With the NBA playoffs underway, 16 teams have started their quest to become the next NBA Finals champion. Really though, this field of 16 teams feels more like a field of four. For the last twenty years, the NBA has been ruled by elite franchises which dominate the postseason. Unlike the NFL, the NBA rarely has a first-time champion—and multi-year NBA champions/dynasties are commonplace. Since 1980, the NBA has only seen nine different franchises win the Finals. NINE! The question is: What causes this distinct lack of NBA parity as compared to leagues like the NFL? The answer can be found in how the NBA structures its salary cap and its playoffs.
When you start to break down the numbers, the NBA’s lack of parity compared to other leagues becomes even more apparent. There has been a total of 67 NBA champions in the league’s history—and of those 67 champions, four teams account for 65% of them (Lakers, Celtics, Spurs and Bulls). At one point, the Celtics won eight consecutive NBA Finals. That means that for the majority of a decade, the NBA had one champion. That’s it. Granted, the Celtics did this in the late 1950s and 1960s when there were fewer teams, but it’s still a ridiculous situation.
While the last 16 years in the NBA have seen an increase in parity, it hasn’t been drastic. Since 1996, the NBA has had seven different champions, though the Big Four teams mentioned above were part of those seven. In fact, only two teams have been first-time NBA Championship winners since 1996. In 2006, the Heat won their first championship and have since gone on to become a powerhouse of their own by winning the last two NBA Finals and are poised to win another.
Winning multiple championships in a row is very common in the NBA. Teams like the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls have all won 3+ championships in a row during their respective histories. Even some newer teams that have become powerhouses do it. For instance, the Miami Heat have already won two titles in a row and are looking to make it a 3-peat. One of the few exceptions is the Mavericks, a team that won their first championship in 2011 but haven’t won another or managed to solidify themselves among the NBA elite.
Comparatively, in the NFL, the four winningest teams in Super Bowl history only accounted for 41% of the 48 Super Bowl champions. In the last 16 years alone, the NFL has seen seven different teams win their first Super Bowl; and only four of its 32 teams have never reached the Super Bowl. While the NFL has established an image where fans believe any year their team could win it all, the NBA constantly sees its smaller market teams losing (games, not to mention hope and fans?) annually.
With such a stark difference between the NBA’s and the NFL’s levels of parity, there has to be a cause. I believe the reason we see so much less parity in the NBA is due to two major factors; the soft salary cap and the 7-game playoff series. For those unfamiliar with what a soft salary cap is, here’s a definition:
“A soft cap system places a limit on how much money each team can spend on all of their players while allowing teams to go over that limit by issuing exceptions and requiring teams to pay a luxury tax. The exceptions and luxury tax are negotiated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and the owners…In the old CBA, the luxury tax was dollar-for-dollar tax for each dollar spent over the salary cap. For example, the salary cap for the 2012-121 season is a little over $70 million. If the Lakers spend $100 million on players, they will have to pay $30 million in luxury tax. The current CBA has a new formula for the luxury tax which increases the base tax to $1.50 per dollar over the cap…”2
This soft salary cap allows NBA teams to spend more if they really want to. Even though they will have to pay millions in luxury taxes, some teams (especially bigger market teams) have the finances to pay these steep taxes. This is vastly different from the NFL, which has a hard salary cap forbidding teams, under any circumstances, to go over.
This difference can have a large impact on parity, especially when you look at a team’s ability to retain its players. If an NBA team has $20 million in cap space left but really wants to retain a key superstar who is demanding $30 million, it can. The team just simply has to pay a tax for going over the cap. If the player is really that essential to the team’s success, then NBA owners will happily pay the extra money. This greatly increases the ability of top NBA teams to retain or add talent as long as they are willing to spend the money. That means bigger market teams such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami have an easier time keeping their top-tier talent.
In 2014, the five teams that were the furthest over the luxury tax threshold were Brooklyn, New York, Miami, and the two Los Angeles teams.3 They can afford to spend extra, and it greatly influences why those teams are perennial contenders. Unlike the NBA, NFL teams often find themselves making difficult decisions on who they will give larger contracts to because of the hard salary cap. Due to this situation, skilled veterans often becomes available to weaker teams and helps to better distribute talent throughout the league.
While the soft salary cap influences the lack of parity, it’s the league’s seven-game playoff series structure that’s the biggest influence. In the NBA, every playoff matchup is a best-of-seven series; teams must win four games against their opponent to advance. In theory, this structure makes sense since the team that is able to win four times generally is the more talented team. While any team could possibly pull off an upset in a single game, it’s hard to pull off an upset four different times. Having a playoff structure that favors the more talented team makes sense and sounds fair, but when the same teams are the better teams every year, it diminishes parity.
The NBA has 16 teams that make the playoffs every year, but there are only a handful of teams that truly have a chance to “win it all,” due to the huge difference in talent between the elite teams and the rest of the playoff field. This has caused many franchises to simply be content with making the playoffs as a low seed because they know they have a minimal chance to advance regardless.
The NFL, like college basketball and part of the MLB playoffs (not to mention college basketball), has a one-and-done format. If a team loses a game, they are immediately out. This type of format promotes upsets. If a more talented team has an “off” day, a less talented team could pull an upset. It’s the reason so many more different teams have won a Super Bowl compared to the NBA Finals. One-and-done playoff formats increase the upset potential. Between 2009 and 2013, a #1 seed won the NBA Finals three different times. The other two teams to win were #2 and #3 seeds. In contrast, during the same period in the NFL, only one #1 seed won the Super Bowl and the other winners were a #2 seed, two #4 seeds, and a #6 seed. The NFL’s one-and-done style gives even the lowest seeds a real chance to win the Super Bowl. That’s just not the case in the NBA, where a #7 or #8 seed has never won the Finals.4
If the NBA ever wants to rival the NFL in terms of popularity, it needs to make serious changes in order to increase the parity within the league. With many of the same teams finding themselves at the bottom of the standings every year, the NBA needs to try to help those teams have a better chance of improving. Fans of these teams have little to cheer for and that causes disinterest. Fans know their team will be awful for the foreseeable future and the best they have to look forward to is making the playoffs, only to lose in the first round.
In the NFL, both the 2011 Colts and 2012 Chiefs finished with only two wins, the very next year those teams finished with 11 wins and made the playoffs. NFL fans know that while their team might be weak one year, there’s always a chance for success. In the NBA, do fans of weaker teams like the Kings or Bucks think they’ll win a title anytime soon? Unlikely. Whether it’s by changing the salary cap structure, the playoff format or even getting rid of the Draft Lottery, the NBA needs to make serious changes in an effort to increase parity throughout its league if it ever wants to rival the NFL in popularity.