These teams again? How to solve the NBA's parity problem

Shortly after Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the second game in a row where the Golden State Warriors casually beat the Cleveland Cavaliers by about 20 points, my brother texted me an interesting question. It’s a question that I think defines the current state of the NBA.

“Is there any player in the league that could be added to the Cavs roster that would make them better than the Warriors? Like, if the Cavs had Anthony Davis at the 5, or Kawhi Leonard at the 2, do they win?”

At first glance, I thought, “Nah, come on, of course adding one of those guys would push Cleveland over the edge. I think even adding Carmelo Anthony might do it.”

But then I thought about it some more. I took a couple of steps back.

Last year, these teams were virtually even. Golden State had the better regular season, but Cleveland beat them in a seventh game that went down to the final minute. Thinking of this as a math problem, Golden State added an MVP in Kevin Durant; wouldn’t it make sense that the Cavs have to cancel that out with another MVP-caliber player? My brother’s choices of Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis fit the bill.

Now, granted, maybe this is all way too soon to discuss. Maybe this series comes back to Cleveland and everything changes. The Cavaliers fans inspire the whole team, Kyle Korver/J.R. Smith/Richard Jefferson each start chipping in 10-12 points a game. We’ve seen Finals flip before; last year being the most recent example, but I also think of 2006 when the Dallas Mavericks looked in complete control up 2-0, only to lose four games in a row to a white-hot Dwyane Wade.

Things could change, but I don’t think the “What does Cleveland have to add to keep up” aspect is the most interesting part of the question. What’s more jarring to me is that it even is a question; like if the best player on the planet–who already has two solid running mates in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love–if he might need to add another MVP, then how the hell can Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Miami, Toronto, Houston, keep going down the list, how are these teams ever supposed to stand a chance? I feel like the fan bases of 27 teams (I’d argue the Spurs are more in the Cavs Tier 1 bucket) are now thinking to themselves, “Welp, maybe I just watch soccer for the next five years.”

The NBA has a parity problem

And the NBA is not alone. The NFL does the best job of hiding it; they make each fan base feel like they have a chance at the start of the season. This is why millions watch the NFL Draft, and even a team that went 2-14 feels like they’re just one quarterback, one running back away.

In reality? Seven of the last ten Super Bowls involved either a Brady or a Manning, or both. The ones that didn’t had either the Pittsburgh Steelers (6 Super Bowl rings), the San Francisco 49ers (5 Super Bowl rings), the Green Bay Packers (4 Super Bowl rings), or both. In August of 2013 an, “I’ll take the Harbaugh brothers, you can have the rest” bet would’ve been a safe choice in Vegas.

The NHL also feels like it has lots of parity, which makes sense because they have the most strict rules on the salary cap. But if I had said back in 2008 that only Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles would win Stanley Cups over the next ten years, I would have batted 8-for-10.

The biggest surprise might be baseball. It would seem that the sport with no rules on salary cap would be dominated by New York and Los Angeles. We’d get two, maybe three, different teams winning multiple rings in a 10-year span.

But in reality, since 2008, the MLB has seen seven different champions. And MLB teams rise and fall all the time; look at the standings right now, former basement dwellers like the Twins, Astros, Brewers, and Rockies lead their divisions while former champions like the Royals, Phillies, and Giants sit in last place.

So baseball is doing fine. And the NFL, as well as the NHL, aren’t nearly in the same boat as the NBA.

Why can I say that? Because the NFL does have a list of surprise franchises rising to the top. We’ll get a Ravens, a Seahawks, the Buccaneers, or the ultimate feel-good story of the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina. The NFL has had four Wild Card teams win the Super Bowl since the year 2000. That would be like the Utah Jazz or Milwaukee Bucks winning the NBA Title this year. And while the list of Super Bowl champions may be pretty exclusive, the list of teams that have at least made it to the Super Bowl game has a decent amount of variety.

The NHL has the same thing. My initial argument works well if you conveniently crop at 2008, but if you extend the cut a little bit further, you’ll see this stretch from 2001-2007 where six different teams hoisted the Stanley Cup. One of those included the Tampa Bay Lightning, which I’m guessing people in Tampa Bay asked each other during the victory parade, “Wait, we have a hockey team?

Having the best quarterback doesn’t guarantee a trip to the Super Bowl. Having the best hockey player doesn’t lock up a Stanley Cup. Having the best pitcher or best hitter in baseball doesn’t always solidify a trip to the Playoffs. A step further, having the best team doesn’t mean you’re invincible in the postseason.

Not the same in basketball. It’s rare that a team can make the NBA Finals without a future hall-of-fame player. To say a 20-62 team in the NBA has a shot next year, even with a top draft pick, is never the case. Not every team has a chance to win.

And that’s alright. This is why I think parity isn’t so much “every team has a chance to win,” but instead whether or not the best team, or teams, have a chance to lose.

Do these NBA teams have a chance to lose?

Former NBA Coach and current NBA announcer Jeff Van Gundy talks about how he wants to see, “Greatness pushed.” Let’s go to the tape of this year’s playoffs. Was greatness pushed?

The Cavaliers entered the Finals with a postseason record of 12-1. Two of the Cavs’ four wins in the Eastern Conference Finals were by over 30 points. One of those victories over the Celtics had a halftime score of 72-31. That’s the type of score you get in high school when one team is ranked nationally, and the other team has dudes texting at the end of the bench. And that sweep of the Raptors, it was like LeBron was bored. He started shooting left-handed, he even became a little bit Canadian by kindly helping a guy on Toronto not get a technical.

This is a really really good Cavs team. But all of that and here they are down 0-2 to what looks to be an even superior squad. Cleveland is getting blown out by the Golden State Warriors who are, at the time I’m writing this, 14-0 in the postseason. The Cavs are the first team that has forced them to break a sweat.

So how do we fix this?

I wrote a detailed plan in this fairly short ebook fittingly called, “How to Fix Professional Basketball (and college too)” but I’m not going to end with a sales pitch cliffhanger. Instead, here are the challenges the NBA faces + a couple of ideas (one of them not found in the book) for fixing the parity problem.

Step 1: First off, is it really a problem?

The talent on the court of this year’s NBA Finals is phenomenal. The level of play is some of the fastest, best shooting, most athletic we have ever seen. Last year’s ratings were great, this year is too, and will be even more if the Cavs can make a comeback in Cleveland.

So the question, then, is whether or not the Finals product can justify the disparity between the teams at the top vs. everyone else. A lot of fans, myself included, will say parity is a good thing, but in reality, we tune in more for Yankees vs. Red Sox, Celtics vs. Lakers, Red Wings vs. Blackhawks, Duke vs. North Carolina, etc., not so much Minnesota vs. Orlando. We want to see our favorite sport played at the highest possible level.

There are many signals that this year’s playoffs aren’t the NBA’s ideal. For example, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver saying point-blank at the beginning of the year, “I don’t think having two superteams is good for the league.” If that’s how he felt then, I’ve got to believe he’s doubled down after seeing the Playoffs.

And if that’s the league’s consensus, why not step in again like they did when they blocked the Chris Paul to Los Angeles Lakers trade. There’d be outrage out of the Warriors camp, but 29 other owners would have the NBA’s back. Do it all in the name of competitive balance (which is flip-floppy of me to say because I remember blasting the NBA as being communist after the whole CP3 thing).

But again, all of this assumes the current state of the NBA isn’t ideal. Quick devil’s advocate, kids from age six to 15 love teams that win. It’s why I see old photos of myself in a Dallas Cowboys jersey or a North Carolina hat. It’s possible, just like millions of kids around the world gravitating to the Michael Jordan Bulls in the 90’s, maybe the Warriors get the next generation hooked on basketball and steal the floor from football. Eventually, these kids will grow up and settle into home state teams and begin to see that sports, like adulthood, has isn’t one long victory parade.

But assuming lack of parity is a bad thing, here is my second favorite option to restore balance to the force:

1. You can only have one player on your roster that’s won an MVP in the last five years

Either Kevin Durant or Steph Curry would have to go. Durant couldn’t go back to Oklahoma City because of Russell Westbrook, which puts him probably in a Lakers or Celtics jersey.

2. Put in a true hard cap for the salary cap

No more luxury tax. If the cap is $94.14 million, then that’s what it is. Not a cent more. Any team that goes above it is not allowed to qualify for the postseason until they’re back below.

3. Establish a Kelley Blue Book value for players

Players taking salary cuts to keep super teams together, or create new ones, is secretly pretty noble. They are walking away from tens of millions of dollars. But it kills the rest of the league, specifically the small market clubs. Under this new system, a player can still technically take a pay cut, let’s say, Gordon Hayward does this summer with Boston instead of Utah, but their Kelley Blue Book value is what’s put on the salary cap so there would be no point to do so.

And this Kelley Blue Book type formula would be pretty easy to figure out. Establish values for All-Star appearances, years in the league; minutes played the year before, etc. The people that are doing advanced analytics for basketball right now could probably crank out this algorithm during a bathroom break.

So the option above is my second favorite choice. Then what’s my first?

Downsize the NBA from 30 teams to 22. With fewer teams, you get more talent on each squad. The plan restores parity, without damaging the Finals product. And makes for a much season + playoffs. You can read the full plan here at a price that stays under a one-dollar salary cap.

This will be the final basketball post on Medium Rare. BUT, never fear, I’ve launched a site exclusively for NBA and College Basketball content. Today I put up an article I think you might enjoy called “LeBron James vs. the Golden State Super Computer.” I think it’s the only article on the internet that works in references to a chess match from 20 years ago. Basketball writing will live there, everything else will remain here. 

Last thing, I found out my email hasn’t been receiving emails for months, and anything sent during that time can’t be recovered; which was devastating to find out (the only thing more devastating would be them saying, ‘Alright, we fixed it, aaaaanddd… yep, no one emailed you in that time, sorry). But it’s working now, so please feel free to reach out. You can also subscribe for weekly Medium Rare posts by putting your email address in the box below. Thanks for stopping by, see you next week!

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