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Bribing bad teams with more picks

6/9/2011

Roger Mason Jr. -- a Knick and the vice president of the union -- spoke on his way through the lobby. NBA honchos David Stern and Adam Silver stepped to the microphones some time after that. After a little more waiting, the Lakers' Derek Fisher, the president of the Players Association, gave an earnest and fairly long talk from a rented hotel podium, taking a number of questions.

Fisher had a plane to catch. So as that event broke up, the P.A.'s executive director Billy Hunter was ambushed by reporters with ever more questions, and he stood in a scrum for quite some time.

A huge percentage of the questions were some version of "what did you guys talk about in there?"

A huge percentage of the answers were some version of "we want to honor our commitment not to negotiate this through the media."

There were minor cracks. Fisher allowed that the key issues were: a hard salary cap, guaranteed contracts and contract length. Hunter mentioned in passing that the league was asking for the next CBA to last a decade. But in general, the speakers succeeded in being vague about precise state of negotiations.

But there was one more speaker left, lawyer Jeffrey Kessler (whose name you may remember from, essentially, every major sports labor dispute of the last few decades). And he said on the record what had been whispered off it: That one of the union's proposals to help the bottom lines of ailing teams is to give bad teams more draft picks.

Kessler had been complaining about how little the league's offers had changed over time, and was facing a tough question from reported Ken Berger about how much the union's offers had changed.

"We've put out proposals to change the split of revenue in the future," says Kessler, "in their favor."

Bingo. There are a lot of other fancy aspects of these talks, but if they get this one right I doubt any others matter. But Kessler kept talking, and added: "We've put out proposals to improve the ability of teams who have not done so well to compete better on the court, for example by giving them an additional first-round draft choice."

The league is singing the virtues of NFL-style parity, and specifically pushing a team-by-team hard cap as the way to get there. This draft pick idea would be a way to essentially bribe the owners of bad teams to get them to go for a CBA that does not include a hard cap.

It's one of those issues that makes clear there are at least three parties with a ton on the line at these talks, and only two are represented. Let's pretend it becomes reality.

You know who'd get the short end of that stick? The third party known as the fans, specifically the fans of teams that just simply don't know how to build a winner. More good draft picks would be a way for the worst GMs and owners to compete without getting any better at their jobs. This is like performance-enhancing drugs for the worst front offices in the league.

As fans, we root for the great competitors, right? Those who do best at their jobs? I'd argue the league ought to encourage teams similarly. If the Clippers didn't have Blake Griffin walking through that door, as a reward for losing, wouldn't Donald Sterling have to do some soul-searching about how he runs his team, and maybe come up with a more competitive approach?

"What consistently drives me crazy about big-time sports," wrote Malcolm Gladwell in a 2009 back-and-forth with Bill Simmons a few years ago, "is the assumption that sports occupy their own special universe, in which the normal rules of the marketplace and human psychology don't apply. That's how you get the idea of a reverse-order draft, which violates every known rule of human behavior."

I realize this is utopian thinking, but I wouldn't mind a world without a draft, where teams, like businesses in the real world, had to make themselves attractive to the best employees. It would touch off a decade or more of profound change in the NBA, but at the end of it, maybe the whole league is far stronger, with every team working its brains out to create real team unity, to really work toward a common goal. To win. If every front office were focused on that, teams would win or lose about as much as ever, but no city would be condemned to the musty semi-permanent mediocrity of incompetent leadership.

As it is, though, high draft picks are beyond valuable. They come with the best players at below market values for a long time. Other than the occasional Shaquille O'Neal-in-his-prime or Decision the draft is pretty much the only way to get a player capable of leading you to a title. I don't think we have any chance of eliminating the draft anytime soon, but we certainly ought not head in the direction of handing ever more of the best young players to the worst teams. That'd be a great way to make the NBA more random, like your local state lottery. But I don't tune in to watch the state lottery. I tune in to watch NBA basketball, though, in part because it's a way to see people who are doing what we all try to do: To be more competitive, smarter and stronger.