NBA’s only parity problems are perception, LeBron James

3 Comments

When LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with Miami in 2010, many bemoaned the end of competitive balance, complaining LeBron had guaranteed himself a title that year. When LeBron return to Cleveland in 2014, similar angst emerged: LeBron again worked the system to guarantee himself a championship.

Of course, neither the 2010-11 Heat nor 2014-15 Cavaliers won a title.

But the same hysteria took hold when Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors last summer, and maybe this time, the hand-wringers will be right. Golden State enters the 2017 NBA Finals as heavy favorites over the Cavaliers in a widely expected matchup.

Has parity suddenly ended, or did the handwringers just finally happen to get one right?

This is the first time in the last dozen years, as far back as Sports Odds History records go, where the preseason conference favorites actually met in the Finals:

Season Expected Actual
2016-17 Cavaliers-Warriors Cavaliers-Warriors
2015-16 Cavaliers-Spurs Cavaliers-Warriors
2014-15 Cavaliers-Spurs Cavaliers-Warriors
2013-14 Heat-Thunder Heat-Spurs
2012-13 Heat-Lakers Heat-Spurs
2011-12 Heat-Lakers Heat-Thunder
2010-11 Heat-Lakers Heat-Mavericks
2009-10 Cavaliers-Lakers Celtics-Lakers
2008-09 Celtics-Lakers Magic-Lakers
2007-08 Celtics-Spurs* Celtics-Lakers
2006-07 Heat-Mavericks* Cavaliers-Spurs
2005-06 Heat-Spurs* Heat-Mavericks

*Conference favorites weren’t available, but I used the top team in the title odds from each conference.

None of the biggest preseason title favorites in this era – 2010-11 Heat, 2005-06 Spurs and 2013-14 Heat – have won titles. (The 2016-17 Warriors, favored over the field, could change that).

You can’t call that a fair die will land on 2, watch it land 4-3-6-4-2 then claim to be all-knowing after the last roll. Or at least you shouldn’t be taken seriously if you do.

But, to a degree, that’s what’s happening here.

The perception of a predictable outcome is sweeping over the actual predictability. This season was never guaranteed to end with a Warriors-Cavs Finals. Both teams had to earn their way here. They were favored against the field for good reason, but they still had to avoid injury, chemistry issues and upstart challengers. Play out this season 100 times, and it doesn’t always end with a Warriors-Cavs Finals.

But it feels that way, because it’s an unprecedented third straight Finals matchup between the same teams.

Yet, is feeling clouding reality? These other three- or four-year periods featured just three different teams in the Finals:

  • 2012-14 (Heat, Spurs, Thunder)
  • 2008-10 (Lakers, Celtics, Magic)
  • 1996-98 (Bulls, Jazz, SuperSonics)
  • 1988-90 (Pistons, Lakers, Trail Blazers)
  • 1984-87 (Celtics, Lakers, Rockets)
  • 1982-84 (Lakers, 76ers, Celtics)

Is that really so different than the two teams we’ve gotten in the last three years?

Again, it feels way different, and I get that.

I’m just not sure how the NBA can reconcile the issue.

LeBron’s teams have been favored to win the East the last eight years. Once he got good enough to actually carry them that far annually, nobody has touched them. As long as he remains elite, his teams will be favored in most regards.

The West has been far less predictable, though Golden State looks poised for a lengthy run. As much as fans wants parity, they also want teams to have the inside track for retaining their own players. Now that they have so many good players – Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson – the Warriors can keep their core together (as long as they’re willing to spend).

But it’s hard to stay on top. LeBron is 32, destined to decline eventually. Golden State’s payroll and egos could become too outsized to manage.

Just because the Warriors and Cavaliers feel inevitable doesn’t make it so. They have both been favored to win their conference and actually won their conferences precisely one year – this year. Don’t let recency bias trick you into believing it has always been and will always be this way.