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Thoughts on the NBA and Parity

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The NBA has never been about parity. Do current trends in player movement exacerbate the extremes?

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

As the long wait between Finals games continues, things are quiet on the Wolves front. They are preparing for the draft, of course. Last week Tom Thibodeau was on the West coast to attend multiple “pro-days” organized by agents for their clients.

Zach Collins, the Gonzaga big man, was at Mayo Clinic Square yesterday I believe, for the first individual workout of the draft season for the Wolves. No news on who else might be coming in during the coming days.

It is amazing how tight-lipped the Wolves front office is. We’ve been talking about Jonathan Isaac for the past month, but we have no clue whether the Wolves like him at all, for example.

Overall this is a good thing, but it leaves us so little to parse on Canis Hoopus. The struggle is real.

Meanwhile, I’ve been seeing a lot of concern that the Warriors will render the league’s competition moot for the next five years or so.

I am not particularly worried about this. It’s possible, but it’s also possible that things go an entirely different direction. Life comes at you fast. Guys get hurt. Guys decline. And even the “worst” case scenario—a 90s Bulls-like run without the baseball interlude--is likely already about half over. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will both turn 30 next calendar year, Curry before next season ends. (Also worth noting, they are currently on a streak of zero championships in a row, so there’s that.)

The wider concern is whether a trend emerges in which players take less—sometimes significantly less—than they could get in order to play with the Warriors or any other potential “super-team.” One of the underlying assumptions of the CBA is that players will look to maximize their earnings. It’s one thing if a 37 year old David West takes less to be in Oakland, it’s another if players closer to their primes do so. We saw a little bit of it in Miami, and we might again if Kevin Durant takes less than he could get with Golden State.

My preference is to see talent more dispersed throughout the league. But it’s possible that we’ll see (and are already seeing) players becoming de facto general managers, working out the cap limitations among themselves in groups, and the current “super-team” hopping from city to city. Miami. Golden State. Cleveland. Where next?

I’m an absolute believer in player agency--guys should have the power to decide where to play based on whatever factors are important to them. But things like Kevin Durant joining the Warriors exacerbates the inherent problem with the NBA: It’s a league that’s always been on the edge of a competition problem where the better team wins too often.

Sports, in order to work, have to have a balance. If the better team loses too much, the results feel random and there’s little reason to watch. If 8th seeds were making the Finals as often as 1st seeds, that would not be good. The NHL runs into this problem sometimes, I think.

On the other hand, if the better team wins all the time, then the results feel preordained and again, what’s the reason to watch? Baseball, for it’s flaws, actually still does well economically because it’s a sport that finds this sweet spot. Almost all teams win between, say 35 percent and 65 percent of their games. So there is a real sense that your team could beat the best team in their weekend series. But over the course of the season, quality is revealed in the records.

The NBA has always teetered on the edge of the “not competitive enough” spectrum. The best teams usually win about 80 percent of the time, the worst around 20 percent. That’s probably too big a spread for an ideal league competition, but it’s due to game conditions more than anything else.

If the trend toward intentional “clumping” by stars continues, we could see this problem get worse—maybe not in the regular season where we saw the Cavs cruise to a mere 51 wins before crushing the Eastern Conference in the playoffs—but in the post-season.

Well, there’s a lot more to say about this—about how shorter contracts mandated by the CBA makes it more appealing for players to maintain flexibility by signing even shorter deals, but I did not intend to do an exhaustive piece this morning, so I’ll just add that this isn’t new. Shaq engineered his move to L.A. They dominated. For a while. Keven Garnett only accepted his trade to the Celtics after they added Ray Allen to go with Paul Pierce. LeBron James et. al. in Miami.

The league survives, and it will. I started out by saying I’m not that worried, and it’s true; I’m not. Things change. Trends are replaced by new trends. The Warriors won’t be great forever.

Have a Tuesday.