Parity, The NFL Model, & The NBA

Darius Soriano —  September 6, 2011

As we slog into month 3 of the NBA lockout, we all know that the major issue at hand is money. The owners want a bigger piece of the pie than they’ve been getting and want to ensure that their franchises are profitable. NBA teams are businesses, after all, and profits are the way that businesses not only sustain themselves but grow for the future.

However, one of the other talking points the commissioner and owners consistently mention is parity. The logic goes like this: parity equals better competition; better competition equals more interest in the league; more interest in the league equals more money for the league through higher TV ratings, stronger attendance, and more merchandise sales.

And held above all other professional sports leagues as the king of parity is the NFL. You know, the league where there have been 5 different champions in the last 5 years and 7 different ones in the past decade. Where different teams consistently rise and fall into the ranks of contenders; where fans of (nearly) all teams feel that this could be the year their team goes on a magical run to the Lombardi trophy. When looked at in this light, parity is a great thing that every league should strive for and, thus, fight for.

However, parity isn’t truly achieved through the battle ground topics that have come up in the NBA’s current collective bargaining negotiations. Parity (at least to these eyes) isn’t achieved through a hard salary cap, more restrictions on player movement (like franchise tags, exclusive rights free agency, etc), or ensured profitability gained through revenue spits (or even revenue sharing). These things help level the playing field for all franchises and ensure that they have similar resources in order to build a successful organization. But they don’t ensure competitiveness.

Parity is accomplished by the distribution of the best and most impactful players across the league.  For the NFL, that means getting your hands on one of the best quarterbacks and keeping him in your uniform for as long as possible. However, the truly elite quarterbacks aren’t plentiful. There are, maybe, 5 or 6 truly great quarterbacks in the NFL and the teams with those signal callers are the ones that stay at or near the top for the longest periods of time. In fact, these players carry so much value and contribute so much to winning that they can tilt the fortunes of a franchise even when the rest of the roster isn’t managed in a way that would typically lead to success.

Over at one of the better NFL team sites I’ve found (Cowboys Nation), this is explained quite well when discussing the success the Colts and Patriots have had while possessing two of the best QB’s of their eras (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) while continuously missing on their draft picks:

…of the 41 players the Patriots drafted from 2004 through 2008, only four, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, guard Logan Mankins, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo remain.  (Geer missed ’08 backup WR Matthew Slater, so there are five.)

Five players.  That’s it. Three quality starters and a kicker. The players in the 2004-2008 window will be entering years four through eight in their careers.  They should arguably be the core of New England’s or any other NFL club’s squad.

And yet, in the seven seasons played since those draft classes flickered out, the Patriots have won seven consecutive divisions, played in two Super Bowls, and won a championship.

The quirky stat sent me to examine the Indianapolis Colts’ drafts in that same five-year span.  I found six hits, four starters (RB Joseph Addai, S Antoine Bethea, G Mike Pollack, WR Pierre Garcon) and two backups (WR Anthony Gonzalez and TE Jacob Tamme) in Indy’s haul.  Good players, but no big stars.

Like the Patriots, the Colts performed superbly.  They have six division titles, two Super Bowl appearances and a title to their credit the past seven years.  Their GM Bill Polian is considered one of the best football men in the business.

This demonstrates, in part, the value of an elite quarterback.   Peyton Manning’s and Tom Brady’s ability to operate their offenses at extreme high levels despite constant churn on their rosters and in their teams’ coaching staffs has helped their teams overcome drafting records that might hobble others.

What does this have to do with the NBA you ask?

Just as elite quarterback play leads to contention in the NFL, having one of the 5 or 6 best players in the NBA will often lead to contention as well.

How many truly great players are there in the NBA today? Five? Seven? Ten? Forget all-star appearances and scour the all-NBA rosters of the past several years. The players you see consistently – Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett – are the foundation for title contending teams nearly every season. (Sure, there are exceptions. Paul hasn’t achieved as much as the other players mentioned but he serves as a foundation for a playoff team that would lose 50 games a season without him. He has immense value and is one of the few impact players in the NBA.)

These players are the difference makers in the league; they’re the players you need if you want to compete. Compile one or more of them (like the Heat have with James and Wade or like the Lakers have with Kobe and Gasol) and you have a foundation for success that most other teams will not be able to keep up with.

In a league where there are only 5-10 truly great players but 30 teams, how do you achieve parity? Create incentives for keeping players on the team that drafts them, put a ceiling on spending, or reduce the allure of player friendly markets all you want and the issue of too little top shelf talent remains.

Parity is not a myth, but it is hard to achieve in a league that’s expanded as much as the NBA has. Even with the influx of several young players that look to make the leap into that super-star class of talent (Rose – last year’s MVP, John Wall, Russell Westbrook) there is not enough talent to go around, especially if keen talent evaluators (Sam Presti comes to mind) are able to stock pile talent while less competent GM’s miss on draft picks or don’t spend money wisely.

The commissioner and owners may preach parity and may look to the NFL as the model they want to follow. But, if they look closely, they’ll see that they already have that model in place. Like the few excellent QB’s do for the NFL, the truly elite basketball talent makes a contender out of an average team.

From where I sit, it’s time to stop the talk about parity being a goal of the current CBA negotiations.


Darius Soriano

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