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The problem with Mark Cuban's D-League pitch

A big-time prospect can make more money playing college basketball than he can for the Texas Legends.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend, Mark Cuban made headlines when he said one-and-done players should think about spending their one season after high school in the D-League, rather than in college. The crux of Cuban's argument is that the D-League, which can offer a paycheck and a professional environment, is more suited to training players than the NCAA, which forces them to "pretend to be students" and restricts their practice time as well as their ability to make money.

There's not much of a defense to be made of the NCAA's business model, which demands "student-athletes" receive no compensation for their basketball skills beyond a scholarship while selling those skills to TV networks for $11 billion dollars. However, despite the manifest unfairness of the current system, the ones who are harmed the most -- one-and-done stars like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker -- are not the ones leading the charge for reforming it.

The reality is, with so much money flowing through amateur basketball, a guy like Myles Turner or Cliff Alexander would be taking a substantial pay cut to go the D-League. None of this is to say those two, or any other college star, is "on the take." It's like anything else -- there are kids who want the money and kids who don't and there are kids who need the money and kids who don't. The point is that if an elite 18-year old basketball player wants to get paid, the money will find him.

It starts in middle school, when they have to decide which traveling AAU team they play with. The best programs in their area can offer chartered flights, brand-new uniforms and top-of-the-line sneakers. Most importantly, they offer a chance to build relationships with shoe companies that want to identify the elite prospects as early as possible. Adidas and Nike are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars (to someone) for a Top 10 player to represent their brand.

As they get older, the money only gets bigger. In high school, they can play in a different national tournament every weekend in the spring and summer. The very best play for Team USA and compete in international tournaments, which starts to build their buzz for NBA drafts many years down the line. By the time they are 16-17, they are celebrities with international reputations who have agents knocking down their doors to give them money.

College coaches, meanwhile, are doing everything in their power to get in with their families and their AAU coaches or whoever has the power to influence their decision about where to go to school. Most of this is done at the level of assistant coaches, who know that the ability to "reel in" a Top 10 player will not only ensure their job security but will put them in line to one day be a head coach themselves, a job with annual salaries in the millions of dollars.

These days, with fans tracking everything on social media, it's basically impossible for a top prospect to take a visit to a college campus or develop a relationship with a coach without everyone knowing about it. Boosters who might not even have a connection to the program start coming out the woodwork: maybe a relative will get a job or a loan application comes through or a car note is paid off. The money is like water; it flows downhill. Block it one way and it finds another.

If you follow college recruiting, it's hard not to hear the stories. Player X "has his hand out" or AAU Coach Y shuttles players to programs who are willing to "play ball". Of course, from the outside, there's no way to know what's real, what's speculation and what's disinformation being planted by rival programs or jealous fans. It's a whole bunch of bullshit and it's the reason coaches like Gary Williams are no longer in the business.

However, from the perspective of the NCAA, there isn't much that can be done. No one has much of an incentive to expose the structural flaws of the system they are a part of. If you start running around naming names and accusing people of things without any real proof, you will become a pariah very quickly. What's the difference? Unless you are dealing with Tim Floyd, you are never getting a coach in the room with the money anyway.

In this scene from season 3 of The Wire, a police detective confronts Stringer Bell, a drug dealer who has become "the bank":

The bank plays it legit. He generates a good bit of honest income but, at the same time, his money finances packages that he himself will never touch. He won't go near the street. He's insulated from the everyday operations of the corner. The money that comes back is laundered through enough straight business investments that there's no way to trace it. A player get to that point -- ain't no way in hell a working police is going to tie a can to his tail.

The NCAA is like any other command economy: it can try to set limits on wages and enforce restrictions on the market from up high, but human beings are a resourceful lot who worry more about what they perceive to be their best interest than following arbitrary guidelines set by people who they don't know and will never meet. The game will always be the game -- there's no John Wooden without Sam Gilbert, no Fab Five without Ed Martin.

There is too much money on the line and too much at stake for everyone in college basketball to play by the rules. If you replace every dirty program, every AAU coach getting money on the side and every unsavory agent, but don't change the system, nothing will change. If boosters are willing to give schools hundreds of millions of dollars to build facilities to impress recruits -- there are other ways to impress recruits who come from poor backgrounds.

If the market value for the services of a Top 10 player (and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament) is in the millions of dollars but he can only be paid in the thousands, a black market will sprout up pretty quickly. In that respect, NBA fans and writers don't have to worry too much about the kids and their families. They aren't idiots; they know the game is out there. Whether or not they want to play is a personal decision, but they can choose to play at anytime.

Would it be better if everything was on the up-and-up and conducted in daylight? Of course. However, a wage cap set by the D-League is no more likely to work than one set up by the NCAA. If Cuban wants the D-League to be an alternative to the colleges, he needs to start offering market salaries. When the Legends start talking $250-500K, that's when the best players will start to listen. Until then, they will see Cuban's proposal for what it really is: cheap talk.

Cuban is right in one respect: there's a whole of pretending going on in college basketball. The players pretend to be students, the coaches pretend to be role models, the schools pretend to teach them, the NCAA pretends to enforce the rules and the fans pretend to care. The system has reached an equilibrium that satisfies everyone involved. If disrupting it was easy as throwing up some minor-league franchises and offering $30K a year, it would have already happened.