Imagining an NBA with "Competitive Balance"

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By now the buzz and excitement of the post-Finals, pre-draft, post-draft, and free-agency-frenzy portions of the summer have faded and we find ourselves in the doldrums of the summer, which means utter boredom for sports fans, unless you’re a die-hard baseball fan, really into NASCAR or golf, or revved up for the Olympics. I am none of those things, so one of the ways I kill time is to contemplate more abstract, less timely or specifically Celtics-oriented topics, like the following.

What would a “competitively balanced” NBA look like? How would it work?

It’s been more than a year since the beginning of the lockout which killed a good portion of this last season, and if there's any major takeaway from the 2012 playoffs, it is that the elite, top four or five teams in the league are way, way better than nearly all of the other ones. Honestly, I bet that you could take all of the best players from the bottom five to ten teams in the league and still not put together a roster that would have a good chance of defeating either of this year's conference champions in a seven game series.

Finally in the off-season, we get to see the new CBA in action during a full-fledged free agency period for essentially the first time. Yet, despite the fact that a major talking point of the entire lockout dispute was improving the “competitive balance” – parity, in other words – of the league, the top teams in the league have only gotten stronger this off-season, while the rest have mostly sought to bottom out, get younger, stay put, or perhaps shuffle places. It is more obvious than ever that "competitive balance" is not something that's likely to be achieved in the NBA anytime soon.

First, I want to get a rough definition of what we're talking about here. Parity is defined (by Wikipedia) as follows:

Attempting to make an equal playing field for all participants, specifically with regard to financial issues. When parity in a sports league is achieved, all participating teams enjoy roughly equivalent levels of talent. In such a league, the "best" team is not significantly better than the "worst" team. This leads to more competitive contests where the winner cannot be easily predicted in advance.

That's a pretty good definition. I would only add that I think the focus, at least for the purposes of this discussion, will be on imagining a league wherein a large majority of the teams in any given season have a reasonably plausible -- if not probable -- chance of winning the championship.

Next, let's be clear: the NBA has practically never enjoyed much in the way of competitive balance. You'd have to go all the way back to the mid-1970s find an era during which there was a fair amount of parity in the NBA. Even then, that was due in large part to the proliferation of drugs among professional athletes and the separation of the NBA and ABA which caused a significant weakening of talent and competition pretty much across the board. There was nothing about that time in the NBA's history to which we ought to aspire now.

Here are the hard facts: In the NBA, 23 out of the 30 active franchises in the league have appeared in the Finals at least once, though only 19 of those have won their conference since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, and only 17 of them have any titles to their name. Still, that’s more than half, so not too bad. But only 12 teams have won a championship in the post-merger era, and 8 teams have won all of the championships in the last 29 seasons. Four franchises -- the Bulls, Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics -- account for 43 of the 66 championships won in the history of the NBA.

In short, competitive balance in the NBA is a myth. The NFL and NHL are models of parity; in those leagues, it's hard to say in a given season which team might make a run in the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. In the MLB, a league that has no salary cap and a smaller playoff field, most of the teams in the league nonetheless have a shot at a deep run into the playoffs every season. By comparison, the NBA has been dominated by superteams highlighted by superstars throughout its history. This is why it is such a shock when a cohesive team of very talented -- yet not superstar -- players wins a championship. You'll never stop hearing about the 1979 Seattle Supersonics and 2004 Detroit Pistons, teams that went to the Finals twice and only managed one title each, for that reason; they are the exceptions that make the rule.

There are two major factors that work against parity in the NBA:

1. Basketball is a game played at all times with a maximum of 5 players on the floor for each team, which means that a single generational, transcendent talent can have a greater impact than a full arsenal of elite ones. You can have a wonderful team, but if your opponent has the best player in the world and he’s in the zone, you don’t really stand a chance.

2. The NBA uses a seven-game series playoff format, which is heavily prohibitive against total upsets. An 8th seed has only defeated a 1st seed five times since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984).

It's worth noting that none of this is necessarily a bad thing. Fans of lesser teams often lament the lack of parity in the NBA, but they would likely stop doing so as soon as their favorite team were forced to break up a competitive core of stars in the name of "competitive balance." The most exciting NBA Finals have all been between superstar-laden juggernauts; the 2012 NBA Finals are only the most recent example. A league with more evenly distributed talent would not be nearly as exciting, at least not in the same way. Some basketball purists might say that the style of play would improve, with fewer iso sets, less “hero ball,” and more ball movement. Casual fans – i.e. the majority – tend to love street-style hero ball, though. That’s why the legend of Kobe looms so large when his career, statistically, is far less impressive than a guy like Duncan, his less-flashy contemporary. Regardless of your style preference as a fan, however, when two or three teams basically make a joke of the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs by whipping the rest of the league, and there's little question about who is going to be competing for a trophy each June, I think you have to admit that there is reason to consider reform, at least hypothetically.

So to that end, let's consider the two factors discussed above. Number 2 is not going to change, nor should it. Although the NCAA March Madness tournament is exciting because of all of the upsets and unlikely runs created by the single-elimination format, it is much more satisfying as an NBA fan to know that in any given season, the ultimate champion has nearly always clearly proven to be the best team. The first factor won't change, either, because it relates to the very nature of the sport. What could change, though, is the nature of the league, and the rules that govern it. As it stands, at least two thirds of the teams in the NBA basically bring knives to a gunfight each night that they play against the top contenders. The answer that immediately occurs is to find a way to make it much more likely that every team has a gun, and that no team has more than a couple -- at least not for long. But how?

How would one go about forcing a more even distribution of talent across the league? You could dissolve all of the current rosters in the league and hold an enormous snake draft, with a random selection order, but that would only solve the problem for a few years. Each team has a different amount of money to spend and a different set of off-court attributes that attract and repel potential free agents. Some teams are seen as prime free agent “destinations,” whereas other teams have to overpay just to keep their own players, let alone entice any impactful players from other teams to join them. The required solution would prevent teams from amassing too much talent for extended periods of time, and it would force players to consider a wider variety of locations to play, while also giving more teams incentive to offer players reasonable contracts.

What follows is a proposed hypothetical system that would never, ever, in a million years, get approved by the NBA Player's Association, or, in all likelihood, a sufficient consensus of the 30 NBA franchises:

The "Tiered-Contracts" System

Each team in the NBA has a maximum of 15 players on its roster. Instead of placing restrictions on the way that a team can spend money to fill that roster by setting a soft cap and prohibitive luxury tax, this system would give each team an allotment for various types of contracts.

Tier 1 Contract: $15-20 million yearly salary, up to five years long. (One per team)

Tier 2 Contract: $10-12 million yearly salary, up to four years long. (Two per team)

Tier 3 Contract: $4-8 million yearly salary, up to three years long. (Four per team)

Tier 4 Contract: $1.5-3 million yearly salary, up to three years long. (Five per team)

Tier 5 Contract: Veteran minimum or rookie scale contract. Length restrictions same as under current system. (Unlimited)

All of the yearly salary numbers are just approximations based on current contract values; obviously, they would change over time with league BRI calculations.

An important thing to note is that each team is required only to have at least 12 active players on its roster at any given time. There are no quotas for contracts of specific tiers; just upper limits. There is, however, a minimum salary threshold set around 45 million.

In this system, each team in the league would be more likely to have a chance at an elite free agent, because with the exception of veterans near the end of their careers, most players look to maximize their earning capacity, and view the kind of salary that they get as a mark of recognition and pride. With a clear cut "tier" system that classifies each contract in a different level, this sense that the type of salary you get is a mark of your value as a player would be even more pronounced. Fewer players would be willing to take a pay cut to play with similarly-talented teammates. At the same time, teams would be less likely to hand out enormous contracts to mediocre players based solely on "potential" because they would have limited opportunities to offer such contracts in the first place.

Still, a necessary feature of this system, in order to encourage the movement of top-shelf talent, as well as ensure a market for rising stars coming off rookie deals, would be a "bidding" system on Tier 1 and Tier 2 players similar to the amnesty system in place in the current CBA. Teams have the option of choosing to put a Tier 1 or Tier 2 player they have under contract up for "bidding." This means that every other team in the league has the opportunity to place bids on the player.

The bids can be anywhere from a Tier 4 contract to the full remaining value of the player's current contract. If the bid is less than the full value of the player's contract, the team that put him up for bidding will still pay the difference in salary over the life of the original contract, it just won't count against their salary figure. If no teams are willing to place a bid on the player above the veteran minimum, then the player stays with their current team -- this ensures that teams aren't allowed a "get out of jail free" card when they give out an unconscionable contract to a player who ends up being washed-up (see: Gilbert Arenas, Rashard Lewis).

The 2011 Dallas Mavericks are a great example of the sort of top-level team you'd be likely to see under this system. One superstar -- Dirk -- flanked by a couple of elite talents -- Terry and Chandler -- as well as a supporting cast of valuable role players -- Marion, Kidd, Barea, etc. What you wouldn't ever really see is teams like the current Miami Heat or the '08 Celtics. Teams like the current Oklahoma City Thunder might pop up from time to time, but it would be impossible to keep them together as the younger players hit free agency (it’s difficult now, but still doable).

More likely than not, there would still be 10-12 teams in the league that stand above the others, because it's the nature of the game that any team that has a top-10 player will have a decided advantage over one that does not. Nevertheless, if every team has a top 30 player, it makes it much more likely that the teams that are well managed will be able to close the gap in talent at the top of the roster by acquiring and developing valuable supporting assets. It also prevents dynasties because rising stars on "stacked" teams will be much more likely to go to other teams to seek higher tier contracts as well as a more featured role.

Worth reiteration is the point about good management: this system does not reward teams that are poorly managed. If a team gives out big contracts to the wrong players, it will still struggle compared to the ones that don't. The main difference here is that teams that are well managed and make good decisions about which players to bring in won't constantly be outshined by teams that can simply throw money at their problems because they are in a gigantic market and have a desirable destination for free agents.

Likewise, another happy consequence of this system would be that teams would have considerably less incentive to tank in order to get a top player through the draft (or by trading high draft picks), because it would be much easier to acquire a top player through free agency. Any time an elite player hits free agency, there will only be so many teams with open spots for Tier 1 or Tier 2 players. Even if a guy like Dwight Howard hits free agency and makes clear he only wants to go to a big city, there will still be a lot of talent that suddenly becomes available when he is choosing, because those big-city teams will likely be open to trading (or just plain dropping) their guys to free up a spot for him.

The only way under this system that a super team could be created is if a group of star players were willing to take pretty drastic pay cuts, and be openly designated as "lower tier" players than their teammates. For example, Wade and Bosh would have had to accept "Tier 2" designation under LeBron.

Would you be interested in watching a league in which LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Josh Smith, James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Granger, and Kyrie Irving were each on a different team? That is, in all likelihood, the sort of distribution of talent that would be required for competitive balance. Yes, nearly all of those thirty players were on playoff teams this past season, and many of them are teammates with one or two other players on the list. Any attempt at parity would therefore entail dismantling the player combinations that give us some of the most exciting basketball we ever get to watch in a given season.

Even then, this best case scenario for "competitive balance" would still probably have relatively predictable results. In a league without star trios like those on the Spurs and Celtics, how often would a team featuring LeBron James or Kevin Durant really falter?

Keep Dreaming

The truth about parity is that very few people really like it except in theory. March Madness is fun because of brackets and gambling, not because of the quality of the product on the floor. The NFL has a good deal of parity, but it comes at the expense of truly exciting football; nearly every team that competes for the Super Bowl each season has a handful of fairly glaring weaknesses, and the single-elimination system increases the chance that flawed teams will win and the greatest teams won't get to be perfect (18-1 . . . ugh!). In the MLB, watching a team like the San Francisco Giants make an unlikely run to a World Series title is exciting, but won't ever compare to the drama of a close best-of-7 between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Boston Celtics fans might hate the Heat right now, especially after they nabbed Ray Allen and became even better (on paper) this off-season, but the most glorious moments for the Celtics franchise have all come when the team has been at least as stacked as the Heat are now.

Still, it's fun to think about parity. It's just probably best left to NBA 2K Association mode fantasy draft leagues.

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