Thursday, September 27, 2012

Kill the WNBA draft and the lottery will follow

Brittney Griner
Once again we see that in the WNBA, it's better to be lucky than bad.

But we're not upset with Phoenix for winning the league's draft lottery Wednesday night. Our frustration is that the WNBA hinges the fate of its franchises on random ping-pong balls in the first place. Or for that matter, that the league even has a draft at all.

Not sure why the league ever instituted a draft to start with, beyond, "well, the other leagues have it." So here's hoping the WNBA becomes the first league smart enough to abolish it. Because, simply put, most drafts no longer work as intended.

A draft is actually an antiquated idea for any league that has a salary cap. The draft was originally designed as a competitive balance tool in an era when the deep-pocketed teams - the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears in the NFL; the New York Yankees in MLB - would routinely outspend everyone else and stockpile top talent.

In the WNBA, everyone has the same rigidly-set players budget. No one can outspend anyone.

Nor does the draft, when combined with the goofy lottery, function as an effective means to help the league's weakest teams get off their knees. Thanks to the lottery, Washington, the worst team in the 2012 season, will pick fourth in next season's draft. Most agree there will be only three elite prospects available (Baylor's Brittney Griner, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins).

In 2011, Tulsa, after stumbling through arguably the worst season in WNBA history, was also relegated to picking fourth in the draft. The third pick went to WNBA champion Minnesota, which was coming off one of the best seasons in league history.

Meanwhile, Phoenix - leaving aside allegations the Mercury orchestrated a disastrous season for this discussion - is now in position to acquire potentially the most dominant player ever (Griner) not because of smarts, recruiting prowess or even because the Mercury were the worst team, but because of pure dumb luck.

Are we the only ones scratching our heads over this?
Now imagine if, instead of a draft, college players could sign with any team that wanted them (and could fit them under its cap). You know, like how virtually every other business operates in the real world?

For starters, it would take luck completely out of the process. No more worrying about how many ping-pong balls a team has in the bin - or which team may or may not be "tanking" to get those ping-pong balls. Regular-season results would have no bearing on a team's ability to sign players for the next season.

It would also inject all kinds of excitement and intrigue into the player procurement process (and we all know the WNBA could use all the excitement and intrigue it can get). As it stands now, while the actual draft won't be held until April, the league used up most of the drama surrounding the process Wednesday night. Barring any head-spinning developments, we pretty much know how things are going to shake out.

But if every college senior was available to every WNBA team, folks would spend the seven months wondering, debating and praying about which star, or stars, their team might line up. And every team would be involved in the process, not just the weakest handful. Then, instead of a draft day, we could have a Decision Day when the players would reveal which teams they've chosen. I haven't worried too much about missing a WNBA draft in past years. There's no way I'd miss Decision Day.

Beyond boosting interest, this new system could actually help competitive balance. Instead of having to wait its turn before selecting one player, a talented-starved team like Washington or Tulsa could go after three or four first-round caliber rookies and try to rebuild itself overnight.

For this system to work best, the league should remove its cap on rookie salaries and allow teams to spend up to the veteran's maximum on incoming players if it so chooses. The vast majority of rookies would still wind up being offered something close to the minimum. But each year the colleges send out one or two (or in this case, three) potentially franchise-changing talents that everyone wants. Why shouldn't these players be able to cash in on this status?

More importantly, eliminating the rookie wage limit would likely give the weaker team an easier time freeing up cap space for an impact newcomer. Established teams might have to jettison an established star or two to fit a star rookie under its cap - or offer less money.

Other tweaks, such as scaling the maximum rookie salary to won-loss record so that the weakest teams in a given year are allowed to offer a few thousand more, could be introduced to give the leagues lesser lights a fighting chance. But the fewer of these tweaks the better. Because the less regulation involved, the more talent evaluation, vision and cap management will replace luck and circumstance as factors in building a basketball team.

Again, a free market approach works in the real world every day. It would work just as well in the WNBA - especially compared to the alternative.


  1. The problem I see with this system is that it relies upon money as the motivating factor. Yet some teams, no matter what they offer are not going to be as inviting of a place as others. Players will take less to play on historically strong teams while refusing to even consider a mismanaged team. Teams would be stuck in their rut.

    Especially if you consider that the real financial motivation comes from playing overseas and the WNBA is more about competition. The WNBA can be used to leverage higher overseas contracts, but playing on a better, higher profile team would actually pay off more.

    The lottery system is broken, but I think the draft is necessary. Personally I favor a multiple year system to determine the draft order.

  2. Well said, ladyswish. The whole thing is farce.


  3. We would argue that, if you're an elite WNBA prospect, why should you consider a mismanaged team? That's one of the problems with the current system: poorly-run teams are actually rewarded. We say remove the safety net - the draft - and force these teams to compete. Also, we're not sure top players would always wind up on the same teams. As we see with colleges, players have a variety of reasons for choosing their ultimate destination. Who knows? If it were up to her, Griner may have actually chosen Tulsa because it's (relatively) close to her hometown.

    Where we agree completely is that some adjustments must be made to the current system. We simply favor a more radical approach.

    1. Because even a mismanaged team has the potential to get very good through the draft -- and it's to the benefit of the league to have as many good teams as possible, even those who shoot themselves in the foot.

      Take Minny for example. Many people would argue that Roger Griffith mismanaged the Lynx. Yet through the draft they have turned into a potential dynasty with an energized fanbase. Without the draft, who would have chosen to sign there? The league cannot handle more teams folding, even if it comes from mismanagement. The system needs to do what it can to allow bad teams to become good. Getting rid of the draft would entrench the good teams and harm the bad...even if it means more money playing on a bad.

  4. Thanks for the comment. Love the give-and-take. Our fundamental disagreement is about the consequences of no draft. I simply see no reason why, given sound management and the same financial resources as every other team, teams in cities like Chicago, Washington, Phoenix and yes, even Tulsa couldn't recruit their share of quality players. The current system not only covers for mismanagement, it incentivizes it.

  5. Love that Idea, but you and I both know that it will never happen. So, since we know the draft isn't going anywhere, GET RID of the Lottery. The worse team should get the first pick.

    Washington is a team that played their hearts out all year. They tried to win every game, but they just don't have the talent to compete consistently with the rest of the league. They are really bad, yet the fans in DC still come out to support them. They deserved the opportunity to pick #1, period. The lottery must go.

    The Mercury @ a glance next year (totally unfair, perhaps)

    5-10 A. Hornbuckle @ the point
    6-0 DT @ the 2
    6-4 DeWanna Bonner @ the 3
    6-2 Candice Dupree @ the 4
    6-8 B. Griner @ the 5 now heres what they of on the bench:

    Charde Houston F 6-0
    Lynetta Kizer F-C 6-4
    Nakia Sanford F-C 6-4
    Penny Taylor F 6-1
    Krystal Thomas C 6-5 (are you kidding me)

    I still don't know how the ATL Dream keep winning b/c they don't have half the talent on the Phoenix roster. If you ask me, what they did is weak.