The NBA Has A Major Parity Problem

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An argument I’ve had with many people regarding college and professional sports focuses on NBA basketball, particularly the past few years of play.  The argument always comes down to one simple conclusion:

The NBA isn’t fun to watch because it is a non-competitive, low variance league.

I should add the disclaimer that I’m not particularly fond of watching basketball, but I find college basketball to be far more exciting.  Perhaps it’s the single-elimination playoff, greater number of teams, or any number of other factors that leads to a more unpredictable, higher variance game.

However, it can be demonstrated with an odds analysis that the NBA is by far the most non-competitive out of the four major professional sports leagues in the US.

For this odds analysis, I have used betting odds from Sunday May 13th at 8:00AM.  These were provided not from Predictit or Betfair, but from Vegas Insider, which keeps its sports futures regularly updated.  We’ll start with the NBA odds, and the crux of the argument:

According to these odds, the Golden State Warriors have a 61.5% chance of winning the NBA championship.  But, more notably, at 30/1, the Boston Celtics have just a 3.2% chance of winning the title.  The fact that the “worst” team of the final four is priced so cheaply is indicative of the top-heavy nature of the league.

This is a trend that was even more pronounced in prior years – in 2016, the Toronto Raptors were listed at between 50-1 and 65-1 to win the title, even after reaching the semifinals.  Outside of the Warriors and Cavaliers, the other team in the semifinals that year – the Oklahoma City Thunder – witnessed superstar player Kevin Durant (pictured at the top of the article) leave in free agency the following year to join… the Golden State Warriors, adding to the league’s top-heavy disparity.

It is no coincidence that the last three winners (2015 Warriors, 2016 Cavaliers, 2017 Warriors) have all had superstar lineups and were heavily favored even at the beginning of the season.  The lack of a superstar to compete for a championship has even led teams to resort to “tanking” – deliberately losing games in the hopes of landing a higher lottery choice for a superstar player entering the league.

This is in stark contrast to other pro sports leagues.  The most pertinent example at the moment is the NHL, also in its semifinals:

Both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights had title percentages of between 19-26%.  Even accounting for the bookie “juice” in the implied odds, the Lighting and Golden Knights both had odds of a Stanley Cup win over four times as high as the Celtics’ odds to win an NBA championship.

Bear in mind – these odds were calculated on Sunday, May 13th… after the Lightning and Golden Knights had both lost Game 1 of their respective semifinals.

Speaking of competition, it is also pertinent to examine the MLB odds… less than halfway into the season:

There are 13 teams in the MLB with higher odds to win the 2018 World Series than the Boston Celtics have of winning the 2018 NBA Finals.  Even though some teams in the MLB are hopelessly bad, there are still at least 20 teams with a chance to win it all, whereas in the NBA there are just four remaining.

The same trend is pronounced in the NFL, a league which hasn’t even opened its pre-preseason training camps yet:

With a full preseason and training camp of roster battles and injuries still to go, there are again 13 teams in the NFL with higher odds than the Celtics.  The NFL season hasn’t even started yet, and technically, all 32 teams are still in it.  Just 4 NBA teams are left in competition, and still, 13 NFL teams are priced higher than 1 of the 4.

It should be noted that even in the era of the New England Patriots, the NFL and its single-elimination playoff is known as the “parity” league, with at least 20 teams having a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl in any given year.  Furthermore, many have also argued that the NBA has always been “this way” – a league with little parity.  Scrolling through the list of NBA champions, over the past 50 years, the pro-NBA crowd has a point – the list is filled with repeat champions and 4-0 finals sweeps.

Given the over-weighting of the NBA to superstar players, a great deal of the smaller bit of uncertainty in the pricing of NBA odds is due to the prospect of injury to said superstars.  While it could be argued that this is true of any sports league, the Philadelphia Eagles were able to defeat the New England Patriots and their potential best-ever quarterback Tom Brady… with backup quarterback Nick Foles, after losing superstar quarterback Carson Wentz (and several other star players) to injury.  In the modern NBA era, it would be unheard of for an NBA team to win the title if a superstar player was lost due to injury.

Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I haven’t done enough odds analysis of the NBA.  But my opinion is also shared by plenty of actual NBA analysts:

It’s clear why this topic is coming up right now. For each of the past six years, a team led by LeBron James has won the NBA’s eastern conference; his Cleveland Cavaliers need four more wins to make that seven. Preseasonpredictions that this year’s championship will come down to an unprecedented third consecutive showdown between the Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are looking increasingly prescient; neither team has lost in the playoffs so far. That’s led to gripes that the league isn’t doing enough to keep competition at a healthy level, a sentiment with which the NBA’s commissioner Adam Silver apparently agrees. Meanwhile, rather than aim for the playoffs, where the best-case scenario is getting crushed by one of the league’s juggernauts, some teams appear to be “tanking”—that is, purposely performing poorly in order to secure prime draft picks and maximize the chances of signing a future superstar.

Even more indicative than analyst commentary is last year’s commentary from the aforementioned Kevin Durant:

I’m not going to pretend that Durant’s commentary was the straw that broke the camel’s back – I wasn’t watching anyway – but his reaction is a symptom of a league that has, quite frankly, become non-competitive and quite boring for the casual viewer.  

And while my interest in both the NBA and NHL is passing at absolute best, if I’m at a bar or just bored at home and looking to watch playoff sports, I’m far more apt to tune into the NHL, where the outcome is more reliant on competition and is far less of a foregone conclusion.  


Update (5/16/18):  In light of the fact that the Boston Celtics have won the first two games of their semifinals series against the Cavaliers, it is pertinent to update this article with the most recent odds.  Some may believe that the Celtics’ 2-0 lead invalidates the non-competitive argument, but the exact opposite is true:

Even with a 2-0 lead in the semifinals, the Celtics are still just 10/1 to win the NBA championship.  The Rockets, down 1-0 against the Warriors, are priced twice as high.  Even though the Cavaliers have retained some premium, the expectation is that the East winner will be trounced by the West winner, which is even more heavily implied to be the Warriors.

Again, comparing this to the NHL, the league’s vastly superior parity is on display:

The Lightning, the lowest priced team and down 2-1 in their series against the Capitals, are still priced higher to win the Stanley Cup than all NBA teams aside from the Warriors.

The Celtics’ recent play has done the exact opposite of defeat the argument – barring an injury to Kevin Durant or Steph Curry, the Warriors will likely cruise to another NBA title.  And after examining the parity of the NHL, this odds analysis update has actually made me more likely to watch an NHL game and continue tuning out the NBA.