The NBA Should Copy the NHL for Once

When Gary Bettman left the NBA to become the NHL’s commissioner in 1993, he brought some of the NBA’s roadmap with him. Bettman swiftly expanded the league and changed the NHL’s division names and playoff format to mirror the NBA. He also amplified the league’s national TV presence, made the draft a TV event, and tried to market the sport’s individual stars. Bettman eventually led the NHL to implement a salary cap, as the NBA had done years earlier. Some of these changes and initiatives were more successful than others.

Major Holes in the NBA’s Draft & Development Model

In turn, the NBA has never seemingly tried to copy much from the NHL, but it now has good reason to. NBA commissioner Adam Silver is purportedly seeking to revamp the NBA’s draft rules once again. Silver is also reportedly interested in improving the NBA’s G-League system while increasing NBA involvement with top prospects before they reach college.

The NHL has never been able to replicate the NBA’s success in marketing its stars. However, the NHL has succeeded in implementing a logical draft and development system. The NBA has struggled to find an ideal structure. NHL prospects playing in the league’s highest minor league, the American Hockey League, earn a true living. Many of the players in that league command six-figure salaries. Some are able to play into their 30’s without becoming regular NHL players. Comparatively, in 2016-17, only 21% of the NBA’s G-League earned $46,000 or more that season.

NBA Draft Process May Change Again

The NBA’s minor league model is a problem, but the draft poses other issues. The NBA famously instituted an age limit into its draft starting back in 2006. There was an increase in amateur players entering the draft early throughout the 1990’s. First, Chris Webber left Michigan after his sophomore season and was selected first in the 1993 NBA draft. Two years later, Kevin Garnett became the first player to be drafted straight from high school in twenty years. Kobe Bryant followed suit the next year.

Garnett and Bryant were future Hall of Fame players but many prospects who followed their lead were not. The end of the 1990’s and the beginning of the 2000’s included more failures than successes at this endeavor. The age limit was then controversially implemented and has remained a contentious issue since.

Recent NCAA scandals involving basketball stars have pushed the issue of amateur basketball players’ development back to the forefront. The idea has been floated that the NBA could mimic the MLB draft. Some players could elect to enter the draft from high school but those who do not would have to stay in college for at least two years. This rule change would still have the issue of being clunky and unmalleable. Some players might need their freshman year of college for development, but not their sophomore year. Another issue is the NBA continuing to impose a limit on players when a more organic option is available.

The NHL’s Draft Structure as a Model for the NBA

That option would be to mimic the NHL draft. The NHL draft incorporates looser age restrictions and transfers most of the decision making to the individual teams. Generally, players in North America may be drafted between the ages of 18 and 20. The draft window for European prospects is extended to 22. Once a player is drafted the NHL club retains his rights for a set period of time, depending on the league from which the player was drafted. The club and the player must jointly decide when that player should turn professional and sign a contract.

The advantage to this system is that each team may draft the prospects it believes has the highest potential. However, they are not forced to incorporate those players into the roster until the appropriate time in their development. The age windows for the NBA draft would have to be tweaked, but the NHL’s draft structure makes sense. Players are able to develop at the appropriate rate, knowing the opportunity to sign a contract is eventually available.

The NBA would not be imposing restrictions on amateur players, it would be giving its franchises the authority to develop prospects as they see fit. Questions would remain to address potential issues that could arise. What if a player purposely forfeited his college eligibility to force the NBA team holding his rights to sign him immediately? Would the new process make it more difficult for the NBA and NCAA to police illegal agent and shoe company activity?

Keeping the NBA, NBPA & NCAA Happy

The beauty of the rule change is that amateur players and the NBPA could not complain that the NBA was restricting the players’ rights to play in the NBA. NBA teams would be happy because they could draft players with high potential but not be forced to pay them until they were ready to contribute to the franchise. The NCAA and its schools would be happy because those players would not be plucked into the NBA until they had developed appropriately.

The NHL’s draft and development models are not perfect, but it has successfully joined numerous leagues over dozens of countries into a cohesive system. The NBA actually has an easier path, with the NCAA being the dominant league in its draft process. Taking the NHL’s draft model and shaping it to fit the NBA would be a logical first step.