Fixing the System: Set Everyone Free

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Published: December 27, 2013
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Over the next few weeks, the writers at Bourbon Street Shots will throw their hat in the ring, as they debate the en vogue hot button topic – Tanking. The prevailing theory is that the system encourages organizations to purposely fail in order to succeed because of the way the current lottery system is set up. In a sport where one player can make such a monumental difference, teams often do whatever it takes to get one of those game changing players. The easiest way to get one of these guys, especially if you are not in a big market, is to be terrible. More losses equals more lotto balls, and more lotto balls means a better chance to get the game-changer when he comes out of college.

Not doing everything to win insults the integrity of the game and denies fans the opportunity to get the biggest bang for their buck. It is no surprise, then, that the league is considering ways to deter tanking. With one proposal apparently on the table, we take a look at a few others.

McNamara’s System

Players enter the NBA as unrestricted free agents. They can be signed to 4 or 5 year contracts only. No restricted free agency at the end of the contract.

I love the idea of teams having to sell themselves to rookies, rather than just getting a player for 8 or 9 years because of pure luck. Under this system, teams have to be strong from the foundation up to attract kids coming out of school, and that will make each and every franchise step their game up. There is no incentive to losing, and coaches won’t be tossed aside so frequently.

Teams will begin to build a culture similar to college programs, where everybody is on the same page and the only objective is winning. If your franchise is a mess, nobody will choose to come to your team, and the cycle will continue. The cap is still in play here, so big market teams won’t land all the talent, or even a majority. Would the Lakers land Wiggins this year, now that their books are clean? Probably. But bidding for him will mean no shot at Kevin Love next summer.

And teams like New York and Brooklyn? They won’t have much, if anything to offer. Same goes with Chicago and Miami. It will be the well run teams, with cap space, strong player development programs, and elite coaches who land the big fish. And they will have to continue to be a top-tier organization if they want to keep them once their contract is up.

Mason Ginsberg

I think this idea makes some sense, but it comes with plenty of questions. My two biggest concerns:

#1 – Does this do away with the rookie pay scale? If so, does the salary cap increase? In my mind, it would have to, since you’re effectively replacing rookie scale contracts with UFA contracts. I’d need a clear picture of the salary cap ramifications before I could even begin to consider this concept.

#2 – Though it may seem more “fair”, why would any of the small market owners vote to approve this? For them, all this seems to be is A) an increase in costs with the abolition of rookie scale deals, and B) added incentive for superstars to go to big markets. Are New York and Brooklyn a mess right now? Sure, but the Knicks were no model NBA franchise when Carmelo Anthony forced his way there. We’re talking about college freshmen here; think about how young and naive most of them are. The most likely scenario is that they’ll opt for the bright lights and the most visible market with sufficient cap space, regardless of what overall state the franchise is in. Their agents can only do so much. I understand that cap room will play a pivotal role in this as well, but I don’t equate the ability to clear salary with being a “well run team.” I’m not sure I understand lumping Chicago and Miami in with New York and Brooklyn when you talk about teams without much to offer, unless you’re purely referring to current cap space.

McNamara

#1 – No rookie pay scale and no increase in the current cap. Rookies come into the league with the same restrictions as are in place for players with 0-6 years experience in the league. Basically, they can get a maximum of 25% of the cap. Minimum of 474K.

#2 – Costs are costs. Yes, a few rookies will get more than they would under the current system, but all that means is that a couple of veterans will get less. Either way, the same amount of revenue will be dispersed amongst the players. As for all rookies going to big markets, that simply is not feasible. Under my system, multiple teams will be at Wiggins, Parker, Randle, Smart, etc. doors at 12:01 with 4 or 5 year max deals. You think any of those guys say no to that and go to New York or Brooklyn for the mini mid-level?

And even the guy who might be the 15th pick in the current system – you think the big market teams go after him or AK47 if their goal is to win now?

Nick Lewellen

The only problem I have with this plan is that is going to lead to bad franchise giving out bad contracts. I don’t care about the individual team, but I do care about how that would affect the entire competitive balance in the NBA. Take the Kings for example, say they can’t land any of the top guys, because they are a horrible [expletive deleted] team. They get nervous and over pay a two or three guys that would have been drafted 12-15. That’s not great either. Also, losing might not have an incentive, but cutting salary caps will have a huge incentive.

So the 76ers probably would have made similar moves last offseason under this system as the current one. Teams with lower salaries tend to do worse, and you’d want to free up some amount of salary for rookies. Of course, those rookies could say no. I’m not really disagreeing with you, though. I’m just pushing back. I’m just not sold that this system would create better franchises from the top down.

Jake Madison

The guaranteed contracts and no more rookie pay scale could potentially cripple teams if a rookie is a bust or get injured. Remember what a burden taking the first pick in the NFL  draft was? Giving that much money to an unproven player? Potentially the same issue here.

Going hand in hand with that is the fact that teams might pay these rookies more than established players which would be a worry.

McNamara

These worries are actually arguments in my favor. Basically, you guys are saying that terrible franchises will be penalized for making terrible, panicky decisions. Good! That is exactly what I want my system to do. I want front offices to get smarter and more fiscally responsible. In the current system, a franchise can make bad move after bad move, then luck out once and change their history. The Cavs were terribly run for years, then Lebron saved them. Same goes for the Clippers before Blake. They luck out in the lotto, get Blake, and before you know it CP3 is there and they look like a competent franchise when they are not.

As for the NFL argument, there is a HUGE difference here. Teams were forced to draft guys and pay them huge money because of the system. The Rams had to take Sam Bradford and give him $50 million. Not so in my system. It is your choice – If you want to dive into the rookie pool, go ahead. If not, then use your resources elsewhere.

 Lewellen

We can blog all we want and cry out for this system, but I just don’t think it is feasible. In an ideal world, we could have something similar to this, but this isn’t an ideal world. I just don’t consider this to be a realistic solution. Also, I think it is impossible to say what outcomes would actually arise from this system. In the social sciences, what I’m talking about is sometimes called the law of unintended consequences. Basically, it means that making a big change to a complex and dynamic systems with an intended result in mind may also produce an unforeseen or unexpected negative or positive consequence.

I think we could see that happen with changing from a draft system to a free agent system. It is such a shift that we can’t accurately say how rookies, veterans, teams, and owners would respond. Frankly, I think positive benefits are just as likely as negative ones. Maybe teams become smarter, because this system forces them to allocate dollars more efficiently. Maybe the league becomes more top-heavy and even less interesting, because so many teams are making so many bad deals. I just don’t know.

McNamara

Now, here is where I agree with you. This system will NEVER happen. It is too bold of a change. No other major professional league does it, so the outcome is unknown. A multi-billion dollar league does not jump feet first into the unknown. While the upside is that you might be come a trendsetter, the downside is that you become a laughingstock, and a variance that size is terrifying for a league that is already successful. Maybe an upstart can go with a plan like this, but not an established league.

It’s a shame, though, because it is a better reflection of society outside the framework of professional sports. Thankfully, I was not forced into a TrueHoop Network draft. I can’t imagine being forced to write for the Pistons or Bobcats for eight or nine years before I got to choose my own blog. I was lucky enough to seek out a job writing for the Hornets, now the Pelicans. And while I am sure they would like to get rid of me, I still got three guaranteed years left on my contract baby!

( Tell us what you think of this system, share your own, and stay tuned for future pieces on this issue from other BSS writers.)

 

16 comments
pelicanfan
pelicanfan

Micheal, I aplogized for MY negative comment. I said my original comment was negative. I wasn't saying you were negative. Enjoy the game tonight!

pelicanfan
pelicanfan

Sorry. I think this article is a bit self-indulgent on McNamara's part. I would have rather heard everyone's comments on the approach in the Grantland article.

Sportnlyfe
Sportnlyfe

Seems fair on the surface, but I'd also try to include a stipulation that would penalize teams, or maybe put in a parallel system of franchise taxation to offset the impact of dark money corporate partnerships. You say big cities would not have an advantage? Like college athletics boosters that funnel money to players through dads, posses, girlfriends, charities, advertising gigs, etc., teams in cities with lots of corporate interests that would benefit from big name athletes in their employ would work through agents to stock their super teams in media capitals through corporate "drafts" of the mega-stars. Since most owners are already de facto hooked into these types of conglomerates through the economics of team ownership and promotion, big market teams could make this kind of corporate participation an unwritten condition of becoming a team vendor/ sponsor. 

It's technically "free enterprise," and you can't deprive guys of making a living, so how does the league control it? Can you make Chris Paul take $30 million dollars, if he decides instead that to have Anthony Davis as his team's center, he'll accept a dollar a year salary, and have a side gig as a paid "consultant" for for an insurance company that brings in $40 million a year? Miami got built into a championship team because just a few quality second-tier guys bought into the dream of hanging out beachside with the Super Friends for less dollars in official salary. What if they could be legally incentivized to play for less in a market with the ability to pay? The latest CBA stiffened the luxury tax fines because the league could see NYC, Brooklyn, and L.A. working through big agents and throwing megabucks at stars to build super teams in their markets. (Okay, so what if they did forget to hire good coaches too? Just because you live in a big city doesn't mean you're smarter than everyone else.) The biggest stars in the game would probably continue to collude to create more mini-dynasties in their chosen cities. With the very elite stars clustered in certain cities, less preferred destinations might wind up severely over-paying marginally good players (see Gordon, Eric) in an attempt to create a local buzz. 

The proposal tests the theory that there are some places you can't pay people to live in. If you do away with the draft, you're probably doing away with restricted free agency too, which means that being strategic about things like the lengths of contracts and buyout clauses would become the ways to leverage salary cap restrictions. The gamesmanship around contract construction would be more fun than watching some of the games themselves. 

New City
New City

A realistic reform would be to put all the non-playoff teams into a non-weighted draft lottery. Little incentive to tank as draft order is highly random and unconnected to record other than missing the post-season. Wouldn't be that big a step and reduces chances that a bad franchise gets bailed-out by the ping-pong balls...

Patrick504
Patrick504

I'm in favor of a hybrid system of sorts. I'd like to see the record based draft order abolished. Completely randomize the draft with all teams getting an equal shot. While there would sometimes be crazy drafts where LeBron gets paired with Wiggins, there would be no incentivizing poor performance. Also teams should be alotted one mega contract completely unrestricted in dollar amount that doesn't count against the cap. The rest of the roster would be hard capped. GMs would have to plan solely on solid talent evaluation both in the free agent market and in the draft.

MikeDatTiger
MikeDatTiger

"I love the idea of teams having to sell themselves to rookies."

But I think it would be more than rookies. We see in college sports how the big programs are recruiting younger and younger. Would NBA teams be prevented from recruiting until the kids declare they want to enter the league?

Even putting NCAA amateurism arguments aside, I don't know that we want NBA owners showing up at the doorsteps of 15 year old kids (who tend to lack strong socio-economic resources) with a Cadillac and a paper to sign. Do we prevent gifts to these kids? Do we put limits on phone calls/texts/emails etc.? How are we policing this?

Papa Pelican
Papa Pelican

The NBA need to be like the NFL competitive balence with an hard cap and get rid of the luxury tax to make smaller markets competitve after all no one should not say the NFL don't have competitve balence because the Cleveland Browns had decades to build a winner.

eMariii123
eMariii123

I forgot whose idea this is, I want to say Jeff van Gundy's but I'm not sure, but it's the best I've heard so far---

We keep the lottery system, however instead of taking a lottery team's records from the past year to establish the odds, you take its COMBINED record from the PAST THREE YEARS to come up with the odds of landing a top pick. The lottery would still only be for teams that missed out on the playoffs, so if the Suns happen to make the playoffs this year they still wouldn't be land a high pick this year. 

Front offices are okay with tanking for a year, being able to sell their fans and/or owners on the idea that they'll get a high pick. When you start talking about three years though, coaches and GMs would be risking their jobs and losing the interest of the fanbase if they are perennial losers. This system ENCOURAGES WINNING, making the entire league more interesting.

thouse
thouse

I like this idea and find it quite interesting. Though I'm not sure if it solves the tanking "problem" (I don't think tanking is really much of a problem and I don't really want parity a la NFL). 

Why wouldn't teams burn a year or two to set up their cap sheets to be able to offer good money for a couple of elite prospects? Most of these guys know each other from camp circuits, playing with longtime friends could be quite appealing. But that could just be way off?

Neat series and I'm looking forward to more ideas. Lots of things to throw out there.

Michael McNamara
Michael McNamara moderator

@pelicanfan I dont know if you read it the numerous times it was in the piece, but we will all be proposing a system or two and going back and forth. I was just the guinea pig. 

Papa Pelican
Papa Pelican

Big cities do have the advantage fortune 500 companies New Orleans just have one,Texas and Oklahoma oil money and Louisiana offshore oil but not much revenue coming into the state like it was in the 80s.So the film and tourism is what Louisiana have to depend on.

504ever
504ever

@Papa Pelican Yes, and remove the guarantee on all player contracts. (Make partial guarantees something that is negotiated on a case by case basis.)  Then teams can fix cap errors by cutting players (or renegotiating contracts) and not be  hamstrung by a bad contract forever.

Papa Pelican
Papa Pelican

JVG believe in treating his players like superstars but this ownership would like this kind of guy as long as he keep his players egos in check.

pelicanfan
pelicanfan

Thanks for response. And my apologies for my original negative comment. After thinking about it I had tried to delete my post during the 5 minute edit period but was unsuccessful.

Papa Pelican
Papa Pelican

Despite that i hate Goodell because of that bountygate BS but i perfer him as commish than that Sliver guy just another Stern clone and a puppet to the players.

Michael McNamara
Michael McNamara moderator

@pelicanfan I didnt think it was negative. We were going to do a piece where we all threw our ideas in and debated them, etc, but it would have been 10-12 thousand words, so we decided to split them up.