The NBA’s Kind of Sort of Competition Problem

The NBA is experiencing a boom unlike any time in its storied history. It’s no wonder you don’t see a single owner looking to sell his franchise, because the future looks very bright. Mega-TV deals and unquestionable star power are pushing the NBA to new heights in both TV ratings and pop-culture relevance. Superstars like Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, and everyone on the Warriors are enjoying the massive fame of being both incredibly recognizable and likable. Only, 85% of the teams have absolutely no shot at winning the title this year. Seems like it should be a problem, shouldn’t it?

The specific issue I’d like to delve down upon today may not even be a real issue at all. That is, the NBA lacks real competitiveness at nearly all levels. Unless you happen to be one of the best three or four teams in the NBA this year, your chances of winning the title are slim to none. For a team to be even slightly competitive at the top, it needs to have: A. one of the top 5 players in the league, B. One of the top 20 players in the league as the second banana, and C. whip cream on the top made up of several other top players, a well-respected coach and a whole lot of injury luck.

Now, do you know how many teams fit into that huge ask? Three, maybe four.

I can’t help but ask myself, how can a league be simultaneously so popular, and yet so clearly lack competitiveness at the top? The league can be broken down into just a few categories:

Category One: Contenders – The teams mentioned above. They are the Warriors (Duh), the Cavaliers (Thanks in large part to the East being so terrible and Lebron being so great), The Spurs (in Pop we Trust), and the MAYBE the Rockets (James Harden + Mike DeAntoni = Insanity).

Catagory Two: The Fringe – This is what separates the NBA from the NFL, MLB, and NHL. In any other league, these teams would have a very realistic shot at winning the championship. You see Wild Card teams win Super Bowls and Championships all the time, and end up with teams like the Atlanta Falcons getting ever so close to winning in seasons where they were largely written off the whole way. That almost never happens in the NBA, especially of late. You either are or your not, with no in-between. You may have multiple stars, but they just aren’t quite good enough to put you over the top unless you get really lucky. This includes the Clippers, Celtics, Raptors, Wizards, Jazz, and Grizzlies. These are the teams that will be anywhere from the 2 to the 6 seed in their conference, and they collectively have about a 1% chance to win the NBA Finals, TOTAL. Is this crazy to anyone else but me?

Catagory Three: Playoffs, but Still No Fucking Shot – No 8th seed has ever won an NBA Finals, and a total of only four teams have ever even won a playoff series when starting in the 8th seed. It gets a little better for 6th and 7th seeds, but not much. Nowadays, with all of the best free agents teaming together, it is just impossible for a team in the lower rungs of the playoffs to make a real run. One of these teams may win a series, and in a crazy year, maybe two, but the buck will stop there. This includes the Thunder, Nuggets, Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, Pistons, and a few other teams that are just barely out of the playoffs that may sneak in and subsequently get destroyed in the first round. It may be better to be in fully tank mode than here in the NBA, unlike any other league.

Catagory Four: All the Other Losers – In this category, you’re either in full tank-mode, or floating around in basketball purgatory. It’s easy to see why so many teams like the 76ers have been in tank mode for 5+ years — they are hoping and praying that the next Lebron James falls to them and escalates them to the top. This can happen very quickly if you are dedicated to tanking and just get outright lucky. The 76ers are a perfect example of this. Year after year they fought their way to the bottom and put an NBA D-League team on the court, only to be rewarded with Joel Embiid (looking like the next coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, only he can shoot threes) and Ben Simmons (lord only knows how good he’ll be, but the consensus is REALLY FUCKING GOOD). With the current rules in place, this is simply the most effective strategy. Being a mediocre team with only one star, like the Thunder, will simply get you nowhere these days. Even with the force that is Russell Westbrook, one player can only get you so far. Even large market teams like the Knicks are a mess, and it’s because they have been in this state or worse for 15 years now.

Why is this a non-sort-of-problem? Because no one seems to really care that much. Everyone seems to think their team will be the next to pick up a Lebron James and shoot to the top, just like everyone in America wants to believe they could be the next billionaire. It doesn’t bother them that they are more likely to be among the lower-middle-class teams for two decades, because there’s hope for the future. Hope that they can be lucky enough to draft the next Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and the dominoes will simply just fall from there. My only hope is that the NBA will find a way to spice things up a bit. To incentivize those teams at the bottom to compete, and to make the first round a little more interesting. Just a little food-for-though while you’re watching Lebron James steamroll his way through the hapless Pistons or Hornets or Bucks this June. I believe the NBA can be an even better product than it is now, one that could take-over as America’s favorite sport if they play things right.