Parity in the NBA?

Dre at Wages of Wins has a post claiming that parity is impossible in the NBA.  I decided to be a little contrary and see if it were possible (and I see now that people in the comments have suggested doing similar things to what I’ll do below).  Dre’s claim is that since the spread in ability amongst the top players is bigger than the spread amongst good or average players, any team who has a top player will have to be good, and in fact better than teams without a top player.  Since some teams have managed to acquire two or three top players, there is no way parity can happen.

Parity, of course, hasn’t happened for two reasons: teams have some flaws in evaluating players, and teams are differentially willing to spend money to get the best players.  That has led to a system where last year teams won between 17 (Minnesota) and 62 (Chicago) games.  What if we used a different system?  We could, for example, have a draft every year for every player.  In 2011, there were 452 players.  With 30 teams, that neatly adds up to 15 players per team with two left over (two teams get 16 players).  Let’s say that teams used Wins Produced as their measure of talent.

I ordered all players last year by the number of wins they generated (from Kevin Love’s 25 to Andrea Bargnani’s -6.5), so there’s also some amount of knowing what would happen (i.e. who would play well and who would play poorly, although note I didn’t change their minutes; whoever got Bargnani would still decide to give him 2353 minutes).  One way to draft would be your typical fantasy snake draft: team 1 gets picks 1 and 60, team 2 gets 2 and 59, and so on until every player is taken.  If you do that and add up team wins, they range from 31 to 52.6, and wins increases neatly with team number: the team that picks first in the first round does best, down to the team that picks last in the first round.

So there’s something to Dre’s claim; even when you try to even things out a bit by having a snake-style draft, the top team does best.  That’s because in the first round (i.e. the top 30 players) there’s a spread of about 15 wins produced whereas in the second there’s only a spread of about 2.  The later-picking teams can’t make up that big initial difference.  Instead of a snake draft, we could have teams pick in one order in round 1 (i.e. 1 to 30) then reverse order in every subsequent round (i.e. 30 to 1).  In that case the spread of wins is only 36 to 46, and that’s only because team 29 (for some reason) drops to 36; every other team is 39 or higher.  If you used the opposite order in every subsequent round, the 14 other players on the team will come close to making up for the benefits of the better players taken in round one.

I’m sure you could do better than this; have a more systematic way of matching wins and so on.  If we really wanted to assume that teams knew how good their players were, we would also change how many minutes they played; Bargnani would not get 2300 minutes any more.  But using a fairly simple system you can pretty close to total parity; the spread from 36 to 46 is a difference of less than 2 points per game from average in either direction.  If you threw in some luck and injuries across seasons, I would guess this would be not significantly different from every team being average.  So, if teams were better evaluators of talent and willing to spend for it, parity is at least theoretically possible.



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8 Responses to Parity in the NBA?

  1. Dre says:

    Excellent I did this thought experiment earlier this week and found the same (a snake draft still doesn’t solve the problem). I will stand by my point. The current owners claim that by enacting salary rules parity can improve. Not only does empirical evidence not support this, but the distribution of “data” doesn’t support it either.

    If the solution is a perfect draft after the season is over to make more even team. . . well I’ll say that if players and owners can’t agree on a few percent differences that such a solution will likely never happen 🙂

    • Alex says:

      I certainly agree with you on how unlikely a ‘perfect’ draft is (honestly, if I knew my team was designed to win 41 games, I would stop watching).

      I think your point stands despite the post; it was more of an exercise and something I could do easily with data I had on hand. I think it’s impressive that even a snake draft leads to fairly uneven teams; getting first pick out of the top 30 players is a huge benefit.

  2. mosiplatt says:


    The flaw in your premise is the presumption that talent evaluation & spending dictates where players will play. It doesn’t. We are talking about human beings that have free will. Who’s to say they would participate in a league where they had no control over where they played each season? We’ve already seen players choose to take less money for greater chance to win titles. It doesn’t just come down to talent evaluation & spending. Before free agency, that MAY have been the case. After free agency, it certainly isn’t the case.

    • Alex says:

      Mosi, that’s certainly true in some cases but I don’t think many. Superstars like LeBron can afford to give up a few million (and I might have seen the wrong numbers, but isn’t the difference between his deal and a max deal only a million or two per year?), and a guy who brings as much gate money as Kobe might be able to get a no-trade clause (I think Dirk has one too?). Those guys can be picky about where they play. But the majority of players go where they will be paid; we always hear about how many players are broke just years after leaving the league and one of the recurring lock-out themes is questioning how long the players can go without a paycheck and how many of them will play overseas. I think at least 95% of the players in the league would stay in the NBA even if they got reassigned every year, so long as they were paid something like what they think they should get (e.g. LeBron could keep getting his $15 million plus).

      More generally, the question is really just if parity is possible, not plausible. I certainly don’t think it’s plausible or even that such a league should exist. But if everyone agreed to it, I think it could happen.

      • mosiplatt says:

        I think your 95% number is way too high. The NBPA negotiated for guaranteed contracts and other provisions in the CBAs over the years that made it difficult to trade players for a reason. I don’t think it was just so teams could hold onto players, but so players could also have some continuity with a team for their professional life and community for their personal life.

        • Alex says:

          I guess it’s an open question. Players would also want guaranteed contracts so they wouldn’t get cut if they got hurt or have to take a pay cut when they get old or have an off year; there are a lot of benefits besides staying in one place for a long time. You could ask players if they would rather play basketball for any team, even the Kings or Wolves, or sell cars and my guess is they’ll take the NBA. Which isn’t to say that players don’t have preferences about what team or city to play for, I just think they emphasize the money.

          • mosiplatt says:

            I agree the primary reason for guaranteed contracts is financial stability. I don’t think the choice is as stark as play for any team or sell cars for a living, though.

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