What is a Draft?
The NBA has used a college entry draft since 1947. Like in the other major American sports leagues, a draft is the primary source of distributing new talent to its teams in an effort to achieve competitive balance. The Basketball Association of America (BAA) held four drafts from 1946 to 1949. The BAA annexed the surviving teams of the NBL (National Basketball League) prior to the 1950-51 season and the NBA was born. The NBA’s first draft was held on April 25th, 1950 and an entry draft has been held in each year since.
The concept is similar in all sports. The main goal is to allow the worst teams from the prior year to have the first choice of the incoming players. Teams select collegiate players starting with the team who had finished with worst record the prior year and the team with the best record picks last; after this first “round” the process would repeat for as many rounds as were allowed. The number of rounds has been reduced over the course of the league’s first couple decades; in some years there were as many as 21 rounds. The number of rounds was finally set at 10 for the 1974 draft. Ten rounds became the standard (save for 1977 when there were only 8 rounds) until 1985 when the number of rounds was reduced to seven. The number was reduced again from 7 to 3 for the 1988 NBA draft and the current standard of two rounds began the next year for the 1989 Draft.
How the Draft Helped Stabilize the League
Back in the early years of the NBA, the struggling young league recognized that in order to keep teams afloat (The league went from 16 to 8 teams within the its first decade of existence) that they would have to do all they could to make the game more personable for fans of their local teams. One of the ways that the NBA tried to achieve this goal was the institution of Territorial Picks in the draft. The concept of a territorial pick was that if there was a player entering the league who had ties to the market area (within a 50 mile radius) of a particular team, that team could forfeit their 1st round pick in order to claim that player despite how well they had finished the year before. One challenge to the 50 mile radius rule was made for the 1959 draft when University of San Francisco center Wilt Chamberlain was made a territorial pick by the Philadelphia Warriors who argued that he had played high school at nearby Overbrook high school. Ironically, Chamberlain would only play three years in Philadelphia because the Warriors franchise would move to California prior to the 1962-63 season. Although territorial picks were made before the actual draft and are not officially counted as draft picks they are usually included in any recount of a particular draft. Overall, there were 22 players total (11 of them are now in the Basketball Hall of Fame) picked as territorial picks from 1949 until 1965. Territorial picks were eliminated prior to the 1966 draft.
Other Types of Drafts
There are a couple of other types of drafts that the NBA has held since its inception in 1949. The first is the dispersal draft. Dispersal drafts were held early in the history of the league. The first was a BAA dispersal draft in 1947. This dispersal draft was to redistribute the players from the Cleveland Rebels, Detroit Falcons, Pittsburgh Ironmen, and Toronto Huskies who all ceased operations after 1946-47 season. After the first merger (BAA-NBL) there were three smaller dispersal drafts that occurred. In 1950 two different dispersal drafts occurred; the first was after the St. Louis Bombers and Anderson Packers folded, and the second after the Chicago Stags dispersed. The third NBA dispersal draft occurred in 1951 after, during the season, the Washington Capitols folded.
Another type of draft that has occurred during the history of the association is the Expansion draft. An expansion draft is used when a new team is added to the league. Rather than taking its entire roster from the collegiate ranks, a draft of players currently playing in the league on other teams is held. While the first expansion franchise, the Chicago Packers (now the Washington Wizards), did not have this luxury, all expansion teams since have filled their roster through an expansion draft. Expansion drafts were held in the following years: 1966: Chicago Bulls; 1967: San Diego Rockets (now the Houston Rockets) & Seattle Supersonics; 1968: Milwaukee Bucks & Phoenix Suns; 1970: Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) & Cleveland Cavaliers; 1974: New Orleans Jazz (now the Utah Jazz); 1980: Dallas Mavericks; 1988: Miami Heat & Charlotte Hornets (now the New Orleans Hornets); 1989: Orlando Magic & Minnesota Timberwolves; 1995: Vancouver Grizzlies (now the Memphis Grizzlies) & Toronto Raptors; and 2004: Charlotte Bobcats.
From 1967 to 1975 there was another basketball league that competed with the NBA for fans as well as the top collegiate players. The ABA held its own drafts from 1967 to1975. Eventually the ABA could not compete with the NBA and four of its top teams were absorbed into the NBA (The San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and New Jersey Nets). In 1976 the NBA held a dispersal draft of the remaining ABA players.
The final type of draft that has occurred in the NBA has only occurred one time. However, it is one of the most significant in terms of its impact on the league. As the result of a lawsuit filed by Spencer Haywood, the NBA was required by the court to allow college underclassmen to apply for the draft if they could claim financial hardship. In 1971 the NBA held its only Hardship draft. While only 5 players were selected, the league changed their rule to allow all such players who could claim financial hardship to declare for the draft. In 1976 the hardship requirement was removed completely, allowing all underclassmen to declare regardless of financial circumstance as long as they renounce their college eligibility 45 days prior to the draft. In 2006, as part of the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players union, a rule was adopted that restricted players who entered the draft to be either one year removed from high school and 19 years of age by the end of the calendar year.
The Rewards of Being Bad
The importance of the college draft was becoming more and more apparent as impact players such as Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson arrived with a bang, often with franchise changing results. Both of those players, as well as many others, were territorial picks. The league recognized that in order to give all teams an equal chance to build a championship team that the draft process would have to be altered. So in the same year that the territorial pick was eliminated, the league instituted a new policy regarding the first pick in the draft. The teams with the two worst records would have a coin flip to determine who would pick first. Possibly the most important coin-flip was won by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969 when the 1st selection landed them UCLA standout Lew Alcindor, who would later become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and their only NBA title the very next year. Ten years later, in 1979, Kareem’s Lakers would win a coin-flip that would allow them to select Michigan State’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson with the first selection. The coin-flip was used from 1966 until 1985 when another potential impact player would change the system again.
The Institution of the Lottery
Prior to the 1985 Draft there was much concern about NBA teams intentionally losing games in order to have a chance at drafting Georgetown center Patrick Ewing – just as there was much debate that teams like Houston had the prior year in order to have a chance at University of Houston center Akeem Olajuwon. In order to protect the competitive integrity of the league, Commissioner David Stern adopted a lottery system whereas the draft order of the seven teams who missed the playoffs would be selected. In 1987 the lottery system was changed so that only the top 3 picks were determined by the lottery. In 1990 the process was changed to a weighted lottery giving the teams with the worst records a better chance at landing in the top 3 spots. After 1993 when the Orlando Magic won the lottery for the second year in a row despite having only a 1.5% chance of doing so the system was weighted even more. As the NBA has added expansion teams the number of teams in the lottery has grown accordingly. The 1985 lottery included 7 teams; the number was raised to 9 in 1989, to 11 in 1990, to 13 in 1995, and to 14 in 2004. Expansion has affected the draft order in another way: In 1995 when the Toronto Raptors and then-Vancouver Grizzlies were added to the league, part of their expansion agreement was that neither could win the lottery until at least 1999 – Toronto won the lottery in 1996 and Vancouver in 1998 and in both circumstances the team had to select second.
Since its inception in 1985, the draft lottery has grown into a rather large event. Television coverage of its results occur each year during the conference finals from the NBA offices in Secaucus, New Jersey. The draft itself has become a bigger event than anyone ever could have imagined. Television has expanded each year and it has even been awarded to cities outside of New York on a handful of occasions. The number of websites, blogs, and online discussions are uncountable as they the draft becomes more and more popular. The lottery and the draft are popular because they capitalize on the popularity of the college game as well as give hope to the fans of the league’s downtrodden franchises.
Why the Draft Matters
True fans of sports teams feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat just as sharp as the players do; some may argue more so. While a player may play his heart out while under contract he owes no allegiance to a team once his contract is up. A true fan however, loves their team whether the team is winning or losing. So if the saying hope springs eternal is true, then the draft is the fountain from which that hope springs. We fans hope that our team can draft that one special player; a difference maker; the one that will lead their team up from the void of irrelevance, through mediocrity and respectability, to the summit of the basketball mountain. In the NBA, more so than any of the other major professional sports leagues, having a superstar is required to have a successful team; and fans know that only that special type of player can ultimately bring the Holy Grail of basketball to their beloved team. Bird, Magic, Isiah, Michael, Hakeem, Duncan, and Kobe were all drafted (or acquired on draft day) by the teams that they won titles with. That is the best proof of why legions of people like me are so passionate about the NBA Draft.