1. Celtics-Hawks: So far, the First Round has been entertaining for individual games but no series has really quite gotten to the point that the outcome has been in much doubt. In other words, no series have been tied at 2-2 but instead all were at 3-1 or 4-0 sweeps coming into Game 5. Fortunately for the casual fan, the Hawks win tonight in Atlanta has made its series with Boston a little more fun. Based upon the play so far, Game 6 will be yet another low scoring, low paced battle of attrition. The Hawks got a huge lift from Al Horford’s return to form. He fit right in with the Hawks and Atlanta was +10 with him on the floor. Boston is still obviously the favorite but with Paul Pierce hobbled and Horford looking tough, the Hawks have a serious shot of bringing this back to Atlanta for Game 7.
2. Least Dramatic First Round Ever?: As noted, no series in the First Round has gone to 2-2 and we are looking at possibly no Game 7s and only a few Game 6s. Is this atypical? Well, since 2002-03 (when the NBA first made the First Round best-of-seven) getting Game 7s in the First Round is far from a foregone conclusion but the NBA usually delivered at least one Game 7 a year but never more than two in season. In fact, last year was the first time there was no Game 7 in the First Round (though there were four Game 6s). The most boring First Round of the seven-game era was 2003-04 when four series were sweeps and three series went only five games. The lone outlier was Heat-Hornets, which went seven but was not particularly exciting with the exception of a game winner hit by some rookie named Dwyane Wade. The most Game 6s and Game 7s in one year came the year before in 2002-03, when five series went six games and two went seven and the one other series went five games.
3. Age Limit Again: Turning away from the playoffs for a second, I couldn’t help but notice the concerted push by both the NCAA and NBA to try to raise the age limit to enter the NBA draft from 19 to 20, effectively forcing most players to spend two years in college and not one. David Stern has avoided any moral judgments in taking this stance and called this a financial issue: “Our rule is that they won’t be eligible for the draft until they’re 19. They can play in Europe, they can play in the D-League, they can go to college. This is a not a social program, this is a business rule for us. The NFL has a rule which requires three years of college. So the focus is often on ours, but it’s really not what we require in college. It’s that we say we would like a year to look at them and I think it’s been interesting to see how the players do against first-class competition in the NCAAs and then teams have the ability to judge and make judgments, because high-ranking draft picks are very, very valuable.”
Mark Cuban is also on board but frames this as a moral issue, where the limit would benefit those barred from coming to the NBA: “It’s not even so much about lottery busts, it’s about kids’ lives that we’re ruining. Even if you’re a first-round pick and you have three years of guaranteed money, or two years now of guaranteed money, then what? Because if you’re a bust and it turns out you just can’t play in the NBA, your ‘rocks for jocks’ one year of schooling isn’t going to get you far. I just don’t think it takes into consideration the kids enough. Obviously, I think there’s significant benefit for the NBA. It’s not my decision to make, but that’s my opinion on it.”
Most recently, Steve Kerr wrote a piece in Grantland.com, outlining all sorts of reasons why the age limit helps. Kerr is a thoughtful guy and touches on both financial and moral reasons why forcing the athletes to get some college experience benefits everyone. His arguments overlap with both the comments of Stern and Cuban. Let’s review Kerr’s six identified arguments and see if they hold muster:
1. High school players aren’t mature enough to be ready to play in the NBA: Kerr argues that the transition to the NBA is so hard that teenagers need at least two years to adjust to all aspects of the NBA and being adults. As a consequence, the NBA risks having a choppier product than if the players have spent a few years in college. It is true that most high schoolers are not ready to play immediately in the NBA (in fact, most college seniors aren’t ready). No evidence is presented, however, to support that having a few teenagers on the roster drags down quality of play. The fact is that number of high schoolers to be drafted were very low and consisted mostly of players so gifted that they were quite good by their second seasons (and LeBron James and Dwight Howard were really good as 18-year old rookies). So, while in the abstract this argument has merit, I don’t think this holds muster. Good players are good players and good coaches teach players, no matter the league they play/coach in. Sure, some players could be missing out on basic life experience by going to college for two or three years but the alarming rate of post-career bankruptcies of players in all sports doesn’t support the theory that coping is a skill necessarily learned in college.
2. The NBA has a financial interest in seeing young players compete so that they can avoid costly speculation in the uncertain high school/teenage athlete market: This is the core of Stern’s statement but is actually Kerr’s weakest argument by far. The history of high schoolers in the NBA draft shows a much high success rate than most other pools of tools. It is almost prosaic to go over this but here is the rundown of United States high schoolers (with no college or juco experience at all) taken in the NBA draft since 1995:
1995: Kevin Garnett (4th)
1996: Kobe Bryant (13), Jermaine O’Neal (17)
1997: Tracy McGray (9)
1998: Al Harrington (25), Rashard Lewis (32), Korleone Young (40)
1999: Jonathan Bender (5), Leon Smith (29)
2000: Darius Miles (3), DeShawn Stevenson (23)
20001: Kwame Brown (1), Tyson Chandler (2), Eddy Curry (4), DeSagana Diop (8)
2002: Amare Stoudemire (9)
2003: LeBron James (1), Travis Outlaw (23), Ndudi Ebi (26), Kendrick Perkins (27)
2004: Dwight Howard (1), Shaun Livingston (4), Robert Swift (12), Sebastian Telfair (13), Al Jefferson (15), Josh Smith (17), J.R. Smith (18), Dorell Wright (19)
2005: Martell Webster (6), Andrew Bynum (10), Gerald Green (18), C.J. Miles (34), Monta Ellis (40), Louis Williams (45), Andray Blatche (49), Amir Johnson (56)
I don’t see too many busts here. In fact, I see many more Hall of Famers than busts, as well as some really good value picks late in the first round and in the second round. If anything, the high schoolers have usually been undervalued with only a few notable exceptions. In 2005, the last year of high schoolers, every second rounder from high school was, at least, a useful pro. If this financial uncertainty is the main argument for a draft limit, we have to call BS on this. The argument seemed thin in the article and non-existent when the actual lists are reviewed. If high schoolers were crapping out to often, they would just not be drafted high. No need to “save” GMs from themselves on this issue.
Kerr doubles down on this argument, stating that he doubted it made any difference to any player that any great player that he got his max contract at 24 as opposed to 22. College is great if you want it but I don’t know a single player who would sneeze at losing out on $4-10 million those extra two years in college would cost him. Even more telling, ask Rashard Lewis whether he would give back those two years. Had Rashard Lewis been two years older when he came to the NBA, he would’ve hit the free agent market for his big contract at 29 and not 27, which could’ve cost him the max contract he did get from Orlando.
3. Player development is hurt by not going to college: Kerr states that the NCAA prepared players for the pros and demonstrates this by showing that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan had much better numbers as rookies than even the best high schoolers like LeBron and Dwight Howard. This is true but does not prove the the better numbers resulted from the older players having played in college. Most players consistently improve from ages 18 to 27 and so the older you are when you enter the league, the better you will probably be. LeBron improved quite nicely from age 18 to age 23 without college tutorials. It is definitely true that some players could use the college environment but I, as a fan, would hate to miss out on two years of LeBron or Howard just to make sure that some more marginal players stay in school.
4. College stars create fan interest for the pros: Kerr notes that college stars like Patrick Ewing were hugely anticipated coming into the NBA and that this helps fan interest. This is true on some level but college stardom only matters if the player is actually good as pro. Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, and Tyler Hansbrough were huge college stars. Conversely, no one knew who Karl Malone or John Stockton were in college and they became NBA legends. but Any NCAA fanfare quickly burns away if the player doesn’t dominate as a pro. Laettner was a solid pro but was almost totally forgotten one it was clear that he was not going to be great. A great college player will have a certain aura about him if he is also great as a pro but do you really think anyone cares that Kobe Bryant didn’t go to Duke now?
5. College fosters a sense of team that high schoolers don’t get through the whole crazy AAU process: Maybe this is true to some extent but why can’t this same sense of “team” be found in the pros?
6. College provides mentors in coaches that are key to development: This argument sort of overlaps with some of the other arguments but a great coach can really help a player develop. But not every college player gets to play with Dean Smith or Lute Olson. A great coach can help but this is a very minor subsidiary point.
Overall, I think most of the reasons given for limiting high school player access to the NBA are strawmen arguments. Baseball forces players to declare after high school or wait three years because they have an anti-trust exception and can do whatever they want. The NFL limits access on the more compelling pretense that 18 and 19 year olds are not physically as strong and could get really hurt in the violent NFL. I see Stern’s position as illusory. He doesn’t want his league to get bad press for having too many young players and thus will support an age limit to make the NBA look more socially responsible. I can understand why he does this and can’t say this is a bad business move but the pretenses for the rule are thin at best. In an ideal world, the NBA would come up with a rule to let the best players (like LeBron) come out early but I guess we don’t live in an ideal world.