Should the NBA Draft Be Abolished?
Conversations have been held over the years to reform the NBA Draft Lottery. Here’s the easy — or not so easy — way to fix it: get rid of the draft altogether.
The NBA’s annual draft is very unique compared to the other professional sports leagues. In the other major sports, it’s pretty simple: the worst team gets the best pick, the best team gets the worst pick, and everyone else is slotted in between in order from lowest amount of wins to highest.
In the NBA, there’s a lottery system. Teams that miss the playoffs enter the lottery, with the worst team having the best odds to win the lottery and the 14th worst team having the lowest odds.
Sometimes everything works out so that the draft is ordered from worst record to best and there is no drama, like in 2016. This year’s lottery was a good example of how lucky a team can get; the Sacramento Kings, who had the eighth best lottery odds coming in, ended up jumping up to the third overall spot.
Of course, thanks to their poor team management, Sacramento gave Philadelphia the rights to swap their 2017 picks, meaning the Kings ended up with the fifth overall pick. That’s off topic, though.
After the very public tank-job performed by general manager Sam Hinkie and the 76ers that ended up earning them the 2016 no. 1 overall pick, there was discussion to reform the draft lottery. Maybe more among fans and the media than the actual NBA in that specific point in time. But the NBA did hold a vote back in 2014 on reforming the lottery. The league needed 23 owners — a super-majority — to vote “yes” to pass the reform. They only got 17.
After no major changes to the draft were made in the new collective bargaining agreement, NBA commissioner Adam Silver wants to revisit the lottery reform discussion. While there is no current team showing signs of pulling Hinkie’s shenanigans, Silver assuredly wants to hold another reform vote before some GM with big balls and patient, trustworthy owners behind him rips his team to shreds in exchange for ping pong balls.
The NBA may need to make bigger changes than simple lottery reform to send tanking into extinction. They may need to get rid of the draft altogether.
This is not a popular idea, but it is not a new idea either. Recently, Kevin Arnovitz and Pablo Torre spoke about the idea on their May 18 The Basketball Analogy podcast titled “Many Problems with the NBA Draft.” Arnovitz also presented the idea back in 2012. SB Nation’s Tom Ziller spoke here and here about it. And in 2016, ESPN’s Amin Elhassan discussed the idea as well.
So, why not just reform the lottery? That’s the easiest way of fixing things. It doesn’t create too much drama and the tanking problem is closer to being solved. But it doesn’t solve two major problems that no simple reform can fix: rewarding failure and lack of player freedom.
Tell me, what exactly have the Sacramento Kings done to deserve this year’s fifth overall pick? They had the eighth pick last year, the sixth pick the year before, the eighth pick the year before that, the seventh pick the year before that…you get the point. The Kings haven’t drafted outside the lottery since 2006. Why should they get the opportunity to draft these top-flight college athletes over every other team if they can’t do anything with them?
What about the Orlando Magic? They have had four chances to collect some solid lottery talent since the Dwight Howard trade, but they just keep spinning in the mud. They’re picking sixth this year.
Why shouldn’t a team like the Miami Heat have the right to take a top-five talent in this draft? They could have taken the easy way out, riding a not-so-talented group to a high pick this year. Their solid management and coaching staff pushed the players to win 30 of their final 41 games, just missing out on the playoffs.
Dallas too could have taken that dirty road to high lottery odds, but they’re too good for that. Thirty-three wins is not a lot, but that roster was worth closer to 27 wins.
If these teams don’t deserve the pick they are getting, why do the players have to sit there and stink with them? Why should De’Aaron Fox have to go to Sacramento if he would rather go to Dallas?
Talented college athletes don’t get much sympathy, which is understandable. They get a free ride through college and make a ton of money at the professional level. But they are people, too. Just because they are uber-blessed and rich doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the right to choose their own path and be happy. Lawyers choose their firm, doctors choose their practice. Why can’t basketball players choose their team?
Arnovitz said it best when it comes to the draft assigning players to teams.
Can you imagine how the restrictive parameters of the NBA draft would play out in any other business? Would we tell the a once-in-a-lifetime engineering grad who wants to negotiate a position and salary at the top tech firm in the Silicon Valley, “No, actually, you’re required to work for the sector’s laughingstock, a company managed by incompetents with no clear vision of the future — at a fixed salary that’s set by a third party.”
It’s a ridiculous system, and it needs to be removed and replaced.
2017 NBA Mock Draft — The Whole Shebang
As the draft creeps closer, here’s our predictions for all 60 picks on June 22.
In the 2014 proposal for lottery reform, the top four (or bottom four) teams would have equal odds at the top pick rather than the worst team having the best odds. This year, the Celtics (via Brooklyn) had a 25 percent chance at earning the top pick, Phoenix had a 19.9 percent chance, LA (Lakers) a 15.6 percent chance, and the Philadelphia 76ers an 11.9 percent chance.
If the proposed reform passed, all of those teams would each have an 11 percent chance. And instead of Orlando having an 8.8 percent chance, they would have a 10 percent chance.
This proposal definitely gets the NBA closer to extinguishing tanking, but it doesn’t completely remove it.
At the end of every season, pretty much all the lottery teams out of the playoff hunt are gunning to earn the best pick possible. That means for the last 10 or so games, you have about 10 of the 30 teams just not even trying to win games. Would this change if the lottery was reformed? Sure, teams wouldn’t be trying to be the worst team because they wouldn’t have the best odds at the top pick any longer. But teams would definitely still be trying to be one of the four or five worst teams. The bottom 6 or 7 teams may try to win for 60 games, but they are going to want to secure themselves a top four pick. The equal opportunity at winning the top pick would possibly encourage more teams to throw games at the end of the year. Now, the sixth worst team has little incentive to lose a bunch of games at the end of the year because they are probably not going to win the lottery anyhow. But if they have just two or three more wins than the fourth worst team, why not try to lose the rest of their games?
To completely get rid of tanking, the NBA has to get rid of the draft. No reform is going to completely solve the problem.
What’s the plan, though? The draft is a staple in every sports league. To just up and get rid of it, you need a solid plan that betters the sport now and in the future.
To start, the simple act of abolishing the draft makes the league more competitive, and thus, basketball a better sport. There is no longer incentive to lose. Sure, the worst teams are always going to have money to spend, but why would talented young players want to play for a team that sucks every year?
More teams are going to want to be like Miami and Dallas. They will search for the best scouts, executives and coaches. They will build a positive culture that promotes winning. They will have no other goal but winning as many basketball games as possible.
Before doing this, the NBA needs a solid plan to fallback on. We are getting rid of the draft, but not the implementation of young basketball players into the league. So how is it going to work?
Instead of being enrolled in the draft, every eligible player is a free agent. They meet and work out with teams, just as it is now, but are not eligible to sign until National Signing Day on June 24 — one week before free agency begins on July 1.
To get deeper into contract construction, I will be using Ziller’s plan, only because of its level of thoroughness.
Teams with tons of cap space — which generally tend to be teams at the top of the lottery — still can give the best financial incentives to incoming players. Ziller came up with the Rookie Max, which is 150 percent of the Mid-Level Exception — $12.2 million in 2017–18. With annual raises, this would amount to a four-year, $51.6 million deal. Only team options would be allowed.
To prevent a Super-Rookie Team from forming, teams would only be allowed to give out three rookie maxes per year.
For teams above the cap, they would be given two exceptions to sign rookies: the Full Rookie Exception (equal to 75 percent of the Mid-Level Exception, or $6.1 million in 2017–18) and the Minor Rookie Exception (equal to the Bi-Annual Exception, or $2.4 million in 2017–18).
With annual raises, the Full Rookie Exception deal would amount to $26.2 million over four years, while the Minor Rookie Exception would come to $4.9 million over its two-year life.
This construct designed by Ziller makes two stud rookies joining an already-established superpower almost an impossibility. The likelihood of Markelle Fultz taking just a starting salary of $6.1 million to be Stephen Curry’s backup in Golden State is very low considering he could make double the amount for a team with space. It is even more unlikely for Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson or Malik Monk to take a Minor Rookie Exception deal, which is not only a small payout of $2.4 million a year, but also just a two-year deal.
Sure, there could be a stray here and there that would rather win titles right away than build up their net worth. But that is not likely to happen often — if at all — especially considering most players are not well off financially coming into the league. Locking in over $50 million through the first four years is an opportunity not many people can afford to just turn down.
Do high draft picks always churn out stars?
The Philadelphia 76ers are demonstrating how well tanking can turn out. But what if teams purposefully lost only to…
Another strong point made by Ziller is that most title contenders would rather opt for a proven veteran than some unproven rookie. Not many general managers are going to have the long view in mind when they are trying to win now. Signing a rookie is going to pay off eventually, considering they have their Bird Rights and can lock them in for a long time assuming that rookie pans out in the league. But they are unlikely to make more of an immediate impact, especially enough of one to contribute to win a championship, over a long-tenured NBA player.
Also, it would almost take a perfect world for a top rookie’s wants and a title contender’s needs to align. The Warriors would likely take Josh Jackson over one of their reserve wings, but Jackson would most likely not take a pay cut to join the superpower. Justin Jackson would possibly take that pay cut to join the Warriors, but would the Warriors want him?
The other side of it is the Rookie Max. As noted earlier, teams have the right to sign up to three rookies to a Rookie Max deal. All there is to really say about this: why would it be a problem if a team did sign three top rookies to a max contract? In order for a team to do this, they would have to earn it. To get three top-tier rookies to agree to sign to one team, that team would likely have all their ducks in a row. Solid management and coaches and saved cap space for the ability to make it happen. Could three top prospects that are all friends just pick a random spot with the cap room to fit them all in in order to play together and build a superpower? Sure. And what’s wrong with that? That team is likely not good, and if those three rookies all signed there, that team would likely then become good. And that’s the whole point!
We have already gone through two large pros of abolishing the draft in detail — increased player freedom and disincentivizing losing. There are others that I would like to delve into a bit.
Hope If A Star Leaves
If a team were to lose a star in free agency, they wouldn’t have to sell out for a year or more in hopes of sinking to the bottom of the standings and drafting one.
Take the Indiana Pacers for example. Paul George wants out, so they are likely to trade him this summer. In the current system, the Pacers only have one option: assemble some young talent and try to get a high pick next year. For a team like the Pacers, who annually rank in the bottom third of the league in attendance — this is a risky path to take. Sure, there will always be a section of the fanbase that sees the long view and embrace the process of losing now to win later. But not all fans see it that way.
Some fans are here for Paul George. The team will be a winner with George around, giving them a chance at playoff success each and every year. Take away the exciting player and the winning, those fans lose interest.
Team interest isn’t as much of a problem for a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it is an even bigger problem in another way.
Thanks to Russell Westbrook, fans will always be there. No, they are no longer title contenders with Kevin Durant out of the picture. But they are a playoff team, and have a must-see player. Because of that player, however, the Thunder have almost no way of replacing Durant. Westbrook will always get them to the playoffs, meaning they are never going to have that chance to add a top tier player through the draft.
And yes, I know. Teams can find a gem in the middle of the first round or even later, and teams can always whiff on a player at the top of the draft. But it is more likely to get that stud player towards the top of the draft.
Indiana has Myles Turner, who may very well become a star player and become the Pacers’ no. 1 shortly. But now, as a 21-year-old, he’s not good enough to lead the Pacers to the playoff. They have to lose and get a high draft pick.
But what if they didn’t? What if they could bring Jeff Teague back, not trade Thaddeus Young, go out and add some veteran free agents and try to win? What if they could build something and pitch it to an incoming NBA rookie?
The Pacers trying to win could probably get between 35 and 40 wins, which would earn them a pick towards the bottom of the lottery. There, they will likely not draft the next Paul George. Get rid of the draft, maybe Indiana has a conversation with the top prospect. Maybe he loves Turner and the idea of playing with him. Maybe he has a connection to Indiana and would like to build something there.
Maybe that guy loves Westbrook, too. That’s too bad, though. If the draft remains in place, that guy may have to go play in a city he hates with a dumb coach and bad players. Oh well.
That really good player playing in a city he hates with a dumb coach and bad players? Yeah, he’s not going to want to stay there forever. But thanks to restricted free agency, that player is (almost) locked into that situation for at least seven years.
There are two ways a player can leave the situation they are drafted into after just four or five years. One, the player signs an offer sheet with another team that is just too rich for their current team to match. That situation, of course, assumes the player is not a superstar or star, or in today’s market, even just a solid starter. And two, the player accepts the team’s qualifying offer — which is a one-year, low-money deal that allows the player to become unrestricted once it expires. For a player to accept the qualifying offer, they would have to be both very confident in their abilities and in their health. Playing for a bad team sucks, but foregoing the financial incentives of staying with the team that drafted them is a huge risk even if the player has a 99 percent chance at getting the same money (or more, depending on if the cap rises and by how much) with a team they actually like a year later.
Allowing rookies to choose their team puts the accountability — or at least some of it — on them. Unless they have incredibly bad decision-making skills or the team changes direction at some point, it is not likely for a player to sour too badly on their organization.
Also, disincentivizing losing makes it hard for an organization to really be that bad.
Holding Everybody Accountable
It is really sad to say, but in the current system, even terrible general managers have some value to NBA teams. It is not unfathomable for a GM’s terrible decisions to lead his team to the NBA’s depths, receive a top pick and then hit on it — even if by luck more than pure scouting skill.
Taking away the draft means executives get shorter leashes. I can’t say it enough: losing has value, which is a disgusting reality of today’s NBA.
Firing people sucks, and people rooting for people to get fired sucks even more. But you have to earn your keep. Moving on from bad executives and replacing them with smart ones is just better for everyone. Except the bad GMs, of course.
More Creative People Getting Jobs
Even today’s executives have to have a little bit of a knack for marketing in them. Selling your team to free agents is a part of the gig. When expanding that yearly free agent list by more than 30 players, including some that could be the future of their team and the league altogether, teams would have to get a lot more creative to attract rookies.
In a draftless world, each NBA team would eventually hire a smart, creative crew of executives (we may have to wait a while on the Knicks and Kings, however). Executives would be tenured for longer and would be allowed to implement their vision, see out their plan and hopefully achieve their goals. The bar would be set high on NBA executives, once and for all.
The majority of the people reading this probably weren’t too thrilled with this year’s playoffs. Cleveland damn near swept through the East, and Golden State damn near swept through the entire playoffs. It would take a while, but eventually, the NBA’s competition level would be at an all-time high.
Every team trying to win is obviously the first step. Once you get there, add in player happiness and better management. Instead of three teams being the only true contenders, it may be five. Then seven. Ten. In a perfect world, the NBA has 20 really good teams at some point. That may seem ambitious — too ambitious — but ditching the draft gets the NBA closer to that level of competition. Perhaps closer than it ever can be with the draft system in place.
NBA Draft Lottery’s Winners and Losers
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I am probably too attached to this idea to find many arguments against it. Maybe that’s because the idea just makes too much sense. But I realize a lot of the “pros” are based off of assumptions of certain things happening and that they may not happen. Should certain things happen? Sure. But this is not a perfect world. You can come up with a flawless idea, think things through, account for missteps, plan around them and execute it all the way through. But things always happen that you don’t plan for or think about. It’s just how it is. This “con” represents anything and everything that passed me by.
Small Market Struggle
No matter how solid an organization is built, small market teams will always be at a disadvantage. My “Hope If A Star Leaves” pro assumes a team has a star in the first place. My two examples — Indiana and Oklahoma City — drafted Paul George and Kevin Durant because they were bad enough at basketball to get a top 10 pick. If the draft system ended today and the current small market teams with no stars had to attract a star by what they had to offer, could they? It’s not impossible to sell an incoming rookie on even the most unfavorable NBA city, but it’s sure as hell a lot easier to just draft them. Would the NBA rather a team tank for a star or go decades without one? It’s a question we can’t answer, but it is certainly up for debate and something to consider if this plan was truly considered by the league.
Fewer Players Getting A Chance
On draft night, 60 players get their dream of becoming an NBA player realized. This is because all 30 teams have two draft picks to use, and there’s no way around it.
If teams didn’t have to draft two players, would 60 players get their dreams realized on June 24? Or would it be 45? Would fringe players opt for more time to display their game in college? Depending on your mores, that could be a good thing.
When accounting for college eligibility, the fringe second rounders might assume the biggest risk with this change. Would a player leave college only to not be signed by an NBA team? Or would the NCAA allow players to return so long as they don’t sign a Summer League or training camp deal? Those details would absolutely have to be hammered out before making this a reality.
Was the 2013 NBA Draft really all that bad?
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Less Tradable Assets
Draft picks are moved every year. It could be a second round pick, a future pick, or the no. 1 overall pick. Draft picks allow for more trades to happen, whether they be dealt on their own or are paired with players. Teams can trade exceptions, but they are not worth nearly what draft picks are worth — mostly because there are only two kinds of exceptions. Trades are a large part of what makes the NBA so exciting, and making trades less fun would in part make the NBA less fun.
What is the chance the NBA seriously considers this plan and eventually makes it a reality? Eh, I’ll go high — five percent. It is nowhere near likely. That is unfortunate. And I hope if you read all the way through that I convinced you of that as well.
The NBA Draft system encourages tanking and allows teams to make a mockery of themselves and the league. If the NBA wants all 30 of its teams to simultaneously be competitive and its product as a whole improved, it must abolish the draft.