The Oligopoly of the NBA

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February 10, 2016 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

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Since 1980 only 10 teams have won the NBA championship; that’s only one third of the present league.  On top of this, there have only been an additional eight teams to have gone to a Finals only to lose.  Out of the three sporting leagues that matter in the U.S.A., this is by far the lowest percentage of champions over that period of time.

During that same span of time, 17 NFL teams, or more than half of the present league have won a Super Bowl, with another eight teams losing in their Super Bowl appearance(s).  Out of 32 teams, a whopping 25 have made it to a Super Bowl since 1980.  Despite the current lack of parity (particularly in the AFC) this is still an impressive number.

In the MLB, the league that rewards mediocrity the most, 19 out of a possible 30 teams have won a World Series since 1980, almost two-thirds of the league.  An additional seven teams have gone to a World Series only to lose.  There are only four teams in the MLB who have yet to appear in the fall classic.  In other words, all 26 teams that have gone to a World Series have all done so within the past 35 years.  In fact, if we move the clock forward to only cover the past 30 years, the total number of teams to make a World Series appearance only drops to 24.  That’s an astounding 80% of the league having played in a World Series over the past 30 years.  Whether or not some of those teams deserve to be there is another story entirely.

No NFL team has repeated in 12 seasons, ever since the Patriots did in 2003 and 2004, the longest such drought in the history of the league.  The MLB has not seen a repeat champion in 16 years since the Yankees three-peated from 1998-2000.  As in the NFL, the MLB is currently entrenched in its longest stretch without a repeat champion.  The NBA by contrast has featured three repeat champions.  The Lakers three-peated from 2000-2002, then repeated again in 2009-2010, while the Heat, the most recent repeat champions in the NBA did so in 2012-2013.  Including these three repeat champions, a total of six teams have gone to consecutive Finals.  In the MLB, only four teams have gone to consecutive World Series since 2000, while in the NFL only two teams have gone to consecutive Super Bowls during that same span.

But while it may seem like the NFL and the MLB are more balanced league than the NBA, the illusion of parity exists in those two leagues.  They both are not as up front with themselves and their fans as the NBA is when it comes to the criticism that the same teams win over and over again.  Since 2000 four MLB teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, and Giants) have accounted for 10 World Series championships.  Since the 2000 season, the New England Patriots have account for 25% of all Super Bowl wins.  Additionally, 13 of the past 17 AFC teams to advance to the Super Bowl have featured either Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, or Peyton Manning.  If you include Ray Lewis in the bunch, then 15 of the past 17 Super Bowls have featured one of those four players.  This is an eerie parallel to the NBA, a league which has as much evidence supporting the theory that it is a league moderately fixed by the hand of the Commissioner as it does against that theory.  From 1999-2014, every NBA Finals featured either Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade.  From 1980-1991, every NBA Finals save for one featured either Magic Johnson or Larry Bird.

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This is exactly what’s wrong with the MLB.

The MLB is really the only league where literally any team can make it to its championship round.  This isn’t a good thing however, as sometimes it seems like the teams with a better record are at a disadvantage.  The Miami Marlins have won two World Series despite never winning their division.  Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, 11 wild card teams have advanced to the World Series with wild card team going 7-4 in the World Series.  At the same time, the team with the best overall record in baseball during a season has only gone to the World Series seven times since 1995.  In fact two wild card teams have faced off in the Fall Classic twice before.[1]  Clearly the expanded playoffs have been more advantageous to the wild card team than towards the division winners.  Out of the three major sports, the MLB offers the most amount of parity because its postseason is the biggest crapshoot in all of sports.  During the baseball postseason, it’s usually not the better team that wins, it’s the team that’s on the hotter streak.  This is why the Marlins, the shittiest sports franchise in the western hemisphere have won two World Series, while the Chicago Cubs haven’t even been to a World Series since before the NBA even existed.  There is no better proof in existence that life isn’t fair.

In the NFL, because of its one game playoff structure, the team that plays better is the team that will always win.  There are no upsets; if you perform better than the other team for that entire hour of football, you will be rewarded with a victory.  This is why the Giants were able to beat the Patriots in two Super Bowls.  The Giants matched up well against New England and outplayed them in every way.  It’s also the same reason why the Saints were able to beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV; the Colts were ill prepared for what the Saints had to offer.  In Football, the team that’s best prepared to win will win.  Unless you’re the Minnesota Vikings.

The NBA is a different beast all together because Cinderella teams don’t really exist.  They do technically, but they never go all the way.  The 1999 Knicks were thankfully stopped just short of a championship, the 1994 Denver Nuggets were eliminated in the second round, as were the 2006-2007 Golden State Warriors, as were the 2010-2011 Memphis Grizzlies.  Even the Detroit Pistons teams of the mid-2000s shouldn’t be considered a fluke team or a Cinderella team when they won the Championship.  They went to six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, and could have easily walked away with two Finals victories in that time span.  The Houston Rockets team that won their second consecutive title in 1995 remains the lowest seeded team to win a Finals.  They were the sixth seed, but they were still the defending champs who benefited more from the egregious play of their opponents rather than Cinderella luck.[2]  Upsets happen yes, just ask the 1995 Knicks, or the 1994 Supersonics, or the 2007 Mavericks, but the team that upset them doesn’t last very long after that.  The reason why is because of the power structure of the NBA.

The secret truth of the NBA is that at any given time there are only about four serious title contenders.  Although 16 teams make the playoffs, the vast majority of those teams have no shot whatsoever of going to the Finals.  At the time that this article is being written, those contenders are the Warriors, Thunder, Spurs, and Cavaliers.  While teams like the Raptors and Clippers have been playing exceptionally well, they haven’t been good enough to break through and join the elite ranks of the NBA.  The Clippers will have to beat two of the three aforementioned teams in the West, and the Raptors will have to beat a team with Lebron James on it if they hope to make it to the Finals.

super bowl

12 of the past 13 Super Bowls have featured either Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Ben Roethlisberger.

The entire history of the NBA has been colored by this oligopoly of contenders.  In the 60s the real contenders were the Celtics, Lakers, and whatever team Wilt Chamberlain happened to be on.  The 1970s are an anomaly because it’s the only decade in the history of the NBA not to employ this paradigm.  A record eight different teams won the NBA Finals in that decade, and it almost killed the NBA.  There was no dynasty or easily recognizable team for fans to identify.  Much like the stars of the game, the champions were a chaotic hodgepodge of teams who could never sustain dominance despite brief flashes.  The Baltimore Bullets went to four Finals in the decade but went 1-3, while getting swept twice.  After winning the title in 1975 and 1977 the Warriors and Trailblazers respectively, both bowed out during the following year’s playoffs in rather indignant fashion.  There was no order nor stability in the league or with any of its champions and the league suffered because of this free for all.

By the 1980s however, with the emergence of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the balance of power was restored into the oligarchy that it had been during the 1950s and 1960s.  The brief experiment with democracy during the 1970s ended in resounding failure that led to tape delayed Finals games, and non-televised playoff games.  But because of the dominance of both the Lakers and the Celtics during the 1980s, and their easily identifiable paradigms, the league soared to new heights.  With a restored power structure, it was the Lakers, Celtics, 76ers, and Pistons who would be at the top of the power pyramid, with teams like the Bucks, Rockets, and Suns all playing the role of unknowing pretenders.  Only four teams won titles during the 1980s and of the 10 won during that decade, the Lakers and Celtics accounted for a total of eight.  To win their championships, the 76ers and the Pistons had to go through both the Lakers and Celtics, while the Bucks could only beat either the 76ers or Celtics during a given postseason, but never both.  Likewise the Suns could never beat the Lakers, nor could the Rockets vanquish both the Lakers and Celtics in the same postseason.  The contenders proved their worth by winning and clawing their way to the top.  Unlike the MLB, the NBA is a very unforgiving league that neither takes no prisoners nor any shit.

Just look at the 1990s for proof.  Never in the history of any sport had so many contenders been denied their spot at the top.  The Knicks, Suns, Jazz, Supersonics, Magic and Heat were all teams that could have and should have been a part of the oligopoly.  But, for the first time since Bill Russell’s Celtics, the league was dominated by one team, or maybe more appropriately, one man.

jordan

This is what winning looks like.

Michael Jordan singlehandedly denied Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, John Stock, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler and Tim Hardaway a championship.  While Michael Jordan was playing in the 1990s, the Chicago Bulls tuned what was normally an oligopoly into a monopoly.  So long as Jordan was playing basketball no one was going to beat the Bulls in the 1990s.  In the absence of Jordan, the NBA was still monopolized by one team, the Houston Rockets.  A decade that should have seen the most egalitarian NBA ever formed was relegated to a series of monopolies not seen since the 1960s.  And because so many real contenders were denied their spot on this oligopoly, the 1990s because the golden age of the NBA.  At certain points throughout the decade, it seemed like the Knicks or Pacers or Jazz could defeat the Bulls and claim their rightful spot as champions.  It never happened however, and so many deserving teams and players were refuted by a single player.

The 2000s, as opposed to the 1990s, saw an NBA that was more of a monopolistic competition than a true oligopoly. For the majority of the decade the Lakers and Spurs traded championships which put them in a class of their own within the caste system of the NBA.  Because it was essentially a two team league with a revolving door of superfluous contenders, year in and year out, the NBA was at its most boring and least enjoyable since the late 1970s.  The reason why an oligopoly of power players works in the NBA so well is because it’s easiest to understand sports and a league’s history through the context of champions.  It’s simple to understand who the champions were if they won multiple times and did so in intriguing fashion.

At the very foundation of sports and competition, all fans really care about is who won.  The next level that we care about is how they won.  As fans we stand in awe of teams that won many times because it makes their dominance and their achievements much more visible and more easily digestible.

One of the most interesting times in MLB history was the 1970s where three consecutive teams repeated as champions.  That’s never happened before nor since and it conveyed a sense of dominance.  For the A’s to win three in a row, then to see the Reds go back-to-back, followed by the Yankees repeating as world champions was unprecedented and it creates a chain, a link through the decade that becomes easy for fans to understand.  Never has it happened in the NFL when two teams consecutively went back-to-back as Super Bowl champs.  When there’s a string of repeated champions, it makes the oft-complicated history of a league seem less chaotic and spontaneous.  As fans, commentators, or reckless spectators, we chronicle an era in sports by the teams that wins the most because it creates stability.  That’s why ESPN and other sport reporting agencies always run their team of the decade lists.  The very fiber of sports is contextualized by how often the winners won.

The NBA (or David Stern, but they’re pretty much one and the same anyway) innately understands this, and it’s because of this fact that from 1987-1998 four NBA teams in a row won consecutive championships, an unprecedented achievement in any sport.  It’s so easy to understand basketball during this era because it’s quite literally a chain of succession.  The Lakers ended the Celtics tenure as being legitimate contenders, the Pistons then dethroned the Lakers as the best team in the league until Michael Jordan dismantled the Bad Boys and started his reign at the top.  Taking advantage of the Jordan Power Vacuum, the Houston Rockets, undeservedly so, slithered their way towards back-to-back titles until Jordan returned and picked up right where he left off.  It’s for this reason that I have to constantly ask “If the Spurs are so great, how come they never repeated?”, the NBA makes it seem so easy.

davidstern

The architect of the NBA also known as Uncle David.

The reality though is that repeating as a champion is the hardest thing to do in sports.  The NBA teams that did so, with the exception of the Rockets, were all the best team amongst an incredibly small cadre of elite teams.  To put it in the most ridiculous and vapidly jealous socio-economic terms, that crop of real contenders represent the “top 1%” within the NBA.  They are the rich who keep getting richer, but its because they constantly make the smart moves and know how to build a team.  Some teams, like the Knicks and Kings, will never be amongst the NBA’s elite because they constantly hamstring themselves and hinder their own chances at ever sniffing success.  The NBA is an elitist league because of how much effort constructing and fielding a championship caliber team is required.  It’s also become an elitist league because of the power structure that arises where there’s only a small number of actual title contenders during a given era.  This second truth is a direct result of the first; for the franchises that mange to succeed in building a championship caliber team, their reward is to be launched into the upper echelon of the NBA.

The NBA is not a league that incentivizes futility, nor does is condone mediocrity.  It’s a league dominated by the best of its best, and thanks to David Stern it has been for over 30 years.  For a team that’s the best, their reward in the NBA is to continue being the best until someone proves otherwise, which is really the only applicable prize.  If you want to watch a league that can’t decide if it wants to be an elitist league or one of parity, stick to the NFL.  If you want to watch a sport where the mediocre teams win more often than the best teams and where the championship round could feature two lackluster teams, stick to the MLB where winning seems to be a handicap.  But, if you want to see the best be the best; if you want to see a league dominated by the best it has to offer, the NBA is where it’s at and will be for the future.

The NBA—It’s not for everyone.


[1] 2002 and 2014.

[2] See Nick Anderson for further details.

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