Monday, September 7, 2009

The NBA Gets Rick Rolled

By Scott Shepherd

Have you ever gone on YouTube and seen headlines like this, "Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera Getting It On!!!" or "Jessica Simpson Topless Photo Shoot!!!", only to click on the video to find this?

There's a term for this; it's called getting "Rick Rolled." A few years ago, a bunch of pranksters on the Internet fooled all of us with videos that promised things that were too good to be true, we clicked them anyway, and there was an extremely '80s-looking Rick Astley reminding all of us to stop being such perverts.

Well, the NBA suffered its own version of getting "Rick Rolled" this week.

The Rick in this case is Ricky Rubio, and instead of teasing us with softcore celebrity porn, NBA fans were teased by the second coming of Pete Maravich.

A good-looking, 19-year-old phenom from Spain was supposed to come over and be the face of a new era of the NBA. For years, NBA titles have been won by big men. For every M.J. or Kobe Bryant title, there has been five Tim Duncan or Bill Russell title teams to remind us that this is a league dominated by big men.

But that was the old NBA. We've entered a new era in NBA basketball. The 2000s are behind us, and we are entering the teens, a decade that is going to be dominated by point guards, mark my words.

We already have Chris Paul, Derron Williams, and Derrick Rose as the faces of a new generation of basketball. After the 2009 NBA Draft back in June, NBA fans were promised another name to add to that list: Ricky Rubio.

Instead, Rubio got cold feet and decided not to enter the NBA. At least, not right now.

After reportedly having a deal in place to join the team that drafted Rubio fifth overall, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Rubio changed his mind and agreed to a deal that will send him to FC Barcelona for at least the next two seasons.

I say at least two seasons because ESPN's Chris Sheridan wrote a very interesting piece about the Rubio situation last week. Essentially what he writes is that if Rubio plays three more years in Spain, the buyout from his contract is the same as if he plays two seasons ($1 million Euros). If Rubio decides to join the NBA after two more seasons in Spain, he will still be subject to the NBA rookie salary guidelines, and will make a maximum of $16.3 million over four seasons.

If Rubio waits three seasons, he no longer has to sign a "rookie" contract and is free to sign with whichever team owns his rights (which will be Minnesota still assuming they haven't traded him by then) for any salary they chose, so long as it is under the salary cap.

So, in theory, if Minnesota is $8 million under the cap three years from now, they can pay Rubio $8 million per season with the normal 8% increase from season to season allowed by the current collective bargaining agreement. A five-year contract at that rate would pay Rubio $46.4 million dollars and still allow him to be an unrestricted free agent at the age of 26.

Based on those numbers, it's hard to imagine we'll be seeing young Ricky Rubio any time soon. By the time he's gets here, he's just going to be Ricky Rubio.

So who's to blame for this mess? My initial reaction is that David Kahn, new team President in Minnesota, completely dropped the ball in his first offseason calling the shots for the T-Wolves.

However, the more I think about it, the more I like what Kahn did. Sure, the end result is atrocious. Kahn was trying to deliver a franchise player to his fans in his first season, and now there's no telling if and when that franchise player will even play in Minnesota.

But you can't fault Kahn completely for this. He drafted what he thought was the best player available at the time, and did everything in his power to get Rubio out of his contract with DKV Joventut.

The league only allows NBA teams to pay $500,000 of a player's buyout if he is under contract with a team overseas. So Kahn got creative, manipulated the numbers through endorsements, and had a deal in place that would have had Rubio in a Wolves jersey this October.

Kahn put all his chips in, called Rubio's bluff that he planned to stay in Europe, and lost big-time.

There's never been a situation where it was this difficult to get a player to come from overseas. Kahn couldn't have possibly thought going into that pick that if he drafts Rubio he's going to run the risk of being the first Team President to get completely screwed by a European player.

If I were a Wolves fan, I'd be directing my ire more at Rubio than Kahn. As an NBA fan, that's exactly where I'm directing my ire.

Rubio said that coming to the NBA now would "complicate his life." Well, Ricky, what the hell did you expect when you signed a contract that had a buyout clause that was more than five times your annual salary and said buyout is higher than the maximum annual salary allowed for an NBA rookie? How did you not anticipate getting out of that contract to be complicated?

If playing in the NBA is his ultimate goal, and Rubio's stated many times that it is, why on earth would he sign that contract in the first place?

Rubio stock isn't going to get a whole lot higher than it was last summer. A lot of terrible things can happen to him if he does decide to play three more seasons in Spain.

First, there's the obvious potential that he could injure himself and never even realize his dream of making it to the NBA. I'll admit, that isn't the most likely of scenarios, but you can never say "never" when it comes to injuries.

Secondly, what happens if Rubio performs terribly at the FIBA World Championships in Turkey in 2010? He's going to be under intense scrutiny for the entire tourney. If he and/or Spain underperform, he may play himself right out of favor with any potential NBA suitors.

Lastly, what happens if Johnny Flynn turns out to be the real deal in Minnesota and the Wolves decide they no longer need Rubio? David Kahn bent over backwards for Rubio this summer, making three separate trips to Spain in an attempt to get Rubio free from his contract, and in the end, Rubio turned his back on him.

A part of me wants to see Minnesota enjoy a great deal of success over the next three seasons without Rubio so that David Kahn can call Rubio up and say, "You know what, Ricky? We're doing just fine without you, and all these trips to Spain to discuss buyouts are just too 'complicated'. We're going to let you toil away in basketball purgatory for two more seasons and let you finish out you're contract with FC Barcelona, then we'll talk."

Of course, we all know that won't happen, and I fully expect to read stories each of the next two summers about how Kahn is once again in Spain pleading with Rubio to come back to the States with him.

The bottom line here is that nobody won this week when Rubio decided to play for FC Barcelona.

Rubio missed out on a chance to play basketball at the highest level.

Minnesota missed out on a potential franchise point guard.

And NBA fans missed out on at least two season of an exciting point guard playing in the new era of NBA.

For now, it looks like this situation is resolved. We're going to have to wait to see if Ricky Rubio really is the second coming of "Pistol" Pete, and that's a shame. (I'll save you the suspense: he's not.)

It may be years before we finally see Ricky Rubio highlights in which he's wearing an NBA uniform.

Until then, join me in watching some of Rubio's highlights from the 2008 Olympic Games and take a moment of silence as we collectively wonder what might have been had Rubio had come to the NBA for the 2009-10 season.

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