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Ilic's Uncertain Plans

If the Nets want to see Mile Ilic in a New Jersey uniform next season--or even in a Brooklyn uniform by 2008--the next few weeks could be crucial.

Published reports indicate that Panathinakos of Greece is interested in buying out the 7’2" Serbian’s contract and internet rumors suggest Efes Pilsen of Turkey may covet him as well.

At the same time, Nets GM Ed Stefanski is about to visit Ilic on his annual scouting trip to Europe. In fact, it's possible the reports are timed to Stefanski's visit. Ilic's current team, FMP Zeleznik, and/or his agent, Marc Cornstein, may want the Nets to get into bidding war for Ilic. It would be advantageous for both to have the Nets buy him out this summer and bring him over to New Jersey, something the Nets are not certain they want to do.

At first glance, it appears that FMP is about to make an important financial decision whose outcome could effect not just them, but when and even if Ilic plays for the Nets. Although he was seen as a steal of the draft last year when he was taken at #43—Sports Illustrated rated him among the top five steals—other factors outside the Nets control could impact his arrival.

For FMP, a team that plays in a bandbox arena outside Belgrade, Ilic is a declining asset. His contract runs out after next season. While he is obviously a talent, Ilic is one of seven players taller than 6'10" on the FMP roster. Two of them, Nemanja Aleksandrov and Peja Samardziski, are 18- and 19-year-old seven-footers, and until last year’s draft, both were viewed as better NBA prospects than Ilic. Ilic is 21.

If FMP doesn't sell Ilic's contract now, either in an NBA buyout or in a straight sale to a European team, it will miss out on a big payday. Ilic's contract could earn FMP a million dollars. To an NBA team, that's chump change. To a team in the suburbs of Serbia's capital, it represents a big chunk of their operating budget. Even KK Partizan, Nenad Krstic’s old Serbian team, has financial problems and it plays in a state-of-the-art arena used for Olympic preliminaries in 2004 and European championships in 2005. Its player payroll is no more than $1.5 million and its highest paid player, NBA prospect Kosta Perovic, makes a half million. They are hoping he gets drafted.

And FMP’s situation is not as good.

No one is saying how much Ilic makes, but he like Krstic and Zoran Planinic signed long term contracts in their mid-teens that were favorable to the clubs, not the players. [Darko Milicic, whose old team plays in the same league as FMP, was making less than $25,000 when he was drafted in 2003.] Getting a big buyout for Ilic would permit FMP to develop talent, sign free agents, etc.

"Buyouts are a big factor," says one NBA GM in speaking of European teams’ finances. "Buyouts, particularly for a team in Serbia or Croatia, are a big money maker for them. It’s how they sustain their clubs."

Also, FMP just bought a contract itself, that of Samardziski. Samardziski was unhappy playing limited minutes for Partizan so in a mutual parting of the ways, Partizan sold him to FMP who signed him to a new four-year deal.

The Nets would have one competitive disadvantage with any European team on a buyout. Under the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Nets can pay a maximum of $500,000 to buy out an international player’s contract. The player has to pay the rest. A European team would not be restricted. It could pay whatever it thought he was worth and not require him to participate in the buyout. Ilic would have to take out a loan to make for what the Nets can't pay.

"The rest has to come from the players," said the GM. "There are a lot of ways to structure it…over several years or with a loan with your agent."

The problem of course is that the player winds up getting a reduced paycheck til the loan is paid off or forgiven. Krstic made $1 million last year. His buyout exceeded that figure.

No doubt, any European team who would buy Ilic’s contract wouldn’t do so without signing him to a new deal. It would be waste of money to do so. And if that happened, how long would the Nets have to wait? Would there be buyouts or NBA "opt-outs"? And would a long term contract be too rich for the Nets’ blood? Girona in the Spanish league outbid the Orlando Magic for the services of their first round pick, Fran Vasquez, last summer, giving him more money and a longer contract. Same was true of the Toronto Raptors and Roko-Lenic Ukic, taken in the second round. If "Pana" or some other European team offered Ilic a contract that averaged more than $1 million a year, or $600,000 above the NBA minimum, would the Nets match?

This of course could all be nothing more than a trial balloon to see what the Nets will do. The timing is excellent in that Stefanski makes his annual European scouting trip this month and will be meeting with Ilic.

None of this takes into account what Ilic wants, of course. That is the great unknown. Interesting however was the comment in the Serbia sports journal, Sportski Zurnal by FMP’s director.

Ratko Radovanovic told Sportski Zurnal that Ilic is interesting for many European clubs, but that he is also very important player for FMP too. Radovanovic also reminded that New Jersey drafted Ilic last year and that information is "playing important role in Ilic’s life"…and the Nets.

Even if Ilic signs with a European team, his NBA rights will remain with the Nets as long as every September 5, they send him a contract. The contract needn’t be guaranteed since he was a second round choice. It can be any contract: a fully guaranteed, partially guaranteed, nonguaranteed. Even if he declines, he remains Nets' property. The Nets did just that with him this year, but because he is under contract to another team, he could not accept the contract. Only if an NBA team declines to offer a draftee a contract does he become a free agent. But generally most teams will not do that since it costs them nothing but postage to retain their rights.