HoopIdeology: Solve for Pattern (Part I)

Posted on Tue 15 May 2012 in Features by Alex Dewey

I've been itching to respond to Steve Kerr's recent Grantland piece arguing for raising the age limit because I find so much to disagree with. However, trawling the Internet for counterarguments, I found this podcast by Henry Abbott and Michael McCann, laying out almost every imaginable critique of Kerr's piece two months in advance of it being written. I find it more succinct, organized, and authoritative than anything I could put to text. Still, at the end of the podcast I felt like something crucial went unsaid. Kerr's piece ultimately had less to do with the age limit itself than with the larger problems Kerr uses the age limit to simultaneously attack: player maturity, development, and marketing. These are clearly critical problems to be solved, and in this two-part response, we're going to work on them.

But in the framework of these larger problems, Kerr's proposal to change the age limit by one year seems at best absurdly limited and unsuitable for these problems. Kerr's argument, to me, reads somewhat like that of a high school student who writes an essay arguing something trivial like that a first-time drug possession fine should change by $50, in order to ameliorate crime, increase revenue for the state, or advance political liberty by a few ticks at the end of the fiscal year, using a bunch of ad hoc, heterodox arguments. "It will ameliorate crime because... it will increase revenue because... it will advance political liberty because..." Perhaps, Steve, perhaps. Crime, fiscal policy, and liberty are enormous problems, though, requiring a broader vision than a rhetorical, cherry-picked take whose prime directive appears to be "stay on message."

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There's a qualitative difference between ages 18 and 19 and 20 in our culture. But changing any such age restrictions by one year in either direction isn't going to solve a whole lot for the few high school seniors and college freshmen good enough to enter the NBA. Changing the age limit to 18 didn't work, changing it to 19 didn't work, and changing it to 20 won't work, because these aren't problems of age but problems of pattern. And solving a systematic problem of pattern with a marginal tweak of quantity is foolish.

There is a problematic undertone to Kerr's approach to decision making. Kerr refers to his proposal of simultaneously offloading player maturity, development, and marketing to the NCAA and Europe as "smart business" almost completely for reasons of cost. This is the absurdity I want to address today: Kerr may be right that raising the age limit is smart business. I don't agree, but I could at least buy that premise. But if I'm an executive with any business sense as I'm listening to Kerr make this pitch, I'm not going to sign off on this proposal in a million years, unless Kerr takes the additional step of recognizing (and at least estimating for me) the gigantic hidden costs the NBA is also taking on in outsourcing huge portions of its business to organizations the league has no direct control over.

What do these hidden costs look like? Well, consider. The NBA has absolutely no control over...

  • ... What kind of maturity the NCAA or Europe is going to teach these players. In the case of the NCAA, "Maturity" sometimes requires first making stupid mistakes like getting injured without adequate school-sponsored insurance. "Maturity" sometimes means first becoming cynical over being lost in an unjustified bureaucracy. "Maturity" sometimes means being part of a program that doesn't care about you and undermines your confidence. These lessons of so-called maturity may in fact arise from conditions endemic to the NCAA that make the lessons completely unnecessary for a life in the NBA, or a life in professional basketball in general.

  • ... What kinds of skills the NCAA program develops in the NBA's best prospects. "That big man is the next great NBA prospect! Just imagine what a coaching legend like Mike Krzyzewski can do for him in two years! I just can't wait until he comes to the NBA with ever-present knowledge of how to stealthily foul for 30 seconds of a 35 second possession, this will truly augment his ongoing development nicely."

  • ... What kind of a training staff is handling the NBA's top prospects. Not every school is like Duke, with a massive on-campus hospital -- some schools are dreadfully behind in sports medicine, just like some NBA teams. It's true, we get one more year of data if we force players to stay in the NCAA for another year. But the NBA as a whole also takes a massive, unnecessary organizational risk when we allow them to stay that extra season. (Such as, say, De'Sean Butler.) Just saying.

  • ... What kinds of situations the NCAA puts the best prospects into to get that valuable second sample year of scouting data. If so much decision-making truly hinges on those four extra months, then isn't at a minimum inconvenient that half the games for, say, Duke, may be against cream-puff non-conference opponents like Elon and UNC-Albuquerque? What about the fact that the central event of the NCAA is a single-elimination tourney, which is basically the opposite of an effective statistical sample? Isn't it at least a substantive cost that the NBA has no control over this process so crucial to its own scouting?

  • ... What kinds of marketing efforts the NCAA will make to single out their greatest players. Marketing a player is the process of crafting a story and a message for that player, and the NCAA is hardly helping them out in this respect. For the most part the NCAA errs on the side of marginal players from high-powered programs, pasty-white volume scorers like Jimmer Fredette, or "prospects" like Austin Rivers of Duke or Harrison Barnes of UNC. Rivers is never going to be a stud in the NBA, he's just not that great. And yet the fact that he goes to Duke (and is related to Doc) is always going to trump his true talent. Barnes has disappointed his backers again and again, and yet he was and is still referred to as a top prospect from that class. He'll probably go top-7. The hype machine doesn't care much whether the player ever gets close to the hype, and as far as the NBA is concerned, college hype for players that don't pan out in its league is indistinguishable from static on the airwaves, crowding out its prospects, competing with the NBA's young players for the nation's attention. College marketing is built on the best stories, not necessarily the best players, and yet the NBA is built on selecting for the best players from college and overseas. College does write better stories for college players plenty of times, it's true, but by and large the NBA gets the residual, leftover hype (that it has to establish again anyway when the player gets to the league) while the NCAA reaps the spoils of that process.

And very quickly, I'd like to mention something. Kerr's other notion, that of pushing the salary timetable back on your best players? Yes, that effectively reduces the lifetime salary of your bread-and-butter players and the amount of quality years they can give the league. That does, in theory, lead to some sort of savings. But that seems to be a very limited form of "savings," if you ask me. Especially considering the best NBA players produce revenue for the league far exceeding their salaries, even when the max deal comes.

I hope I've demystified some of the hidden costs of the proposal that are three-card-monte'd by Kerr's presentation. Solving these problems not only takes us far from "common sense," but also takes us into the sticky realm of addressing our priorities and our vision for the league, and making choices and compromises accordingly. It's suddenly not just a smart business, common sense, open-and-shut case whose only rejoinder comes from straw men like "Who are we to deny a 19-year-old kid a chance to make a living when he can vote, drive, and fight in a war?"

Kerr's proposal to raise the age limit is also a proposal for the NBA to let the NCAA and European basketball dictate the maturity, marketing, development, and maintenance of its talent pool for an extra year. What his proposal reduces in cost to the league it reduces in equal measure the control that can be exerted by the league. "What age rules will maximize revenue and limit cost the most?" is a perfectly valid business question. But Kerr isn't presenting the costs fairly, and the proposed benefits of outsourcing these functions to the NCAA and Europe are fraught with compensatory costs of their own, all of which deserve strong mention.

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Tomorrow I'll be back to sketch a broader alternative proposal that -- we hope -- can address some of the problems the age limit is meant to address, and more. See you then.
Alex Dewey is a five-time Yahtzee champion.