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Imagining a world without the NBA Draft

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Kevin Arnovitz and Pablo Torre discussed on The Basketball Analogy podcast an interesting solution to a difficult problem with the NBA Draft.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Another NBA Draft lottery passes, and another opportunity is missed for the Denver Nuggets to jump into the top three of this year’s draft. Prospects like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Jackson would provide an immense boost for the future of the Nuggets franchise, but alas, there looks to be no real way to move up that high without making questionable decisions.

To vent my frustrations lately, I have been listening to various podcasts about the draft to possibly hear about the Nuggets and their potential options this year. In my search, I came across a podcast by the name of The Basketball Analogy, headed up by Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN. He truly is a great basketball mind but has an even greater understanding of the ethical implications of the industry. Definitely check it out.

In one of the most recent episodes, he and Pablo Torre, another writer at ESPN, discussed NBA Draft reform and a potential way to improve it. The link to the podcast is right here, and it will be the basis of the discussion in this article.


Arnovitz kicks off the podcast by expressing displeasure that the NBA Draft even exists, as it conflicts with everything a free market economy stands for: a bunch of billionaires deciding whether a bunch of specialists will make money for them or somewhere else. The concept of a draft has been marketed as a fair solution for teams in smaller markets, forcing upon them young prospects at the top of the draft. This of course assumes that big market teams don’t make idiotic decisions, putting them at the top of the draft for multiple years in a row instead.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, and New York Knicks have averaged 22.2 wins per team over the course of the last three seasons, and because of this, each team has been in position to select quality talent at the top of the draft. Fast forward to this year, and the Lakers are picking second, the Sixers third, and the Knicks eighth. Between the three teams, they have drafted Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons and Kristaps Porzingis in the top seven selections since the 2014 draft. Those selections have had varying degrees of success, but when imagining each of those picks made by another organization, it’s easy to see each player having more success.

Now, Porzingis is rumored to be fed up with the management that selected him, and while things are looking up in Philly, the future of the Los Angeles Lakers may possibly tied to the success of Lonzo Ball.

The question is, why force these draft picks to play their first five to eight seasons with a franchise that selected them? In a free market economy, the most skilled individuals in their respective fields are afforded the pick of the litter for businesses that desire their skills. The same is said in NBA free agency, though only on the basis of when the first guaranteed contract runs out. Why aren’t Fultz or Ball or Jackson afforded the same opportunities? From a business standpoint, forcing players into these positions goes against the unwritten (and written) laws of the capitalist world. From a competitive standpoint, why force a young potential prodigy to play in the worst possible situation possible?

In his podcast, Arnovitz touches on the pros and cons of getting rid of the NBA Draft entirely. He believes that while some of the less competent franchises that are in turmoil wouldn’t like the idea, competent franchises would be all for the idea.

“I think those who have confidence in their talent evaluation and their ability to find undervalued assets lower in the draft...internationally...those are the executives that would support the abolition of the draft. Because what does the draft do? It rewards idiots. You can have absolutely no expertise, have a top five pick, and by virtue of all of the information that’s out there, do okay.”

-Kevin Arnovitz, The Basketball Analogy podcast

This is a profound quote, and it had me doing some research on the overall success rate of the draft. The draft is used as a way to balance talent in the NBA, so theoretically, most franchises should go through cycles of being good and being bad. After a team accumulates a certain number of top draft picks, they should spend subsequent years as a successful NBA team, correct?

Arnovitz and Torre continued to talk through some other sticking points, but it stands to reason, what would the offseason look like if the NBA didn’t field an a draft and instead allowed prospects to explore free agency? Here are five ramifications of no draft for the 2017 offseason:

The NBA Combine becomes mandatory for players to attend

Since college players all play at drastically different programs and varying levels of competition, there would have to be a single entity with the ability to showcase players in a concentrated environment. With teams needing assurance before spending tens of millions of dollars on a 19-year-old, the Combine is a great location to obtain as much information as possible.

There would not only be athletic testing, interviews, and medical evaluations, but also the ability to mingle with other players and potential employers in one location. Think of it as a gigantic career fair open to only students from Stanford University. These are some of the best possible options for NBA teams, and they want to show off why their NBA team is the best possible option. ESPN wants the NBA Draft Combine to grow in its viewership, and if the NBA wants to continue expanding its TV coverage options, then showing off drills and other events put on by specific NBA teams for select prospects would only draw more viewership and speculation for when free agency opens.

Max contract for rookie deal becomes 20% of the salary cap (or some large number)

This may seem very high for a rookie contract, an unproven player that could be a complete bust no matter the situation. The truth is, there are terrible contracts given out in free agency, regardless of how long a player has played in the NBA. Would the Los Angeles Lakers rather hand out a combined $134 million over four years to Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, or a combined $100 million over the same length to two or even three high quality draft prospects? What about the young Markelle Fultz this year? A bidding war up to max contract value for his services would earn him much more than he would if he was drafted first overall on a rookie scale deal.

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Total
2017-18 #1 overall pick $5.86 million $6.95 million $8.12 million $10.24 million $31.17 million
Max Contract for "New" Rookie scale $20.20 million $21.11 million $22.06 million $23.05 million $86.42 million

By increasing the allotted salaries for young players, it would force teams to be smarter about the contracts they hand out to older players. The outlandish contracts from last year’s cap jump would not have occurred nearly as frequently. Instead of offering Bismack Biyombo $72 million over four years, they could have instead offered Jamal Murray the same deal to help rebuild their franchise. Teams will likely continue to hand out bad contracts here and there, but it would force scouting to get even better, relating back to the first point. Committing so much money to a young player would be incredibly difficult, and it would likely be saved for the best young prospects that find the best fits in the NBA. Still, interesting to think about.

Lonzo Ball can go to the Lakers, but he won’t be forced to go there

The main point of disbanding the draft is to allow these players the freedom to choose where they want to work for the next four years of their life. In the draft, it’s very rare that the situation allows for a player to play near his hometown. LeBron James wouldn’t have played for the Cavaliers had they not won the lottery before the 2003 NBA Draft. In this scenario, LeBron would have had the ability to choose where he wanted to play. He may have had an easy decision if he wanted to play in his hometown, or for all we know, he would have chosen to play in Detroit with an elite Pistons team, or in Los Angeles next to Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant. Whatever he wants.

That’s what unrestricted free agency is all about. Kevin Durant was allowed to join a super team in Golden State. David West chose to do the same thing, and he decided against pursuing more money because that was his choice. If a draft prospect wants to join an elite team instead of having a larger role, then so be it. If a player wants to join a former buddy of his from college, then so be it. If Lonzo Ball wants to get as far away from his dad and the drama in Los Angeles as possible, then he has that option. The point is, he can do whatever he wants.

The potential for more drama is exponential

How much excitement was there during the DeAndre Jordan-Dallas Mavericks saga, in which Marc Cuban was driving around Los Angeles looking for DeAndre’s house while the Clippers locked him in there to reason with him? How exciting was “The Decision” by LeBron James or the bombshell by Kevin Durant going to the Warriors? How (temporarily) exciting is the draft lottery and the draft itself?

Now, take that excitement from free agency and the draft and combine the two into one extravaganza of player movement. So much money moving during one time will surely cause drama among college teammates, broken promises, and competing teams for the services of one player. Teams would have the opportunity to choose between going young and grabbing young talent or committing more money to older players in an effort to win in the short term. Decisions would be full of drama, and the entertainment value would spike.

Strong talent evaluators and patient teams would be rewarded

A variety of teams are lauded for their skilled drafting, or for their excellent valuation of free agents, or for their winning record in trades made. By disbanding the draft, the dynamics of putting together a winning roster would slightly change. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs would likely benefit from this setup, as they make a living off of late round draft picks, cheap free agent signings that over-perform, and making quality trades that swindle the opposition. No matter which mode of adding players is utilized, the end goal is to put 15 (now 17) roster spots to the best use possible. Providing good talent evaluators with chances at acquiring young talent more than the draft picks allotted would continue to be a good way to strengthen the roster.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Another important factor is the ability to game plan for multiple years in a row. For many teams, this wouldn’t be an issue. For the Los Angeles Clippers who committed to a core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick, this would be an issue. That team wouldn’t be able to add the necessary young talent to compete until those free agents decided to leave, though the Clippers would be able to rebuild better if a player like Fultz or Ball knew they had playing time open and a max contract waiting for them.

Where teams would really make their mark is with the less lauded prospects, the international players, and ones that were injured during the previous season. The accurate an evaluation a team can make, the more likely that player will be offered a fair contract and be able to succeed at the next level. Too often, teams become enslaved by the “draft board” when making large commitments to players. In this scenario, the middle man of the draft is cut out, and players and teams can make hard, hopefully unbiased evaluations of each other to make the best of the situation.


Those are my thoughts on a world without the NBA Draft. There are many other ramifications, but these would seem to be the biggest in my mind. Again, shoutout to Kevin Arnovitz and the excellent work he is doing at ESPN right now and the interesting thoughts on the draft itself. Which factor is the most important? Which factor is missing? It’s certainly an interesting proposition that should be a talking point as the world continues to evolve.

Poll

Which factor in abolishing the draft is most important to the NBA?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Improving the NBA Combine
    (12 votes)
  • 8%
    Adding a new max deal for rookie scale contracts
    (12 votes)
  • 16%
    Factoring in player choice
    (25 votes)
  • 9%
    Increasing drama
    (14 votes)
  • 46%
    Rewarding good talent evaluation
    (69 votes)
  • 10%
    Other (comment below)
    (16 votes)
148 votes total Vote Now