The 76ers Gamed The NBA's Talent System Because That System Is Dumb

Congrats to Philly's basketball team for gaming a dumb system.
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It’s a good thing that Markelle Fultz, wizened enough about Philadelphia to name Larry’s as his cheesesteak choice, is excited about joining the 76ers as the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft. Because, of course, he does not have a choice.

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Fultz could have wound up in Brooklyn, had the Nets not made one of the worst trades in NBA history. Fultz could have wound up in Boston, had the Celtics held on to that No. 1 pick instead of sending it to the 76ers for the No. 3 pick and another first-rounder in the next two years. Fultz wound up in Philadelphia, where his arrival is seen as the culmination of The Process, the rebuild started by former general manager Sam Hinkie.

It was Hinkie, who conveniently wound up working in Silicon Valley after leaving the NBA, who started the 76ers down a path that outwardly was about a lot of purposeful losing, but inwardly was about a business truth put into viral form form this week by Twitter user @adequateGF: “every startup is just ‘[thing that already exists] but with skirting labor laws on a technicality.”

Only, in the case of The Process, it’s not skirting labor laws as much as embracing the system the NBA has had in place for decades. Play badly, and you get top young talent, which is the cheapest form of talent available because young talent has no bargaining power whatsoever. Under NBA rules, draft picks’ salaries must be between 80 and 120 percent of a predetermined figure.

For Fultz, that will mean a starting salary somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million. Since he likes Philadelphia, he will go, and be instantly rich, and play basketball with a young and talented team that’s already set a record for season-ticket sales, and hardly anyone will think anything of it.

So, this is not the time that the status quo of the NBA system will be challenged, but that doesn’t make it right or fair. Fultz might make $22 million over his first four years as a professional, but in a truly free and open market, he assuredly would make more, while also having a choice of where to make his lucrative living. The problem for any player looking to make it a free and open market is the inability to create leverage.

For one thing, one player couldn’t do it. If some 20-year-old kid doesn’t like the NBA rules, the NBA will be just fine without that player. While there are other basketball leagues around the world, it’s important to remember that NBA economics are vastly different than the overseas game, as the highest-paid player in Europe, former Knicks legend Alexey Shved, makes a whopping $3.4 million. That’s right between the slots for the No. 4 and 5 picks in the NBA draft.

If an NBA prospect really doesn’t like a potential landing spot, it’s possible to force a trade and still be paid quite handsomely, if not the true value that the market would bear. The fact that it’s life-changing money disincentives protest in a way that was not possible when Curt Flood, making $90,000, sat out the 1970 season to baseball’s reserve clause and pave the way for free agency.

This is the system, and while Hinkie wasn’t the first to recognize it, nobody has ever been as aggressive in exploiting it as the 76ers have been. Now, Philadelphia has a tremendous core in place and legitimate hopes that in the near future, they’ll get to raise a banner for the first time since 1983.

For the players who really should earn more, there’s only one route available: trust the process. Free agency, after all, is only a few years away.

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