NBA Draft: Would Abandoning Draft for a Free Market System Be Good for the NBA?
The 2011 NBA Draft provides lottery teams with the chance to reverse their fortunes with a high draft pick.
But should fans of these lottery teams get their hopes up?
In other words, does the draft system actually act as the great equalizer that it's intended to be?
The draft is such an ingrained concept in American sports that we rarely stop to ask the question.
In theory, the NBA draft should bring about the most amount of parity in any league.
NBA prospects have a much lower “bust” rate than prospects in other leagues, and can usually contribute immediately (which why is sending a player to the D-League will always be viewed as more of an insult than an opportunity to develop).
Additionally, just one or two impact picks can dramatically improve a team because rotations only go eight or nine deep.
So, does the NBA draft bring about the parity that we think it should?
At first blush, the answer appears to be yes—there have been five unique champions in the last six years.
But going back a little deeper for a better sample size, we see that there have been only nine unique winners since 1980.
How does this compare to the other major American sports leagues?
In that same span, there have been 19 different World Series champions, 15 different Super Bowl victors, and 15 different Stanley Cup winners.
In other words, the NBA has by far the least amount of parity of any league.
Another measure is to look at how many teams win the title one year after missing the playoffs.
The NFL, the gold standard for parity, just saw the Packers win the 2011 Super Bowl after missing the playoffs a year ago.
Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, only two NBA teams have done that: the 1977 Trailblazers and the 2008 Celtics.
If the draft is failing in its mission, perhaps the NBA would be better off embracing a "survival of the fittest" mentality.
Perhaps the league would be more exciting if the best teams got better, if the battle for the top spot became even more contentious and star-studded.
Perhaps the NBA would actually be better off with a free market system for rookies instead of a draft.
To find out, I will present the pros and cons of a free market system and let you decide for yourself.
But first, let’s go over how such a free market system would work, and dispel a few common myths.
Full disclosure—as a Warriors fan whose team was (allegedly) jobbed out of Patrick Ewing in 1985, and who has watched his team trade away the rare good players they pick for pupu platters (Jason Terry for Mookie Blaylock and Jeff Foster?!) I would welcome a change. But I’ll do my best to leave out any biases I may have.
It's important to remember that the goal would not be to create one juggernaut.
Rather, we want to allow teams more freedom to add the pieces they need to become true title contenders instead of first round lame ducks (I'm looking at you, Indiana Pacers).
A true free market system, then, wouldn’t work.
Some franchises simply have more financial resources than others—that’s why the salary cap is in place.
Salary cap rules, then, would still apply as teams made offers to prospective rookies.
Teams already over the salary cap could offer rookies no more than the midlevel exception, which is currently $5.85 million per year.
Teams that decide to use their mid-level exception on rookies would also lose the ability to use that exception to sign a veteran free agent.
This is critically important if the system is to work, because it forces contending teams to choose between signing a veteran (winning now) or attempting to stockpile talent for the future. They wouldn't be able to do both.
However, any team could sign a rookie to the minimum salary (currently about $500k), as per salary cap rules.
I would also make one key addition to the salary cap rules: teams that miss the playoffs would be allowed to offer rookies an extra $1 million per year.
So, if a team misses the playoffs and is over the salary cap, they could offer the midlevel exception plus $1 million, or $6.85 million.
This extra money, though, can only be used on rookies and disappears each year if it goes unused, to prevent owners such as Donald Sterling from simply pocketing it. More on this later.
I would also stipulate that teams could sign no more than four rookies per year. This would prevent teams from shooting for the moon by signing a bunch of relatively cheap prospects in the hopes that a few of them pan out.
Finally, teams would be unable to trade their signees for at least six months. This would prevent teams with cap space from signing a rookie with the sole intent of flipping him in a trade, which would be unfair to the rookie and bad for the league.
Other than that, teams would be free to target whomever they wish, and rookies would be free to sign where they please.
Myth No. 1: Bad Teams Wouldn’t Be Able to Sign Anyone
Bad teams have three things to offer prospects: money, playing time, and the chance to be top dog.
Teams that make deep playoff runs are generally way over the salary cap (this year’s Thunder excluded).
These teams would be at a disadvantage, then, because a bad team with cap space could offer a much larger contract (around $10 million more per year). That's significant.
Non-playoff teams that are over the cap aren’t out of luck either. The ability to offer an extra $1 million per year may not seem like much compared to some of the bloated contracts around the league, but to a rookie, it would be a lot of money.
After all, players coming out of college have never been paid to play (well, in theory), and so that first paycheck means a lot.
Bad teams could also offer much more playing time. Most rookies would rather have the opportunity to showcase their talent and potentially be the centerpiece of a rising contender than ride the bench on a good team.
If Kyrie Irving were free to sign anywhere, he would never sign with a team like the Bulls or the Thunder, because he wouldn’t get the chance to play right away.
Perhaps most importantly, struggling teams can offer a rookie a chance to be the face of the franchise.
Back to the Irving example: there are certainly contenders that could use a point guard (such as the Heat and the Lakers), and Irving would almost certainly start for them.
But those teams would never be his team, and to every elite player not named LeBron James, that would be a serious sacrifice.
Players like Irving would have a choice: be the fifth option on a title contender, or be the star of a team trying to rise up to that level (and make more money doing it).
Not every player would choose the latter option, but I suspect that many would.
Myth No. 2: Players Would Only Go to the Big Markets
As recently as 15 years ago, this wasn’t a myth. Players really did flock to the big markets, and with good reason.
So few games were shown on national TV that small market teams got little national exposure, even if they were successful.
The result was an exodus of star players from small market teams via forced trade or free agency.
Kareem Abdul-Jabaar requested a trade from a Bucks team that had just won the title to join the Lakers in 1975!
Similarly, Shaq left an Orlando team that had just lost in the finals for the bigger L.A. market in 1996.
In the late 1990’s, this began to change. The NBA capitalized on the popularity and exposure that Michael Jordan had brought to the league, signing much more lucrative contracts with TNT and TBS in 1998.
NBA TV, founded in 1999, took this one step further, to the point where even the smallest markets received extensive coverage.
The result is that, on a given Thursday night, you are now just as likely to see Jazz-Thunder as you are to see Celtics-Knicks.
On top of the increased television exposure, coverage on the Internet really took off in the last decade.
Every team has its own page on the major sports websites (like this one, for example).
Players no longer need to chase coverage.
In fact, coverage chases them—just look back at the constant buzz surrounding the Miami Heat, who play in a fairly large (top 20) but not massive market.
Today, coverage follows the good teams. Rookies may have a preference for playing in a particular city (say, they always grew up wanting to live in New York), but location would not be a deciding factor as it used to be.
Small market teams would do just fine.
Myth No. 3: Rookie Salaries Would Skyrocket
Given the absurdity of rookie contracts in the NFL, this fear is certainly understandable.
But it wouldn’t pose as much of a problem as you might think.
Remember, teams still have to work within the salary cap. Unlike the NFL, very few NBA teams have much cap space to work with, so most teams wouldn’t be able to offer more than the mid-level exception.
The most hyped prospects would command high salaries, without a doubt.
But aside from the top two or three prospects available each year, the rest would probably receive less money than they currently do.
One reason is that teams would be able to choose among prospects instead of being committed to signing the one that they drafted.
In other words, if a rookie’s asking price is too high, a team could simply sign a more reasonably priced replacement. As the system currently stands, the team must give the player it drafts a certain contract, regardless of high highly they value him.
Additionally, teams would be free not to sign anyone if they so choose. As it stands, owners not named Robert Sarver feel pressure to use and sign their first round picks, even if they don’t really like a particular player.
Without a draft, teams that miss out on all the players that they like could either sign sleepers to minimum contracts or sign nobody at all and try again next year.
So yes, there would be a bidding war over prospects on the level of LeBron James or Derrick Rose.
But on the whole, team salaries would have to remain about the same because of the cap, and the total amount spent on rookies would be similar to what it currently is.
The best rookies would just receive a larger piece of the pie which, when you think about it, isn’t such a bad thing.
Myth No. 4: The Importance of Identifying Sleepers Would Be Lost
Just because teams could try to sign any rookie doesn’t mean that they would be able to.
Some might not be able to afford the big names. Others might get spurned by the players they want for any number of reasons.
Regardless, there will always be a finite number of sure-fire, star prospects, and even they have a way of flaming out on occasion (see Brown, Kwame).
Most teams will have to look elsewhere for talent.
This is where the importance of scouting for sleepers comes in.
In fact, finding low-cost rookies that turn out to be studs would be even more valuable for a franchise in this system.
Instead of getting stuck in a bidding war for a highly rated prospect, teams that successfully identify underrated prospects would save millions.
If a rookie is going turns out to be a bust, teams would much rather he be a cheap mistake than an expensive one.
Scouts would therefore have great incentive to find diamonds in the rough, perhaps even more than they do now.
Pro: Teams Would Have More Flexibility to Fill Their Needs
Let’s just call this one “The Jimmer Problem,” which to the non-sports fan might sound like something that happens in a prison shower.
Simply put, some teams have glaring needs, and their draft position either forces them to reach for a player or live with the need for another year.
For the Sacramento Kings, that glaring need is at point guard.
The Kings have realized that Tyreke Evans is not a point guard, and they need to draft someone this year that will allow him to play on the wing.
However, there is a significant drop off after the top three point guards (Irving, Knight, Walker) in this year’s class, and all three are projected to be off the board by the time the Kings pick at No. 7.
This has led to reports that the Kings are strongly considering taking Jimmer Fredette, in what would be the largest reach in any draft since the Oakland Raiders took Darius Heyward-Bey in the 2009 NFL Draft.
(Ironically, that pick also came at No. 7 by a team from Northern California. It’s not bad management, it’s a curse!).
Now, I think Jimmer can add value to an NBA team, but it would have to be the right situation.
Being thrust alongside shoot-first players like Evans and DeMarcus Cousins is not the right situation.
With the free market system, this problem goes away.
The Kings could sign a point guard who is more prepared for a starting role (I think Kemba Walker would be a great fit), and Jimmer would be free to sign with a contender that could use his sharpshooting and energy off of the bench.
Con: Cheap Owners Might Abuse the System
Note: if you are not a fan of the Suns, Clippers, or Kings, this section does not apply to you. Feel free to skip ahead.
Let’s be clear—all owners, even Mark Cuban, care about the bottom line.
However, whether they genuinely care about winning and pleasing fans or they simply want to sell tickets, almost all owners also care about putting a good product on the court.
Some are better at this than others, but the effort is there.
In general, then, owners would still spend money to acquire the best rookies even if they weren’t required to.
The exceptions? Robert Sarver, Donald Sterling, and the Maloof brothers (I wanted to write Magoof, but it would have been too easy).
Sarver, in fact, already abuses the current system for cash.
The highlights of his draft day maneuvering: Dealing Luol Deng for a future first round pick that he later traded away, selling a first round pick in 2006 for cash, trading Rajon Rondo for a future first round pick, and then subsequently dealing that pick for (you guessed it) cash.
Oh, he also gave up two first round draft picks to get rid of Kurt Thomas’s contract.
(Cut to Steve Nash nodding sadly).
Sterling famously refused to pay for treatment when Clippers assistant coach Kim Hughes was diagnosed with prostrate cancer. In other words, he makes The Grinch seem like a stand-up guy.
He also traded away the team's 2011 first round pick to get rid of Baron Davis's contract. Of course, that pick turned out to be first overall, and team representatives defended the decision by claiming that acquiring Mo Williams made the trade well worth it. Seriously.
Finally, the Maloof's are so strapped for cash that they tried to uproot the Kings to Anaheim and so arrogant that they then proceeded to offer Kings fans “one more opportunity” when David Stern blocked the move.
The Kings' payroll was also lowest in the league during the 2010-2011 season.
So yes, it’s safe to say that the Suns, Clippers, and Kings might never sign another rookie if a free market system replaced the draft.
But every other team wouldn’t need to worry.
Pro: Teams Wouldn’t Be Pigeonholed with Certain Players
The Derrick Williams dilemma best explains one of the key problems with the draft.
Cleveland reportedly loves Derrick Williams, even more than Kyrie Irving.
They have the No. 1 pick and, with it, the ability to take whoever they want. So it should be simple, right?
Kyrie Irving is widely regarded as the top prospect in this draft. So, if Cleveland takes Williams over Irving and the pick doesn’t pan out, management looks terrible.
We often overlook the fact that people are putting their jobs on the line when they make draft picks.
They can afford to make mistakes with the No. 21 pick. They get fired if they mess up the No. 1 pick.
Unless a team has a very good reason (if the Wizards had landed the No. 1 pick, for example) it almost always makes the safe pick. See “2007 NBA Draft” or “Oden, Greg” for further reference.
The Cavs, then, are basically handcuffed into taking Irving over Williams, and indeed, recent reports indicate that management has decided to do just that.
(Note: if the Cavs do pull an audible and take Williams, this point still holds. They'll be much more scrutinized based on Williams' success or failure than they would have been on Irving's).
Williams also presents a problem for Minnesota, but for a different reason.
This draft is considered a two-player draft, with a steep drop off after Irving and Williams. The Wolves, who own the No. 2 pick, therefore seem like a lock to take Williams.
However, the Wolves already have two SF/PF tweeners in the Williams mold in Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph (don’t laugh).
What the team needs most is a shooting guard or a center, not Williams.
However, Wolves brass would be absolutely hammered if they took anyone other than Williams are the No. 2 spot. They too are almost forced to take a player that they don’t want the most.
Their only potential option is to trade the pick, but because teams are aware of their dilemma, they have yet to receive any good offers.
With a free market system, the team would be free to sign a center like Enes Kanter or a guard like Alec Burks (or take a shot at both), and they wouldn’t receive any backlash.
You know what? The Kings could even sign Jimmer without being accused of reaching…but forget I wrote that.
Con: Bad Teams Would Lose Bargaining Chips
And…back to the Timberwolves.
The team’s unenviable draft position is also one its greatest assets (assuming they decide to deal).
Best case, they use the pick in a package to land Andre Iguodala or Monta Ellis. Worst case, they end up with a capable center (Roy Hibbert and Andrew Bogut have reportedly been offered).
In a free market system, they’d have nothing.
Granted, this only affects teams that would be looking to trade away their picks.
But still, it would become much more difficult for a rebuilding team to acquire a veteran piece that might put them over the top. At least without giving up one of their core rotation guys.
So yeah, this one hurts the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Pro: Easier to Go into All-out Rebuild Mode
One player is not going to heal the knife wound in Cleveland’s back from the infamous Decision.
Heck, even two key additions won’t help the Cavs follow through on Dan Gilbert’s promise to WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER “KING” WINS ONE.
Cleveland is actually in a better spot than most rebuilding teams in that they do have two selections in the top five.
The last time that happened, in 2007, the Thunder ended up with Kevin Durant and Jeff Green...not bad.
(Of course, having these picks in the weakest draft since 2000 is kind of like winning a free trip to New Orleans...the weekend after Mardi Gras).
Even with this unique flexibility, the draft puts a cap on Cleveland’s ability to go into all-out rebuilding mode.
A team picking at the very top of the draft almost always ends up picking a few spots later in the following years, because the prospect that they get is good enough to add a few wins.
The Wizards, for example, dropped from first to sixth this year, and seem likely to drop a few spots lower again next year.
But this makes all-out rebuilding difficult, because it means that teams really only have the ability to land one or two franchise cornerstones before their rebuilding window closes (at least through the draft, and not by making a trade with Chris Wallace).
For Cleveland, that won’t be good enough.
But what if they could bring in three or four top prospects in a single year?
What if, instead of two picks, they could sign Kyrie Irving, Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter and a shooter like Klay Thompson?
How exciting would it be to watch that core develop together?
Now, you could argue that they might not be able to pull that haul off, but I think they would have a shot.
Consider: they would be able to offer significant and immediate playing time to everyone (when J.J. Hickson is your best player, you have that luxury/curse).
Additionally, they could sell a group of prospects on the idea of growing together and building a contender from the ground up.
The rise of AAU culture means that a lot of these top prospects have been friends for a number of years. The ability to continue playing together would be a strong pull for young men about to make the challenging leap to the NBA.
Massive overhaul, then, would be much more effective for teams that need it.
Con: Harder for a GM to Exercise Patience While Rebuilding
We’ll touch on this a little more later, but one of the only things that makes a losing season tolerable is the promise of a high draft pick.
Without a draft, there is absolutely no upside to a losing season.
GM’s would therefore be under enormous pressure to put winning teams on the court, and it would be harder for them to take the lumps that come with a successful rebuilding effort.
The problem is that patience is exactly what is needed.
No team goes from bottom feeder to title contender overnight.
The Thunder have executed a model rebuilding job (sorry, Seattle), but even they took three full years to do it.
Even with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the team went 23-59 in 2008-2009.
A GM who feels pressure to win now might be tempted to make quick-fix personnel decisions, which would prevent the team from ever getting over the title hump.
In other words, you’d see a lot of teams vying for the 8th seed in the playoffs. That is definitely parity in a sense, but not the kind the NBA is looking for.
There are only two quick fixes that lead to title contention: land a once-in-a-generation prospect, or hope that three stars agree to play together on your team two years before they become free agents, with one of them announcing said decision on television in a segment called The Decision, in quite possibly the biggest Eff You in sports history.
Of course, those quick fixes are exceedingly rare.
Successful rebuilding projects almost always have bumps in the road. Without any benefits to a losing season through the draft, would GM’s be willing and able to take those lumps?
Pro: Luck Would Be Removed from the Equation
There’s just something unsatisfying about the draft lottery.
Minnesota, a team that has been decimated by both Kevin McHale and the Wrath of Kahn, has never won the No. 1 pick.
Heck, they’ve never even improved on what their draft position would have been in the absence of a lottery!
Of course, Kahn singlehandedly massacred any goodwill the team might have garnered for its streak of bad luck by half-jokingly suggesting that the NBA rigged the lottery in favor of a kid who has bravely battled a debilitating disease (Neurofibromatosis).
(I would write “KAHN!!!” but I’m pretty sure Bill Simmons has trademarked that expression by now).
Shouldn’t the team that most needs an impact player (or three) have at least a chance at signing one?
Additionally, a team really has nothing to brag about when it wins the lottery.
Chicago lucked into Derrick Rose. This has been great for the league and they have done a pretty successful job of surrounding him with the right pieces (aside from Carlos Boozer). But they still acquired their centerpiece by a pure stroke of luck.
I’d like to see shrewd personnel decision rewarded instead.
For example, if we rewind to 2008, would a team have fallen in love with Rose and risked signing the unproven commodity to a big contract?
Any team's success or failure to acquire the right players would be entirely in their control.
I like this, if only because it would mean that GM’s would no longer be able to blame records along the lines of 17-65 on a case of bad luck.
Con: Bad Management Would Be Even More Damaging
Of course, the whole “shrewd personnel decisions would be rewarded” idea probably won’t sit well with Wolves fans (or fans of the Raptors, Warriors, Wizards, Clippers, and Bobcats).
I use a picture of Kevin McHale here for his track record of model team-killing decisions (trading Ray Allen for Starbury, Brandon Roy for Randy Foye, Sam Cassell AND a first round pick for Marko Jaric, and Kevin Garnett for Al Jefferson and a pu pu platter).
However, would it be that surprising if David Kahn did something like, I don’t know, sign three point guards this year if given the chance?
The free market system would require many more complex and difficult decisions for each team.
GM’s would not only need to decide who they want, but also how much they are willing to pay.
The process, then, would be of little help to teams that lack savvy front office personnel.
Additionally, one of the underrated benefits of bad management is that it can land a team a franchise-changing player (See Cleveland Cavaliers, circa 2002).
Without the draft, teams would have to be smart to improve.
Oh, what the hell. KAHN!!!
Pro: Smart Signings Could Put a Team over the Top
Of the 12 playoff teams that failed to reach the Conference Finals, one was a title contender that simply flamed out (Lakers), and six more were just one piece away from being true title contenders.
The list? Hawks, Knicks, Magic, Celtics, Trailblazers, and Grizzlies (yes, the Grizzlies).
Not one of those teams is in a position to add that final piece through the draft this year.
The frustrating part is that they don’t even need another star, just a solid third or even fourth option type of guy.
With the free market system, these teams could add that final piece, and we’d see a lot more teams in the title hunt.
Con: Bad Signings Could Be Much More Damaging
Of course, the problem with the free market system is higher contracts.
A bust currently is damaging mainly in the “what if” sense.
Drafting a bust doesn’t actually negatively impact your team. It’s just that it doesn’t help any.
However, busts become much more problematic when they are signed to bigger contracts.
In this case, they would not only add no value on the court, they would also prevent teams from adding other pieces because they take up significant cap space.
Imagine if the Wizards had committed $8 million per year to Kwame Brown when he came out of high school.
Heck, given their history of overpaying players (really, just Gilbert Arenas, but that should count as eight bad signings), they might have offered Kwame $10 or $12 million per year.
Busts would become a double whammy, and could potentially knock teams out of title contention for several years.
Pro: Helps Teams That Are Consistently Below Average
This provides a solution to what I call “Golden State Warriors Syndrome.”
Namely, when a team never quite gets over the playoff hump but never bottoms out either, it can never add an impact player through the draft.
These teams end up the middle of the lottery, or as I like to call it “No Man’s Land.”
In last 16 years, the Warriors have missed the playoffs 15 times. Yet, they have only had one chance at the No. 1 pick, and they blew it (Joe Smith, 1995).
They have picked in the top three only one other time (Mike Dunleavy, 2002). So yeah, that didn’t work out for them either.
The rise of the Thunder meanwhile, shows how much better it is to simply bottom out for a few years, stockpile top picks, and then ascend to title contention. They picked second, fourth, and third in consecutive drafts (2007-2009).
How can we support a system essentially encourages teams to bottom out and start over?
Back to this year’s Warriors. No one they draft with the No. 11 pick will change the future outlook of the franchise. They will remain stuck in the middle of the pack.
Don’t they at least deserve a chance to sign a player or two that might take them to the next level?
Instead, the only realistic way for the Warriors to compete for a title in my lifetime is if they trade Monta Ellis for next to nothing (don’t rule it out), Stephen Curry turns into Seth Curry, and David Lee decides to pull a tank on the level of Erick Dampier or Vince Carter and become “David Lee’s expiring contract.”
If those things happen and the team goes 10-62, they would actually have a shot at rebuilding.
But that shouldn’t need to be the blueprint.
The free market system solves this issue.
Con: Hurts Teams That Are Consistently Terrible
I stated earlier that prospects wouldn’t shy away from small markets or bad teams.
This is true—but only to an extent.
If a team is consistently terrible, players wouldn’t trust that team’s ability to surround them with the pieces needed to contend.
A team that had a down year could definitely sell Brandon Knight and Enes Kanter on the idea of playing together for them.
A team that hasn’t made the playoffs in six seasons and has made terrible personnel decisions along the way would have a much harder time doing that.
One of the funniest moments (and yet, no one seems to have noticed it) in the lead-up to this year’s draft was Kyrie Irving’s pre-draft interview on ESPN.
When asked what his thoughts were on the possibility of playing in Cleveland, he simply responded, “I don’t have a choice.”
Not exactly a stirring endorsement, but he’s exactly right.
With the draft, prospects don’t have a choice.
And this helps teams that are consistently terrible.
Pro: No More Tanking
Every time a stud draft class comes along (most notably 2003, 2007), there is a sharp spike in the number of prolonged injuries to the best players on bad teams.
Tanking hasn’t been an issue recently, but that’s because the recent draft classes have been relatively weak.
Back in 2007, when Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were available in what was hyped as potentially the strongest top two in draft history? Different story.
Paul Pierce, for example, played in only 47 games for the Celtics on their way to a 24-58 record.
The only other time he played less than 70 games in his 13-year career? His rookie season, in 1998-1999.
And oh by the way, that season was shortened to 50 games because of a labor dispute.
So yeah, 2007 was suspicious.
It is never quite clear whether teams are definitely tanking. Pierce really could have needed that much rest.
But the fact is, when there is a clear incentive for a non-contending team to start losing as many games as possible, we can never know for sure.
Without the draft, there is absolutely no benefit to losing games.
In fact, teams would actually have incentive to win games all the way until the end of the season, no matter their position in the standings.
They would want to show prospects that their situation is not a hopeless one, that a turnaround is not too far away.
This would lead to intense games all the way until the end of the season, instead of the current apathy that kicks in for the 25 or 26 teams that are locked into their fates with 10 or so games to go.
Con: Bad Seasons Would Be Even More Painful
Losing seasons are rough.
How much worse would they be if there was no light at the end of the tunnel?
Team management and fans alike have one comfort when enduring a losing season—they know that it gives them an advantage in the rebuilding process.
Take that advantage away, and losing seasons become even more miserable.
Perhaps the best way to alleviate this problem would be to provide a little more of a leg up for lottery teams trying to sign prospects.
I’m open to that, but it’s tricky because the whole point of abandoning the draft is to remove the barriers that prevent good teams from becoming great.
A natural side effect is that some bad teams will be left in the dust, which is not desirable.
Pro: More Homegrown Teams
Call this the antithesis of the Miami Heat's team building philosophy.
I think there’s nothing more rewarding than watching a team form a young core, allow them to mature together, and eventually win a title with that same group.
It’s an extremely difficult and lengthy process, and the increase in player movement makes it all the more difficult today.
In recent years, only the Spurs have won a title with an entirely homegrown core.
The Thunder might be on their way.
Depending on whether or not you consider Carlos Boozer as part of the Bulls’ core (I don’t), they too are on the verge of a title by relying on homegrown talent.
Other than that? Not so much.
The free market system would change that.
Teams could land multiple top prospects in a single year and let them grow together.
As I mentioned earlier, teams with the top pick usually don’t get to add another top player.
The Wizards dropped from 1st to 6th, the Clippers from 1st to 8th (and Blake Griffin didn’t even play that year), the Bulls from 1st to 16th, the Trailblazers from 1st to 13th…
You get the idea.
Teams that only get one impact player become above average. Teams that get two or three become title contenders.
The best way to do that is to sign the desired core of prospects in a single year and then let them grow.
Con: Fewer Trades
This is the biggest drawback of abandoning the draft in my opinion, if only because I love the excitement of the rumor mill and ESPN’s trade machine.
As I mentioned earlier, teams would no longer be able to use draft picks as trade chips.
However, I didn’t fully explain the ramifications of that phenomenon.
When a team is looking to move a star player, they are almost always looking to do one of two things: get younger or get cheaper.
We rarely see two contending teams swap superstars.
Of course, the best way to get both younger and cheaper is to acquire draft picks.
Look at the trades made this year.
37 trades have gone through the wire since last year’s draft.
Of that number, only 8 did not involve a draft pick being exchanged.
Without the inclusion of draft picks, Carmelo to the Knicks, Deron Williams to the Nets, heck, even Gerald Wallace to the Trailblazers all become much less likely.
Going back over recent history, Celtics GM Danny Ainge put together the 2008 title-winning team almost entirely by trading away draft picks.
The package that landed Ray Allen revolved around the No. 5 pick in the 2007 draft, and the package that landed Kevin Garnett included two first round picks.
Clearly, the draft pick is one of the key pieces that teams desire in return for unloading a star player.
Very few teams have the assets on their roster to be able to pull off a big trade solely with players that they already have.
Without draft picks as trade chips, we’d see a lot less trading.
Now that would be a tragedy.
Pro: Excitement About Who Would Sign Where
Picture the intrigue surrounding free agent signings multiplied by 10 and on HGH.
Would Kyrie Irving join a struggling Cleveland team in the hopes of becoming the franchise’s savior?
Or would he pull a LeBron James and sign with a contender, thereby submitting to being a career “second option” type guy?
Would the Thunder use their midlevel exception on a rookie to further add to their young nucleus?
Or would they add a low-ceiling veteran in the hopes of winning now?
The free market system would reveal a ton of information about what priorities each prospect has and what intentions each team has about the upcoming season.
A team that goes after four rookies is clearly in rebuilding mode. A team that signs none is likely gearing up for a title push.
The system would create a whole lot of uncertainty and a whole lot of excitement, both of which would be great for fans and for the league.
Con: Lose the Excitement of Draft Night, Mock Drafts
If you couldn’t tell by the staggering number of mock drafts on this site, people love the excitement of guessing how the draft will shake out.
Sure, people would be still be able to guess who would sign where, but it wouldn’t be the same. Free market signings would take place over a period of weeks, not in one action-packed night.
From a player’s standpoint, draft night is a special moment that can’t be replaced.
It also serves as a potential motivating factor for players who slide down.
Do you really think Michael Jordan (who used his Hall of Fame induction speech as a giant Eff You to anyone who had ever doubted or underestimated him) didn’t use his mini-slide as motivating fuel?
A free market system could do a number of great things, but it couldn’t replicate the magic and ramifications of draft night.
There are merits to both sides of the argument.
With a free market system, I think we’d see a lot more teams in title contention that we currently do.
As much as I enjoyed the vindication of steady team building and good team basketball in this year’s finals, it is impossible to ignore the following:
The Heat came two fourth quarter collapses away from a title with no real chemistry, no late-game execution, no depth, no center, and the worst performance in their best player’s playoff career.
In other words, with another year together, this team will only get better. Yikes.
(Note: I wanted to work an F-Bomb somewhere into the preceding sentence to see if anyone actually made it all the way through to this slide. But alas, I’m sure the editors would catch it).
With the current system, how many teams will realistically threaten the Heat in the coming years? Two? Three?
Now imagine if the Thunder could convince Enes Kanter to sign with them. Or if the Spurs could convince Tristan Thompson to stay in Texas to help the team make one last run at a title.
If teams on the cusp had a bit more freedom to acquire that final piece to get them over the hump, I think you’d see the number of teams with chances at a title double or even triple.
May and June would see some of the most exciting basketball ever.
Of course, I also think the teams with bumbling front offices would be left in the dust.
If the Cavaliers had nothing to show from the LeBron fiasco, would they ever recover?
If the front office had to actually string together a few shrewd decisions instead of simply having to write Kyrie Irving, PG, Duke University on a note-card and hand it to David Stern, would they be able to do it?
With the draft, they at least have a leg-up in the rebuilding process.
So, which is better? Parity at the top or parity throughout the league?
Ultimately, it depends on whether you want to see good basketball played year-round or great basketball played in May and June.
It depends on whether you want your struggling team to have a small chance at a title every year or endure some miserable seasons in the hope that they finally hit it big with some key signings.
Of course, I just wasted hours of my time and a few minutes of yours because it is unlikely David Stern would ever actually entertain this idea for more than a few seconds.
But hey, you never know.