Fix the NBA Draft by Killing It

A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 23 2013 10:53 AM

How to Fix the NBA Draft

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Who wants to hire this guy?

Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

With Indiana leading the Eastern Conference and Portland leading the Western Conference, I think it's bizarre that sports media continues to be obsessed with the idea that tanking is the only road to success. But obsessed they are, the NBA brass rightly doesn't like the idea of tankapaloozas dominating the season. Zach Lowe has a scoop about a proposal to replace the draft lottery with a fixed draft rotation.

That'd be nice. But here's an even better idea, drawn from the world of regular jobs. The way we in the media industry decide which talented new college graduates go work for Slate is that if there's a talented new college graduate who wants to work for Slate for an amount of money that we want to pay her, then she comes and works at Slate. But if she feels that she got a better job offer from the New Republic or the Atlantic or what have you, then she goes and works there.

The advantages of this system are considerable. For example, it allows workers to consider multidimensional trade-offs when considering job options. One place might offer higher salary, but another place might offer an opportunity to play a larger role and prove yourself. It also creates incentives for managers to build organizational capacity around making smart hiring decisions. Perhaps most importantly, it allows for complicated matching to take place. There's not necessarily such a thing as one "best" young journalist. Different people have different skills and dispositions, and different firms have different needs and different internal cultures. You might really need a great young interactives persons, or you might not because you already have one.

In fact this system of "hire whoever you can persuade to come work for you" is such an effective system of drawing young people into the labor force that it's used in fields outside journalism. Whether it's investment banking or fast-food service, both workers and employers in a wide range of occupations have found that this is a great solution to the "tanking" problem and carries a wide range of side benefits. There's no obvious reason it couldn't be employed by the National Basketball Association. Everyone wants Andrew Wiggins. But who has the means and the desire to pay him the most money? And where does he most want to play? Market exchange doesn't work for every problem, but like with parking spaces this is actually exactly the kind of problem markets are great at solving. The players and teams who want each other most should match up. Managers who consistently fail to persuade talented players to work for them should be fired. Owners who can't find managers who can persuade talented players to work for them should sell to more skilled capitalists in whose hands the franchise will be more valuable due to the more competent management.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.