Lost In Translation

By John Canzano
Updated: March 28, 2008

OREGON — This season, the NBA spent money, time and careful consideration pounding the idea that 19-year-old Kevin Durant is one of the best young players in the NBA. The league told you that Durant is the future.

The NBA even put Durant on television on Christmas Day.

After June’s draft, expect the NBA to do the same promotional bit with rookies Kevin Love and Michael Beasley, who will be teenagers when they enter the league.

Try to remember all that when you hear that NBA commissioner David Stern is whispering about instituting a rule that would ban teenagers from the NBA.

Let’s see. By your 18th birthday you’re legally eligible to gain employment in any of the NBA arenas in this country taking tickets, working in food services, or the parking lot, or as a security guard or usher.

What you’re not eligible to do is play basketball for a living.

To do that, you have to wait until one year after graduating from high school. Stern made sure of that in 2005 when he instituted a minimum age requirement, and now Stern’s talking about raising the limit to 20 when the Collective Bargaining Agreement is revisited after the 2010-11 season.

Stern will tell you he’s only doing what’s best for the game, and that he’s protecting young, talented, raw college athletes who aren’t NBA ready. Really, he just sounds like a raging hypocrite.

Market Durant? Or ban him? Which is it?

Maybe you think the league would have been better off forcing Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard, among others, to wait until they were 20 to help bolster the NBA’s dwindling talent pool.

Or maybe you think that Stern’s Development League will be the real winner if the age minimum is raised again because franchises will be forced to develop the talent they have in the league’s farm system.

Or maybe what the NBA needs to do is take a good, long look at itself and realize that the biggest changes that need to go down after 2010-11 have nothing to do with age discrimination, but everything to do with the league’s labor contract.

Guaranteed contracts, the cheap price of rookie labor, inhibited salary-cap flexibility, and the ridiculous cost of unrestricted free agency are all bigger problems than having a handful of 19-year-olds hanging around locker rooms.

What the league needs is a market-based solution.

If Stern were truly interested in ensuring that only those who were ready to contribute were selected every June, what he’d do is significantly raise the rookie salary scale, encouraging teams to stop drafting on speculation and select only NBA-ready players.

As it stands, teams are being encouraged to abandon developing the players they have and instead chase young, potentially good players who pretty much play for less than market value until their fourth year in the league.

Stern already believes he’s accomplished some good by instituting a limit that caused Love, Greg Oden, Durant and O.J. Mayo to attend college for one season.

I’m not sure why the commissioner believes a second year spent waiting would make much of a difference, especially if he truly believes his coaches, and the NBA system, are among the best in the world.

The market, not a birth certificate, should dictate whether a player should be drafted. Raising the age limit isn’t going to make the league better, it’s going to make it older.

It’s not going to force teams to choose more diligently on draft day or do a better job developing the talent they have, which only means it’s going to result in a further watering down of the talent. In the end, none of that is good for a professional basketball league that is struggling to connect with regular Americans.

Under Stern’s potential 20-year-old minimum plan, Durant could have sold programs or worked in the parking lot or sold concessions or been an usher at KeyArena, but what he couldn’t do is play basketball and help the SuperSonics win games.

And there’s something about that that feels woefully wrong.