In the past 10 years, the notion of parity in sports has been key to an expanding audience for both the NFL and MLB. Having less certainty over the championship participants lends a vast unpredictability to seasons which otherwise lack mystery or novelty. The New York Giants were the successful insurgent against the legendary New England Patriots of the early 2010’s. More recently, the Kansas City Royals broke through for the first small-market championship by a team not from St. Louis.
Much of the responsibility for these upstart teams lies in the stability and certainty of strong management structures and scouting. However, some of the most noble rebuilding efforts and potential dynasties fall by the wayside. The Oklahoma City Thunder caught lightning in a bottle with numerous stars found with top-10 picks, but ultimately fell victim to an acrimonious ending, with the departure of Kevin Durant, and a shocking collapse in the hotly contested 2016 Western Conference finals.
The new NBA collective bargaining agreement has provisions allowing for small-market teams to remain competitive and retain their best players. DeMarcus Cousins, could reportedly re-up with the Sacramento Kings for $200M. Despite the inflow of new TV dollars, the NBA remains at a low-point for competitive balance. LeBron James led-teams have appeared in SIX consecutive NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors, barring a major collapse, will appear in their third championship in a row. Part of this inevitability is of course the result of accumulated star players, and the role of players as GMs in the new landscape.
What can be done about the NBA’s competitive balance? How can we make the Finals more akin to the Super Bowl or the World Series? Perhaps a change to the playoff structure would be the most likely way to ensure less certainty. A first-round that returns to a best of five format could give younger teams with lower seeds a chance at dethroning older, more established teams. The NBA could also take measures to penalize teams like the Spurs who regularly rest star players down the stretch, incentivizing them to work harder during the regular season.
Because after all, the worst-kept secret in the NBA is that the regular season is simply a presage to the all-important playoffs. It has never been accurate, however, to say that the regular season is meaningless. For many teams, their young players get tremendously important reps during this period, and learn only by suffering against the best teams in the league. The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo would not have rapidly ascended from a 7 PPG player, to a true superstar without the opportunity to rapidly fail.
Perhaps giving small-market teams (or those without an ongoing record of playoff appearances) an ongoing special salary cap exception could fuel competitiveness, and reduce their reliance on player specific recruiting. Imagine if the Toronto Raptors had the opportunity to sign an extra player who could put them over the top? We may have been looking at the first new Finals team in nearly 10 years.
For now, these suggestions are pipe dreams. The teams that are able to succeed are those who hit on 3+ consecutive top-10 draft picks, and find valuable players in the late-first and second rounds. One can only hope that the ongoing rise of analytics and improved scouting throughout the league can pay dividends in making a league never known for parity, a brave new frontier for teams able to catch their peers by surprise.