The NBA draft is one of my favorite nights in sports. The suspense of which team will pick which player, the inevitable trades, and of course the fancy suits. It’s insanely fun. I probably enjoy the draft more than the actual games. But in today’s era, the NBA draft is completely unnecessary, and the league would probably be better as a whole if they got rid of it entirely.
Drafts are seen as negative in all other areas of life, like the army, so why do we accept it in sports? The draft is not only an archaic but a disempowering system. All their lives, from high school to AAU to college, players choose where they want to live and which team to play for. Then, all of a sudden, once they get to the NBA they lose their freedom and are forced by random chance (or ping pong balls) to live and play in whatever city drafts them. It’s un-American. Players should be able to choose where they want to play, and they should be able to sign for as much money as they can (under the salary cap, at least, which is a whole other topic). Players can join a good team for less money as a role player, or join a bad team for more money as a featured player. Either way, it should be their choice.
Instead of the draft, I propose a new system. Once players are of eligible age, they become free agents and can sign with any team they choose for as much money as they get. The team would have to have money available under the salary cap, which would help ensure parity. The salary cap is the main reason the draft is unnecessary. It would prevent the top teams with highly paid superstars (like Cleveland and Golden State) from being able to afford the best available rookies. If there’s a salary cap, there’s no need for a draft. And if there’s a draft, there’s no need for a salary cap, as in baseball. There’s no cap, but there’s still parity because of the draft. So if the NBA has a cap to ensure parity, they don’t need a draft lottery to ensure parity also.
This new system would completely eliminate the problem of tanking (making the team worse in the short term and losing games on purpose) to improve their lottery odds in order to get a higher draft pick. The only conceivable problem would be teams dumping good expensive players to shed salary in order to sign rookies. But they wouldn’t need to do that until the offseason.
To prevent lopsided trades just to dump expensive contracts, teams should be able to cut players after the season, removing their contracts from the salary cap. However, since NBA contracts are guaranteed, the teams would still have to pay the cut player all their money. So if a team makes a mistake by signing someone for a long expensive contract (like the Knicks and Joakim Noah last year), they can cut them after the season to free up money to sign a new top rookie or free agent. The Knicks would still have to pay Noah his full contract, but his salary wouldn’t count toward their cap figure. This would help bad teams be able to improve their rosters quicker. You might argue teams deserve to suffer for their mistakes, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the fans of that team. Ultimately, we all want the same thing: better basketball teams and more competition. So in this system, the teams would still be punished for their mistakes by having to pay the salaries of their cut players, but the fans of that team wouldn’t suffer by having to watch bad basketball for years, waiting for those bad salaries to come off the books and hoping for luck in the draft lottery.
There would no longer be crazy lopsided trades for future draft picks that cripple franchises for years (like the Nets/Celtics trade in 2013 which they’re still paying for). Instead of first round draft picks, the new hot commodity would be salary cap space. Though even then, the system would discourage lopsided trades because teams could create as much cap space as they want in the offseason by cutting their current players. This would eliminate most trades altogether. That might be less fun for fans, but just as the draft is unfair to players, so are trades. They and their families are upended mid-season and forced to move to a new city.
Under this system, there would be no more disgruntled players requesting a trade, because they would have chosen the team they play for. Likewise, teams won’t get stuck with buyers remorse and players they don’t want because they can cut them whenever they want (so long as they’re willing to pay their contracts off the cap).
You might argue that this proposed system would benefit the big market teams that can afford to buyout players whenever they want. And that might be true. But this system would also present on an opportunity for the small market teams to take a Moneyball approach and pick up the cut players for discounted prices—or no price at all. Once a player is cut, they would go through waivers where each other team has the opportunity to claim them. The player’s full salaries would then count toward the new team’s cap, but they wouldn’t have to pay them one cent. Their former team would still be paying the entire salary. Smart small market teams could theoretically build an entire team for free. If a cut player clears waivers then they can be signed for a new contract, but they’d likely be willing to take a discount as they’re already being paid by their former team.
How fun would it be to see a team cut all their players at the end of a season and start from scratch, signing five of the top rookies and developing them together over the next decade? Fans often complain how there’s no loyalty between players and their teams these days, as people switch teams all the time. LeBron goes to Miami. Durant goes to Golden State. This system would make it more likely that players (at least the top stars) stay with one team for their entire career. Because both they and the team would have chosen each other. They are where they want to be from the start.
So as much fun as the NBA draft is, it needs to go. I’ll miss the suspense, the drama, the trades, and (especially) the fancy suits. Maybe we can keep some of that around by turning rookie signing day into a televised event. Until then, the best way for my team (the Knicks) or any other team besides Golden State or Cleveland to win the championship anytime soon is to lose on purpose, improve their lottery odds, and hope to get lucky and draft the next LeBron James, Steph Curry, or Kevin Durant. Which is exactly the problem. Any system that rewards and requires losing in order to win needs to be fixed.