Former Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner once declared: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again with the same results, expecting something different.” For NBA general managers, a chronic practice of misjudging collegiate talent has led to a lack of parity, variability, and ultimately, entertainment. The NBA has become about as suspenseful as watching the same soap opera twelve hours straight: fans all know what’s going to happen in the end.
One need not look further than the NBA standings to affirm the fact that basketball has become a song stuck on replay. Basketball is the only pro sport in which a team with a losing record can make the playoffs—and thus earn a shot at the title. In the past six years, seven teams have qualified for the postseason with a record of .500 or below. In contrast, the top seed in each conference from those six years averages a .753 win percentage, meaning they won over three quarters of their regular season games. Because the NBA is so top-heavy, the mediocre teams jostle for the last few playoff spots. However, once some of these weaker teams do make the playoffs, they simply get overpowered by the more-talented, star-powered teams. In the past three years, an average of three teams in the final four finished first or second in their conference.
In contrast, the fifth and sixth seeded “wild card” teams in the NFL often appear in the Super Bowl, and even win it. This past baseball season, the two teams that faced off in the World Series were also wild card teams, and were the two lowest seeds to enter the playoffs.
Another major issue in the NBA has been “tanking”: when teams drain out their rosters to hit the bottom of the standings, and get a higher chance to obtain the top draft pick in the NBA Draft Lottery. These teams feel that, because the end result of a low playoff seed is a first round exit, they are better off waiting for the next star player to fall to them in the draft, and wait their turn until they accumulate enough talent to make a serious title run. The Philadelphia 76ers, one of the teams at the forefront of the tanking controversy, recorded a dismal 19-63 record last year, following a first-round loss the year before. Philadelphia started this season 0-7, and has spent $23 million dollars fewer than the required amount on their roster. The Sixers have been accumulating a war chest of draft picks and future talent, hoping to charge for the championship when the time is right. The NBA has tried to prevent “tanking,” but to do so, it must address the lack of parity that exists in its sport.
The fundamental problem lies not at the NBA level, but in collegiate hoops. Currently, the NBA rules stipulate that no player can enter the draft without playing a year of college basketball. This rule—which was implemented after high school phenom LeBron James entered the draft—tried to bolster the maturity level of future NBA players before they were drafted. The one-year difference failed to solve the major problem in basketball scouting: the variability of drafting college players. Teams continued to draft players at high spots, and suffered for their lack of production on the court.
The reason the same teams remain at the bottom of the NBA is because they consistently draft players who are “busts:” players that aren’t able to play to the level they were intended to when drafted. For example, in the last 10 seasons, only 20 percent of first overall picks have made the All-NBA teams, an award system that honor players at the end of the season. Only 37 percent of top three picks have made the All-NBA team.
To solve this, the NBA needs to extend its draft eligibility rule and force college athletes to stay in school for at least three years. This system is similar to the one used by the NFL, a league where 62 percent of top-three picks made either All-Pro or the Pro Bowl team between 2005 and 2011. In the NFL, low playoff seeds regularly win championships—the Giants in 2007 and 2011, for example, and the Packers in 2010. Furthermore, the Philadelphia Eagles, which finished 4-12 in 2012, vaulted to a 10-6 record in 2013, winning its division. Similarly, the Super Bowl–winning New Orleans Saints team missed the playoffs the year before, but won it all in 2009. How did these teams go from the NFL abyss to the pinnacle of football?
The answer is the draft system. Because the NFL requires college players to stay for three years, general managers and scouts have three years of film, statistics, and records from which to study players. For example, the Cleveland Cavaliers were forced to throw the dice on Duke point guard Kyrie Irving in 2011, as Irving had played only eleven games for the Blue Devils. Though Irving has proved to be a sensation, Cleveland wasn’t as lucky with fourth overall pick Tristan Thompson, partly due to the issues with the draft system listed above. This additional three years also allows the athletes to mature—or in some cases, remain immature—into young adults and live clean lives off the field. Scouts can make more educated decisions on players’ character when evaluating them at the ages of 20 to 23 than NBA scouts can, who must guess how a player will behave based on his 18 or 19 year-old identity. Thus, NFL teams draft top players more often than NBA teams, and can improve their roster much more rapidly.
In a sport in which only five athletes play at a time, one draft pick, if used correctly, can improve 20 percent of a team’s starting lineup. But under the current system, basketball fans might as well stop following the games and instead reread the end of Cinderella or watch another remake of Snow White. Which, quite frankly, is downright boring.