Commissioner for a Day: Abolish the Draft, Focus on Development

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The SB Nation NBA blogs are doing a series of theme posts to get us through the dog days. The first one is what we would do if we wielded the power of Stern. Most of the SBN NBA blogs will be publishing on this topic today, and there will, no doubt, be a ton of interesting ideas around the network.

One of my main concerns about today's NBA is that there are too many incentives not to win. Ping pong balls and the primacy of post-season championships conspire to encourage all but the handful of best teams not to try. I don't think that's good for fans or the league, and so the first set of ideas is designed to make the NBA season more relevant, and to encourage teams to actually try to win:

First, I would abolish the draft. The draft and lottery is the cause of an immense amount of angst both within the league and among fans. It isn't good for anyone when teams are actively trying not to win. There's nothing fun about that. We should know as Wolves fans. Rooting for losses to add ping pong balls...really? That's what we've been reduced to?


Instead, I would make rookies like any other unrestricted free agent, with a few small differences. If you have cap space, you can spend it on rookies if you so desire, though the rookie maximum salary would be less then other max salaries. Say, 20% of the cap. Also, the structure of rookie contracts over $1M a year would be the same as current rookie scale contracts, 2 guaranteed years, 2 option years, and then restricted free agency.

I would also not permit the MLE to be spent on rookies. This is both a sop to veterans and a way to limit over the cap teams from bidding on the best rookies until the cap teams have had their chance. I would consider adding a small rookie pool of around $2M for the worst 3 teams in the league in any given year, so that they could either combine that with cap space for more/better rookies or, if over the cap, at least have some money to go after a decent rookie. However, you could only get this extra $2M once in a three year period, so if you suck two years in a row, too bad.

This system wouldn't necessarily cause all teams to go all out to win every year; plenty of teams would still be looking to clear cap room and rebuild. But there would be no incentive to lose games any more. This matters, at least to me.

I don't see why this wouldn't work. If you are a bad team, you are probably looking to create cap space anyway, which would give you an opportunity at the best rookies in a given year. If you are bad and over the cap, well...do better. It's a bad idea to reward failure, and that's what a reverse order draft does. Over the cap teams could only sign rookies to minimum contracts.

One of the consequences of freeing up the market for rookies is that there would likely be a small handful of guys making the rookie max or close to it, but a lot more guys making the minimum, and less in between. This is probably a good thing, and more reflective of real values then the staggered rookie deals we have now.

There are other reasons besides ping pong balls why teams don't try to win. One of them is we don't have a promotion/relegation system, so the cost of losing is not particularly high. Nothing we can really do about that, though in an ideal world we would have something like it.

Another is that the U.S. sports paradigm is a winner-take-all mindset. Winning the playoffs is all that matters in U.S. pro sports. As a result, merely being good in the NBA is seen as a negative, unless you have a very young team. I know a lot of people like it that way, but I don't. I would experiment with some things to try to change that. For example, I'd like to have an in-season cup competition that means something, like the Copa del Rey in Spain. or the FA Cup in English soccer. Perhaps the winner of the Cup gets a berth in the playoffs if they don't otherwise earn one.

I would also modify Bill Simmons' idea for a post-season tournament for playoff spots. The 7th and 8th seeds in each conference would be played off by the teams that finished 7-12 in the regular season. 9 vs.12 and 10 vs.11, with the winners playing 7 and 8 in best 2 of 3 series for the final two berths in the main playoff field.

This makes the last couple of months of the regular season more interesting for more teams, and because we have no draft, there is no countervailing impetus to lose.

With the cup competition and the post-season tournament for playoff berths, I would shorten the regular season. Ideally, I'd like to expand to 32 teams, and have a balanced schedule where a team plays home and away against every other team in the league. This would be 62 games. That would make each game relatively more important, and with the additional changes would make the season more exciting. Teams would have incentive to win: to win the league cup, to get into playoff position. And they would have no incentive to lose.

***

The second set of ideas is designed to encourage NBA teams to do a better job of developing talent. I wrote an article about this a couple of weeks ago called An Argument for NBA Developmental Contracts. Much of what follows is taken from that article.

The first thing is I would once again permit players straight from high school to sign contracts with NBA teams. I never liked that rule prohibiting it; anything that encourages athletes into the maw of the corrupt NCAA makes me somewhat queasy. Plus, if a team is willing to sign a player, why should that be against the rules?

More importantly, I would allow teams to have "developmental contracts" outside of their 15 man NBA roster limit.

Here's how it would work:

Each NBA team can have up to five players on "Developmental Contracts" in addition to their maximum 15 NBA roster players. Ideally, each team would have it's own D-League affiliate. We are pretty clearly headed that direction as we have seen more and more individual franchises either purchasing D-League teams for themselves or making agreements with D-League franchises to run their basketball operations. These one-to-one relationships are becoming increasingly common, suggesting that NBA franchises see value in having a developmental team, even without the ability to contract specific players on those teams beyond their 15 player NBA roster limit.

The remaining spots on those D-League rosters would be filled as they are now, with unaffiliated players, as well as with NBA roster players "sent down" for playing time as happens currently. A player on a developmental contract would earn $150,000. That amount would be competitive with what most of these players could be expected to earn abroad, and would have several advantages.

The player wouldn't have the cultural/linguistic adjustments to make while trying to improve their games. They would be available at any time to be called up to the parent NBA team, at which time they would get an NBA contract (for 10 days or the rest of the season). They would get NBA style coaching under the auspices of a franchise that has an investment in their development as players.

Thus, a team could make a camp invite to a player much more appealing by telling him: we can't guarantee you an NBA roster spot, but if you accept our invitation, we'll at the very least give you a developmental contract.

I would suggest that an NBA team could renew a player on a developmental contract twice--in other words they could keep that player's rights for three years by keeping him under a developmental contract. If at the end of that time, the player has not been signed to an NBA contract, he becomes a free agent. The team and player could then agree to continue their relationship under a developmental contract, or the player could sign elsewhere: with another NBA club under an NBA contract, a new developmental contract, or overseas.

The downside for players is that it would tie them to one NBA franchise, as opposed to being available to any franchise during the summer and during the season if they play in the D-League. However, they would be well-compensated for the arrangement, and because these would be akin to free agent contracts, they could also turn down the offer if they so choose.

Such a system might also help the D-League attract fans. Currently, it's difficult to articulate why I should be a fan of a D-league franchise. They are filled with players that have no relationship to my NBA team, and aren't likely ever to impact my team. There isn't a D-League team in my town, and the games aren't on television. However, if five guys my team holds the rights to are playing for Sioux Falls every night, all of a sudden, there's reason for me to pay attention. How is Hummel shooting? Is Demetri McCameymaking progress on his point guard skills? Much like serious baseball fans pay attention to their team's minor leaguers, NBA fans would be more engaged with the D-League if their team held the rights to a group of players.

So those are my Big Ideas for the NBA in my role as all-powerful commissioner. Let me know what you think in the comments, and check out the other SB Nation NBA blogs for more good ideas to make the NBA a better place.

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