When David Stern stepped down as NBA commissioner after 30 years at the helm and handed the NBA's reins over to his longtime deputy, Adam Silver inherited a sprawling multibillion-dollar business with vast potential for continued growth, but also a number of issues to address. While plenty of folks have shared their opinions on which matters Silver should address as he looks to put his stamp on the league, one intriguing topic cropped up in the early going:
Increasing the age limit to 20 is a priority for Adam Silver. It will be a topic of discussion once the union hires an executive director.— Scott Howard-Cooper (@SHowardCooper) February 6, 2014
The NBA draft age limit — or, more accurately, age minimum, since it establishes a mark before which a player cannot be eligible to enter the draft pool — has been a hot topic for nearly a decade now, since its inclusion as part of the 2005 collective bargaining agreement between the league and the National Basketball Players Association. The rule stipulates that no player can play in the NBA until he's been eligible for at least one draft; in order to be eligible for the draft, you must be at least 19 during the calendar year in which that draft takes place, and if you're an American-born, you have to be at least one year removed from high school.
The age issue was a bone of contention between NBA owners and the players union during the last lockout, but survived into the 2011 CBA when both sides agreed to table it to deal with bigger-picture stuff (namely, how to divide basketball-related income between owners and players, which wound up being a huge win for ownership) and get a settlement finalized so that the 2011-12 season could begin. With Silver now in the saddle, new union leadership on the way, and just over 2 1/2 years left before either side can opt out of the current CBA to set the stage for a new round of negotiations (and, potentially, another lockout) in 2017, the age-limit chatter has returned to the forefront, and as Silver confirmed in a lengthy interview with USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick, moving the eligibility restriction up from 19 to 20 is definitely something he wants:
Q: Along those lines, what's your level of optimism when it comes to your goal of raising the minimum age to 20 (years old from 19 when the next CBA is negotiated, likely when there's an opt-out after the 2016-17 season)?
A: It's hard to tell. I never quite understood the player opposition. Of course it's a zero sum game in terms of numbers of jobs, and amount of salary we pay out. We pay out roughly 50% of BRI (basketball-related income), and that's divided among the players in the league. So there is absolutely, and by definition can't be, a financial savings to us by increasing the age to 20. It has been our belief that we have a better chance to grow the (financial) pie that gets divided 50-50 if we increase the age and create, in essence, a more competitive league. And it has been our sense for a long time that our draft would be more competitive if our teams had an opportunity to see these players play an additional year, whether it be in college or professionally in the Development League or overseas.
We believe the additional year of maturity would be meaningful. And increasingly, I've been told by many NBA coaches that one of the issues with the younger guys coming into the league is they've never had an opportunity to lead. By having come directly out of their first year of college, those are the moments in their lives where…they were put in positions as upper classmen, where they first learned how to lead teammates. And ultimately, if you look at our most successful teams, they're successful because they play as a team and I think that's one of the beauties of this game is that it's such an interesting mix of team play and at the same time individual (skill).
A team plays together with individual attributes. It's that blend that teams are always constantly trying to achieve, the perfect blend. Again though, it's one of those issues (where) it needs to be collectively bargained, and for good reason. It's something that during collective bargaining the last time, we had lots of discussions about it with the group of players who were representing the union at the time and I think it's something that we should continue to discuss. Let me just throw in that at the same time, I think maybe, just to broaden my horizons a little bit, I'm trying to look at it not just from the perspective of the NBA because I believe strong college basketball is also beneficial to the NBA and to the game generally. So even if it's not terrible for the NBA right now, at least talking to a lot of my college coaching friends and college (athletic director) friends, their view is (that) one and done is a disaster. I think this is one of these issues that the larger basketball community needs to come together and address, not just the NBA owners and our players. Youth basketball and college basketball should have a seat at the table as well.
The desire to move the minimum draft-eligibility age up to 20 stretches back to (at least) 2009, when Stern's stated interest in making one-and-done players into two-and-done players, purportedly to increase the maturity of the players entering the professional ranks, to give collegians another year to develop their games, and to give the NBA's 30 teams another year in which to scout young players against "first-rate competition" before having to make decisions on whether to select them in the annual NBA draft, theoretically limiting the number of busts in the ranks of young draftees.
This logic has met with quite a bit of resistance over the years, with congressmen claiming the age limit acts as a "vestige of slavery," Pulitzer Prize-winning authors claiming the age limit is more about NBA owners wanting a free player-development system than anything else, and a widely held belief that the dual outcomes of ensuring cost-free scouting and development for NBA teams and giving colleges and the NCAA more time to reap the benefits of unpaid highly skilled laborers do not serve those laborers, who could be earning a generationally life-changing wage in the pros during those one (or two) years.
Still, Stern continued to push for the bump up to 20, and plenty of former and current players, such as Charles Barkley, Steve Kerr, preps-to-pros success story Tracy McGrady and current Dallas Mavericks forward Shawn Marion, have expressed a desire to see the league raise the draft-age minimum to 20, or even higher, under the guise of improving the quality of play at the pro level. Nevermind that multiple analyses have shown that banning high-schoolers and freshmen from the NBA hasn't made a meaningful difference in how often drafted players don't pan out, or that the support shown by McGrady and Marion came from one aging veteran who had struggled to find NBA employment due in part to the availability of younger and more inexpensive replacements, and another who could soon find himself meeting the same fate. Such age-limit-boosting wings would seem to have a more vested interest than most in ensuring that, the Andrew Wigginses and Jabari Parkers of the world don't get an early crack at the big league.
As to Silver's friends in the college ranks calling one-and-done a disaster for the NCAA ... well, I'm not too sure why that's the NBA's problem to solve, but I suppose we were always to expect a temperamental shift from Stern's eager and bombastic tweaking when Silver took over. Silver's claim that forcing prospective NBA players to play two years of college ball would make the draft "more competitive" will likely also raise eyebrows, as it would seem to rest on the specious logic that with an extra year to scout every prospect, all front offices would stand a better chance of getting their picks right and finding difference-making contributors who can give every franchise, from the least to the greatest, a real fighting chance of competing for the O'Brien.
Some team executives will make detrimental decisions no matter how long you give them to look at a player, and some coaching staffs can botch the development of any prospect now matter how much of a blue-chipper he appeared during his sophomore year. The best organizations succeed and the worst ones fail in this regard, regardless of how much you attempt to insulate owners from high risk and sunk costs ... which, ultimately, is what this is really all about. (To a large extent, anyway. SB Nation's Tom Ziller has some other theories as to why Silver might be pushing so hard for the move to 20.)
Whatever the specific reasons behind Silver continuing Stern's push to keep prospective pros out of the money for one more year, it seems the push will continue, which Silver serving as both an eager advancer of the NBA's business interests and a coalition-builder determined to give basketball organizations of all stripes and age ranges "a seat at the table." And when the game of Eligibility Limit Musical Chairs is up, though, it's a sound bet that the only ones left without a place to park it will be the on-the-come-up players it impacts most. Same as it ever was.
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