In the wake of the Golden State Warriors’ second championship in three seasons, and their first since signing superstar forward Kevin Durant last offseason, some media and fans alike have lamented the state of the modern NBA. Already, just two days after the conclusion of the season, decrying the league’s lack of current (and future) competitiveness has become a common refrain, despite the fact that the NBA Finals drew the sport’s highest ratings since Michael Jordan’s last appearances for the Chicago Bulls.
Some critics will specifically mention a lack of league-wide parity, and even look to the NHL as the shining example of what is possible when every team has a chance at the title. After all, NBA legend and cloud-yeller Charles Barkley said as much a couple weeks ago.
Naturally, the #PleaseLikeMySport crowd went crazy. But Barkley was dead-on, as the NBA’s inordinate number of postseason blowouts stood out in contrast to the record number of overtime games in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yet, both the NBA and NHL postseasons ended the same way, with a previous champion once again lifting the trophy.
The Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since 1998, but all of the praise for the NHL’s competitive balance seems misplaced when looking at other recent winners.
Since the league first introduced a salary cap following the conclusion of the 21st century’s first NHL lockout and ahead of the 2005-06 season, seven different franchises (Carolina, Anaheim, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles) have won Stanley Cups. Over that same span, seven NBA franchises (Miami, San Antonio, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas, Golden State, and Cleveland) have won titles.
Let me repeat for those in the back: since 2005-06, the league most praised for its competitiveness has the same number of champions as the league most criticized for its lack thereof.
Now, the comparison isn’t perfect. In each of those said seasons, a different team has finished as a runner-up in the NHL, and only two teams have made consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup Final. In the NBA, Cleveland and Golden State have each appeared in the last three Finals, Miami played in four consecutive Finals prior to that (LeBron James is pretty good at the sport), and Los Angeles appeared in three of their own before that.
Still, it’s pretty damning for a league that values parity as much as the NHL. Sure, there certainly aren’t any superteams, but the end result is different than the 12 seasons that preceded the NHL’s salary cap. Seven teams won titles over that 12-year span, just as seven teams have won championships in the 12 years since the lockout.
The pursuit of parity masks the truth: the best-managed teams are going to win anyway. In North American professional sports, a successful team usually builds through the draft and supplements (or upgrades) their homegrown talent with signings and trades. That is true in a league with a salary cap, a luxury tax, or none at all. After all, the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, and traded for Phil Kessel, just as the Golden State Warriors drafted Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and eventually signed Kevin Durant.
Limiting each team to the same amount of salary like the NHL, or allowing players to re-sign with their own teams for more money and term like the NBA does little to change that truth. Such collectively-bargained barriers may close the gap between the league’s best and worst teams, but only briefly.
The NHL undoubtedly has more parity than the NBA. But with the same number of NHL and NBA teams winning titles over the last 12 seasons, does that really matter?