NBA: No Balance Association
Are you suffering from championship withdrawal? I might have some answers…
Do you know why sports are great? ‘Cause they don’t make no friggin’ sense.
Take a look at baseball: Baseball’s a game of failure. Delivering a base hit in 1/3 of your at-bats is considered elite.
The Florida Marlins hold the same exact number of World Series championships, two, as the Philadelphia Phillies—in a 110 fewer seasons.
Basketball make no sense either. How any NBA coach allows an opposing player to score over 50 points is mindblowingly mindboggling. Ever heard of a double-team, Coach? Not gonna preach the whole “we’re-gonna-make-the-other-players-beat-us” thing? No, Coach? Again, void of sense.
And football? HA! Let’s see now: Miracle at the Meadowlands. Music City Miracle. Tom Brady. The 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills. 4th and 26. Immaculate Reception. Leon Lett. Somebody please tell me how some of these plays and games managed to actually take place.
But here’s the kicker: In the last 30 years, 19 different MLB teams have won a world series, 14 NFL teams don super bowl rings, 13 NHL teams have hoisted the Stanley cup, and the number of NBA teams that have won a championship in that span: eight.
So that’s close to half of the NFL and NHL clubs, an expected number for two leagues with a hard salary cap. And an important part of their balanced success is the fact that in both leagues, out of nowhere, any team has a shot to make the playoffs.
For instance, recently in my NFL survivor pool, I picked the Vikings over the Lions. But besides that relatively easy choice, every other week two game was a toss up. And that’s the beautiful part about the current NFL system to me—the old adage ‘any given Sunday’ is true.
But parity is unacquainted with the National Basketball Association, and there is no simple answer as to why such a shocking (and sad) statistic endures: Eight champions in 30 years. Wow. But like I said, there is no simple answer.
One major issue is that the NBA doesn’t bear an “any given Sunday” factor, whatsoever. The regular season is so foreseeable that sometimes it’s almost unwatchable.
Fact: The preseason hasn’t even begun and I can already accurately predict all of the teams that will clinch postseason berths. Can’t you? Here are mine: Cavs, Celts, Magic, Hawks, Heat, Sixers, Bulls, Pistons, Lakers, Nuggets, Spurs, Blazers, Rockets, Mavs, Hornets, Jazz. You know what those are? Correct…all the playoff teams from last season. And while the Suns or Pacers might sneak in there this season, the vast majority of those teams will return. You know it and I know it.
It’s ridiculous enough that 16 out of 30 teams even make the playoffs. With regard to the MLB and NFL, it’s a cross-season struggle to even have a chance to play for the championship. Those postseasons usually house the most worthy teams from that respective season.
Yet in the NBA, we reward mediocrity. Such a large number of playoff teams only dishes invitations to many that don’t even deserve to be playing in the spring. Since 1991, 34 teams that have possessed a .500 record or under have made the postseason, and almost double that number only have recorded winning records of 1-4 games over .500. Close to a quarter of the postseason teams are so average that you even have to question the worthiness of the teams sporting records that are only a little bit better.
One might think the 16-team playoff system would promote parity, but how can such a balance exist when only a handful of teams have a true shot at the title each year, before the preseason ever begins?
Let’s face it—this season might already be set as the Lakers, Celtics, Cavs and Spurs are really the only teams I see that could take home the trophy. In the 80s, it came down to the Lakers, Celts, Sixers, Pistons. 90s belonged to the Bulls and Rockets while a couple Western conference teams (Sonics, Jazz, Blazers) always made some noise. After all, the Bulls had to play some team in the Finals.
This decade’s elite teams are the Lakers, Spurs and Pistons and it’s looking like the Celtics might have a nice little run here as well.
So why do only a couple teams dominate? Why can’t the Finals open itself up to the entire league?
Let’s look at the other leagues for just a sec:
1. The NFL postseason is one and done, which means any given Sunday, which results in parity galore. ‘Nuff said.
2. Only eight teams make it to October baseball, and because the season is so long, all the average teams are usually weeded out by September anyway. Thus, we enter October with all the postseason teams having an equal shot to contend. Short divisional series help as well. Any team can get hot and go on a tear, as illustrated by the fact that the Wild Card teams have played in nine World Series in the last 11 years.
3. And the NHL playoffs are the most important to analyze, since it accomplishes what the NBA can not with the same exact system –16 teams & four long best-of-seven series. But here’s a stat for your brain to dwell on: In the last 10 years, there have been only 15 NBA first round upsets compared with 29 NHL first round knockoffs. (For argument’s sake, a first round upset here just means a 5 seed or lower winning the first series on the road).
And when you look even closer at this last decade, an even more telling stat arises. Out of 40 basketball teams who have made the Conference Finals the last 10 years, only three of them were lower than a three-seed (and each of those were No. four seeds, anyway). Whereas in the NHL, 18 teams who were lower than a No. three have reached the conference finals in that same span, and that includes a handful of five, six and seven seeds. Now that’s what the postseason is all about.
But while we could talk playoff statistics and history until Thanksgiving, the bottom-dwellers of the league need some love too. And by love, I mean pity. Because, really, how do some of these teams expect to even come close to competing?
They can’t. Not in a league that’s dominated by such a small fraction of franchises each era.
Now some people may argue that the real issue is the salary cap, since the NBA’s current cap fails to maintain one of its inherent benefits: balance. Indeed, the NBA’s cap is a joke, since it holds so many exceptions (including that one named for Larry Bird) and a luxury tax that 14 teams didn’t mind exceeding last year. The cap is almost non-existent, but that’s not the prime reason the league’s parity problem exists.
After all, the MLB has no salary cap whatsoever, and a luxury tax that only a handful of teams go over. Therefore, you’d really expect baseball to be a Yankee/Red Sox/Cubs/Mets monopoly, yet it happens to be the league with the most parity. Ironic.
So why does the NBA seem to have so much dominance and the MLB salaries seem to not matter as much? Well, besides the postseason structural differences, the explanation does not center around the salary numbers themselves.
Why Major League Baseball is so special is because clubs are compiled from all over the world. Latin America and South America are responsible for so many unbelievable individuals over the years, and now Japan has started to get in the mix since Ichiro.
And combined with the international factor are the multitude of farm systems within each organization, making the talent pool almost endless. Therefore, MLB teams have much better chances of discovering ‘diamond in the rough’ players from their own organizations or by scouting other corners of the world.
The NBA talent pool, however, resides mainly in American universities (for now). The league just doesn’t have the same depth of players that they could develop in the waiting wings. You either have a good team or you don’t in the NBA, and there isn’t the same multitude of teenage players that organizations can groom for a few years before calling up.
And sure, over the years we’ve seen some great players from overseas, yet the league is dominated by U.S. born players. Therefore, the bottom-dwellers just don’t have as much of a chance to get lucky with some unknown talents from other countries that the bigger market teams haven’t heard of.
Now I’ve heard time after time that the players on the court matter and the coaches on the bench don’t. Well, I think it’s time the coaching argument was raised. Do you realize that six coaches, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Greg Popovich, K.C. Jones, Chuck Daly and Rudy Tomjanovich have combined for 25 championships out of the last 30? Bet ya didn’t. And it’s pretty coincidental that the Miami Heat, who snuck onto the champions list in 2006, happened to win under the same coach, Riley, that already had four rings and 20 previous postseason appearances.
Fact is, these coaches were all good at two things: Teaching defense to offensive players and knowing how to use their respective superstars to their maximum potentials. I’m not going to sit here and say Zen didn’t have MJ/Pippen/Shaq/Kobe or that Riley didn’t have Magic and Kareem but there are plenty of superstars across the league that were individually remarkable but never made it on a team that could supplant the dynasties of the era.
What’s intriguing is that a handful of current cellar teams have gotten lucky for a few years and managed to put together a competitive team with a strong coach.
Case in point: The Sacramento Kings from the early half of this decade. Under the tutelage of Rick Adelman, the Kings managed to gather Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Hedo Turkoglu and Vlade Divac and were one of the best teams in the league for a few years. However, after failing to ever get to the NBA Finals, the Maloof’s were forced to trade away their stars and Adelman left after 2005-2006 season. It’s no surprise that they haven’t sniffed the postseason since.
And, it seems every team Jerry Sloan and Larry Brown have touched instantly become better. The Jazz, after all, still reside in Utah of all places and have a completely different roster than the Stockton/Malone days. Yet, they stay competitive every single year and the primary reason is their head coach. On the other hand, Larry Brown has a knack for changing addresses every couple years but his M.O. is converting weak teams into contenders. His one championship would probably be many more if he followed the route of other coaches who inherited superstars.
Truthfully, though, there just aren’t that many Larry Browns in the league. And furthermore, I’m pretty sure that this summer’s coaching vacancies in Sacramento and Minnesota weren’t too attractive to the aforementioned coaches. Just another reason the bottom-dwellers don’t stand a chance.
Whether it’s coaching, the postseason structure, salary cap issues or futility of the small-market teams, the balance just isn’t there. Variation is necessary for sports to excite, and it’s just plain pointless to have a league of 30 teams when only four to six actually stand to compete for the title.
Look, this article is not meant as an attack on the NBA. I love the NBA. I grew up in the 90‘s mainly remembering going to Sixers games and watching guys like Jordan, Clyde, Isiah, Hakeem, Payton/Kemp and Stockton/Malone, who constantly graced my television screen. Those phenomenal players made me fall in love with the sport way before football, baseball and hockey came on my radar.
So, it just makes me sad that it seems like everyone whom I converse with who used to love the NBA just disregard it as some inferior league. “Well, college basketball is better, anyways.” How many times have you heard that?
And while I don’t necessarily agree with that statement, at least college basketball does have the ‘unpredictability’ factor to it. The parity issue is a complex one and one you could argue about for days on end. Start the debates.
So, I’ll conclude with some cheers. Raise your glasses…
—Here’s to hoping ‘Melo continues to improve and the Nuggets steal a ring one of these years. Here’s to the Blazers and their young, solid squad. Maybe they can shock the Lakers and Celtics in some long and exhilarating best of seven series. Here’s to LeBron—stay on the Cavs, win it all and stamp your name as Ohio’s number one son. Here’s to the Oklahoma City Thunder—build around Durant, get a legitimate coach and make the Sooner State proud…
Well, the Thunder may not be ready just yet, but you get my point.