How Xavier Cooks joining Sydney and not Illawarra, is a case study on fit, money and league parity

Xavier Cooks joining the Sydney Kings - this was a headline few expected, when news broke on Wednesday.

After sharing his intentions to play in Europe and "see the world" just last week, it came as a surprise to many to see the young swingman sign in the NBL. What came as a bigger surprise was the destination: many assumed the Kings were stretched to the max financially, with a roster laden with top level locals and quality imports.

While a player of his talent joining the league is considered a massive boon for the league, for the Kings --who are at a league-leading 11-1 record-- he is a luxury that might even project to come off the bench for the rest of the 2019/20 season, when he's ready to make his debut. No one will protest the league adding a young, Australian talent who is close to making it to the NBA, but the circumstances of his acquisition bring natural questions of cap transparency and league parity.

The seemingly logical destination for Cooks to sign with were the Illawarra Hawks, his hometown team, and employer to his father, assistant coach Eric Cooks. After training with the club in previous years, and after injury issues led the Hawks in active pursuit of replacement talent, the stars appeared to be aligning for Cooks to finally sign with the team. Cooks was also spending time with the Hawks after his recent injury with the Boomers, suffered prior to the FIBA World Cup.

Illawarra GM Matt Campbell confirmed the situation, that both parties had indeed been in discussions.

"We were really hopeful he'd play for us," he told the Illawarra Mercury. "We were talking with Xavier's management on trying to secure him to come to the Hawks, being a local junior, coming through our program with the Hawks and being the son of assistant coach Eric Cooks. We were obviously really keen to get him if he could get out of that contract in France."

The Illawarra Hawks were in a much better position to showcase Cooks, with his pedigree figuring to place him as a top three player on a struggling Hawks roster.

"[Xavier Cooks is] an exceptional talent," Campbell said. "It's probably the exact piece, from our club point of view, that we're missing. He's got the athletic ability, he handles the ball well and can switch and play multiple positions."

Cooks would be getting plenty of usage on the offensive end, likely start at the four spot, and get plenty of NBA attention playing alongside LaMelo Ball. The move would have created obvious mutual benefit, given the Hawks' desperate need for talent, particularly of the local kind that they could retain into ongoing seasons.

"I think Xavier would have helped us a lot in what we're doing," Eric Cooks shared with The Illawarra Mercury. "There's more players out there, we're still in the hunt. You say you're close, but things happen the other way. I'd say we're in the ball park with a couple of players."

What led Cooks to forgo his obvious Illawarra connections to accept a lesser role with the Sydney Kings? The obvious answer, given Sydney's expenditure, is that they simply outbid the small market Hawks, but Cooks says his decision involved other factors.

"This is bigger than money," Cooks told The Daily Telegraph. "... I love the Hawks and I have nothing but respect for everyone there. When I came back from college at Winthrop they let me train with them, but it just came down to personal development and I felt like the Kings were the best stage to get to the higher level.”

Cooks also confirmed the Boomers relationship and basketball alignment between Sydney head coach Will Weaver, and himself definitely was a factor.

“When I was in the Boomers camp for the World Cup, every player had an individual coach who you watched film with, and Weaver was my coach. The way we watch film is so similar, in terms of an emphasis on unselfish basketball and that is exactly the way I want to play... Under Will, the Kings preach creating that extra pass and that is another reason why I came to the club.”

Sydney Kings owner Paul Smith has recently been defending suggestions that their successful plea for the NBL to amend Next Star guidelines has allowed them to play with effectively four imports (including draft-and-stash Next Star, Didi Louzada). With their latest roster move, he has again been vocal in defending the fairness of their roster moves.

“You are barking up the wrong tree if you just think that we are just throwing money around like drunks – we are not,” Smith fired. “In fact, I don’t believe that we have the highest salary in the league right now. People have been critical of us for this and that but we’ve got players who have chosen to take unders. People have got to stop dwelling on the fact that we are buying a championship. We are building an organisation that can win championships. We are not buying a championship. You can’t do that. It is proven that it doesn’t work.

“But get it off your chest everyone, because we are just getting started. Haters are going to hate – it is okay. My best advice is to go and worry about your own club because we are cool.”

Sydney head coach, Will Weaver also confirmed with The Daily Telegraph's Matt Logue, corroborating Smith's remark on how players took a pay cut to allow cap flexibility.

“On a team level, we were over the cap last year, but we are under the cap this year and that comes from building enough flexibility within the group with the number of imports we had and the types of salaries we agreed to,” Weaver shared. “That has given us the flexibility to bring in a third import if we needed to, which is how Deshon Taylor comes in as an injury replacement for Kevin Lisch without having to cut anybody. And to be in a position for a player like Xavier, where strange circumstances happen and he feels like this club is where he can best develop."

Such sentiments are not shared by those among the Hawks organisation, who feel hard done by after facilitating his recovery, only for him to be poached.

"It is a bit disappointing, he'd been training with us all season. I was frustrated that I hadn't heard anything about it. It was an interesting way to tell us about it," Hawks big man, AJ Ogilvy said. "But it's part of the job. Guys have got to go where they can make the most money and get the best opportunity. I just thought there were better ways to handle it. He's definitely a talented player, that's why I hoped we'd sign him. I think he's one of those fringe NBA guys, who could be a Boomers star."

“It is always a dangerous precedent in a nine-team competition, when you get teams that just can outbid people and stockpile talent the way that [Sydney does],” Illawarra head coach, Matt Flinn told The Daily Telegraph's Matt Logue.

Unsubstantiated claims like these are far from a one off. In July, Andrew Bogut took fire at Melbourne United, claiming "[they] have probably spent five or six million dollars on their roster - we're nowhere near the capacity of being able to spend what they spend". Then, Adelaide coach Joey Wright also suggested Sydney had spent $4 million more than other teams.

The pot shots and speculation will continue until greater transparency is provided. While basic rules and structures have been provided publicly, actual insight into how teams are spending is not available. It's something NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger has been receptive to, welcoming talks to make player salaries public after Bogut himself advocated for the change.

"It's a topic to discuss with the players' association of which Andrew [Bogut] is the senior most player representative so maybe it's time to have that discussion again," Loeliger said. "We flagged it a couple of years ago as being a great way to shine as much light as possible on the salary cap.

"It's the best way to ensure people comply with the rules. At the time it was the players and players' association who, didn't vehemently oppose it, but were the most wary of it because of privacy concern and not wanting to demonstrate the full range of remuneration out there."

The Pick and Roll had approached the Australian Basketball Players' Association in July with regards to references on player salaries, but was told that "player salaries are confidential as per individual playing contracts."

The Athletic's Bill Shea recently covered the NBL in a story around the league's growth, and shared some numbers, including the average NBL player salary this season (A$146,000), and a Next Star prospect's perks ($100,000 salary, apartment, vehicle and flights home during breaks).

Full transparency would be ideal, but even having concrete team salary numbers, as well as identification of 'marquee players', would be a step in the right direction. Such a move would provide a level of clarification that all teams are operating within the NBL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and provide fans with a greater sense of perspective regarding team expectations.

Beyond transparency, the ultimate issue at hand is that of league parity, both financial and talent-wise. For a league growing exponentially, such a rise must be careful not to leave smaller market teams behind.

The sentiment of a two-team league has been prevalent this season, as teams struggle to make up the difference in talent in comparison to powerhouses Sydney and Melbourne. It is especially telling that a bottom dwelling team like Illawarra, have their best current player, LaMelo Ball --who's paid by the league, not the team-- and have depth primarily comprised of unproven youth and past-their-prime veterans, and yet still only play with two imports (currently one, given their inability to find a replacement for Aaron Brooks).

While you can't blame Xavier Cooks, nor Paul Smith, for making moves in their own best interests under the current rules, adjustments need to be made to turn this into a league where there is monetary incentive --on top of draws like organisational culture, team fit and playing experience-- for players like Xavier Cooks to go to Illawarra, and not Sydney.

The current NBL CBA attempts to do this through the 'Salary Equalisation Subsidy', accounted for through teams luxury tax payments, wherein higher spending teams taxes are redistributed to help fund less financially able teams. Another way the league could seek to benefit smaller market clubs is prioritise Next Star placements to these teams. Considering the impact players like LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton have had on their teams, it would be of great benefit for smaller teams to be able to make additions of this level at the league's expense.

League parity is a difficult question to solve, but steps in the right direction are being taken. Let us hope more is done not to leave developing teams in the dust going forward, for the sake of those organisations' success, but also for the competitiveness of the league as a whole.