The NBA Draft Is A Terrible Idea

LeBron James at the 2003 NBA Draft (Credit: AP)

The Miami Heat won’t be at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn tonight for the latest edition of the NBA Draft, because they sacrificed both of their picks to do something none of the other 29 teams have managed to accomplish in the last two years: win the NBA championship.

But what if those teams weren’t at the draft either? What if they recognized the draft for the inefficient mess that it is and decided not to show up? What if they came up with a system that gave both the players and the teams more freedom? What if the NBA Draft didn’t exist?

Draft proponents in all sports argue that they are critical for maintaining competitive balance. But in the NBA, that hasn’t necessarily worked. Over the last two decades, some of the NBA’s most successful franchises, like San Antonio, depended heavily on the draft. Others, like the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, combined a talented draft pick (Dwyane Wade and Paul Pierce, respectively) with free agents and trades to build championship teams. Still others, like the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers, who drafted neither Kobe Bryant nor Shaquille O’Neal, basically ignored it altogether. Meanwhile, other franchises pick in the lottery nearly every year and remain glued to the NBA’s basement floor. “Competitive balance is a fallacy. The success of teams is determined by good ownership and scouting. Period,” one NFL scout told Sports On Earth’s Patrick Hruby before the NFL Draft. It works the same way in the NBA: teams win because they are better at scouting and developing players, whether through the draft, trades, or free agency.

The reality is that drafts weren’t designed to foster competitive balance but to limit the cost of labor, as Hruby explained in a recent piece advocating for the abolition of the NFL Draft:

Fact: The draft was not primarily created to help the league’s dregs. It was created to prevent costly bidding wars over incoming college talent. In 1934, the Philadelphia Eagles and Brookyln Dodgers competed to sign college All-America Stan Kosta, driving his salary up to an eye-popping $5,000 — as high as that of Bronko Nagurski, then the NFL’s best player. At a subsequent league meeting, Eagles owner Bert Bell proposed a incoming player rights draft, with a worst-chooses-first order that — totally coincidentally — would benefit his last-place team. Wary of another Kosta, cost-conscious clubs adopted the system, which has been robbing leverage-lacking rookies of market value ever since.

The origins of Major League Baseball’s draft are similar, as Grantland’s Rany Jazayerli wrote in arguing that it too should be abolished:

The reality is that MLB didn’t institute the draft nearly 50 years ago as a way to promote competitive balance. That’s a dandy byproduct of the draft, and one they’ve done their damndest to promote over the years. But the real reason is somewhat different. When the draft was created, Major League Baseball wasn’t concerned so much with extending a hand to the downtrodden teams, but with cutting costs for all of them.

The NBA Draft traces its origins to 1947, when the Basketball Association of America formed, and it followed the worst-team-picks-first model the NFL had established more than a decade before. Now, though, it’s effect on limiting the bargaining power of athletes is perhaps even more pernicious than the other drafts, since a top draft pick in the NBA has much more potential to change the fortunes of an entire team than a top pick in football or baseball. A baseball player is just one of hundreds in his organization. A football player is one of 53 on a roster. A basketball player, though, is one of just 13 on each team in a sport where an individual can single-handedly change the complexion of an entire team. So while Andrew Luck may have made a big impact on the Indianapolis Colts, and while Stephen Strasburg seemingly turned around the Washington Nationals, they couldn’t do so without an already-strong team around them. A top draft pick in the NBA may not win a title on his own, but he can certainly put a team on the brink of a title far faster. That means he’s worth more money to teams that desire his services — and it means he loses more money in a draft system that prevents multiple teams from competing for those services.

Take LeBron James. Or Michael Jordan. Or Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, or Tim Duncan. Those players were known commodities, and multiple franchises wanted them because they knew any of them could be the difference between a decade in championship contention and a decade in the lottery. And every one of them would have had more bargaining power had they been able to choose their own fate as multiple teams competed for their services. Instead of a salary determined by the slot in which they are drafted, those players could negotiate a salary closer to what they are worth. Maybe James and Wade would have chosen to take their talents to South Beach right away. Or maybe James would have given the Cavaliers a hometown discount. Maybe he would have gone somewhere else entirely. In every instance, he would have had more say in where he ended up.

That may not seem important for players like James or the others mentioned above, because even if it cost them money, the draft worked for them. For many others, though, it doesn’t. Absent a draft, would talented-but-raw players like Kwame Brown (the top pick in 2001) and Tyson Chandler (#2 in 2001) have chosen to play for the Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers, franchises with comical records of developing talent? It’s not just that drafts suppress labor costs. They also keep young, talented players from choosing the situation that they feel gives them the best chance at long-term success.

So instead of a draft, it’s time for a system that gives players rights while also working to foster more competitive balance. The NBA already has balance controls, like restricted free agency, maximum contracts, and a luxury tax that hits teams whose payrolls exceed the league’s soft salary cap, in place, and while their merits are all worthy of debate, they are more successful in creating balance than a draft. Jazayerli, meanwhile, developed an alternative to the MLB Draft that would likely work for the NBA too: instead of slotting teams in a set order, give them a set amount of money they can spend based on where they finished in the previous season’s standings and let them spend it on incoming players as they desire.

Such a system would both control costs, a desire money-hungry owners can’t ignore, and rid the NBA of the restrictions it places on players that we would never accept in the sectors of our economy that don’t involve professional sports. Players would have more rights, and while fans might not have the draft night spectacle they enjoy now, they’d probably get better basketball out of the deal instead.