Throughout the CBA negotiations, the owners have used parity as a wedge to bludgeon the players for money. They’ve bemoaned how the NBA has the least amount of competitive balance in all the major sports: in the last decade, seven NFL and eight MLB franchises have won championships, compared to six NBA ones.
But in yearning for parity, they are ignoring what makes basketball so compelling. The structure of the sport ensures the best teams usually win. The NBA playoffs -- a grueling tournament of four best-of-seven series of basketball games stretched out over two months -- don’t allow for nearly as many “fluke” championships as other sports.
I like to see the best teams win, not the luckiest.
The obvious counterargument is that the relative lack of upsets, caused by the importance of great big men and their relative rarity, robs the NBA playoffs of drama. A baseball fan might ask, what’s the point of 30 teams competing in a 82-game regular season, if teams with Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan won eight of nine championships between 1999 and 2007?
The point is that Shaq and Duncan were two of the ten greatest basketball players of all-time. As a fan, I want to watch the sport played on as high a level as absolutely possible. In 2004, the Lakers could not guard Chauncey Billups, while Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace played incredible individual defense on two first-ballot Hall of Famers. The Pistons won because they played championship-level basketball, not because Shaq and Kobe randomly stopped making shots.
As a Dallas sports fan, I’ve been lucky enough to watch the Mavericks and Rangers both make two separate trips to a championship series in the last few years.
After watching Miami and Dallas play six basketball games in 2006, I could accept a Heat championship because they caused match-up problems the Mavericks couldn’t solve, even withstanding Dwyane Wade’s free-throw line shenanigans. If they replayed that series, Dallas still would not have an athletic perimeter player to match up with Wade or a shot-blocker who could contest his shots without fouling him.
In contrast, after watching Texas play St. Louis play seven baseball games in 2011, I’m not ready to concede that the Cardinals are a better baseball team. Over 162 regular season games, the Rangers won 96 games and outscored teams by 178 runs, the third best point differential in baseball. In that same period, St. Louis won 90 games and outscored teams by 80 runs, the eighth best run differential in baseball. If they replayed that series, it’s doubtful a game would be decided on a problem with a bullpen phone.
The Mavericks had to beef up their front-line to beat the two-time defending champion Lakers. Now, if LA is going to get through Dallas in the West, they are going to have to upgrade their speed and athleticism on the perimeter.
After an 83-win Cardinals team won the 2006 World Series, they didn’t win another playoff game in the next five seasons. Their championship didn’t force their NL rivals to upgrade their rosters to match-up with them; everyone recognized they had just caught lightning in a bottle.
Since 1993, only two teams -- the Rangers and New York Yankees -- have won consecutive AL pennants. Making baseball teams play a best-of-five and two best-of-seven playoff series is entertaining, but it isn’t a way to determine who the best baseball team is.
When asked to explain the outcome of a game, Rangers manager Ron Washington once famously said “that’s the way baseball go”. In essence, he was throwing his hands in the air and accepting that there is no rhyme or reason to whether a ball is lined out directly to an outfielder or falls in the gap for a double.
But in a world where so much of our lives are controlled by the vagaries of chance and macro-economic fluctuations, I prefer watching a sport where players have more control of their own destiny. Basketball fans don’t worry about curses, hexes and billy goats. They know having the best players in the sport is the only way to win a championship.
That’s the way the NBA go. The owners would be wise to remember that.