On Sunday, I argued why the NBA draft is horrible for the league and should end. There was understandably a good deal of pushback against this idea. In many cases, the pushback is warranted. This is an imperfect, underdeveloped idea, not a blueprint.
But there’s one significant strain of critique that doesn’t hold much water. To wit: killing the NBA draft would lead all high-end rookies to sign with the most glamorous, elite franchises of the league.
This arguments holds that faced with options on where to begin their careers, the best incoming rookies would snub the Milwaukees, Sacramentos, and Utahs of the NBA in favor of the Los Angeleses, the New Yorks, the Miamis, the Golden States. A league that already struggles with competitive balance issues would go under a deeper strain as top young talent gathers in a few elite markets.
Here’s why that’s wrong.
Under my plan, the rookie exception is worth 75 percent of the mid-level exception, or roughly $6 million in today’s NBA. The rookie maximum is $12 million per season. For a standard four-year deal, this is the difference between a $26 million contract and a $51.6 million contract.
This isn’t a minor financial difference. What 19- or 20-year-old is going to take the $26 million contract on their first NBA deal to play with a winning team in warm weather?
Potential vs. production
The so-called glamour teams could get around this by opening up cap space in order to be able to pay these incoming rookies above the rookie exception level. That would actually create interesting debates and team-building problems.
Would good teams spend their cap space on high-end college prospects who need development time (either in the NBA or D-League)? Some might! Most would not. For every dollar of cap space spent on a rookie, there’s one fewer for a veteran who can help right now.
Equalizing free agency
If good teams that squirrel away cap space do go that route and decide to pay a De’Aaron Fox instead of a Jeff Teague, that necessarily makes Teague available and more affordable. If good teams focus on adding youth, veterans became undervalued. Removing the rigidity of the rookie scale and the draft structure opens up a host of new market inefficiencies for smart front offices to exploit.
Conversely, if the most glamorous franchises start cornering the market on hot young prospects, the market for proven veterans will have room for the Milwaukees and Sacramentos to shop.
The punitive tax
One thing about teams laden with young stars on rookie deals is that the bill eventually comes due. If high-end teams squirrel away cap space and sign a high-end prospect, that adds to a potential luxury tax bill down the line.
The Trail Blazers are learning that now. Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard all got paid, and the team is capped out. Some free agent whiffs helped with that, too.
We’re learning just how powerful the league’s graduated luxury tax structure has become. No one has proven immune to it. The Cavaliers are flinching with every veteran’s minimum contract and the Nets crumbled under its force. The punitive tax would keep even the most spendthrift franchises from loading up teams with extra salary for unproven players.
Limiting group deals
Some critics have expressed concern that all top rookies would go to one team or another. The cap rules solved some of this. Another rule explicitly laid out in my piece also deals with it: teams only get one full rookie exception per season, plus the minor rookie exception.
These exceptions could be traded. One presumes there would be a market for them (as there is for draft picks), which means teams would have to give up things in order to hoard rookie exceptions.
The other barrier to hoarding high-end rookies I built into my plan was the restriction on the number of players on rookie deals above the cap you can have on your roster. I limited that number to three.
I played with using two there to ensure a relatively limited number of $12 million rookies in the league. But, the tighter the limit, the more likely you make it that good teams go after young players at salaries between the full rookie exception and the rookie max. That’s not optimal for competitive reasons.
Teams would simply not be allowed to clear the books and try to get the three best amateurs in any one season, or get the best rookie three years running ... without at least one of those rookies cutting his potential salary in half.
Now, teams could identify less reputed rookies who excel and turn into stars while on smaller rookie deals, as teams currently do with picks outside the top 10. The bill would still eventually come due, but there’s no disincentive here for scouting well and finding diamonds in the rough.
Teams are built, not born
The Knicks and Lakers both had cap space in 2016, and with it desires on landing good free agents who could help their teams. The Knicks signed Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee. The Lakers signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov.
You’re considering that in a draftless NBA the Knicks would have the inside track on De’Aaron Fox and the Lakers would have a great shot at adding Lonzo Ball? That’s what could happen this year with a draft!
You’re worried that in a draftless NBA the Boston Celtics, tied for the No. 1 seed in the East, could add Markelle Fultz in the offseason? We live in a world with an NBA draft, and the Boston Celtics, tied for the No. 1 seed in the East, could very well add Markelle Fultz in the offseason!
The Warriors drafted Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, yet you’re concerned the Warriors could have signed them? The Cavaliers had three No. 1 picks in four years — the exclusive opportunity to sign who they felt was the best rookie in three of four years — and it took the best player in the world coming back to make anything of it.
There are reasons to keep the NBA draft in place. Fear of a new breed of rookie-infused superteams is not one of those reasons.