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

Posts

20 responses to Parity, The NFL Model, & The NBA

  1. Rusty Shackleford September 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    I agree. It’s like both sides made a secret agreement to make parity be part of the negotiations so us fans wouldn’t get bitter about them locking out for only the money.

    This lack of NBA news is really starting to make me grumpy.

  2. Two quick thoughts:

    1. Darius, with all respect, I strongly disagree with the very first part of your thesis– specifically, your denial that league parity is directly related to the presence of a hard cap. The best teams generally are the one’s that spend the most money (and can afford eat the luxury tax), those are the teams that fill in the gaps in their roster via free agency and can overpay their own players to retain team chemistry. Basically, the more you spend, the more likely you are to win. I realize there are two obvious exceptions – OKC and SAS – but those teams have almost been perfectly managed over the last 5 years (even longer in the case of the Spurs) and have so much less room for error than a team like LA or Dallas, or even Portland (for which injuries have outweighed their deep pockets). If there were a hard cap, then there is no way the Lakers could have more than two of Kobe, Pau, Drew, Odom without eviscerating the rest of the roster and the opportunity cost of, say, Luke’s contract would be simply devastating. (I also realize the Knicks are a contrary example, but I’m sure I don’t need to convince anyone of the stratospheric level of incompetence which has categorized their mgmt….). You can win with a low payroll, but you better be perfect. How much easier it is to be Mark Cuban or to a lesser degree, the Buss family.

    To establish more decisively the connection between hard cap and parity, let’s look at the opposite model – baseball – in which the Yankees spend their way to contention year after year. Again, it doesn’t guarantee a championship, but it almost guarantees a trip to the playoffs.

    Look, I admit to being a hypocrite, or at least Machiavellian: obviously, the lack of a hard cap benefits the Lakers, and that’s what I care about most… but that said, I think there’s no question but that the lack of a hard cap does indeed reduce parity and makes it considerably harder for a small-market team like, say, Charlotte or Memphis to compete, especially when one considers TV revenue as well as the ‘soft’ consideration of potential stars wanting to play in big TV markets (and also live in cities where they are more likely to date a supermodel). I do agree with the first poster, however, that ‘parity’ is being used as a distraction in these negotiations (by both sides) to create the illusion that there is a moral argument here rather than strictly a financial one, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a critical issue, just not a relevant one to what’s happening right now.

    2. my second point may be so obvious as to be banal, but the primary reason the NBA is a superstar-driven league even more than other sports is not based on some esoteric idea such as the revealing nature of the uniform or the lack of a helmet meaning a greater connection with the player, etc., but rather something far more obvious: there are only five guys on a team. if kobe plays 40 mpg, that means he uses 40/(48 *5) = 17 percent of the total minutes by all Lakers in the game. This is really an incredible number compared to any other team sport. This blows away QB importance or even that of an MLB starting pitcher, although those are the positions that come the closest in all of team sports.

    My 2c, while waiting for some good news….

  3. #2. I think I touch on, briefly at least, that a hard cap does lead to all teams starting with the same resources and thus leveling the playing field in terms of roster creation.

    That said, I still struggle to find meaningful ways where a hard cap leads to parity. There will still be market forces that drive players to more desirable franchises (in bigger cities, for example) and there is still only a handful of truly great players that are the type of foundational pieces that can alter the trajectory of a franchise only with his presence.

    In your second point you mention Kobe and his ability to play heavy minutes as 1 of 5 players on the floor and how that can impact a team. Well, if there are only 5-10 players of Kobe’s (relative) ability in the entire league, how do you fill that void if you don’t have one of those players? And what of a salary system where teams are still (essentially) forced to overpay for 2nd tier players (be them their own or another team’s) in order to try and fill that talent gap? This is how we end up with Rashard Lewis or Joe Johnson making what they do.

    All that said, your points are well made and I do understand that the ability to cover up mistakes with more money in the coffers gives teams like the Lakers resource advantages that other teams could only hope to have. And that those advantages lead to roster building that bolster the ability to win. But, I still wonder how that’s balanced against the finite number of really great players and how they contribute to a contending team.

  4. I think the league’s teams have been coming closer to parity. In terms of btween the Eastern and Western Conferences, the gap has been closing in terms of talent and competition. Financially that’s another story. The gap between the haves and have nots is so great that you can call it the Grand Canyon.

    The league needs a system that keeps the big market owners in check financially so smaller market teams can have a chance at competing for an NBA title as well. And trying to take the money from the players is not going to do it. Each CBA negotiation, the league and its owners have dodged what is truly necessary for te league to prosper. If they do not want the same issues to resurface (as I think they will), they really need to start looking at way to initiate not just competitive parity, but financial parity as well.

  5. I think you nail it here, Darius. At the end of the day there are 30 teams and only a few truly great players. They can tinker with the salary structure all they want. Basketball will never be like the NFL or NHL. If a team has a LeBron James or a Shaquille O’neal in his prime, then parity goes out the window. The Spurs were contenders for a decade. Yes, they were a well managed organization. Yes, they made great financial decisions. Yes, they have a great coach. But their success would not have been possible if they didn’t luck into Tim Duncan. He is one of the best big men of the last 25 years. And if you want to call him a power forward he is the best one ever. Having a “best ever” in his prime on your team trumps all that other stuff.

    Good work here as always.

  6. Great stuff guys… Except of course that in the NBA parity has proven historically to be a mortal virus. The league has been at it’s most popular when the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Lakers, and now Heat have superstar teams that dominate games and the headlines.

  7. I agree, parity can’t be mandated. Some teams simply can’t figure out how to be good and probably never will, regardless of where they’re located and how much or little they spend. They’ll perennially stock up on choice draft picks, hire new coaches and yank them too soon and trade the players they acquired the year before until they’ve signed, traded, hired and fired into a disjointed gun shy mess. I’d just as soon start the contraction process and then concentrate on building up a really good, effective farm/development league system.

  8. I agree with Aaron. The NBA s driven by superstars and dynasties preferably in major cities. The problem with the NBA isn’t lack of parity it’s having teams in places like New Orleans, Charlotte, Minnesota and Memphis (though they do seem to have gotten it together) that can’t sustain those franchises.

  9. 7,8 and others – Maybe part of the solution is to reduce the population of major cities like LA and NYC. That, and require many of the hot women in those locales to go to, say, Memphis and Indy.

    Stern is such an egomaniac he may think this is feasible …

  10. Darius,
    “I still struggle to find meaningful ways where a hard cap leads to parity”

    It’s not the elite players that win the title, it’s the near-elite players or second elite player, that are added to them, that bring the title. And that’s where the hard cap would help spread the wealth.

  11. #10. Fair enough. However, in a marketplace with a finite number of great players and a hard cap (supposedly) surpressing the salaries of the players who aren’t in that finite group, how is the gap lessened between have and have not teams? Said another way, if only Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Durant, Howard, Paul, and a few other players are worth the max salary how does a hard cap ensure that the other players are spread out evenly and how do those other players – when spread out – compete with teams that are led by the very best players in the league?

    To me, you either end up with two scenarios: 1). The 2nd tier stars (Carmelo, Amare, Bosh, Gasol, etc) end up trying to carry their own teams as “the man” and get paid like they’re 1st tier stars b/c the marketplace creates a competition for their services (like how Joe Johnson got his money two off-seasons ago). This leads to lesser quality teams that will still find themselves shorter on talent than the teams that are built around the very best players all things being equal (i.e. roster construction is based on the same allocation of resources – salary cap dollars – for everyone). Or 2). The 2nd tier stars get slotted into lesser salaries and end up going to play with the 1st tier star of their choice or in the more desirable markets. I mean, if the money is the same everywhere, why go play in Minnesota if you can play in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Or, why go play with 2nd tier star X if you can play with Kevin Durant or LeBron James or Dwight Howard?

    Obviously that last point speaks more to free agents rather than home grown players, but all contracts expire at some point and b/c there’s a rookie pay scale, the better players far outperform their wages in those first few seasons. At that point, they’ll look for their payday and those same factors I laid out above come into play.

    Again, I’m not saying that parity isn’t possible, but how does a hard cap ensure that it will happen?

  12. Darius,
    1) I’m approaching this from the perspective of no contraction, as I’m assuming that is not being considered at this point. (I think that one of the major problems with the league is that it over-expanded.)

    2) Secondly, you have to start with an assumption that there will never be complete parity, just less of a gap. Right now, there is an (IMO) unsustainable gap. I believe that the biggest reason for that gap is the salary structure.

    A hard cap puts more weight on the ability of upper management to piece teams together smartly, which is how it should be.

  13. #12. I waffle on the expansion of the league. There are times I think the number of teams is fine, and that it’s market location and poor management that leads to poor results. Other times I think there are simply too many teams and that a higher concentration of talent across the league would be good for everyone.

    Also, I agree on a salary ceiling encouraging smarter choices when building a roster. That said, I’m still not convinced that owners/GM’s really can be protected from themselves in making bad decisions. But I do see your overall point about lessing the gap, not eliminating it.

  14. interesting read, but comparing the parity of football and a desired parity in the nba is illogical. apart from the obvious hardcap that the nfl has, football has parity also because of the nature of the sport. Football is a contact driven sport where players are interchangeable pieces of a teams puzzle. Obviously, there are exceptions, but in the nfl, if a left tackle goes down, his back up steps to the plate, and the machine keeps going. That will never happen in the nba, because of the inherent nature of the sport. basketball is not a contact driven, part (player) interchangeable sport like nfl football.

  15. 14. Hive

    To say that football has interchangeable pieces(players) only because they hit one another is way off base IMO. So if your said logic is true then all the league has to do is put pads on and have at it.

    The reason the NBA cant just replace player X with player Y goes more along with the talent is spread to thin. There are simply to many teams in the league. The talent drop off from your second tier players and down is just too big of a drop off on any individual team unless you have deep pockets.

    A combination of a hard cap, keeping the big teams from catching all the fish, and less teams would close the gap between the haves and have not. It would not be an end of all, but fans would definitely see more teams like the 2004 Pistons representing the league.

  16. @15. that’s my whole point, your focusing on the “hitting” aspect of my comment, and not the interchangeable aspect. in football, each positions job is “mostly” specified, so it’s easier to replace a player “x” with a player “y” when they get hurt, cause if a kicker gets hurt, you put another kicker in. If a running back gets hurt, you put another running back in. of course, there are always exceptions to these rules in all positions in the nfl, but nfl players don’t have the all encompassing responsibility for a win that an nba “star” does. nfl players don’t all touch the ball, and they don’t all play both defense and offense, so they are more readily replaced than a basketball star. When a guy who can score, rebound and defend at an elite level sits down in an nba game, it changes the whole dynamic of a team. In the nfl, thats not true. star players sit out all the time, and teams keep doing what they do (good or bad). tom brady went down a couple of seasons ago, and the patriots still won 11 odd games that year. In the nba, that CAN’T happen, because nba stars affect too much of the game both offensively and defensively. to say that the nfl’s parity isn’t in part due to it’s physical nature, and the one dimensionalness (generally) of it’s players and there positions,is ignoring the obvious. the differences in what basketball players do on the court, and what nfl players do on the field are too wide (in terms of their impact on a teams success) that you can’t use the nfl as a model for nba business or structure.

  17. @12 & 13 – the league may not be talking about ‘contaction’ at this point for obvious reasons – there has to be a face of owner solidarity during the lockout, even if the owners aren’t actually on the same page. But, it’s hard to imagine certain teams surviving in the long run, especially if the strike goes long. I’d really like to see fewer teams and a much stronger, more competitive D-league satellite system. I think the new issue of a 3rd draft round is interesting… it throws a few more wild cards into the mix and allows teams to perhaps look more seriously at developing certain aspects of the roster. I’d even go so far as to add a 16th roster spot. Larger rosters, fewer teams.

  18. ps, I can hear the protests of what happens to all the displaced players from contracted teams and where on earth would would you find space and PT for 3rd rounders? Fine, build dugouts, pack them with 20-man rosters and let the chips fall where they may, haha.

  19. I’d have to say I agree with exhelodrvr @ 12. Just one star is not enough to win a championship, Mavs of this year and the ’04 Pistons excepted. You need more than one superstar. I think the hard cap is obviously beneficial for the Lakers but in terms of parity-well, I don’t see that a worthwhile goal. personally I’ve never had a problem with the game. Obviously I’m more of a hard-core hoops fan than most, but I don’t see parity as a goal.