Friday, June 29, 2007

And now the "fun" begins...

With the dust barely settled on the '07 NBA draft, a potential showdown is about to begin: the agents of Yi Jianlian vs. the Milwaukee Bucks. While Yi hinted at playing for the Bucks last night, the rumor is his agents will continue to push for a trade, though with the draft now over that might be harder to do than it was 24 hours ago. So far they haven't commented publicly, but you can bet they're working behind the scenes to sort out whether or not they can power-play the Bucks into trading him somewhere "desirable." But at least for the moment Yi sounds at least vaguely willing to play in Milwaukee:

"I'm not saying I'm not satisfied with the pick. My dream is to play in the NBA and now the dream comes true. I'm just surprised by the result." you're telling us there's a chance. Before he can enter the NBA, Yi must first be released by his Chinese club team, but that should be a mere formality if an agreement is reached with the Bucks. And how likely is that? Let's go through the ins and outs of what could be the most, uh, interesting subplot of the summer.

  1. He was the only potential superstar still on the board. Harris had made it abundantly clear that the Bucks were drafting the best player available, and it's difficult to argue Yi wasn't that guy. The Bucks reportedly had Horford and Conley rated ahead of Yi, with Jeff Green right behind Yi. Green would have been a safer pick had he been available, but that became irrelevant when the Sonics traded up to take him. With Horford, Conley and Green going before the Bucks pick there was little doubt that they thought Yi was the best on the board--better than Corey Brewer or Brandan Wright, both near-term and long-term. And despite the ESPN talking heads' insistence that the Bucks had only heard about him from Larry Harris' father Del, the Bucks had scouted him extensively. The NBA is a superstar league, where teams win both on and off the court by having stars; unfortunately the Pistons' blueprint of assembling a team of good but not hall of fame talent has been the exception to the championship rule. Yi could be a bust and he could be only OK, but there's a more than passing chance he could be great. And as we've seen all too often, acquiring greatness rarely comes without risk.
  2. He has trade value. The market for Yi will necessarily be different after the draft, but a guy of Yi's skills, size and athleticism, not to mention a marketer's dream, will always have value. Taking Yi and trading him later certainly puts the team at risk, but from the Bucks' perspective there simply wasn't another obvious pick.
  3. He gives the team a shot in the arm, both locally and worldwide. It's no secret that the Bucks are facing an uphill climb to win over fans, especially in a year when the Brewers are generating the most excitement in two decades. Yi's name might not resonate initially with local fans, but his incredible potential will no doubt create both local and national buzz should the Bucks manage to sign him. While the worldwide marketing potential is harder to cash in on--things like jersey sale revenues are shared league-wide--the increased profile from having a player like Yi is huge. Especially given Herb Kohl's interest in selling the club down the road, Yi's potential as an international star could have a demonstrable impact on the franchise's value as well.
  1. Hold out and hope for a trade. It's sounding increasingly likely this might be the near-term option, though once training camp starts I'm not sure how viable it will be: someone will have to blink. Yi will be playing for the Chinese national team this summer so getting him on a summer league doesn't seem to be in the cards either way. Larry Harris stated Yi would be working out with his Chinese teammates next week and hopes to meet with him then. It will be interesting to see what role David Stern might play in all of this, as the Bucks reportedly made it very clear to executives at the NBA that they were taking Yi with the intention of keeping him. The NBA's potential in China is mind-boggling, so Stern has a clear interest in resolving the situation soon:
    The NBA is obviously a willing partner in all of this. There are some months, says commissioner David Stern, where revenues from China outstrip those from North America and a fact sheet circulated by the league gushes with numbers that easily translate to dollar signs: the billion viewers every year, the 51 TV stations that carry the games, up from 32 a year ago, the launch of a third Chinese language variant of
    Clearly Stern does not want to turn the Yi situation into a fiasco, as the NBA itself has a lot riding on his ability to integrate into the North American game. Moreover, the draft system works in large part because players have little ability to exert power over it. Should Yi be able to dictate his destination it would send a disappointing message to owners that the inmates really are running the asylum. Bucks owner Senator Herb Kohl was among a group of owners publicly campaigning the league for greater revenue-sharing a year ago, and he will certainly make it very clear that the meddling of Dan Fegan, Chinese basketball officials, and Nike will only further undermine the parity of the sport. It's difficult to say what role Stern will or could even play. Maintaining an even playing field for all franchises should be his first objective, but he also would undoubtedly prefer a player of Yi's stature in a more marketable city like the Bay Area.
  2. Play for the Bucks. He would be under a two-year guaranteed contract with team options for the third and fourth years (which always get picked up, unless a player is an absolute bust). His first-year salary will be about $2.8 million (most players sign for the maximum 120% of the rookie salary scale, in this case $2.314 million for the sixth pick). He could sign a long-term extension beginning after three years. If he does not do this, he would be a restricted free agent after four years, and could re-sign for a fifth at the qualifying offer. He would then be an unrestricted free agent the following season, though the Bucks would retain his Bird rights. While the Bucks have a young 4/5 combo in Charlie Villanueva and Andrew Bogut, the team is clearly not sold on Villanueva and is otherwise short of depth in the frontcourt. There's no doubt Yi would see decent playing time as a rookie, possibly 20-25 mpg depending on injuries and how ready he is. For their part, the Bucks have stated their belief that Yi is ready to make an impact immediately.
  3. Return to play in China. Though this would theoretically be Yi's best bargaining chip for demanding a trade, he has stated numerous times he will play in the NBA next season. It seems highly unlikely that Yi would return to play in China, as there is huge pressure for him to gain experience in the NBA and build the sport's profile leading up to the '08 Olympics in Beijing. Moreover, while playing in China or for any other foreign team the Bucks would retain his NBA rights, so it's no magic solution to getting to a different NBA city. The NBA, Nike, Chinese basketball, and Yi himself have an incredible amount to gain from playing somewhere in the NBA. Developmentally, Yi has nothing to gain from another season in China. More importantly, Yi's marketing team probably stands to lose more from returning to China than by playing in a small market like Milwaukee, which might be the key to all of this.
  4. Play in Europe. I haven't heard serious mention of this, but it would at least allow Yi to play against stiffer competition in advance of the '08 Olympics. Still, this route seems highly unlikely given how much Yi has to gain by playing (anywhere) in the NBA.
  5. Sit out and re-enter the draft in '08. If he doesn't play anywhere this year he could re-enter the draft in '08 and again hope to end up somewhere acceptable. But from a risk/reward standpoint, this seems unlikely given the huge cost to him both developmentally and marketing-wise.

So what happens if Yi's reps demand a trade? Which they already are, apparently. Well, given how dedicated the Bucks sound about keeping Yi, it seems as though the Bucks are willing to sit tight for a while--they're certainly putting up a brave front right now.

Of the teams supposedly on Yi's approved list, the Hawks got their man in Al Horford, the Celtics went old by dealing their pick for Ray Allen, and the Bulls got another big man in Florida's Joakim Noah, who conveniently also has little interest in coming to Milwaukee. Golden State was and probably still is the team best suited to dealing for Yi, as they acquired another young asset in Brandan Wright to go along with Andris Biedrins and Monta Ellis. Still, it's not clear Golden State was ever going to go all out for Yi, and it's not clear the Bucks would be best served by acquiring one of their youngsters either.

Both Biedrins and Ellis are in the last years of their rookie contracts, so acquiring either player would require a sizable extension. Just like Bryan Colangelo gave TJ Ford an extension soon after acquiring him last summer, Larry Harris isn't going to trade a valuable asset for a guy he's not going to commit to financially. And of course that commitment would affect the Bucks' spending elsewhere. In contrast, Yi will be making $3-4 million for the next few seasons, making him far more affordable. Even if the Bucks cave in during the Yi negotiations, you would think Golden State would at least be willing to give up Brandan Wright and a future pick, which wouldn't be that bad from the Bucks' perspective given Wright had been in the discussions for the sixth pick.

Perhaps a more intriguing scenario is also the more unlikely--now that Joakim Noah is also in Chicago, how much do the Bulls really like Tyrus Thomas? His defense, rebounding and shot-blocking would be a perfect fit next to Bogut and Villanueva, and we know that his attitude hasn't won everyone over in Chicago. I don't doubt that they love Thomas' potential, but if any team could afford to part with a defender like Thomas for a scorer like Yi it's one that already has Ben Wallace and Noah.

Trading Yi later this summer will also be technically a little more complicated than doing it now. Players can't be traded for 30 days after they sign their rookie contract, so any first rounder signing with their team in the coming weeks won't be tradeable to the Bucks for another month. Most rookies will sign relatively soon so they can participate in summer league. Moreover, while Yi's cap number in a trade will be $0 so long as he doesn't sign, all rookies who do sign contracts then count as their new salary for trade purposes. This wouldn't be a problem for the Bucks now since they're well below the cap, but it's very possible a Yi trade wouldn't happen until later in the summer. At that point the Bucks may have used up their cap space, meaning it not be possible to construct a straight-up swap of a signed '07 first rounder (who would likely have a cap number in the $2-3 million range) for an unsigned Yi (whose value for trade purposes would be $0).

While it's not totally clear what deals Harris already turned down, he stated during the draft party that the Bucks would actively pursue a big name free agent, which is also indirectly dependent on keeping Yi's rookie deal. Good rookies are all the more valuable because they're cheap. And given the eventual need to re-sign Andrew Bogut and Charlie Villanueva, in addition to the pending free agency of Mo Williams, Charlie Bell and Ersan Ilyasova, the Bucks have an obvious financial incentive to keep Yi rather than flip him for another player who will be making major dollars in next couple years. In the short term, dealing Yi for a higher-priced veteran or multiple young players would likely curb any opportunity the Bucks have to make an offer for Gerald Wallace or Andres Nocioni.

So where will Yi end up? At this point I'd guess it's around 50-50 he ends up in a Bucks uniform, and with neither side needing to make a decision immediately I'd say it's unlikely to be resolved in the next couple weeks. While it has certainly sounded as though Yi himself would be willing to play in Milwaukee, the role of his shadowy multi-national team of advisers can't be understated. Dan Fegan, meet Larry Harris. You guys will be talking a lot in the coming months.

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