Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The NBA Draft, A Locus of Radical Egalitarianism

Tomorrow night brings the NBA Draft, an annual allocation of employees to employers that, unlike most spheres of American life, puts fairness above efficiency. Were the draft solely concerned with maximizing happiness produced, it would survey each player on his ranking of preferred teams, then survey each team on its ranking of preferred players, and allocate them so as to maximize total satisfaction of players and teams. The richest teams would pay the most and the best players would earn ghastly sums. But the draft emphasizes equity in two ways: First, the worst teams get the best young players, helping them to improve. Second, salaries of rookies are strictly regulated, so that the #1 pick makes only one order of magnitude more money than a second-rounder (in contrast to the real world, where some not-particularly-skilled 22-year-olds can make six figures but many these days are unemployed).

In any case, the draft reminds me of the exodus that my college classmates made away from our cloistered university life into the "real" world many years ago. Some struck an ironic pose, treating work disdainfully, and imagining themselves still hip bohemian students. Some dove delightedly (sometimes disturbingly so) into the new institutions they joined, concentrating on ingratiating themselves with the movers and shakers they met. Some picked entirely new directions to take their life, but some continued on a dogged track that they had chosen at age 12 or so.

In any case, back on graduation day, every one of us had potential. Armed with the same diploma and the freedom to exercise our gumption, each person had enormous opportunities. Some soared high, some motored sturdily, some coasted, and a small number, unfortunately, stalled out. Years later, the correspondence of actual achievement to then-felt-goals is a fairly tight correlation, but there are a few anomalies here and there. Stuff happens to divert aspirations or steal away resources; perhaps someone realizes that crazy hard work really isn't worth it. But on the day we donned the same flat-capped uniform and left school, we were like NBA draftees, hopeful and equally-positioned.

Of course, some NBA picks "pan out" but some become "busts". For example, many of the "next Jordans" who showed up on the scene in the mid-to-late '90s are now washed up, or out of the league, due to injuries. Consider:

  • Stephon Marbury (drafted 1996)

  • Penny Hardaway (drafted 1993)

  • Steve Francis (drafted 1999)

  • Tracy McGrady (drafted 1997)

  • Michael Finley (drafted 1995)

  • Jerry Stackhouse (drafted 1995)

  • Grant Hill (drafted 1994)

  • Of the Next MJs of 10-15 years ago, only Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, & (especially) Kobe Bryant continue to perform at All-Star level. Many of the above-bulleted guys succumbed to injuries not of their fault, or received poor medical treatment that made the injuries worse than necessary. But many are now sapped and aged because they failed to work on developing their bodies, and now have no "hops" or "quicks" left. Marbury is already playing in China, and Francis has intimated he may go there soon.

    The annual draft is a wonderful time, for we have the creative agency to imagine these players blossoming or falling in so many sundry ways. And why not? Evan Turner might be a jerk. Greg Monroe might be the next Sabonis. James Anderson could be the finest jump-shooter in the league, while Patrick Patterson could tear something. Apres moi, I appreciate the draft because it takes me back to an innocent day when I was 22 and had not yet made the choices that would lead to more choices.

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