The Parable of the NBA Talents

One of the many complaints attached to Kevin Durant’s recent decision to join the Warriors is that it will wreck any semblance of parity in the NBA. There were two players who posed a threat to that team and one of them just joined it, seemingly killing all suspense about who will win the title next year (unless thinking about injuries counts as a form of suspense). It makes sense that a lot of people are mad/disgusted about this, but I think these arguments miss a key feature of NBA history: the league has almost never had parity, and it’s better when it doesn’t.

You don’t have to get too detailed to see just how skewed the NBA is (although if you want to, this Forbes article explains the financial influences pretty well). In my lifetime (30-ish years), just nine teams have won the NBA title. In the NFL, to get to nine champions you have to go all the way back to… 2007. That’s just ten seasons—nearly every time it was possible, someone new won. The NFL is often held up as the parity model to follow, and there’s a certain logic to that, since they’re the league that makes the most money even though they’re an obvious ethical catastrophe. But the NFL model just doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the NBA.

If you delve a little further into the history, you see this kind of thing going all the way back. Even before it was called the NBA, the league had started a dynasty, with the Minneapolis Lakers. They won five of the first eight titles, and from there the timeline of non-parity looks like this:

NBA Non-Parity: A Timeline

1947-1954: Lakers dynasty (5 of 8 titles)

1955-56: Open season!

1957-1969: Celtics dynasty (11 of 13 titles)

1970-1979: Open season again!

1980-1989: Celtics and/or Lakers in every single Finals

1990-1998: Bulls win 6 of 8 (Rockets get the other two)

1999-2010: Lakers or Spurs in 11 of 12 Finals

2011-Present: LeBron James

You might have noticed that I switched from titles to Finals appearances partway through—when you consider these, the league looks really skewed. There have been 70 NBA Finals; the Lakers have been in 31 of those. The Celtics have appeared in another 21. So that means two teams have appeared in better than 70% of all possible Finals (12 of those times, they were playing each other).correction

Why is this like this? I have no idea. One theory is that individual players matter more in the NBA, so a transcendent talent on a particular team means more. It’s definitely true that the league still looks unequal when you phrase it in terms of individuals: Every Finals since 1999, except one, has featured LeBron, Tim Duncan, or Kobe Bryant. In fact, you can get back to 1957 with just 14 players1:

A History of the NBA Finals in 14 Players

14 NBA Finals Players Corrected - Edited

I wanted to include that because I think it’s cool, but I’m not sure the Great Man theory actually explains that much. I mean, it’s true that Russell, Magic, Kobe, and LeBron personally account for half of all NBA Finals. But LeBron had Wade, Kobe had Gasol/Shaq, Magic had Kareem, and Russell had a crappy rigged 8-team league. (I don’t like the Celtics. What was I talking about? Oh right, that obnoxious dynasties are good.) Point being, the greats required other greats to win, and it seems like a league with parity could simply have distributed some of those greats elsewhere—put Kobe on the Jazz, say, or Magic Johnson on the Pacers.2 As far as I can tell, the lack of parity just doesn’t have a great explanation (though the salary structure has clearly been the key driver in the last few years).

As you may have noticed, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can see in the little timeline above that the 1970’s were an open season. In that period eight different teams won, six of them for the first and last time (the Warriors were the seventh in that club until 2015). Compare that to the four teams of the 1980’s and it looks like a Golden Age—except that, as every curmudgeonly sportswriter agrees, the 1980’s were the real Golden Age, and the 1970’s were terrible. The league kept diluting the talent with nonsense teams (the Phoenix(?) Suns(!)), half the players were on cocaine, and there was a cooler, but not very good, competing league until halfway through the decade. It was the nadir of the NBA. The 80’s are supposed to be the Renaissance from that, the moment when the league reached its modern form, began to compete with the other major sports, and found stars who could sell things all over the world. And basically that meant two guys played each other over and over until they physically couldn’t, at which point Michael Jordan handled everything himself for the next decade.

Long story short, the NBA has never been about a fair shake for 30 teams. It has always been about a tiny oligarchy of geniuses in markets rich enough to pay two of them to trounce everyone else. If you love the NBA, apparently this is what you want to see. The people who say Kevin Durant has damaged his legacy with this move have to confront a pretty overwhelming history: Callous disregard for parity is the legacy of the NBA.


Notes

1. It’s possible there’s a more efficient way to do this, but this is the best I’ve found. To make the graphic more interesting I picked players who appeared in a lot of Finals, but in three cases (Dr. J, Larry Bird (surprisingly), and Clyde Drexler) you can swap them with any random player from 1977, 1981, and 1990, respectively, since those are the only Finals in which they appear without someone else on the list. One other combination I found that also involves 14 players would swap Wade for LeBron. This gets you the Heatles titles plus 2006. Then you can eliminate Shaq (Kobe covers the rest of his) and make up LeBron’s difference with Steph Curry (or Iguodala, Kyrie, Draymond, Dellavedova, etc.). I went with LeBron since I mention him a lot elsewhere in the article.

2. Technically I had to imagine this in order to write it, but I still feel like I can’t quite imagine it.

This post has been corrected: Originally I had the Celtics going to 20 Finals, and the two teams meeting 11 times. I’m not sure what happened—I guess I overlooked one.
 

 

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