What does an NBA age minimum and Allen Iverson’s unemployment have to do with one another? Potentially make for some interesting basketball played outside the NBA. This is more a #hoopidea than a likely reality, but it seems like it could solve two problems at once.
Age Minimums and …
Last May, Steve Kerr stirred up the basketball writing world when he took to Grantland to advocate for a 20-year age minimum for NBA players. While the age limit escaped the contentious lockout unscathed, remaining at (essentially) 19 years of age, David Stern has gone on the record stating that he would like it increased one year. In Kerr’s piece he wrote:
“I believe the NBA would best be served by raising its age requirement to 20 years old. Fans and critics have assorted opinions about morals, ethics, education, fairness, and law, but to me, this really comes down to a single issue: Would the NBA’s business be stronger by raising the age requirement? I say yes…”
Kerr then listed the following six reasons:
1) Player Maturity;
2) Financial Costs;
3) Player Development;
5) A sense of team; and
Kerr tried his hardest to stay on his “this is only about business” script. But he veered off into tangents about his wonderful college basketball experience that allowed him to mature as a player and person, developing what would become lifelong basketball friendships and receiving valuable mentoring during his time at Arizona. There are lots of good arguments for free labor markets, including in pro hoops and the NBA. At the same time, Kerr’s basic point–that NBA teams aren’t the place to develop raw young ballers into skilled pros–is well taken; particularly when you consider that the nature of the NBA lottery means that the worst teams usually end up drafting 19-year olds who left college after their freshman season. (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal…)
Leaving early doesn’t jeopardize a player’s chances at a successful career. But a 19-year old player is almost always a worse player than he is when he’s 20. And his 20-year old self is worse than his 21-year old self.
Kerr cites some top-rated picks who were impact players from day one and compares them with others who were not, especially where their impact matters most: the win/loss column. (Eds. note: HINT–younger players tend to do worse.)
Preps-to-pros guys like LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are on the short list of best players I’ve ever seen, but none of those guys propelled his team to new heights as a rookie. On the other hand, guys with significant college experience like Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal–all played two or more years of college ball–were dominant pros from the get go. It isn’t just a big man thing, either: Larry Bird, Grant Hill and Michael Jordan all had an instant impact after long and successful collegiate careers. This isn’t to say 18-year olds don’t have game. Many have the size, athleticism, and talent to command playing time and put up numbers. But the NBA’s product would be more competitive if guys like KG, Kobe, and even LeBron had more experience when they came into the League. What to do?
Fans Want To Watch Old and Broken Players–But Can’t
Allen Iverson still wants to play basketball for a living. The problem is, no NBA team wants to employ him. So he might end up joining the illustrious ranks of Patty Mills, JR Smith, Kenyon Martin, Stephon Marbury, and others who have taken their talents to China. (If you thought Iverson was a forgotten man in NBA fan circles, then you obviously haven’t been reading HoopSpeak lately.) Iverson isn’t the only former star who can’t find an NBA job. Last I checked, Gil Arenas is a free agent. So is the aforementioned Marbury. Hell, so is Greg Oden. As the influx of talented players continues to fill out NBA rosters with entertaining and productive players, there is a continued outflow of “has been” players, out of the league typically with some combination of deconditioning, attitude, substance abuse, injury, or simple age problems. That doesn’t mean there’s no demand side from fans who still want to be entertained by their unique qualities and quirks.
So what do an NBA age limit and Allen Iverson’s unemployment have to do with one another? The potential for a fun league filled with talent. That talent would be skewed toward the very young and the very old, in terms of basketball peak.
It’d be simple: if the NBA age limit increased to 20 (and especially if it matched the NFL and increased to 21) there would be a potentially large pool of talented young players fans would pay to watch, and they’d pay to watch them outside the NBA and NCAA. And as the AI and Arenas examples attest, there’s already a substantial number of quirky unemployed vets that could also command an audience, especially if put in the right setting. There might just be a market for a competitive, semi-serious, pro basketball league in America that could run parallel to the NBA, sort of like the ABA in the 1970s.
I grew up in Southeastern Minnesota and watched two CBA franchises come through Rochester. The Rochester Flyers are such an obscure part of hoops history that they don’t even show up on a Google search, except for this ebay image:
You’ll just have to trust me that they did, indeed, exist and professional basketball was played in Minnesota in the 1980’s. After the Flyers left, they were replaced by the Renegade (SINGULAR!).
Again, not much by way of Google hits, except that they show up in Coach Bill Musselman’s Wikipedia page. While you’re over at Musselman’s bio, check out his Albany Patroons team. They went 48-6 en route to a CBA title and included former or to-be NBA players Tony Campbell, Scott Brooks, Sidney Lowe, Scott Roth (lots of future Musselman-led Timberwolves. Coincidence?) and Michael Ray Richardson.
Yes, Michael Ray Richardson came through Rochester when playing against the Flyers. He’s exactly the type of *former* great whose idiosyncrasies and demons would endear him to a niche audience of fans. And wouldn’t it be fun to see a guy like him run with a guy like Shabazz Muhammad for a year? Muhammed, incidentally, may not be seen playing anywhere next year, as his eligibility at UCLA is currently in question due to allegations that he received improper benefits.
Would people pay to watch a team that has Allen Iverson and Anthony Davis on it? How about Bradley Beal and Antoine Walker? There are many holes in this plan that I’m not addressing. What would happen to the D-League? Wouldn’t the NCAA respond in a way to keep players in college? (Hint: It might have to share its huge profits with the players who earn them.) Like all other minor basketball leagues, it would have a shelf life, and probably a short one. But if it meant a few years of interesting hoops that left the development process out of the NBA, led to long-overdue overhauls to “amateur” basketball in college, and entertained fans with a chapter of basketball history, it’s worth a shot. But if we’re going to make this happen, James Earl Jones will need to speak with potential investors.