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The case to abolish the NBA draft

A draftless league would give young players something they’ve sorely missed: Freedom of choice

As communities across the country celebrated Juneteenth earlier this week, I thought about the holiday’s relationship to Thursday’s NBA draft, the annual rite of passage for young, mostly Black players entering the National Basketball Association.

Like most corporations, the NBA has embraced Juneteenth, though if the league wanted to make a substantial contribution to liberation, it should consider abolishing the draft and restoring freedom of choi$ce.

Such a move would benefit an entire class of athletes, regardless of race, creed or color.

Abolishing the draft would effectively make every college age player entering the NBA a free agent. This is what most of them have experienced throughout their careers from choosing an AAU team, where to play high school ball or which college to attend. Now, at the precipice of the highest level of competition and compensation, choice is taken away.

In exchange for the privilege of playing in the NBA, athletes relinquish choice. They agree to play where they are told to play and accept predetermined compensation.

From left to right: San Antonio Spurs CEO R.C. Buford, managing partner Peter J. Holt and general manager Brian Wright pose for a picture during the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery at McCormick Place on May 16 in Chicago.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Granted, the draft will likely never be abolished. Over the 73 years of its existence, the draft has been the primary vehicle for pumping fresh blood into the NBA. The draft has also become a mega event. For many families, the draft is a Juneteenth-like celebration of economic liberation. Far from bemoaning their fate, sharply dressed recruits will realize their childhood dreams of walking across the stage and hugging the NBA commissioner.

But this doesn’t mean the draft shouldn’t be abolished, or at the very least, overhauled.

Earlier this week, I spoke about the draft with attorney and sports agent C. Lamont Smith and Oscar Robertson, the legendary Hall of Fame guard.

Smith is a 35-year veteran in the business and founder and CEO of All Pro Sports and Entertainment. He said, “A draft system only benefits the owners because it allows them to get labor at below market cost.”

Robertson, whose 1976 suit against the NBA paved the way for free agency, said, “The draft is terrible for real good basketball players.”

For starters, eliminating the draft would create a bidding war for the services of talented young athletes and allow for free market principles to operate in the world of team sports.

Smith used Victor Wembanyama, the crown jewel of this year’s draft, as an example. Wembanyama is expected to be drafted first overall by the San Antonio Spurs.

“They’re touting him as a generational player that hasn’t been seen since LeBron [James],” Smith said. “Well, if he’s that good of a player, he’s going to go into a slotted system where he’s going to be capped out at probably $9 million and $11 million a year for the first two or three years of his NBA existence. If this were a free-market situation where there was a bidding war for him, this kid could be a $300 million, $400 million player right now.

“The problem with systems like this is that they hold these players captive during some of their peak earning years.”

Smith argued that that the draft depresses the market for young players during their prime earning years. He also contrasted the NBA draft with the field of law.

“And secondly, it’s an unequal bargaining position because you have exclusive rights to that player once you draft him,” Smith said. “So, you’re drafting him and you’re bringing him into a depressed market during peak earning years because your body is a depreciating asset. And the older you get after you get to your prime, it’s depreciating more.

“If I as a lawyer wanted to go out and all the law firms in the world said, ‘The maximum that we’re going to pay any lawyer is $100,000,’ that would never fly.”

An attorney like Smith can look forward to a 35-year plus career. This is not the case for the NBA’s wave of new recruits.

“Why would you take away free market availability for people who can only do it for 10 to 13 years at most?” Smith said.

NBA legends Oscar Robertson (left) and Jerry West (right) pose for a photo during the NBA 75 group photo as part of the 2022 NBA All-Star Weekend on Feb. 20, 2022, at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images

Realizing that the draft is here to stay but is in need of an overhaul, Smith offered a compromise: keep the draft but eliminate the slotted positions — the salary caps on rookie compensation. “Do away with all that, but you still have a draft,” Smith said. “The team that drafts the player has a window to negotiate exclusively with that player. So, let’s just say you draft him and it’s 30 days. After that 30-day period, if you can’t agree to terms with that player, that player is out on the open market.”

Seems like a reasonable compromise. The bad teams still have access to the best young players, but they have to pay the market price.

“If I am negotiating with San Antonio, I’m going to tell you what I think my player’s worth,” Smith said. “If you tell me what you want to pay and we can’t agree to terms, then he goes out into the free market. You can address the bad teams getting better by giving them some advantage like that. But don’t tie the player exclusively to one team for years. That’s indentured servitude.”

The first ever NBA draft occurred in 1950, when the league transitioned from the Basketball Association of America to the National Basketball Association.

Ten years later, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West — two of the greatest players in NBA history — entered the NBA. Robertson was drafted first overall by the lowly Cincinnati Royals. West was drafted second by the Minneapolis Lakers, who relocated to Los Angeles in 1960.

The Lakers had won five titles by the time West was drafted and had a superstar player in future Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor.

“Jerry goes to L.A., they have stars, they had a compliment of players,” Robertson said. “When I went to Cincinnati, I didn’t have anybody. We didn’t have a very good team at all, to be honest. Here I am just out of school. They rely on me to keep it all together for them.”

Robertson did an excellent job of keeping the Royals together.

From 1961 to 1965, the Royals managed winning records. The Royals finished second in the division twice and in 1963 Cincinnati had the NBA’s best record. In 1964, Robertson was the league MVP while teammate Jerry Lucas was the Rookie of the Year.

There were first-round exits in 1965, ’66 and ’67. Cincinnati missed the playoffs in 1968, ’69 and ’70.

There was a five-year stretch when the Royals never went above .500. Prior to the 1970-71 season, Robertson was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he teamed with rookie center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win an NBA title.

The Bucks drafted Abdul-Jabbar first overall; defenders of the draft say there was no way that Kareem would have chosen Milwaukee as a destination had there been no draft. In 1956, the St. Louis Hawks drafted Russell but traded him for center Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan.

“What would have happened to Bill Russell if he hadn’t been traded to Boston from St. Louis?” Robertson said.

Robertson’s career with the Royals was largely an uphill climb in an anonymous market which posed challenges for African Americans.

“I don’t think I would have gone to Cincinnati, I’ll tell you that.”

– Oscar Robertson on where he would have chosen to play if there was no NBA draft in 1960

“Cincinnati was a difficult town,” he said. “You couldn’t go certain places; it was hard to get into business. L.A. was different and Jerry was a star. Elgin was a star. L.A. was a star town. A lot of things that happened out there you couldn’t have done in Cincinnati.”

Robertson said that had there been no draft he may not have chosen Los Angeles, but he definitely would not have chosen the Royals.

“I don’t think I would have gone to Cincinnati, I’ll tell you that,” he said.

Dismantling the draft would eliminate tanking, though it would not eliminate poorly run teams and teams that were not committed to winning. It would only mean that talented young players would not be forced to play for those teams.

In the end, a draftless NBA would give young players something they’ve sorely missed: Freedom of choice.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.