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Right For The Wong Reasons

It's always troubling when you see a bad argument for a conclusion you agree with, but Adrian Wojnarowski's advocacy for an NBA age limit seems pretty confused to me. The real issue here, as far as I'm concerned, pertains to competitive balance. The idea of the draft system is to allow good teams access to the best players so as to allow them to get better again. The relevant issue in this regard is how much impact a potential draftee is likely to have over his first three or so seasons in the league. Allowing people to enter the draft straight out of high school does, perhaps, increase a player's ability to have NBA impact over the course of his career, but decreases his value over those crucial early seasons when he's the exclusive property of the drafting team. Too often nowadays, a very talented player winds up leaving the drafting team right as he's starting to make a big contribution, which tends to turn the drafters into something more like a farm team that provides training for future stars rather than giving them a chance to lift themselves into the basketball elite.

Wojnarowski focuses instead on the notion that an age limit would increase the overall quality of play. He, like many people, believes this has decreased over the years and that this is connected to the drafting of youngsters. I don't see any convincing evidence for either of those propositions. In general, I'm always suspicious of allegations in any sport that quality has declined. It's very easy to fall prey to nostalgia and also to lose sight of the way in which quality-increases are offset by the fact that opposing players are also getting better. The NBA, in particular, has seen a large expansion in the potential talent pool in recent years thanks to the advent of foreign players. This makes it rather unlikely, to my way of thinking, that today's players are actually worse than those of yesteryear.

March 13, 2005 | Permalink


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I don't think one can seriously maintain that today's players have anything like the old-timers' grasp of the fundamentals. Their jumpshots, ball-handling, passing, charge-taking, and pick-setting have all suffered as raw physical talent has come to predominate.

So if you think of all those elements--elements which can be learned--as what constitutes the game of basketball, then basketball is, indeed, worse than it used to be. If, however, you think that basketball is more like gymnastics, or interpretive dance, that happens to involve a ball as a thematic element, then clearly today's game is far superior to the old, stuffy basketball it replaced.

Posted by: Matt Davis | Mar 13, 2005 2:44:21 PM

The players might be better and yet the game as a whole might be worse. My own opinion -- drawn mostly from NHL watching -- is that current players' humongous size makes for less space, less space makes for less creativity and flow. There's only so much rule changes can do to reverse the process.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Mar 13, 2005 3:03:23 PM

I agree with your criticism of the foolish nostalgia that says younger players are wrecking the game. I don't think the game's worse -- different, not worse, as any NBA Classic viewer can attest to.

But I don't agree with your argument that an age limit would protect teams with high draft choices. If it's true that lottery teams shouldn't pick high school players (except for the obvious selection, like LBJ), then the problem is with those teams using their picks for those players, not with the system that makes those players available to them. If (1) the NBA made a real investment in developing a minor league -- and the jury's out on whether it will, and whether a league would even be as economically feasible as it is in baseball -- or (2) colleges actually paid the talent from which they make so much money, then I think an age limit would be fair.

But without at least one of those options, then establishing a minimum age for the draft merely protects poor general managers from themselves, provides competitive advantages to those college coaches who are better at recruiting the types of players who would otherwise have entered the draft early, and protects older college players and current NBA players solely because of their age rather than their current or anticipated talent. And all of this would be at the expense of young kids, most of whom are from modest if not poor backgrounds, with talent for which there's a current market value far outstripping any of their other options (and which might be lost due to injury).

As to competitive balance, also remember the rules under the salary cap and current CBA that provide a team with some serious advantages in re-signing their own free agents. Assuming a new CBA retains this advantage, which it probably will, then LBJ will remain a Cav and Carmelo will remain a Nugget for a long time, or the teams will do a sign-and-trade deal that will return at least some compensation.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Mar 13, 2005 3:12:16 PM

FWIW, Kevin Garnett entered the NBA straight out of high school because his standardized test scores weren't high enough for him to play in the NCAA. So the choice for him was, play junior college basketball or go straight to the big leagues.

Given that it is far from certain that raising the entry age would have any of the desired effects, playing juco ball seems like a lot to ask of the KGs of the future.

Posted by: ktheintz | Mar 13, 2005 3:15:07 PM

A better answer might be a much tighter rookie salary cap: say, $100,000 per year for the first three years. Then, college would be a much more appealing option for a lot of players, while hardship cases like Garnett's would still be accomodated.

Posted by: ktheintz | Mar 13, 2005 3:19:36 PM

"A better answer might be a much tighter rookie salary cap: say, $100,000 per year for the first three years. Then, college would be a much more appealing option for a lot of players"

Nah. They'd still come out early to start the big dollar clock earlier.


I have little patience with "the game ain't what it used to be" blather. Wojnarowski just sounds like a playa hater to me.


And tangentially, my longshot championship pick - aka not one of The Obvious Four - is Houston. (Watch 'em lose now on network TV just to make me look bad...) McGrady, Yao, and their Gaggle of Grizzled Journeymen Guards have the capability to surprise.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 13, 2005 4:27:51 PM

The underlying problem here is that nearly all of the ESPN.com opinion writers are morons as well as bad writers. Sam Smith was an unbelievably knowledgeable basketball columnist, but his tenure at ESPN was, for whatever reason, pretty short-lived.

The baseball page used to be the one shining exception to that rule, but they've done a good job of gutting it over the past year or two by dumping John Sickels and moving Rob Neyer to Insider. Buster Olney: Feh!

Posted by: JP | Mar 13, 2005 4:46:08 PM

"A better answer might be a much tighter rookie salary cap: say, $100,000 per year for the first three years. Then, college would be a much more appealing option for a lot of players"

Why should owners get a huge windfall to solve a problem that may not exist and that their GMs create in the first place? Not only would it unduly hurt players in their first three years, but it'd give a huge incentive for teams to cut end-of-the-bench veterans in favor of younger players. Good luck getting it into the collective barganing agreement. Hard to imagine a proposal that would unify the union as much.

Giving the windfall from underpaying talented young players to colleges is bad enough, but at least that money putatively goes to "education," or at least an educational institution (as well as incidentally fattening the coaches' paychecks and endorsement deals).

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Mar 13, 2005 5:03:53 PM

"...it'd give a huge incentive for teams to cut end-of-the-bench veterans in favor of younger players. Good luck getting it into the collective barganing agreement."

Since vets tend to have guaranteed contracts, the cutting scenario doesn't quite work.

And the current CBA already has a less stringent version of this, although the owners did have to impose a lengthy lockout to arrive at that particular CBA...

Posted by: Petey | Mar 13, 2005 5:29:28 PM

Since there's no metric for "quality of play" it's hard to say if it's really better or worse now. The NBA is definitely less entertaining, though, and although young, fundamentally-challenged players accounts for part of that, coaching is a contributor that usually goes unmentioned. Coaches now would rather play walk-it-up, defense-oriented games and lose 85-80 than let the players run and be creative, and lose 120-115. Only the Suns, Kings, Sonics and to a lesser extent Wizards play that way now, while in the '80's most teams played that way. I've read coaches claim that they "have" to play slow-down ball because of the players' lack of offensive fundamentals, but I don't buy that entirely--I think coaches are just more megalomaniacal in general and don't trust their players.

Posted by: ranj | Mar 13, 2005 5:35:06 PM

Oh, and Sam Smith is a moron too--take it from someone who's had to read his drivel in the Chicago Tribune for more than a decade now. His columns generally consist of idiotic trade proposals that wouldn't pass muster in a fantasy league combined with unsupportable generalizations about players. If he hadn't had the good fortune to come along when Michael Jordan was playing, he'd have lost his job a long time ago.

Posted by: ranj | Mar 13, 2005 5:37:44 PM

¿A tighter rookie salary scale? Man, that's what started the whole thing in the first place. It was just after the rookie pay scale that highschool players started coming into the league because a)it decreased the financial value of being a top pick b)the sooner you got over that 4 low paying years, the better c) it encouraged teams to gamble with relatively high first round picks. Pre-rookie pay scale, being the top pick meant a contract for 6 or 8 years at an average All-Star pay(8 to 10 million now). Players would stay in college to get that money and teams were reluctant to gamble with that kind of contracts. Post-rookie pay scale being the top pick meant a 4 year contract at the average salary of a backup player. Kids realized that staying in college (or going to it) to be a top five pick was not worth it. Getting over that rookie years as soon as possible was the smart thing. Also, teams were much more inclined to take risks, since it costed them less to get rid of the mistakes. ¿My impression? Matt is wrong, Wojnarowski is wronger. On Matt's concern, right now, almost all guys who become restricted free agents are signed by their own team. And on Wojnarowski, it's true that rookies have become less productive in the last few years (and there is statistical measures of that), but it's also true that they reach their top productivity faster. Kobe wasn't a very productive rookie, but he became an All-Star caliber player about one or two years earlier than if he had gone to college. I'm also a bit afraid of seeing guys of KG or LBJ caliber going to college. ¿What are they going to learn there, basketball-wise? Bad habits and poor work ethic, that's what.

Posted by: Carlos | Mar 13, 2005 6:42:05 PM

Carlos knows of what he speaks.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 13, 2005 6:50:49 PM

What about the fact that it's better for the players? Not all of them are going to succeed in the NBA, and many of them blow the money they make in their short NBA careers (the same way many lottery winners blow their winnings).

Forcing these guys to go to college-- for any length of time-- is not a particularly bad idea, because many youths who have basketball skills now completely neglect their educations from early on in pursuit of their dream of playing in the NBA.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Mar 13, 2005 8:54:33 PM

If competitive balance is the issue then teams ought to have the rights to a player until a certain age, say 25. So players who went to college only have to wait three years until free agency, and others have to wait 7. This way, that clock won't matter.

Posted by: Joel W | Mar 13, 2005 9:14:38 PM

I'm skeptical of Matthew's skepticism about the decline in the quality of the league. Let's remember that, for Matthew, the "heyday" of the NBA was when the second best team in the league was the Ewing/Starks/Oakley Knicks. Well, compared to 1993, YEAH, the league is not any worse today - indeed, it is probably even better today. But if Matthew were able to go back a decade from there to the Era of Bird/Magic/DrJ, then it would be obvious that the league is SIGNIFICANTLY WORSE today. No team today could hold a candle to the classic Lakers, Celtics, or even Erving/Malone/Cheeks 76ers.

As to Matthew's theory that a "very talented player winds up leaving the drafting team right as he's starting to make a big contribution," then, the obvious answer is that the drafting teams SHOULDN'T HAVE DRAFTED HIM SO HIGH. The teams need to draft based on the knowledge that the team may lose the player after 4 years - it's not the player's fault he wasn't ready to contribute for the first few years; it was the team's fault for drafting him so high.

Posted by: Al | Mar 14, 2005 1:03:13 AM

In terms of the notion that the league is significantly worse, one must consider expansion as the evil casued by greed that has infected the quality of play the most. Expansion has diluted the level of team play by adding 6 teams and the need for 72 extra players who wouldn't have been in the NBA in the heyday of Magic and Bird. You can see this dilution in all of the leagues that have expanded (especially the NHL). So I buy Matt's argument that we can't just blame the kids.

Posted by: Darone | Mar 14, 2005 1:18:02 AM

The biggest difficulty the NBA faces is defense. It was invented in the 1980s. For the decades before that, teams generally had no more than 2 players on the court who would play defense at any time.

"I don't think one can seriously maintain that today's players have anything like the old-timers' grasp of the fundamentals. Their jumpshots, ball-handling, passing, charge-taking, and pick-setting have all suffered as raw physical talent has come to predominate."


Shooting has suffered because it is not a path to a championship. You can win in the regular season by shooting 3-pointers, but when the playoffs come around, and your opponent has the leisure to set up defensive schemes to stop your shooters, you will lose.

Ballhandling is better. True, you don't get the showboating of Slick Watts, Tiny Archibald or Bob Cousy, anymore, but that is because nobody double-teamed when those guys played. You try that garbage now and it's a layup going the other way.

Passing is phenomenally better now than it has ever been. The interior passing of the big men nowadays is incredible. While Walton and Boerwinkle could pass well out of the high post, I think only Wilt could pass out of the low post as well as many of today's big men.

Posted by: Njorl | Mar 14, 2005 9:39:13 AM

Oh, yeah, this was about high school kids, and parity. The salary cap scheme of the NBA makes it preferable to re-sign your own players. This leads to players staying on one team, or, if you want to move someone, you do a sign-and-trade deal. Sign-and-trade is better for both teams and the player involved. So, if you draft that high school kid, and train him to be a star, you can get compensation even if he wants to leave.

Posted by: Njorl | Mar 14, 2005 9:48:28 AM

The response I usually hear to this is the race card: "Gee, nobody complained about Anna Kournikova being a professional athlete at age 16. What's different about B-ballers?"

Posted by: Thlayli | Mar 14, 2005 9:51:45 AM

IMHO, contrary to what many commenters here seem to think, the primary reason for the draft isn't to maintain competitive balance, but to supress player salaries. Take a look at how the draft originated in Major League Baseball in the mid-60's to see what I mean (Andrew Zimbalist covers it well in *Baseball And Billions*): "Untested" players were getting huge signing bonuses because they could sign with any team; the draft took away their leverage. It would pretty much work the same way in any other sport.

However, if player development is an issue, creating a farm team system, where the player's salary "clock" doesn't start until they're on the NBA team, would work pretty well. It just means that the NBA would have to stop glomming off of the NCAA Division I system, and I don't think either party wants to do that.

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