NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wants to raise the minimum age for prospects entering the NBA draft from 19 years old to 20. Like, he really wants to do it. He wants it so badly that, if given a "magic wand" and the opportunity to push any initiative his heart desired through the NBA's 30 owners and the National Basketball Player's Association into league-wide doctrine, he'd "raise the age."
The new commish has offered a number of explanations for and justifications of his ardent support for a higher age limit — to create a "more competitive" draft by affording NBA teams an extra year to scout prospects at the college, international and D-League levels, to ensure that players enter the league with a "meaningful" additional year of maturity under their belts, to keep talented players in school because "I believe strong college basketball is also beneficial to the NBA and to the game generally," and so on. Lots of people have shown support for Silver's arguments over the years, from predecessor David Stern to TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Steve Kerr, Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, minor league pitching prospect Tracy McGrady and Dallas Mavericks forward Shawn Marion, with their support largely predicated on the notion that holding teenagers out of the NBA would improve the overall quality of play in the NBA.
According to multiple studies of actual facts, however, that's bunk. Preps-to-pros prospects and "one-and-done" players have outperformed college upperclassmen at the NBA level over the years, there's quite a bit of debate as to whether a sophomore year at the NCAA level is more beneficial to a player's development than going right to the big leagues after one year. Plus, busting is far from the exclusive birthright of the high-school draftee; as SB Nation's Tom Ziller recently wrote, "For every Kwame Brown, there's a Hasheem Thabeet. For every Korleone Young, there's a Joe Alexander."
And, apparently, for every Barkley, McHale and Marion, there's someone associated with the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clips' center, coach and — perhaps most importantly — point guard all oppose the notion of raising the age minimum, according to Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:
[...] the league is interested in adopting a new rule essentially requiring players to attend two years of college, a possibility that has several Clippers players frustrated.
“I think that’s the dumbest idea ever,” center DeAndre Jordan said. “For what? Why make those guys, those college phenoms, stay in college for two years? Some of our greatest players, Hall of Famers, Top 50 players are going to be guys who came out of high school. Why should we put an age limit on it?” [...]
Clippers coach Doc Rivers doesn’t like the proposed changes.
“I just have a philosophical view about it, that guys should have a right to earn a living,” the Clippers coach said. “I can go and fight in Iraq at 18, but I can’t play in the NBA? That’s silly to me.”
Rivers left college after his junior season, and his son Austin left Duke after one season.
“Let’s just be honest. The colleges want them to stay in college to help the colleges,” Rivers said. “That’s what it is at the end of the day.”
Chris Paul, president of the NBA players’ union, said he’s also against raising the age limit, and like most players, feels the age restriction should be lifted.
“Every situation is different,” said Paul, who left Wake Forest after two seasons. “… I knew I wasn’t ready after my freshman year. But, that’s not everybody’s situation. I think you should have the option or opportunity to decide if you think you’re ready. … If you feel like you’re ready, it shouldn’t be someone else’s decision.”
Some will agree with the Clipper trio's stance that young men of legal age to smoke, vote and fight in a war should be allowed to determine for themselves whether they can seek employment in the marketplace of their choosing, and that the league's 30 business-owners should have the option of hiring those young men if they want to without being limited by an artificial barrier created by two intervening governing bodies. Some will disagree, believing that the extra year (or more) of "real world experience" that players get in college would help them avoid the kind of painful transition that Gerald Green experienced as a straight-out-of-high-school member of the Boston Celtics, years before his resurgence with the Phoenix Suns. (This would seem to argue that college experiences, in general, are uniformly positive and/or across-the-board more beneficial than a year of very well-compensated work would be, which seems like another matter for debate.) That's not what's most interesting to me here.
What's interesting is that, in addition to being a seven-time All-Star commonly considered the best point guard in the world, Paul is also the president of the National Basketball Player's Association, the organization tasked with protecting and advancing the interests of the NBA's players, as well representing that constituency in collective bargaining negotiations with the owners of the league's 30 franchises. The union has operated without an executive director since the players voted to oust former union head Billy Hunter in February 2013, and the process of finding new union leadership has proven to be less than fruitful thus far. Paul, then, is the most prominent face and loudest voice among NBPA leadership at the moment, and he's opposed not only to the idea of increasing the age minimum, but of having it on the books at all.
That seems significant, because as my esteemed associate Eric Freeman has written here in the past, when it comes time to return to the table for collective bargaining negotiations on matters like the age limit, CP3 won't just be leading a coalition of All-Star/best-in-the-world types like himself. He'll also be representing players like age-minimum-raise-supporter Marion, a 36-year-old veteran who's about to enter free agency and who (if not now, then in the years ahead) may have to compete with younger, more explosive, less expensive options for available roster spots. Moreover, Paul and the union delegates he leads will be representing players with less value/versatility/pedigree than Marion, who already have jobs in the league and union membership, and whose future employment viability could take a hit if the doors were once again opened to 18-year-old prospects, and could be improved if those prospective phenoms were forced to wait another year before they could declare for the draft.
Standing up to ownership can be hard enough when the matter at hand is the sort of no-brainer sure thing on which a union's membership holds a broad consensus. Will Paul be able to get the constituency to see things his way, though, on an issue that could mean the difference between another year of veteran's minimum salary or being left on the outside looking in come training camp?
The age minimum was one of several items that the league and the union tabled during the 2011 lockout for the sake of reaching an agreement that would end their labor dispute and allow a (shortened) 2011-12 NBA season to get underway. With either side able to opt out of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement after the 2016-17 season, another lockout looming and Silver on the warpath when it comes to raising the age, it's sure to be back at the forefront of negotiations again. That the leader of the union stands diametrically opposed to the commissioner's top agenda item could set the stage for a particularly contentious fight ahead ... unless, of course, when Paul feels like he's ready to go to battle, it winds up being someone else’s decision.
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