Avoiding rookie mistakes: Fixing the draft

The college basketball season winds down, so NBA draft talk picks up. It's the order of things. Topics of the moment: Should the age limit be raised? Should the lottery be revamped? How "Beastley" will Michael's future be?

Currently unexplored: Should draft picks be able to say "thanks, but no thanks"?

So...let's consider it.


Truth is, despite its pomp, we all know the draft is an anomaly (in some ways, that's what it makes it so much fun). Every other level of basketball, the player's granted some choice: He selects his AAU team and can transfer between high schools. He's wooed throughout the college recruiting process and, with some penalties, changes programs if desired. As a professional, he'll likely weigh a number of offers over his career. Even an undrafted player gets some say over his fate.

But a would-be rookie has to sacrifice at least a year of his NBA career if he doesn't want to sign with the team that selected him--and there's no guarantee that he'll have any more control over the next two drafts, either.

Strong arguments favor the draft: The need to aid struggling franchises, to diffuse talent throughout a league, to see giant men in hideous suits. Minnesota probably wouldn't have gotten Kevin Garnett for a dozen seasons if he could've picked his fate out of high school; ditto for a Karl Malone ending up in Utah, or even a shy Larry Bird going to Boston.

Widespread rookie free agency, meanwhile, could tilt toward the deepest-pocketed franchises--witness baseball, where the best Japanese "rookies" have been signed by the juggernauts in New York and Boston--although the NBA salary cap would mitigate that, somewhat.

But frankly, we're in the camp that teenage phenoms just *might* not know what's best for them. After all, Kwame Brown wanted to go #1--"I won't disappoint you," he told then-GM Michael Jordan, sealing his case--and has spent his entire career failing to live up to expectations that he helped create.

Of course, players can have excellent reasons to hold out. Can we really blame Danny Ferry for trying to escape the disastrous Clippers? Even petulant Steve Francis--who wrongly dismissed Vancouver for being un-liveable--was right that the Grizzlies were a mess.

Thus. We considered possible compromises, no matter how out-of-the-box-and-one. Should the NBA adopt a "Match Day" system? Should Michael Buffer be hired to run a dutch auction? Should NBA teams just turn their front offices over to fantasy basketball players (who clearly, value players more accurately than one-third of the league's GMs).

Here's our simple solution.


On draft day, as soon as David Stern announces a team's selection, that player has a window--say, the five minutes until the next pick is made--to decide if he wants to accept his draft position. If so, it's business as usual; otherwise, the player's rights go back into the pool and the drafting team has two minutes to select again.

While this system gives players more choice, they're also accepting some financial risk--unlike today, when a draftee like Francis can get paid at his position and still force a trade. At the top of the NBA lottery, a contract is worth about 10% less for every subsequent draft slot, which translates to multiple millions of lost dollars. Nor would a player who rejected his draft slot be necessarily snapped up by the next team; that second franchise may have their own needs in mind or fear similar rejection. A player could fall--easily, unintentionally, and expensively.

Let's use Yi Jianlian as an example. Famously unhappy when Milwaukee selected him in last year's draft, rumors sprouted that Yi would prefer to play for Sacramento, given the city's location on the West coast and substantial Asian population. Under our system, Yi could've refused Milwaukee's selection at #6--and either refused subsequent selections or been passed over--until Sacramento selected him at #10. But for peace of mind, Yi'd be giving up nearly $3 million (assuming both teams exercised his third- and fourth-year options, as the graphic below indicates) over his rookie deal.

It's possible that, in Yi's case, California's greater endorsement opportunities would make up for his lost salary. Meanwhile, we're all spared a soap opera in Milwaukee; maybe GM Larry Harris actually selects a player who'll save his job.

Sure, the system would force players to make quick, momentous decisions of their own. But each team should have made its pitch weeks before, given that players spend months auditioning to be drafted; now, those auditions go both ways, as teams have a greater onus to convince players that their franchise offers them the best fit.

In some ways, this revisits PhDribble's open question on how teams develop their young players; although their locations may be less desirable than New York City, franchises like Portland and Utah can convincingly argue a track record of cultivating young players, giving them an edge over a dysfunctional team like the Knicks. Organizations would have new incentive to coach up rookies, rather than let them languish on the bench.


There'd have to be some protections against teams whipping around and dealing a player's rights, of course. And maybe the financial discrepancy between picks would need to be further staggered, to prevent against multiple players refusing to be drafted by some undesirable franchise (say, Oklahoma City at no. 16).

But imagine a draft using this system. And let's set aside the qualitative benefits to a player, or the jockeying of teams to convince a top prospect that their franchise is the right fit. Heck, let's even ignore that such a system would mitigate (to some extent) the need to tank; players might consider falling three-or-four extra draft spots to end up with a better team.

Instead, consider the moments after a pick's been announced, with the Green Room camera watching a draftee nervously ponder his decision. The added speculation--Will Derrick Rose accept the Timberwolves at #1 or fall to the Grizzlies at #3? Will anyone draft O.J. Mayo, after he said no to the Pacers at #2?--would push the evening's pure drama to an all-time high.

Sure, the NBA Draft would probably go on all night, as opposed to a relatively speedy four or five hours.

But since when has more NBA Draft been a bad thing?


posted by Doctor Dribbles @ 22:45,


At March 27, 2008 at 1:02 PM, Anonymous howard u said...

Interesting idea.
A potential problem I see is that a player could say no to every single team that selects him, thereby leaving him unselected through two rounds. This would make him an unrestricted free-agent.
A top-ten pick would probably make more as an unrestricted free-agent than he would in his rookie deal.

At March 27, 2008 at 1:17 PM, Blogger Doctor Dribbles said...

Hmm, good point. If Randolph Morris can get a few million bucks...

Maybe the quick fix: Some cap on how many times a player can say no? (Three? Five?).

Alternatively, the "right of refusal" could only apply to the first-round...so a top-10 talent would be taking a risk in letting himself fall to the second-round, getting a contract for a fraction of the pay and years. Granted, those deals have historically been lucrative for players like Arenas and Boozer--who hit free agency quicker--but the loophole's been closed, somewhat.

At March 27, 2008 at 1:49 PM, Anonymous bullitt said...

what happens if one team can't find any takers? Maybe nobody wants to go to Utah at 20 when they could be taken by Orlando, where there's no state income tax, at 21.

At March 27, 2008 at 2:05 PM, OpenID kevinbroom said...

Another possible solution would be to permit rookie free agency, but limit the amount of money teams can spend by still using the rookie salary scale. Standard contract rules would continue to apply.

So, say Minnesota wins the draft lottery. They'd get to spend the biggest amount of money -- the dough that would go with the #1 pick. Meanwhile, the NBA champ (say, the Spurs) would get the same money that the 30th pick would get.

Then, the draftee would have complete choice -- he could go to any team in the league. But, that team would be limited to how much money they have in their draft pool.

Another twist would be to permit teams to split up their draft money if they want -- or combine money that comes from trades. That would permit teams to accumulate more rookie acquisition money (in the same way they can accumulate draft picks), AND give teams more flexibility in how they spend that money.

It could be that through some shrewed trading, a team could come up with sufficient money to get 2 top players from a draft.

Just some thoughts.

Nice post, btw.

At March 27, 2008 at 2:17 PM, Anonymous Todd said...

Would the NBA need to guard against "recruiting violations"? A team could tell a player that if he slipped in the draft, they would make it up to him with bonuses outside the contract.

At March 27, 2008 at 2:24 PM, Blogger goathair said...

What about groups of players deciding to play in the same place? For instance, what if all the Florida guys last year decided they wanted to play for the same team and denied every other team. That forces the team they pick to pay them or lose our on either their rookies or their veterans. It's a good thought, but there is no way that something like letting the players entering the draft can work.

At March 27, 2008 at 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

on a player continuing to pass on the teams that select them:

if a player passes on every team and ultimately goes undrafted, he should not be allowed to play in the nba and have to go into the draft again the following season. that should deter players from playing that little game...

At March 27, 2008 at 2:45 PM, Blogger Doctor Dribbles said...

bullitt, there's almost no way that a team (assuming it was semi-competent and in a decent location) couldn't find a single taker, even if they had to reach a bit. What foolish kid is going to turn down a few hundred thousand dollars more?

kevin, that's a clever idea...you know that the San Antonios of the world would figure out a way to work the system. But it would also spare us LeBron's white suit, Jay Bilas's Josh Smith slam, and Mrs. Casey Jacobson...not sure that's a trade-off NBA fans should be ready to make.

todd...sort of punting on that one for now. Teams should be able to say, "hey, fall to us--you'll have a chance for a starting spot" but the off-the-court swag is hard to figure. I suppose the NBA would have to build that into the rookie salary cap as "total compensation."

goathair, your comment (like howard's) proves the need for some limit on player refusals and, maybe, that only first-rounders have the right. So if Horford passed on Atlanta and Memphis, maybe he'd have to go to Seattle, if the Sonics wanted him. Alternatively, this would make for some more drama at the end of the first round, but that's not a bad thing.

At March 27, 2008 at 2:51 PM, Blogger MDZ said...

This is an interesting proposal, except that it could do a great disservice to the competetive balance of the league. There would have to be some sort of cap penalty to the lower drafting team as well, because how is it fair that a bad team would have to pay 3 or 4 times as much salary to a player than the Celtics, Pistons or Lakers. Something along the lines of 3 times the salary difference goes towards the salary cap might work. For example, Beasley passes on the Heat at $4M/year to get drafted by the Spurs at $1M/year, Beasley's salary is still $1M/year but his cap number is now $9M (with the differential becoming a tax that goes to the league, so that cheap GMs don't intentionally limit payroll using the cap penalties). All in all a system like this could work, but I think the current NBA sytem is very good. It avoids the risks of a bad draft by a poor team, like in the NFL, where a bust not only doesn't help the team much on the field, but cripples the team's finances because top rookies are among the highest paid players in the game.

At March 27, 2008 at 3:30 PM, Blogger Petr said...

I agree with your analysis that the current system is fundamentally unfair to the rookies entering the draft. I don't agree with a proposed solution that would give the rookies a straight up/down vote. In that direction lies anarchy.

My solution: two drafts. The existing draft concurrent with a players draft (or more accurately a lottery). Each player is given 60 balls, 30 FOR and 30 NOT. They can correlate the FORs and NOTs against any team, or sets of teams, they choose. But they must do this before the draft. As the team drafting makes its choice, the players lottery is taken. So, for example, if I present myself for the draft, but want to be drafted by the Celtics, I would play 30 FOR Celtics and 30 NOT against any other team (or against the teams most likely to pick first). If I had no preference, I'd play 1 FOR ball on each team and zero NOTS. If I dreaded being drafted by the (shudder) Lakers, I could play all my NOT chances against the Lakers.

When the draft is called my lottery would be drawn. If the Lakers wanted to pick me but a NOT Lakers ball was chosen, I go back to the draft and the Lakers get to choose again. If any other ball was chosen the Lakers could take me. (however, they may now have an idea of my preferences and can trade me accordingly) If I had played all my NOTs against the Lakers, I'd have a good (but not zero) chance of not going to the Lakers.

Similarly, if the Celtics wanted to take me and the lottery came up FOR Celtics, then I'd not only go with them, but the Celtics would be unable to trade me on draft day.

Probably not a perfect system, but, if the goal is sharing information without promoting collusion, something like this is probably for the best.

At March 27, 2008 at 4:14 PM, Anonymous Sports Tsar said...

yes the draft is necessary in order to distribute incoming talent amongst the weaker teams, thus creating more competitive balance in the league.

the ideas here are good as well, but maybe give draft picks a bit more incentive to play on those weaker teams (not just the salary scale) - maybe allow them to go beyond that and negotiate even further, or reduce the rookie contract length, some endorsement deals, increased playing time...

there are options here


At March 27, 2008 at 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beasley to Lakers, Spurs, Boston??? Curry to Phoenix???
Give LeBron this choice, why wouldn't he have gone to the Spurs or a big market contender (Read more money from Nike)? Surely we'd see the rookies who want to win (this is something that defines greatness) go to the best franchises - something the draft is designed to avoid.

At March 27, 2008 at 7:13 PM, Blogger Doctor Dribbles said...

MDZ, no argument here--having some modification to the cap figure, so teams can't totally "steal" a falling player, makes perfect sense.

Petr, that's a really interesting idea...and not only that, it makes sense, too. I suppose a "player lottery" would also speed up the process--a player wouldn't have to (or be able to) decide in the moment, because he'd already cast his lot earlier. Which would be good functionally, maybe less so for dramatic purposes.

George, totally agree--rookie salaries might have to be further stratified as an incentive. But a lot of it needs to be in the hands of those mediocre franchises: The Clippers should have to convince a player why coming to them for four years doesn't put their career on ice.

Anon, totally disagree...so you get my diatribe of a response. First, there's prestige associated with being a top pick, not to mention dollars. Most draftees aren't so privileged (or have enough enough endorsements) to give up millions in draft position, especially in the NBA, where the next contract isn't guaranteed; a good third of first-rounders in an average draft may never get another multi-year deal. Most kids are absolutely thrilled to get drafted, by anybody.

Plus, it's hardly a sign of stardom to want to go someplace already good; if anything, we respect guys like LeBron and KG more because their franchises were wrecks before they arrived. Plenty of players cop to wanting PT and shots--take Shawn Marion or Drew Gooden--over being a cog on a better team.

Really, if the lottery worked perfectly for competitive balance, why do so many of the same teams stick at the bottom? It's been five years since the talent-laden 2003 draft--and eight of the 13 then-lottery teams are missing the playoffs again.

Frankly, if some laggard teams are routinely incompetent or they can't make themselves attractive to players, as Cuban did with Dallas, they deserve to be embarassed by having players reject them. Who knows, it could even be a course-correcting thing; the NBA would hardly support a team that no players wanted to play for (which is why Stern pushed the Grizzlies' move to Memphis).

At March 27, 2008 at 8:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If only a few players tried to "opt out" of their draft position, this could work. But Petr's right, if every player tried to negotiate their way to a better team, this could make draft night a disaster. Maybe all the rookies band together and decide they don't want to play for Pat Riley.

At March 28, 2008 at 4:07 AM, Blogger Nikhil said...

what happens when a great player like yao ming opts not to go to houston, and the rockets get stuck paying top dollar for a clearly inferior player? seems like this system is pretty lopsided in favor of player rights...

At March 28, 2008 at 10:15 AM, Anonymous Paul Radtke said...

One big problem, in my humble opinion, with this draft system is that it completely eliminates the "living the dream" aspect of it. Some players, say Bryant, have some kind of link with a definite team, in this case the 76ers where his father played, it could be that Bryant's ambition was to keep on his father's legacy, but happened to be drafted by then Charlotte Hornets (then traded to Lakers). Other example is Paul Pierce, who I heard was/is a die hard Laker fan, born in Inglewood etc..., who got drafted by its rival Celtics.

I had only a short time to think of a solution, but I came up with this idea, each draftee can apply for up to 30 teams, and, say, exclude a maximum of 10-15 teams, so when the team has a pick, it has a grid with all draftees that haven't excluded that team as an option. This makes it easier for both team and players, because the decision to refuse a team was already done and is known to the team.

In this scenario a player could refuse an entire conference (if the limit of excluded teams be as high as 15) or, if he wants, to avoid all lottery bound franchises.

But then again, there should be some advantages for the top ten draft picks, such as salaries that won't count against the cap, or some other advantage for both the team and the player.

At March 28, 2008 at 11:23 AM, Blogger Petr said...

Paul Radtke mentions that Paul Pierce was drafted by the Celtics and that he may have been a real Lakers fan and would have wanted to go there instead. Interestingly, of the first round players chosen in the 1998 draft, Pierce is the ONLY one still playing for the team that drafted him. The number one pick (Olowakandi) is currently a free agent and not playing for any team at all...

Paul Radtke also comes up with an intriguiing grid of compromise. While I think the idea is fundamentally sound, I still can't get behind an idea that gives the rookies a straight up or down vote on a team. A lottery gives them the chance at refusal, but not the certainty. I think this is crucial. I don't think they ought to be able to dictate, but do think that a system ought to be implemented that takes some account of their decisions...

At March 28, 2008 at 3:15 PM, Blogger Doctor Dribbles said...

Nikhil, right now the system completely favors the owners. What's wrong in boosting the players a bit? (Especially if they only have a select number of refusals). The Yao point is a good one--save Amare, there's a lot of drop-off in the 2002 draft--but if Houston had no chance of signing Yao, under our system, they could've offered the pick to a number of other teams (Chicago, LA) where Yao would've wanted to go, and probably gotten decent return in a trade. Besides, what happens if New Jersey gets the top pick and the best player available is Kenyon Martin (as in 2000)? With the talent pool different year-to-year, a lottery team should expect--but isn't guaranteed--a top prospect; franchises shouldn't win for losing.

Paul, good suggestions...but I'm increasingly with Petr's idea. If every player got to exclude half the teams in the league, who knows if some lottery teams would get any players of value? There needs to be limited protection--either a handful of vetos or, as Petr suggests, another lottery to counter-balance the league's own.

At March 28, 2008 at 4:04 PM, Anonymous Paul Radtke said...

Okay, rethinking it a bit I agree that up to 15 exclusions would be too much control for the players, so we could bring this way down by setting two limits, only three exclusions and can't exclude top three drafting teams, this way the first three picks are way more valuable then all the rest.

The concept of a paralell lottery would just make it more complex, for both the teams and the viewers.

What could be done, and this may be outrageous, is different drafts, one for each conference where players could opt for either the conference their college is in (maybe a new map should be drawn for that) or the conference he was born/raised.

And euro-players couldn't be drafted anymore, only signed, specially because some players like Scola deserved more consideration to their experience and history, and not just be thrown around like one of the rookies (at least as the draft goes). This would have given the Raps the chance to draft a college player and still sign Bargnani for the mid-level exception.

At April 16, 2008 at 10:08 PM, Blogger Crucifictorious said...

Just an update for anyone visiting this post, looking for further draft conversation--this is an educated guess, but We Rite Goode commenter Paul Radtke is probably TrueHoop reader Paul...unless there are two similarly named basketball fans who--within a three-day span--started thinking of ways to change the draft. While ultimately pessimistic, TrueHoop's Henry gives Paul's new idea (of "auction points") a pretty fair shake.

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