Adam Silver has a very big problem on his hands: The NBA season is stale. In the midst of the offseason frenzy in which Chris Paul has already moved to the Rockets and Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves, excitement among fans is high. This is continuing the buzz and interest that the NBA draft creates every year, especially with the trade for the number 1 pick between the Celtics and 76ers, and the continued antics of Lavar Ball. There are surely more big moves and unexpected turns ahead with free agency kicking off July 1st, and the league will be at the forefront of sports news for the remainder of the summer. However, as all of these moves come and go, will the outcome of next season really change?
It is almost a foregone conclusion that the NBA finals next season will be between the Warriors and Cavaliers. As long as the Warriors core of Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green stays together, which it will for this season, and LeBron is on the Cavs, which he is, this will be the NBA Finals for the foreseeable future, and most definitely next season. This was also the case before this past season, where 99% of unbiased and knowledgeable fans would have predicted the finals correctly. Many, including myself, have thus begun to wonder, why watch the regular season anymore? Sure, watch your favorite team if you wish, as this can still give you day to day satisfaction if your team wins. I will be watching 76ers game whenever possible, but why should any fan watch games that do not concern their favorite team? There is no intrigue, no suspense, and essentially no chance for any team besides these two to make the finals, barring a significant unforeseen injury. College Basketball is much more exciting, and it should be the preferred viewing option next winter.
Now, I will not sit here and tell you not to watch the NBA next season, watch if you wish and you can still enjoy the regular season. The greater point is that Adam Silver has a competitiveness problem, and it all stems from the “one and done” rule in college, in my opinion.
There is a dearth of talent in the NBA, and the talent is mostly concentrated to a select few teams who have accumulated multiple superstars. Take, for example, the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers are well above the rest of the league, and they have 3 NBA stars. Kevin Love has fallen off some since his arrival in Cleveland, but at the very least, LeBron and Kyrie are legitimate stars. In the rest of the conference, there might not be a team that has more than one star, and the Cavs have three. Think about the other top teams in the conference. The Celtics probably have one, in Isaiah Thomas. The Raptors might have two, in Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan, but neither are even at the level of the Cavaliers’ second best player, Kyrie Irving. The Wizards have one, in John Wall. The Pacers, if you want to count them, have Paul George. The other playoff teams are the same, with a max of one headline star. The list is somewhat depressing, as there is only one other team with more than one “star”, which I am measuring in a completely arbitrary way, and this team’s two stars are not even as good as the Cavaliers’ second best player.
In the West, there is obviously more competition, and more star players. The Warriors obviously have four headliners, in Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green. The Spurs have Leonard and Aldridge. The Rockets had Harden, and now have Harden and Paul. The Clippers had Paul, Griffin and Jordan, and now just have Griffin and Jordan. The other teams you can figure out for yourself, but the point is to be at the top you must have at least two star players. None of these teams are competing with one star and some role players who are above average, because the league has become a league where stars attract other stars, and if you don’t have two you can’t win.
The problem then becomes how a team can acquire star players, and there are two avenues: the draft and free agency. The draft is the viable option for the teams at the bottom of the league who can’t attract high profile free agents, because those free agents want to play with other stars. Thus, the tanking strategy that the Sixers and Lakers have employed is the most logical path to becoming a contender. The problem with this strategy is the absolute dearth of star potential players coming out of the draft each year. Because college players are staying one year and bolting for the draft, there are underdeveloped and under coached players leaving college too early in order to get a pay check, and teams usually have a maximum of two to three consensus potential franchise players in each draft. This is even being generous, as there have been many recent drafts where only one player is even regarded as a franchise cornerstone.
This means that tanking is your best shot of getting inside the top three picks, but doing so will not even guarantee you a chance at a franchise player. Take the Lakers, for example, who have had the number two pick in each of the last three drafts. These drafts have yielded D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball. Russell has already been traded, due to a lack of growth on and off of the court. Ingram had an up and down rookie season, which was mostly down, but he was just a rookie and no determination on his future ability can reasonably be gathered. Ball seems to be a fantastic player, worthy of the hype he receives, and is probably the best player of the three listed. So, out of three years of number two picks, the Lakers have ended up with one question mark (Ingram), one player who has already been traded (Russell), and one budding star. That is solid, but not spectacular for the many years of pitiful play that it took to get these players. In addition, the fact that they did not even receive a first overall pick in this timeframe shows that tanking cannot guarantee a top pick.
The lesson from these Lakers drafts is that the talent coming from the College ranks is generally not very good. To show this, we will take a holistic view of the last three drafts (prior to 2017), using basketball-reference, and list each player that has shown the potential to be a star. This is not a loose definition of star, where you could say “well Zach Lavine is pretty good, and what about Myles Turner or Aaron Gordon?” No, these are people who you can build a team around, and who would attract free agents and other stars.
Andrew Wiggins (1st overall pick)
Jabari Parker (2nd overall pick)
Joel Embiid (3rd overall pick)
Karl-Anthony Towns (1st overall pick)
Kristaps Porzingis (4th overall pick)
Devin Booker (13th overall pick)
You will notice that nobody is listed for 2016, and that is because it was an awful draft. The best player is probably Ben Simmons, but I cannot list him as a star because he has yet to play in an NBA game. So, in total, three years of drafts have yielded roughly six potential star players. The only established stars would be Towns and Porzingis, with Wiggins being very good but not necessarily a star, and Embiid and Parker flashing star ability but having injury issues. That is an average of two per season. This is clearly a problem, especially when compared to previous years of drafts.
Since the one and done rule was implemented prior to the 2006 NBA draft, and players either had to stay one year in college or play overseas for that year, there have been an average of 4 All Star Players drafted in the nine drafts from 2006-2014, where 2015 and later have been excluded due to how recent the drafts were. There have been no All-Stars drafted since 2013, as nobody from 2014 or later has made an All-Star game. In the nine years prior to the one and done rule, there was an average of 5.67 All-Stars in each draft class. This is a stark difference, as there were almost 2 more All-Star players drafted each year. More worrying is the past four drafts, from 2013 to 2016, in which there has been only one All-Star between the four years. This signals that the compounding effect of one-and-done players has left college more talent-devoid than ever, and as time has gone on the problem has gotten worse.
The ball is now in Adam Silver’s court, as the one and done rule has clearly altered the landscape of the NBA. If you don’t have a super team, in which you have at least two stars, and probably three to actually have a chance, you really can’t compete in today’s NBA. The draft is yielding less and less of these stars each year and the teams at the bottom will struggle to rise to the top. The only way to fix this is to address the rule so that players must stay at least two years in College before turning pro, as the draft classes as a whole are clearly not ready for the NBA and are not generally contributing very much. It will be a tall task, but the current state of the NBA needs to change to regain fan interest, and changing the one and done rule is the place to start.