Someone more tenacious and more adept at number-crunching than I might be able to do more with this angle. I don't have much more than a feeling and some anecdotal evidence. But, in this day of Moneyball in baseball, and increasing reliance on statistical analysis in the NBA, it seems to me that an obvious (I mean painfully snake-it-woulda-bit-you evident) return-on-investment (ROI) discussion has been all but ignored.
The Clippers drafted two college seniors in Thursday's draft. Out of 15 college seniors taken, the Clippers took two of them. Everyone continually uses the pat-phrase 'NBA-ready' when talking about 22 and 23 year olds, to describe that they are supposedly physically and emotionally more mature. But consider the financial ramifications of the question of 'NBA-ready.'
The CBA is structured such that the clock starts ticking (and the money starts flowing) on rookies the instant they sign a contract, regardless of their age, and regardless of how 'NBA-ready' they are. When you pick a 19 year old (or prior to 2007 an 18 year old) and sign them to a contract immediately, the vast majority of those picks are earning their first two years of salary while still learning how to play. Under the current CBA, the first two seasons are guaranteed, followed by team options for two seasons. That limits the teams overall financial exposure, but doesn't make the pick any less risky. The Clippers' decision regarding Korolev wasn't particularly difficult - the draft pick was a mistake and they cut their losses at the first opportunity. But what if it turns out the guy can actually play when he's 21 or 22? By drafting an 18 year old, they committed to paying him $3M (and tying up a roster spot) for two years while it was fairly obvious he wouldn't be able to help, to put themselves in a position to decide whether they wanted to throw more money at him on the chance that later he might be able to help. It's completely backwards from a risk management standpoint.
Of course some clubs mitigate this risk on the young European players by drafting them and leaving them to mature in Europe for a few more seasons, before the clock starts ticking on their first NBA contract. That's an infinitely more sensible strategy than signing the 18 year old (and obviously what the Clippers should have done with YK), and has worked well on a couple of occasions, particularly in the case of Kirilenko, but it's still a gamble. And so far, no one's taken an American teenager and shipped them off to Barcelona - that's not going to happen, since they're worth a lot more to their agents (and other hangers on) playing in the NBA.
Look at two recent NBA draft classes full of high schoolers: 2001 and 2004. Of the 5 lottery picks in the 2001 draft (Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Desagana Diop and Kedrick Brown), none of them are with the team that drafted them, and only the Wizards have anything to show in trade (thanks to Mitch Kupchak). Of the 8 top 20 picks from 2004, Dwight Howard is a success, Al Jefferson and Josh Smith are paying dividends, and the other 5 are either problem children (Telfair, J.R. Smith) or still unknown quantities (Livingston, Dorell Wright and Robert Swift). These unknown quantities will be unrestricted free agents next June - what will their clubs decide to do with them? I've said it before, though it is more than a tad cold-hearted: Livingston's injury may end up being a very good thing for the Clippers if it allows them to re-sign him on the cheap so that he plays for them when his body is ready, without costing them a huge salary.
Let me be clear that I'm not talking about the obvious mega-stars here. LeBron James, Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, even Dwight Howard: you draft them at whatever age the NBA allows you to draft them, and you pay the money to keep them. The rules are different for those guys.
As for the mortal teenagers, I'm not talking simply about the inherent risks of drafting a kid, who may or may not be ready, and may or may not ever be great. (At least we're not drafting high schoolers anymore, who built their stats dominating against defenders about half their size.) In fact, two of the best examples of this ROI problem are two of the most successful teenagers ever to come into the NBA: Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal. TMac was originally drafted by the Raptors, and by the time he was a restricted free agent Toronto had paid him $4.7M, but only played him enough to tantalize the rest of the league with his talent. At the age of 21, he was playing for Orlando under a maximum contract that the Raptors decided not to match. O'Neal likewise was a seldom used reserve under his rookie contract with Portland, but a max-contract all-star with the Pacers. The teams that drafted these high-schoolers essentially gave them on the job training, burning high draft picks, roster spots and money, so that other teams could benefit from the finished product.
Even the ongoing soap operas of Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are cautionary tales. We're talking about transcendent, game-changing talents here. But if you think about, we're in uncharted waters - the 90's era high school phenoms are now in their 30's. What happens when a 31 year old is also a 13 year vet? 31 is not overly old, but 13 years is a LOT of miles.
KG signed the last mega-money contract before the CBA that set a limit on individual salaries. But Kobe is the test case for a brand new economics 101 course. Consider: maximum salary is determined by years of service. If indeed Kobe opts out of his current Lakers contract and becomes a free agent in two seasons, he would be eligible for 35% of the overall salary cap as a 10 year vet. A six year deal, with the usual raises, would likely start somewhere close to $25M and would probably exceed $180M total. At the beginning of such a contract he'd be 30, and at the end he'd be 36. Is someone going to commit $180M to a 13 year vet in his 30's? Probably. I mean, it's Kobe Bryant. But is he going to be worth $35M in his 18th year in the league? That's a different question.
ROI should be one of the foremost considerations in building an NBA roster - it's sad, but true. You have a maximum of 15 spots to work with, complex salary cap and luxury tax rules, and myriad other considerations. One bad long term contract can hinder your chances of success for years (though a good bounce in the lottery can change that, as evidenced by Portland's current team which features about $36M in salaries next season to Steve Francis, Raef LaFrentz and Darius Miles, though none of those three figure in the Blazers bright future). R.C. Buford is probably overrated as a GM, but the one thing he has done undeniably well is manage the payroll. He signs his stars to long term deals (and got Parker and Ginobili to sign below their market value somehow), and recycles the role players in short term, low dollar contracts. Who cares whether it's Rasho Nesterovich or Francisco Elson getting minutes at the 5? Take the one that's cheaper and win another ring.
When the NBA version of Moneyball is written, I think it will indicate that older draft picks are better investments. This is yet another reason I am excited about the Clippers' picks of Thornton and Jordan. We'll have a much better idea of what we really have going into training camp, and they won't just be 'practice players' for their first two years in the league. Sure, the teenager is the exciting, high-risk, high-reward pick. But in reality, which of these gambles have paid off in recent years? Off the top of my head, Rashard Lewis and Monta Ellis are the only teenagers taken in the second round who are even still in the league. Compare them to Michael Redd, Carlos Boozer and Gilbert Arenas. In other words, there's not even much evidence to support the 'home run' theory of picking youngsters. (And yes, I realize that Boozer and Arenas are now playing for other teams, but the loophole in the CBA that precluded their teams from re-signing them as been closed at this point.)
Only time will tell if Thornton and Jordan pan out in the NBA, but I like their chances. And the fact that Clippers fans will know sooner rather than later just makes it all a little more humane.