Kobe Bryant

LeBron and Kobe tired of making less money than Stephon Marbury

What do NBA superstars talk about? In particular, what are the prominent topics of discussion between members of the U.S. Olympic basketball team?

Since there aren’t any Boston Celtics representing America in Beijing, the players probably aren’t spending their free time talking about the NBA Finals. What the U.S. Olympic team has in common — besides talent — is money.

These guys all make a lot of dough, most at or near the maximum allowed under NBA salary cap rules (a little less than $20 million a year, except for players like KG, Shaq and Starbury, whose larger annual salaries were grandfathered into the current NBA salary structure). But when guys start playing basketball with international rules in a foreign land, they start thinking globally.

Do I think yesterday’s story about Kobe Bryant saying he’d play in Russia for $40 million per year, followed today by “a source close to” LeBron James saying he’d play in Europe for “around $50 million a year,” mean either player will ever play professionally in a league other than the NBA?

Probably not, but don’t be surprised if the league’s two premier players just fired the opening shots against the NBA’s salary structure, namely the individual max. Regardless of how well Bryant, James or anybody else performs in a given year, their team can’t pay any more than around $20 million a season if they choose to play professionally in the U.S. Gone are the days of $33 million deals like the one Michael Jordan enjoyed during his last years with the Chicago Bulls (and probably deserved, if speaking purely on financial terms).

Basketball is the second-most popular sport in the world now, complete with professional leagues in several countries –- leagues without salary caps. A fact surely not lost on two players extremely mindful of their images both at home and abroad like LeBron and Kobe.

And now with University of Arizona recruit Brandon Jennings choosing the Italian League over the NCAA, and Josh Childress fleeing to Olympiacos of Greece (and getting about $10 million per year in the process), an American-born player fleeing to Europe for more money (partly due to the strong Euro/weak dollar) doesn’t seem so crazy.

Bryant’s comments seemed tongue-in-cheek, sort of like, “Hey, if they paid me $40 million a year to play in Siberia, I’d be there.” However, LeBron reportedly has dreams of being a billionaire, and his signature Nikes have ever sold like Jordan’s did. Not only would it be a fun vacation for LeBron to play in Europe for a couple years, he would pick up a cool $100 million and become a global sporting celebrity on par with Beckham or Tiger Woods (and sell a ton of ugly Zoom LeBrons in overpriced European shoe stores).

LeBron knows he will truly be the king in the summer of 2010. Several NBA teams are already maneuvering in attempts to offer him enough money. LeBron knows Kobe will be 33-years-old and on the way down, and — Chris Paul notwithstanding — the NBA needs to make sure the only way LeBron plays internationally is with the U.S. team he’s on currently.

The NBA undoubtedly will act as if there is nothing to worry about, but the most star-driven league in the U.S. would be rocked to its core if King James moves his reign to Greece, Italy or Russia. Similar to the “Larry Bird” rule, which allows NBA teams to go over the salary cap to keep their own free agents, don’t be surprised if we see a “LeBron James” rule in 2010, designed to allow teams to pay above the individual maximum to keep the best player in the league from bolting across the Atlantic Ocean.

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