to spend that much money. Just because it’s convenient doesn’t mean you don’t have to spend it.

I’m going to miss having Josh on the Hawks next season, but at the same time, I understand the Hawks not wanting to get locked into a contract longer and richer than they felt was fair.

I just wish it didn’t seem like it happened by accident.

UPDATE: The Hawks just released a statement from GM Rick Sund…

“We were informed this morning by Josh Childress’ representatives that he has signed with Olympiakos in Greece, and we want to wish him the absolute best with his future career in FIBA.

“We have a great deal of respect for Josh and appreciate his contributions to our franchise.  We were very comfortable when we began this process that if Josh were to play in the NBA, he would remain with the Hawks.  This is a unique situation with Greece, and to my knowledge it is believe to be the highest contract ever awarded in Euroleague history.

“We feel we presented a very fair and competitive offer to keep him in Atlanta, and we will now move forward with the options we have to improve our roster.”