This story was originally published in March 2017.
The NBA draft is a lot of fun. It’s also terrible for everyone involved.
Both of those statements are true. While we all love the spectacle of the NBA draft and the entire subculture, that doesn’t mean that the draft is actually good and it certainly doesn’t mean the NBA draft should continue.
At its core, the draft is a solution to a basic question: How do you incorporate young players into the league? We have had the draft since the league was formed, and other American sports leagues use an amateur draft. So the practice has become normalized as the standard way major leagues incorporate young players.
But we ought to recognize the damage the draft does to the league, its teams, and the young players it seeks to settle. The draft rewards losing, incentivizes failure, and restricts the ability of players to work wherever they want. It often places good young players on poorly managed bad teams. Soon, some combination of DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr., and several others will go to teams like the Suns, Kings, Hawks, Magic, Grizzlies, Bulls, and Knicks -- all losing franchises, several of which have significant management problems.
(This is the point to give nods to two heroes of the anti-draft revolution: Kevin Arnovitz, who sparked the conversation in 2012, and Amin Elhassan, who laid out his vision for a post-draft NBA in 2015.)
If we kill the draft, we also have to figure out what to do with all those unincorporated players. We’ll get there. But first, we must explain why the draft needs to die.
The draft rewards failure
Landing a superstar in the draft typically means a team can retain his services for at least seven years thanks to incumbency advantages tied to restricted free agency. For stars, rookie contracts are cheap. For true superstars, second contracts are cheap. Winning the rights to a superstar in the draft is a real boon for any team.
Most superstars are drafted highly and nearly all are picked in the lottery. Setting aside traded draft picks, the only way to get your team into the lottery is to miss the playoffs.
Isn’t that wild? You have to be a below-average team to have a shot at drafting a superstar, or you have to had taken advantage of a now below-average team by trading for the pick. (Perversely, most teams that have accomplished that made their rosters immediately worse by trading players for future picks.)
Getting a high pick is an extraordinary prize for NBA teams. Shouldn’t teams have to earn such a prize? The current system instead rewards failure.
The draft incentivizes losing every year
Tanking is a complex concept. We are often told that players never want to lose, and coaches aren’t making in-game decisions based on improving their lottery odds. The former is likely true; the latter is sometimes false, but generally true.
Set those two parties aside. Team management makes the ground rules here, and every year there are teams that openly give up late in the season and angle for improved lottery odds.
Just this season, we had a tank-off race for the ages. It worked for the Suns, who finally got the No. 1 pick they so craved. Over the year, it’s worked for the 76ers, who used assets secured from years of intentionally losing to move up to select Markelle Fultz at No. 1 last year and earned the No. 1 pick on their own in 2016 to pick Ben Simmons.
Again, the players aren’t interested in losing and the coaches aren’t focused on it, but front offices are pushing their teams in that direction.
It would be irresponsible not to work on improving your lottery odds given the stakes. This is completely sensible, and that is the problem. It makes sense to lose as much as possible once you’re out of the playoff race. That’s not acceptable year after year for team after team. It’s bad for everyone involved.
The draft removes players’ freedom to choose where to work
NBA pioneers fought tooth and nail for free agency. In the decades since, players have been unwilling to fight on behalf of amateurs. In 2005, players caved to league whims on the age minimum. Reversing it has not been a priority since. The unfairness of the NBA draft doesn’t even get broached. That’s a shame.
For some, this is the central rationale behind killing the draft. For others, it’s irrelevant. Yet, if you believe the reserve clause that bound players to franchises forever was an absurd violation of players’ rights, then you’re on slippery footing defending the draft.
OK, the draft is bad. Now what? The solution is actually quite obvious: Just treat amateur players entering the league as free agents.
Behold rookie free agency
Imagine a world in which declared and eligible rookies become NBA free agents at midnight on July 1. Of course, these players are different than normal NBA free agents, and some special contract considerations and salary cap rules can be implemented to integrate rookies cleanly.
The NBA can do this using rookie salary cap exceptions. Under this plan, each team would receive two rookie salary exceptions per season: one equal to 75 percent of the mid-level exception ($6.1 million in 2017-18) and one equal to the biannual exception ($2.4 million in 2017-18). Let’s name them for clarity’s sake: the full rookie exception and the minor rookie exception.
Just as with other salary cap exceptions, these limit the first-year salary for players who sign them. With 5 percent annual raises, the full rookie exception would be worth $26.2 million over four years. The two-year minor rookie exception would be worth $4.9 million.
How can teams use these exceptions? Just as with the mid-level exception, the rookie exceptions can be broken up among multiple players or only partially used. In a twist on how exceptions are usually treated, rookie exceptions can also be traded. Teams could essentially trade their ability to sign a player to a rookie exception.
Franchises who are more interested in building their teams with young players could acquire multiple rookie extensions for any given year. These would be far less valuable than draft picks currently are since draft picks are guarantees of getting rookies under contract, whereas the exceptions serve only as opportunities to sign rookies.
So these are salary cap exceptions. What about teams under the salary cap?
The rookie max
Teams over the salary cap can only use those exceptions and minimum contracts to sign rookies. But teams under the cap have an advantage in signing rookies, just as they do in signing other free agents.
Under this plan, teams under the salary cap could sign rookies to contracts up to the rookie maximum, which is 150 percent of the mid-level ($12.2 million in 2017-18). Rookie contracts can be no longer than four years. No player options are allowed on rookie deals above the biannual exception. Team options are allowed. Restricted free agency rules remain in place.
There’s one catch. You can only have three players on rookie deals above the rookie exception on your roster at any time. This would prevent franchises from hoarding cap space over multiple seasons to load up on 20-year-olds, or from clearing the books in any given year with the express purpose of adding the five best amateur players in July.
This is not a restriction on how many rookies you can have on your roster. There is no limit to the number of players on deals signed for the rookie exception or below.
There’s one additional tweak. If a team has cap space and signs an amateur for a deal above the full rookie exception, it can still use additional cap space to sign another player to a deal above the rookie exception, or it can be granted its rookie exception.
In other words, signing a player to a rookie max deal (or something close to it) would not preclude you from also using your full rookie exception. Unlike with the traditional mid-level exception, having and using cap space would not disqualify you from using the rookie exception.
How this works in practice
This is, of course, a thought experiment and there’s no way to test how this would work in practice. But here’s what I think would happen.
The best prospects — maybe two or three, maybe seven or eight depending on the year — would not be considering deals at the rookie exception level. These high-end prospects would be targeting high-end deals closer to the rookie max. These would be the same players gunning for the No. 1 pick.
Similarly, not all teams would be looking to chase the top rookies. Cap space can be valuable in July, and many teams would continue to target veteran free agents at the stroke of midnight, valuing proven production over potential. Some self-selecting teams would prefer to chase rookies over veterans, especially given restricted free agency rules and incumbent team advantages with regard to early extensions and designated player contracts.
These high-end prospects and youth-focused franchises will find each other. In fact, they’ll find each other before July as amateur players work out for teams and the rumor mill cranks up. How do we know? Because free agents and teams already find each other rather efficiently in July and August. Free agency works in the NBA. You’re just adding another class of player to the mix.
What about the non-elite amateurs?
For the players who are not in consideration for a contract above the rookie exception, the road will be a little different, much as it is for veteran free agents not looking at huge paydays and bidding wars.
A good deal of them — players who would be drafted in the No. 8 to 20 range, perhaps — would sign deals near the rookie exception. This is a solid contract to enter the league.
Lower-ranked players may see their fates may linger into mid-July. They may have to sign nominal Summer League contracts to get teams interested. They may, at that point, consider playing overseas ... just like normal low-end free agents.
The benefits of this plan
- There is no longer a benefit to losing. Getting top rookies is about managing your salary cap sheet and creating an environment where young players want to play. You no longer attract the young elites by being terrible and getting lucky in a drawing. This system now rewards competence.
- It allows comprehensive team-building in July. Rookie additions would be made in concert with other player movement decisions. This again will bolster well-managed, deliberate teams. Right now, teams draft and trade players in late June and only then deal with free agents (their own and otherwise) in July. Teams would be better-suited to build their teams in a unified period.
- It gives players the choice on where to play. This will definitely hurt incompetent teams. Good! Get more competent so you can attract better players.
- It gives teams the choice on what to pay less productive, younger players. The current rookie salary scale is rigid. The No. 1 pick in a really good draft makes roughly the same as the No. 1 pick in a really bad draft. Some years come with multiple players worthy of the No. 1 pick’s higher salary. Most years don’t. (This year is somewhere in between). Contracts should reflect talent instead of an arbitrary ladder based on the order in which players are picked by teams.
- No more stashed players. This is a relatively minor issue, but the NBA could do with fewer headaches from international players whose NBA rights are controlled but who continue to play overseas for some period of time. It’s odd to hold the rights for a player who may never even come to the NBA.
Why this will never happen
- The NBA draft is a thing. It gets ratings. It is basically an industry unto itself. Ending it would be difficult for the league to do.
- A large minority of teams were too caught up in fear of falling behind to tweak lottery odds a couple of years ago when the backlash to Sam Hinkie’s Process reached fever pitch. Franchises in the non-glamour markets are afraid that without the draft crutch, they will be left behind by the Lakers and Knicks. (This seems especially ridiculous right now given Phil Jackson’s tenure in New York and the drama that Magic Johnson is now trying to solve.) Bringing those teams out against the NBA draft seems impossible.
- This is a collective bargaining issue. The NBA and players signed a new deal in 2016. The two sides couldn’t even get movement on the age minimum then, and any change is still years away.
- Even if there was consensus to kill the draft, it would take years to unwind due to owed draft picks. The NBA is far more likely to reform lottery odds to decrease the incentive to lose than it is to blow up the whole concept.
- There are a million unintended consequences I’m not seeing that would rightfully derail this plan and its offspring.
None of that can stop us from dreaming. Enjoy the draft while it lasts, which will be forever, while acknowledging that it is terrible for the league and terrible for players. The draft will not die, but it definitely should.