How The NBA Draft Can Learn From The NFL Version
I don’t watch the NBA Draft.
This does not make me unique, I realize, not any more so than admitting that I like bacon. I live in a vast universe of non-NBA Draft watching folk, even though it was an event I covered for years and I do rather enjoy watching college basketball, even before March.
Still, there are three million or so people who do tune in, or roughly the same number of Heat fans who left the arena late in Game 6. It’s not an entirely insignificant television audience (referred to in the ratings biz as “NBC-ish.”), but I’m sure the NBA would like it to be bigger.
If they want to improve their product (the draft, not the NBA brand of basketball), they can learn a lot from the league that’s been eating their lunch for decades: the NFL, whose draft truly is must-see TV. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported in April, more than twice the number of televisions in its market were tuned to the NFL draft than to Game 3 of the playoff series between the hometown Bucks and the once and future champion Heat – even though it was only Milwaukee’s second postseason appearance in seven seasons.
Live playoff basketball or wait to see whom the Packers pick at 26? No contest.
So, if the NBA doesn’t want its draft to continue to flounder as the Do No Harm of televised sporting events, here are a few pages they need to steal from the NFL playbook:
1. Hold everything
LeBron James’ headband barely had enough time from its champagne shower before the Miami Heat went from hoisting the trophy to on the clock. One week between the end of the championship run and what should be an off-season staple isn’t enough time for fans to shift gears. You know what the NFL offers up a week after the Super Bowl? The Pro Bowl, the most irrelevant of major sports all-star games. They know their fanbase is only ready for dessert, not another main course.
Yet here is the NBA, honoring its champion in one breath, turning the page in the next.
I understand it makes some sense to capitalize on the momentum and attention built during the Finals (especially one as compelling as this Heat-Spurs series). But fans aren’t ready to think about next year just yet – especially when it reminds two-thirds of its fans just how far their teams really are from celebrating what the Heat just did.
The NBA must stretch the calendar, just as the NFL does. Next year, the NFL will have the Super Bowl in early February, the combine in late February, then two full months of free agency and pro days to provide kindling for all the hot stove anticipation leading up to May 8th.
After the Finals are over, the NBA should hold and promote the heck out of its pre-draft camp, the league’s version of the scouting combine. Then slide the draft back. There is absolutely nothing in the sports world happening the Wednesday after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game; moving the NBA draft back just three weeks would give it a home alone on the sports calendar.
2. Play with the lottery
When the drawing to determine who gets the first pick in the draft has more drama than the execution of that pick, you have a problem.
I fully understand why the NBA doesn’t want to reward the worst team in the league with the first overall pick in the draft, as the NFL (and every other league) does. It’s afraid that teams are going to tank for the top pick. But honestly . . . if the Bobcats were tanking instead of playing to their normal capabilities, how could you tell?
The lottery is supposed to eliminate the incentive to tank. But the truth is winning the lottery isn’t exactly a ticket to titletown. Washington “won” the right to take John Wall first in the 2010 draft and has won pretty much nothing since.
Either the NBA should do away with the lottery – follow the NFL model and put the worst first and give a bad team the best chance to get better – or it should stop playing the weighting game. Every team that misses the playoffs could be given the same chance to win one of the top three picks in the draft. Fourteen teams, each with a seven percent chance at No. 1. And have that drawing during halftime of Game 1 of the Finals. Finally, something for Kings fans to watch in June.
3. Practice age discrimination
Until 2006, the NBA allowed high school players to be drafted. And teams couldn’t help themselves from selecting them (in the last NBA draft I covered, Kwame Brown was the No. 1 pick; no wonder I stopped watching).
But the new one-and-done loophole hasn’t fixed the problem. The overwhelming majority of NBA prospects are either one year or two removed from high school, which means virtually every pick that comes into the NBA is a project.
NFL rules stipulate that a player must be three years removed from high school before he is eligible to be drafted. Those extra years of maturity – both as a person and a prospect – are invaluable. It gives NFL teams a greater body of work to evaluate before making their monetary investment in a prospect.
Advocates of the NBA way say that age restrictions would deprive fans of witnessing the early careers of LeBron and Kobe and Dwyane Wade. But I saw Tim Duncan and Danny Green and Shane Battier all on the floor in the closing minutes of Game 7; their careers weren’t set back by all those extra years they spent on campus. Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers spent three seasons in college; did that wind up costing them any career opportunity once they got to the league?
Allowing prospects another year to cook before dropping them into the oven of NBA competition would not only improve their games, it’d raise their Q ratings. Basketball fans would be more familiar with the players populating the prospect pool if they had more of a chance to follow and connect with them as collegians. When the Jets or the Jags are on the clock for the first pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, it will be the culmination of a two-year Countdown to Clowney; the anticipation is already well underway.
In the buildup to its draft, the NFL community turns offensive tackles like Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel into household names. The NBA needs to do the same – with its too-young prospects and the unfamiliar names from overseas.
The league that become a global entity by putting the world on a first-name basis with Michael, Magic and Larry should know this already. Marquee names help.
Tough to have a hit show without ‘em.