Rank NBA "Competitive Balance" solutions

An oddball rumor coming out of the CBA negotiations the other day sparked some conversation, both on Canis (thank you Timberpups, you even made it a Fanshot!) and elsewhere. It went something like this:

NBA owners have proposed adding a third round to the draft, and the players’ union has made counter proposals that include major changes to the draft’s format intended to address the league’s concern about competitive reports.

Under one of the NBPA’s proposals, the 15 teams with the worst records would get two first-round picks each – they would continue to pick 1st through 15th and would also have the Nos. 16-30 selections. The teams with the best 15 records would get the first 15 picks of the second round, as well picks 46-60, according to the report....

The resulting fan conversation I've seen has amounted to

  1. Mild expressions of relief that the owners and players are talking about something that seems almost (gasp) constructive; and
  2. Specific reactions to the proposed revisions to the draft, most of which were negative. 

Ultimately the idea of not every team being represented in every round of a "draft" strikes me as offending against a basic sense of how U.S. sports leagues are run. We probably can't carefully nudge the scale this way and that to make such a solution seem fair, can we? The outline's not right.

But the bigger picture question here is: How big a "competitive balance" problem does the NBA have, and what are the best solutions for that? If you had to order possible ways for the league to address the problem, how would that list come out?

How big a problem is it?

Dave Berri is an abrasive person, and we could go to pitched war over his statistical arguments about individual players. His argument over time with respect to the NBA's competitive balance, though, isn't easy to dismiss. Both in The Wages of Wins (that's chapter 5, which is all about the NBA's lack of balance) and in later posts on his blog, Berri has made the case that, well:

In sum, the NBA is not nearly as competitive as the other major North American professional sports leagues.  We see this when we look at the distribution of championships.  And we see this in the distribution of wins in the regular season.

Berri and company have argued that the problem comes down to a limited number of, uh, tall people:

The NBA keeps adding teams but the short supply of tall people—yes, we love saying this—persists. There is only one Shaquille O’Neal. No matter what policies the NBA adopts, they cannot manufacture quality big men for every team. This rule doesn’t just apply to players like Shaq, but to smaller players like Michael Jordan. There is not an abundance of 6’6” people in the world either, and when you ask for a person of this height with Jordan’s skills, you are not going to unearth many candidates.

Given the supply of talent the NBA employs, there is very little the league can do to achieve the levels of competitive balance we see in soccer or American football.

I have a little trouble with the contrast being proposed here, myself, with the other leagues. How many 6-6, 300-lb individuals are there in the population? Because the NFL seems to need some extreme physical types too.

Berri and company also argue that, because the NBA isn't in a real decline, the lack of balance is nothing to worry too much about. 


What could the NBA do to address the problem?

Let's accept for a second that the lack of competitive balance is a problem, though. What sorts of things might the league do? Spitballing:

  • They could tinker with how talent enters the league. Hence the jury-rigged draft idea. Hence the lottery, actually; giving the top talent to someone other than the very worst teams has resulted in some upward mobility for not-awful-not-great teams.
  • They could change basic salary cap rules somehow – preventing wealthy coastal teams from running enormous salaries, which they're already trying to do; or giving teams "franchise tags"; and so on.
  • They could share more of the league's revenue, and they're already talking about that as if it's one solution. (The owners want to keep that issue away from the players, but at least they're talking about it.)
  • They could change the terms of free agency. Give the also-ran teams first crack or more money to play with? That doesn't sound more outlandish to me than the proposed "losers get to double dip" draft idea, anyway.
  • They could change schedules. This sounds more indirect, but if you play once a week, as opposed to once a day, different sets of talent are going to win at some point. Deeper teams will prevail more often if the games come fast and furious, right? Younger teams, too. Whereas teams like the Celtics, packed with veterans, can probably get by in the playoffs pretty well, given the rest and travel days they get.
  • They could change actual rules of the game. Hey, if the fundamental problem is a shortage of star talent, it's always possible to change what it takes to be a star. This sounds like a hideous mistake, doesn't it? But I would suggest that the league's already done this multiple times. Hand check rules have changed this game. So has the three-pointer. (A whole lot of short range shooters thank you, NBA.) Zone defenses absolutely can change the sorts of players who star, as well as just the range of players who can stay on the court, in the NBA.

Lots of options, right?

The talk from the CBA table surprised me because it seemed to place this issue of competitive balance front and center – but the draft probably isn't high on many fans' lists when they talk about the problem. Is it? We do wonder about the fairness of the lottery, but that's more of a tussle between the various losing franchises; if anything, the lottery encourages more upward mobility because a 36-46 team might win it and get over the hump.

So my question is, which proposals to encourage competitive balance would you give more weight, and which less? I'm slapping on a poll for the heck of it. But the idea is to prioritize, and kick this around.

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