Just like in '80s, NBA lacks parity
The NBA still lacks the parity that the world's top sports league, the NFL, enjoys
Six teams appear to have a title shot, meaning 24 team owners have no chance
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The good news for NBA fans is that no more than six teams -- including the reconstituted Orlando Magic -- are in the running for the championship this year. The bad news for league owners is that 24 of them have little or no chance of playing in June.
Compare the NBA, which spotlights a few superior contenders, to the NFL, which thrives on parity. Who in early September imagined that the New England Patriots would go 14-2? Or that the Minnesota Vikings would free-fall to 6-10? The country's most popular league remains so unpredictable that all but a team or two in each conference can envision reaching the Super Bowl.
The NBA's ratings are up for two reasons: One is that LeBron James did everyone in the league a huge favor by turning his move from Cleveland to Miami into reality TV. People want to know what is going to happen to him and his team. He has created a rooting interest.
The other is that the NBA's salary-cap system is, by its own principles, broken. The goal is for every team to believe it can compete with the richer or more attractive franchises. Without that promise, how can owners be expected to continue paying upward of $400 million for franchises that can neither contend for the championship nor (according to their side of the bargaining table) turn an annual profit?
This creates a paradox for commissioner David Stern. He says he needs to rescue from the ongoing negotiations a plan for revenue sharing among owners as well as salary cuts from players that will create fair opportunity for every franchise regardless of its size in the market. If he succeeds in creating parity, will he damage the product that is thriving today?
The broken system has created a half-dozen teams that are loaded with talent. Four of them -- the Lakers, Celtics, Mavericks and Magic -- are big-paying members of the luxury-tax club. The Heat are paying close to three max salaries and would be on track to cross the tax threshold if the current system wasn't about to expire. The Spurs were tax payers last season but nosed under this year by re-signing Richard Jefferson to a smaller salary extended over four years.
Fans continue to demonstrate their preference for a handful of superior teams at the top of the league. They liked it when Michael Jordan dominated year after year, and they liked it in the early 1980s when the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers had their way. They knew the best teams were likely to meet in the playoffs because the lesser opponents lacked the wherewithal to knock them off.
The byproduct of having a few splendid contenders is that it creates event television for the NBA. We saw it Wednesday night when the Spurs lost a highly entertaining game at the buzzer in Boston. We'll see it Saturday when the Magic play at Dallas, and next Friday when the Mavericks visit San Antonio, and Jan. 30 when Boston returns to Los Angeles, and Feb. 13 when the Heat meet the Celtics.
The NFL is a huge success in part because every Sunday is an event, and every playoff game delivers a national audience. But parity isn't so kind to the NBA because all things being equal means the audience doesn't quite know when to pay attention nationally. The long basketball season appears to drone on and on in the absence of superior rivalries.
What should fans want from the negotiations between owners and players? Most fans have to detest the idea of contracts that guarantee eight-figure salaries to players regardless of their performance, and in that sense they're likely to support the owners' pursuit of less money for players. But then the players' union can argue that the current system has created tremendous fan interest, and why ruin a good thing? If the next collective bargaining agreement results in a hard cap that forces the best teams to unload talent, will that formula bring happiness to the national audience?
I'm guessing fans don't want to hear either side of the argument. They're more interested in looking ahead to the March 10 rematch of the Lakers and Heat.