The Good, the Few and the Ugly

Barry Rothbard

The NBA has long been a league dominated by an upper echelon – a select few teams that stood above the rest and were sure bets to advance far in the playoffs. In the ’80s and ’90s, there were Isaiah’s Pistons, Bird’s Celtics, Magic’s Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls and Ewing’s Knicks. Then, there were Shaq’s Lakers, Duncan’s Spurs, and the Pistons. Now, the NBA has evolved into a league of parity, with just under half (14) of the league’s teams with records of at least seven games above .500 (and 13 of those at least 10 games above an even record). However, 13 teams have records at least six games below .500 and eleven of those are at least 10 games below .500. That means, of the 30 teams in the NBA, there are 14 decent-to-excellent teams while there are 13 bad-to-atrocious teams, with only three “average” teams. With all of the blockbuster trades that occurred over the past two weeks, the rich have gotten richer while the poor ended up worse off. So the question now arises, is this type of parity good for the NBA?

I think in the short term, yes. This season’s playoff race in the Western Conference will come down to the wire and the playoffs will be exciting and unpredictable. There are just too many good teams out west to single out the best one. It’s great that stars like Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson get to play together. It’s great that Kobe Bryant is finally happy. It’s great that young, rising stars like Chris Paul and Deron Williams have solid supporting casts. But it is not good for the NBA when the New York Knicks lose by 40 points – to a 76ers team seven games below .500. It is not good for the NBA when the outcome of certain games is almost a given. Least of all, it is not good for the NBA that Kansas, North Carolina or Memphis could probably be competitive with the bottom-fourth of the league.

Parity is great – but only to an extent. When it gets to the point where there are so many awful teams (with awful players) playing awful basketball night in and night out, the NBA becomes watered down. First of all, are these alleged great teams that good? The Hornets have essentially the same team as last year, yet are significantly better as indicated by their record. Detroit did nothing in the offseason but bolster their bench and they look better than ever. Yes, these two teams are good – but not great. They just play against inferior competition every other game, which makes it way too easy for these teams to pile up win after win. The NBA is supposed to be a balanced league, with every team having at least one-go-to guy and one sidekick. Now, Nash has both Amare Stoudamire and Shaquille O’Neal. Dirk Nowitzki has Jason Kidd. Paul Pierce has Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. All of these “secondary” players (with the exception of the elderly Shaq), are stars. The NBA is a star-driven league. Fans go to see the stars. Who do fans in Memphis want to go see, Rudy Gay, Mike Conley or Mike Miller? They’re all nice players; Gay and Conley might even be stars some day, but they are young, inexperienced and cannot carry the team. The only Grizzly over the age of 30 is the stellar Brian Cardinal. They have nine players who are 26 or younger. That isn’t even rebuilding. It’s giving up. The Grizzlies, like so many of their bottom-dwellers (i.e. Charlotte and Minnesota) are going to keep getting high draft picks and just building up with young players. That doesn’t work. Yes, Portland won some games earlier in the year, but that’s come to a sudden halt. Teams need experience. While the parity may produce an exciting playoff race, it also creates dull games played by awful teams.

The NBA clearly has too many teams, with too many bad players watering down the league. And the sharing of the stars only makes this fact stand out even more. The NBA would have a more evenly distributed parity with more competitive games on a nightly basis if there were two to four less teams. Please, David Stern, do something. I cannot watch Jared Jeffries and Mark Madsen tear up the league any more.