by Casey Jacobsen European basketball has been steadily improving for the past 30 years. Long before there was a Dirk Nowitzki, there was a Drazen Petrovic and an Arvydas Sabonis. Each year (or two), there were more European basketball players crossing the waters and testing their skill in the NBA. Fans of the game noticed the subtle change, but European basketball wasn’t really considered by most to be anywhere near the level to that of Americans. In fact, the USA was so dominant that for many years, we would send an Olympic team of college amateurs to compete against the professionals of every other country and still win the majority of competitions.
After the gap between Europe and the USA started to shrink in the 1980s, we decided to unleash our professionals and let the NBA players represent our country’s basketball ability. Our former dominance was soon restored, and it reached its pinnacle during the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, when the USA assembled the greatest basketball team to ever walk on a hardwood floor. The “Dream Team,” led by Jordan, Barkley, Magic and Bird destroyed every country in their path and cruised to a gold medal. The following Olympics in 1996, the “Dream Team 2” also won easily with the average margin of victory over 30 ppg. In the last 16 Olympics, USA basketball has brought home the gold 13 times.
When that “Dream Team” era of players retired, however, something weird happened… The European teams no longer feared us. They already faced the Dream Team, and although they lost badly, in their minds, they realized that any other team that the U.S. puts on the floor will be inferior to the one led by MJ. As a result, these European teams who had been playing with each other for years developed a confidence that matched their growing skills at every position.
Countries like Greece, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Slovenia, Turkey, etc. were catching up to the USA and in many cases, beating them. Players like Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Hedo Turkoglu, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol were well-known players in all basketball circles. The NBA Draft was quickly becoming an international event. In the 2004 Olympics, Team USA, even with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, took bronze. The gap had officially closed.
Basketball used to be an American game, and although the NBA is unquestionably the best league in the world, European basketball (FIBA) has significantly caught up and is still gaining ground. (If you don’t agree, think if all the European players who are starring in the NBA were still in Europe playing in their own countries.)
I’ve played four years in the NBA and another four years in Europe, so I have some experience with both. The similarity is obvious: basketball. Regardless of what country you play the game in, the basic principles of putting the ball in the basket still apply. But there are some significant differences between playing in the NBA and in Europe, both on and off the court:
1. The NBA game is much more about individual players than Europe. When you watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play, you’ll see LeBron James play one-on-one at least 15 times per game. He’s the best player. He gets the ball. The rules allow him to play isolation against his man—this idea is the core of what an NBA offense is about. In Europe, it is about team offense and defense. There are one-on-one opportunities, but they must come out of the team’s playbook, not your own. Even the most talented offensive players in Europe average less than 20 ppg.
2. FIBA rules are similar to those of college basketball in America. Games are only 40 minutes long (compared to 48 minutes in the NBA), the three-point lines are closer, and pure zone defenses are allowed. There are other smaller rule differences, but these I listed above are the ones that significantly change the way the game is played.
3. The NBA is about athleticism; Europe is about skill. Of course, the NBA players are skilled, but that isn’t what drives the League. Athleticism is the trump card. Even if a player has minimal skill, as long as he can run fast, slide quickly and jump high, an NBA team will find him a roster spot. The idea behind this philosophy is that coaches can teach a player how to make a jump shot, make good passes, and so on… but you can’t teach a 40-inch vertical leap! In Europe, if you can’t dribble, pass and shoot, then you don’t play—at least not with an elite club. It’s as simple as that.
4. European coaches have a lot of power and influence on their teams. Coaching in the NBA is a difficult task because of two major factors: 1) The players make a lot more money than the coach does (except Phil Jackson)—thus the players are less likely to be released/traded if the team doesn’t do well. The NBA coach is the first to be fired and everyone knows this fact; and 2) The NBA is getting younger and younger—the kids playing in the NBA haven’t been to more than one or two years of college (and some not at all!), which makes it harder for coaches to win games with such inexperienced players. Coaches of veteran teams like the Lakers, Spurs and Magic have an advantage. In Europe, the coach is often paid more than the players and demands the kind of respect that college coaches in America get.
5. Money made in Europe is tax-free, and organizations pay for most your living expenses, including housing and a car. The way it works is the monetary contract you sign with a European club is your net-salary. The club pays taxes, on your behalf, to the country that you play in. The American player then gets credit with the U.S. Government for taxes that were paid (so your money can’t be taxed twice). Players still pay some federal taxes (a small amount) as well as State taxes, according to where they live. The European club will also provide a house/apartment and a car. That leaves only food, gas and cell phone/internet as your expenses. Not a bad gig!
6. NBA plays 82 regular season games in six months, European leagues play 40-60 games over eight months. In Europe, you practice a lot more. Often, you have two practices per day throughout that eight-month season. On average, European teams only play twice a week. In the NBA, you are playing 3-4 (and sometimes 5) times per week, which doesn’t allow a lot of time for team practicing. This might be one of the biggest differences, from a player’s standpoint.
7. Player salaries are significantly higher in the NBA. The average salary of an NBA player is around $4.5 million (pre-tax), and “superstars” make a lot more than that (Kobe and KG make around $18-20 million per year). In Europe, salaries vary between countries, but the best players make around 2-3 million Euros (tax-free)… although there are only a handful of those players. Most are playing for well less than $1 million.
8. Travel/hotel accommodations. In the NBA, every team travels by private plane and stays in the nicest hotels in the U.S. In Europe, teams travel by commercial airline (if a game is far away) or by bus. In Germany and Spain, we’d often take a bus to games that were inside the country.
Casey Jacobsen is a former SLAM High School First Team All-American and NCAA First Team All-American. He currently plays for Brose Baskets in Bamberg, Germany.
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