The NBA is Full

This time of year is exciting and optimistic for NBA fans, and for the incoming draft class. All our new friends, like Joakim Noah, Morris Almond, and Jared Dudley are about to get their moment in the sun. And, of course, it's hardly just those three guys who are feeling good right now. There were sixty players drafted, plus a few more like Zabian Dowdell who believe they have a real shot at scoring some time on NBA rosters.

The way it's covered in much of the media, it's as if the NBA has just waved the magic wand and added all these players. But, in fact, what any veteran knows deep in the bones, is that the NBA doesn't add players. The number of players stays the same. It's a zero sum game.

15 roster spots (some carry fewer) x 30 teams = a bunch of fringe NBA players who didn't have a good time watching the NBA draft last Thursday night.

It might be fun to think "oh well, surely there must be roughly that many older players who are retiring." Nope.

Most players exit the league well before they get old enough to want to stop playing. And they just kind of slip away, in most cases. If your local paper tells you they're leaving at all, it would be in that tiny print in the back.

Then you'll see their name crop up somewhere -- in summer league, in the NBDL, overseas, or as an agent or something -- and you'll say "oh yeah, what happened to that guy? I thought he was going to be a big deal in the NBA?"

The list of people who almost stuck in the NBA is way longer than the list of people who did stick. From my recent memory: Qyntel Woods, Tyus Edney, Shawn Respert, Tamar Slay, or Bill Curley. And what about Jay Williams?

A lot of them are perfectly good NBA players, but perhaps they got injured at the wrong time, ended up in the wrong situation, had a bad attitude, or just never got the playing time.

So, with every draft, and with every rookie you're dreaming about, figure out whose career is taking a turn for the worse.

Just looking at the roster of my team, the Blazers -- when they were able to get guys like Channing Frye, Rudy Fernandez, and Josh McRoberts, I wonder how that made Ime Udoka feel? And what did draft day mean for Steve Francis? With all the guards on Portland's roster now, is there any chance he won't be bought out? And if he is bought out, and becomes a cheap free agent, how many chances could he have left, with his banged up wheels and sulky history?

Not to mention "Hello, Greg Oden" is to be followed shortly by "Goodbye, Luke Schenscher."

These are real people who, in most cases, really don't have any idea what they'll do with themselves if they're not going to play basketball. Tough business, you know?

UPDATE: Last Thursday, Oscar Robertson made the case on the Opinion page of The New York Times that players dropped from the NBA should be allowed, by the NCAA, to resume their college careers.

For every LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, there are hundreds of other teenage athletes who have been mistakenly led to believe they're ready for the N.B.A. Once they enter the draft and find out they're wrong, it's too late: they're not allowed to attend or return to college on an athletic scholarship.

In no other line of work is someone penalized for leaving or delaying school and returning later. Besides, college coaches - who can make millions of dollars - negotiate with other colleges, or with N.B.A. teams, all the time. They don't forfeit their employment if they decide to stay put.

Athletic scholarships should be guaranteed for four years, instead of renewable year to year by the college. College athletes should also receive a modest stipend and more realistic expense money. If athletes have to struggle to get by, of course they will want to turn pro as soon as possible. They're also more likely to accept money from agents who want to sign them, although agents aren't the only people who slip money to college athletes. (Signing with an agent makes players ineligible for the college game, whether or not money has changed hands - but coaches are allowed to collect fees for referring agents to players!)

The N.B.A. and the N.C.A.A. have brilliant people working in management. Certainly they can come up with a better system than "one and done" that is equitable for the colleges and the athletes, gives athletes an incentive to stay in school and reinforces the value of education.