Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 7, 2016

Twin Illusions: Parity And Guaranteed Dominance

Monday Kevin Durant announced in an article on The Players’ Tribune website that the Golden State Warriors had won the six team competition for the services of this year’s most coveted NBA free agent. In his article Durant cited “an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city that offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth” as a factor of equal importance to “the potential for my growth as a player.”

Writing as TPT’s “deputy publisher” Durant made no mention of the $54 million that Golden State will pay him over the next two seasons, nor of the fact that by joining a franchise that posted a league record 73 wins in the season just ended he and his new teammates instantly became the prohibitive favorites to win the title that eluded the Warriors just two weeks earlier. Nothing like a Larry O’Brien Trophy to aid one’s personal growth.

In fact other than the ritual burning of old number thirty-five jerseys by embittered fans in Oklahoma City, the principal response to Durant’s announcement has been to all but cede next season’s championship to Golden State. Before Monday dawned Nevada’s legal bookmakers had the Warriors at anywhere from 3-2 to 2-1, followed closely by the Cleveland Cavaliers at 3-1. After news of Durant’s decision broke those odds immediately dropped to better than even money, in the range of 2-3 to 4-5.

In plain language those odds say that Golden State has a better shot at the title than all of the other twenty-nine NBA teams combined. Those same oddsmakers have set the over-under on regular season wins by the Warriors at 68.5 and are offering 225-1 odds that the team will post a perfect record through both the regular season and the playoffs. That might sound like a longshot, as it obviously should, but the Warriors are deemed to have a better chance at perfection than the 76ers, Suns and Nets do of winning the championship next year. Odds of a title for those three teams are 250-1.

Accompanying the short odds has been an oft-repeated lament that the creation of a presumed super team in Oakland, with Durant now wearing the same uniform as two-time league MVP Steph Curry and his fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson, is somehow ruining the game by extinguishing the title hopes of virtually every other NBA franchise for the next few years. The giant leap in the NBA salary cap brought on by the league’s new TV contracts, which made Golden State’s signing of Durant possible, is said to be destroying parity.

It all amounts to overwrought hysteria by basketball pundits and fans, perhaps suffering symptoms of withdrawal from the recently concluded season. The truth is that in all of our sports parity among franchises is at best approximate and often a fantasy. This despite salary caps both hard and soft, revenue sharing among teams in its various forms, and even the weighted schedules that the NFL uses to make the road to playoff glory harder for the teams that have just experienced it than those that have been wandering in the desert.

In the NBA just four franchises – the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Spurs – have won two-thirds of the last thirty-six championships. More recently, the team with LeBron James on its roster has been the Eastern Conference representative in the Finals six years in a row. In the NHL, which has the hardest salary cap of all, three teams – the Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings – have won the Stanley Cup seven of the last eight years.

One can point to eight different Super Bowl champions in as many years, or the Kansas City Royals and their modest payroll playing in consecutive World Series and winning in 2015 as proof that efforts to ensure parity work.  But it would be more accurate to say those examples are evidence that they can, not guarantees that they will.

For no matter what rules are put in place, there will always be franchises so poorly managed that they cannot take advantage of them. It’s been more than a decade since the Seattle Mariners or Miami Marlins played in the postseason; and the Mariners are one of six franchises, fully one-fifth of major league teams, which have never won a World Series. There have been fifty Super Bowls but more than forty percent of NFL teams have yet to win one, and four franchises have never even had the opportunity to do so.

Just as a level playing field is more idea than fact in all our major sports, so too is the certainty of a super team; especially if the measure of greatness is a championship. The 2007-08 New England Patriots posted the best record in franchise history. But there is no banner commemorating that team hanging at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. That’s because with 2:39 left to play in Super Bowl XLII the New York Giants got the ball on their own 17-yard line, and began the drive that would put an end to the Patriots perfect season. The 2001 Seattle Mariners tied the record for the most regular season wins in the history of the Great Game with 116. But as already noted Seattle has never won a World Series. Those Mariners never made it to the Fall Classic, falling to the Yankees four games to one in the ALCS.

Then of course there is the object lesson of the most recent super team to come up short; none other than the Golden State Warriors. As the Splash Brothers, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut and the rest of the Warriors went about the regular season they were intent on not just defending their 2015 title but also doing so in record-breaking fashion. They set the regular season win mark and the record for most regular plus postseason wins. They established new standards for the best start, longest home winning streak, most three-pointers, and a plethora of other team and individual records. But the recent victory parade was in Cleveland. In the end the squad that was intent on being the best team ever wasn’t even the best team of the year.

Barring injury the Warriors should be great next season. Perhaps they will win it all and do so easily, breaking some of their own recently set records along the way. But the NBA will still hold its 2016-17 season rather than just calling it off and shipping the O’Brien Trophy to Oakland. For history warns against assuming the end result of any season. Rather it reminds fans of the essential attraction of all our sports. No matter the odds, there is always a reason why they actually play the games.

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