The draft wheel and why highly-touted prospects wouldn’t work around it

Yesterday, Grantland obtained a copy of a proposal of a possible solution to tanking. It was submitted by a “team official”, as Zach Lowe wrote, and had gained initial traction to the point that the league might float it to owners in 2014.

Lowe went into some great detail about the proposal and it’s purpose to end both tanking and the NBA’s lottery system. Basically, instead of drafting by lottery selections, the NBA would instead use a wheel of 30 pre-determined draft slots for 30 years that would begin as soon as all draft-based trades expire. At the moment, starting points would be determined by the current weighted lottery, then the worst playoff teams would have first dibs on the rest of the available ones. Here is the proposed wheel:

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Zach Lowe pointed out some key points about the wheel:

• The wheel, which has all sorts of complex algorithms behind it, is designed in such a way that each half-decade mini-cycle has at least two top-12 picks clustered next to each other — a means of encouraging long-term building around young players, and of allowing bad teams to get better quickly if they draft well.

• Each six-year set of picks is roughly equivalent to all other six-year cycles, so no team is ever stuck in an unfavorable cycle of bad picks.

Lowe also assures readers that this proposal, because of the sheer amount of change involved, is a long shot. That hasn’t stopped people from chiming in, though, and it seems like more appear worried about the downsides of the wheel than its advantages. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, of course, especially when I want to devote a series of blog posts to some downsides since I’m not in favor of it either.

For now, though, I wanted to look at one disadvantage, one that’s actually either a myth or not as big of a deal as some make it out to be, written by Eric Hargrove in the comment section of Grantland’s post about the wheel.

I will be disowning the NBA if this idea were to ever come to fruition. From STH to complete apathy without blinking an eye. I am sure I can guess which owners (big market) are in favor of this, and which owners (small market) are against this. Zach, let’s just say the Raptors own the 2020 pick and the Lakers own the 2021 pick. LBJ2.0 is at Duke for the 2019 season. You can bet your ass he’s gonna stay 1 more year in school to end up in LA.

The comment has caught the eyes of quite a few, receiving over 400 likes over Facebook and over 60 replies.

While I agree that small markets would have a disadvantage because of the wheel, the scenario Hargrove describes isn’t all that likely, if at all. It’s basically implying a prospect would risk losing several millions of dollars and/or a career-ending injury just to play in a larger market. Even if it would happen, there are several more important problems with the proposed solution to tanking.

First off, LeBron James is a once-in-a-generation talent, one who would’ve been the first pick up until 2007 had he stayed in college for all four years. We’d have to fast-forward all the way to Anthony Davis, who was no LeBron 2.0 coming into the 2012 Draft but a lock to be a defensive freak, to find the next possible player who would’ve been a number one pick in consecutive drafts.

And that would’ve been no certainty. Going forward with the wheel, Hargrove’s scenario might lead to the NCAA’s version of “contract years” but reverse, since drafts would become noticeably deeper in years where a big market has the number one pick and thinner with small markets. More believable, though, would be loaded drafts when the league has premier teams at the top, not just big markets. A player like Davis, a lock one year but has the potential to be exposed the next, might have to worry about that possibility. LeBron 2.0, would still be the number one pick every time, though, unless Chris Smith overthinks another draft pick. More on that factor a little later.

Injury luck would be a concern for LeBron 2.0, however. There’s no guarantee any “lock” would go through another year of college free from a freak accident. Nerlens Noel was a casualty last year of having to wait a year to be eligible for the draft, and Greg Oden’s stock would’ve plummeted had he stayed an extra year all while getting microfracture surgery, among other examples.

Davis, the lock in 2012, wasn’t a sure-fire number one pick from his first game to the NBA Lottery anyway. Had he been allowed to enter the draft straight out of high school for the 2011 Draft, a team needing a rim protector would’ve had to flip a coin between he and Andre Drummond. Since they each had to wait a year before becoming eligible, Drummond’s stock dropped. The college game exposed him while Davis thrived.

Who knows if the same would’ve happened to Davis had he stayed an extra year. Who knows if it would’ve ever happened to LeBron, who had been dubbed the number one pick as early as when he was 16. Maybe the lack of a “clutch gene” gets beaten into the ground after LeBron 2.0 has a bad game in the finale of a conference tournament, followed by another forgetful performance in the NCAA Championship. Would it be enough to make GMs cautious and cause him to slip in the draft?

Maybe I’m writing about LeBron 2.0′s worst-case scenarios, but player’s accumulate nicks and bruises that can lead to something worse. Players in general also get nitpicked by talking heads as soon as they step onto a college court. This year has been no different with the incoming freshman. Staying an extra year too long is just asking for everyone, including scouts and NBA GMs, to find any reason not to draft them. Harrison Barnes and Perry Jones, for example, could’ve been much higher picks in 2011 and quite possibly the top overall, but chose to stay another year. They either didn’t improve their stock or watched it free-fall.

Barnes and Jones ended up on winning teams, coincidentally, but at a steep financial cost. A player should bolt for the draft if he has a chance to be the number one pick for that reason alone, regardless of the team waiting to draft him. Dropping even just a few slots results in losing millions of dollars in salary. To see just how much is lost, here’s how much each of the top 10 picks of the 2013 NBA Draft will earn if they play through all four years of their rookie-scaled contract, according to Basketball-Reference. The last two years of the contracts for first round picks involve team options:

Player Draft Selection 2014 2015 2016 2017 Total $ difference 
Anthony Bennett 1 $5,324,280 $5,563,920 $5,803,560 $7,318,289 $24,010,049
Victor Oladipo 2 $4,763,760 $4,978,200 $5,192,520 $6,552,960 $21,487,440 $2,522,609
Otto Porter 3 $4,278,000 $4,470,480 $4,662,960 $5,893,981 $19,305,421 $4,704,628
Cody Zeller 4 $3,857,040 $4,030,560 $4,204,200 $5,318,313 $17,410,113 $6,599,936
Alex Len 5 $3,492,720 $3,649,920 $3,807,120 $4,823,621 $15,773,381 $8,236,668
Nerlens Noel 6 $3,172,320 $3,315,120 $3,457,800 $4,384,490 $14,329,730 $9,680,319
Ben McLemore 7 $2,895,960 $3,026,280 $3,156,600 $4,008,882 $13,087,722 $10,922,327
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 8 $2,653,080 $2,772,480 $2,891,760 $3,678,319 $11,995,639 $12,014,410
Trey Burke 9 $2,438,760 $2,548,560 $2,658,240 $3,386,598 $11,032,158 $12,977,891
C.J. McCollum 10 $2,316,720 $2,421,000 $2,525,160 $3,219,579 $10,482,459 $13,527,590

The first pick, Anthony Bennett, could make about $2.5 million more than Victor Oladipo over those four years and twice as much money as the #8 pick, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Sure, Hargrove basically implies that LeBron James 2.0 is immune to slipping in the draft, which would be true if he remained healthy, but a player like him comes around about as often as one revolution of the proposed wheel. We should treat everyone else as humans and not cyborgs, though should one turn into a cyborg after slipping in the draft he still might have lost approximately a year of salary from a max-deal.

Maybe Hargrove also suspects the next LeBron, if small markets take up the first overall picks over a span of four straight years, would willingly drop five slots in the draft where a big market lurks. He could have his agent make teams not draft him until winding up in, say, Los Angeles for either the Clips or the Lakers, and both make up that lost money in endorsements and reap the benefits of them while playing in a big market. Kevin Durant seems to be doing just fine in Oklahoma City with his $14 million per year off endorsements, though, according to Forbes, so location is not a huge deal as long as the otherworldly talent is there.

It’s also no guarantee LeBron James 2.0 stays on one team, as we’ve found out already with The Decision, Dwight Howard‘s multiple decisions, and quite a few other stars who left the bright lights for equal (if not better) opportunities to win a title. Besides, who’s to say LeBron James 2.0 can’t choose where he wants to be drafted? With the current CBA, if he wants to assume the risk that comes with essentially handpicking between who has the number one pick over the next two, three, or even four years, then so be it.

There’s plenty to worry about with the wheel if it continues to gain traction, but a once-in-a-generation talent making one of the only choices he’ll get to make during the first seven years of his career isn’t one of them.

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