We've seen a lot of predictions for what Adam Silver will do first to make his mark as the NBA's new commissioner. I fear NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper is on the right track.
Increasing the age limit to 20 is a priority for Adam Silver. It will be a topic of discussion once the union hires an executive director.— Scott Howard-Cooper (@SHowardCooper) February 6, 2014
This is an unresolved issue looming since the 2011 lockout ended. Raising the age limit to 20 years old or two years out of high school was on the table in those collective bargaining sessions, but it was such a minor issue given the money at stake that is was left to be hashed out by a committee of players and owners sometime in the future.
The players' union has been in shambles since the lockout, with executive director Billy Hunter getting forcibly removed and then suing union president Derek Fisher. The union's leadership vacuum should be filled this month, though, as the finalists for the executive director position will present at All-Star Weekend. Chris Paul has already been elected as the president of the players' association, so the pieces to actually function properly should soon be in place.
That's when Silver will come calling about the age limit and a few other items on the table. (Human growth hormone testing is another one of those things.)
The Hook has groused plenty of times about the current age limit, let alone a higher one, but it's inevitable. The age limit is going to be 20, possibly in time for the 2015 NBA Draft. Here are the three cynical reasons why.
1. It appears to reduce the risk of picking busts or unprepared players in the NBA Draft
No data presented widely actually argues that the age limit has helped prevent busts in the lottery. I looked at the data in 2011, using four years before the current age minimum was instituted in 2006 and four years after. The bust rate was rather close. Letting GMs only consider college players and 19-year-old internationals didn't prevent them from making mistakes. Letting GMs only consider two-year college players and 20-year-old international won't prevent it either. One of the biggest busts in the post-limit years was Hasheem Thabeet, had spent three years playing major minutes at UConn when Memphis made him the No. 2 pick in 2009.
But owners hate blowing money on players who aren't producing. One of the hallmarks of the peak preps-to-pros period was that awkward phase in a teenager's career when he wasn't ready to contribute. Think Jermaine O'Neal and Tracy McGrady: incredible, evident potential and well worth their slots in the draft, but getting paid to play spot minutes for a year or two. Considering the salary draft picks earn, it's understandable that owners want a return on that. Delaying the arrival of raw players in their developmental phases helps, even if teams some 20-year-olds will still come in raw. (Thomas Robinson, anyone?)
Any time the owners can reduce perceived risk or wasted resources, they will. And owners think they can, have or will hire the smartest talent evaluators. (In some cases, they believe they are the smartest talent evaluators.) Given more time to look at players, more tape to review, more data to crunch, these owners will think their teams will make even better decisions. Some of them will undoubtedly be wrong, but that doesn't change the perception.
2. Raising the age minimum will tamp down stars' salaries
The NBA salary structure for stars is based on timing and years of service. True stars are bargains while on their rookie deals. Superstars are bargains on their second contracts, too, since all but the very best are restricted to salaries of 25 percent of team cap until they've been in the league for seven years. At that point, all players can sign deals starting at 30 percent of the team cap.
Now, players can hit that 30 percent contract at age 26. Bump the age minimum up a year, and now those players are 27 when they sign the third contract. That seems like a small thing, but it also means they are making less every single year compared to what their slightly older contemporaries are making. That contract takes them into their 30s with a 20-year-old age minimum, and contracts start becoming harder to come by the older you are. This decision is going to cost stars money.
Typically, that's been something the union actually likes to see happen. Remember: while the stars are the focus of the media and most fans, actual union membership has a lot more Martell Websters and Will Bynums than LeBrons. Previous star-crushing programs — the individual player cap, the creation of the mid-level exception, a cap on annual raises — have been approved by the union. It'll be interesting to see how President CP3 affects that balance between the elite stars and the masses of mid-rung players in the union membership.
3. Future draft picks have no voice
The players this may first impact are currently high school seniors. Needless to say, they have no voice in this decision. This was a basic fact reinforced when the league adopted its current age minimum: the opinions of future players are irrelevant to both owners and the union. And obviously there isn't a wide association of prep or college players available to press the league to reconsider. There's just no voice for the players to be affected. It's really unfortunate, but seemingly inescapable.
4. This might be the best way to further boost the D-League.
I said these were cynical reasons, right? This one definitely adds a dose of grassy knoll.
But consider this. There are some basketball prospects who, because of the age minimum, attend college despite being woefully underprepared. Some, like Derrick Rose, allegedly cheat on their SATs to get in. Still more who know they'll be there for only one year before entering the draft just go through the motions academically or ignore labyrinthine eligibility rules — they can't be punished, really, once basketball season ends in March.
What we could see is more P.J. Hairstons: guys who get disciplined for whatever reasons at the college level and enter the D-League to boost their draft stock. Trust me, the NCAA has plenty of ways to discipline college players.
Imagine if Rose had to stay at Memphis for two years. If the NCAA investigation had cranked faster, he could have been suspended for his sophomore season. (The scandal came to light after his NBA rookie season.) What would his options have been approaching the draft? He could have trained privately for a year and hoped the lack of competition didn't curse his status, or he could have joined the D-League to stay in front of NBA GM eyeballs.
Even ignoring the increased possibility of eligibility issues sending two-and-done prospects to the D-League, the pro minor league option might look even better for high school prospects. D-League salary is rather lower (substitute teacher status), but it's still a helluva lot more than the salary college players draw ($0). The international option debuted by Brandon Jennings hasn't taken off, and the D-League option has only drawn a few to date. But doubling the wait time after high school might make it more attractive on its merits, especially if Hairston gets into the middle of the first round on the strength of his performance with the Texas Legends.
Even if the other reasons the NBA wants to raise the age minimum will have a greater effect, there's little question that the possibility of boosting the D-League as a true development option for high school graduates would be great for Silver. It may be more of an unintended consequence than I'm surmising, but it's there.
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