How to fix the NBA’s broken draft system

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver opens the 2016 NBA draft. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Name your favourite things about the NBA draft.

Draft day fashion perhaps? Maybe it’s the obligatory second-hand embarrassment when basketball Twitter digs up an old tweet of a recently drafted player saying something negative about a new teammate

It’s telling that things widely liked about the draft have nothing to do with effectively placing players with programs. Which is why it’s time to abolish the draft as we know it. 

Doing something a certain way because that’s how it’s always done is not a good reason to do anything. 

This draft process is a model based on how people used to build the military fleet of their country. 

The times have changed and it’s not working. 

Which is why we have the same teams in the lottery every year. In the past five years the Sacramento Kings have drafted in the lottery five times followed closely by the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans with four each.

There hasn’t been expansion in 13 years but by and large the same NBA teams are struggling to win big. 

With the perception of a lack of parity, the draft isn’t accurately spreading the talent. 

The draft is the best form of reality TV but it’s not an adequate job placement mechanism. 

Think about this: virtually the same way you choose your fantasy team is how the best in their field in the world are assigned work with millions of dollars at stake. 

Why don’t the teams in Europe need a draft to figure out who plays where? How has professional soccer and rugby gotten by all these years without the old faithful draft. 

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In what other walk of life does the top graduate in their class not have a say in their employer? North American pro athletes are the only ones with an artificial labour market. 

In a free labour society you should be able to choose your employer and openly negotiate your salary. Why North American pro sports are exempt from this premise is beyond me.

The place a 19 or 20-year-old starts his career has a vast impact on not only his career path but his life course.  

You know who is best to have a young player who needs sculpting? The team that wants them the most. The team that can put together the best plan for him and convince him to be excited to play for him. We’d never have collegiate players drafted to schools. Is it smarter to draft the same players to pro teams just a few years later and immediately sign them to contracts longer than the duration they were in college? The more you work through how we divide the basketball workforce the more bizarre it appears. 

Not only is it not the fairest way to do things it’s certainly not the most fun. Nothing is more interesting in the NBA than free agency.

Nothing is bigger in college sports than recruiting and signing day.

My solution is simple: marry the two. We have formulas to figure out much harder things than who should play where. After workouts and the combine, entry-level players would rank every team in order of most to least favourable destination. Likewise, the teams rank as many players as they are interested in having. A computer would then place players with teams based on where the most mutual interest lies. Like a med school resident is matched with a hospital, an NBA player is matched with an equally interested franchise. 

Imagine the drama of waiting to see the reveal of who is getting who and who is going where. The camera of players hugging parents and draft rooms fist-pumping simultaneously would be gold. 

There might be too many players drafted in the NHL and NFL to do this cleanly but the premise still remains, thus if adopted it would be effective. 

Its chief effectiveness would save the NBA from one of its biggest issues moving forward: tanking. Currently you are incentivized to be bad to get a good pick. Players are being shut down earlier and earlier in the league in the hopes to sink in the standings, which is both an optics and competitive balance issue. 

You never want a negative incentive structure in a league that is a competitive scenario.

Sam Hinkie was painted as a villain for his “trust the process” mantra but the true villain is the system. His crime was being more candid and more calculated than the field on how he exploits a poorly designed system.

This would eliminate tanking as it would have no benefit. It in fact would motivate teams to stage their organizational house and look appealing to incoming players regardless of their record. 

It also ensures both parties want each other. Visions of Steve Francis sulking on draft day was not the start the Vancouver Grizzlies needed. 

Maybe now when GMs say “we got the top player on our board” it wouldn’t be a lie.

Exotic draft reform ideas like the draft wheel that makes the draft order random with every team picking in each spot over a 30-year span, shows there is acknowledgment the current draft is an issue.

Another option is a version of free agency Michael Grange mentioned on the Free Association podcast and Marc Cuban has asked for. 

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Free Association
Raptors Off-Season Discussion ft. Michael Grange
Originally aired May 25 2017

The fear of opening up the marketplace is that franchises like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers will be attractive destinations and have a monopoly on the top talent. The only issue with that logic is the allure of those teams isn’t helping them in veteran free agency whatsoever. They both struggle to get meetings with top players, so why wouldn’t the same be true with rookies? 

This year, the eight- (Boston), second- (Los Angeles), fourth- (Philadelphia) and 12th- (Phoenix) sized markets are picking at the top of the draft. The notion the draft helps prop up small-town teams on the road to parity isn’t accurate. 

Like any cross-section of people, basketball players are different, so their preferences wouldn’t be unanimous anyways. It could be money, coaching, geography, friends in the league, style of play, or role that is a player’s motivational factor, which is why they should have some say in the process and teams should have the burden of proof of why they deserve their services.

It’s fool’s gold to think drafting still makes sense. Bad teams are not improving. Often, they are ruining the best incoming talent in the league. Players are vilified later in their careers when they exercise autonomy and switch teams. Let’s make “the decision” to give both parties power in the process.