Competitive Imbalance Continues in the NBA

Posted on May 20, 2008 by


The following NBA cities have never hosted an NBA championship parade: Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, East Rutherford (New Jersey), Indianapolis, Memphis, New Orleans, Orlando, Phoenix, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Toronto.  In all, of the 29 cities hosting a team, 14 – or 48.3% — have never won a title.

If we focus on franchises, the following have also never won a title: Bobcats, Cavaliers, Clippers, Grizzlies, Hornets, Jazz, Magic, Mavericks, Nets, Nuggets, Pacers, Raptors, Suns, and Timberwolves.  Again, we have 14 teams, or 46.7% of the 30 NBA franchises.

Why do I bring this up today?

Last night the Spurs eliminated the Hornets.  This means that the population of those who have never won is going to remain unchanged for another year.

And the dominance of the top franchises in NBA history is guaranteed to continue. 

The NBA’s Final Four now consists of the Spurs, Lakers, Pistons, and Celtics.  Of the 61 titles in NBA history, the Spurs have won 4; the Lakers (in LA and Minnesota) have won 14; the Pistons have won 3, and the Celtics have won 16.  In all, these four teams have won 37 titles, or 61% of the titles in NBA history. 

All of this suggests that the NBA has an historic problem with uncertainty of outcome or competitive balance.  Relative to the other major North American sports (football, baseball, and hockey), we see less variation in teams winning the title in basketball. 

When we look at the variation in wins across a single season, we see the same problem with competitive balance.  The standard deviation of winning percentage in the NBA this past season was 0.169.  If teams were equal in strength, the standard deviation of winning percentage would be 0.055.  The ratio of these two values – standard deviation relative to the ideal standard deviation (what we call the Noll-Scully measure) – is 3.05.  The same ratio in the American and National League last season was 1.69 and 1.33 respectively.  In the most recent NHL season we saw a ratio of 1.04 while the NFL had a mark of 1.66 in 2007. These values are not tremendously different from what we have seen in recent years.  Relative to the other North American sports leagues, the NBA is not very balance in the regular season.

In sum, the NBA is not nearly as competitive as the other major North American professional sports leagues.  We see this when we look at the distribution of championships.  And we see this in the distribution of wins in the regular season.

Readers of The Wages of Wins know our explanation for this result.  The Short Supply of Tall People.  Rather than re-hash this story again, though, I think I will just direct you to an excerpt from the book posted in November of 2006.

The Short Supply of Tall People

So the NBA has a competitive balance problem.  Does this mean the NBA is in trouble?

Nope.  Again, here is a post from a few weeks ago detailing all that is right about the NBA.

The Myth of the Declining NBA

The above post notes that attendance in recent years has gone up.  Television ratings also appear to be on the rise.  And here is one more feature of the NBA that should make you happy.  The Detroit Pistons have a good chance of winning an NBA title in 2008.

Okay, that just makes me happy.  And as long as the Celtics continue to have problems, it will keep making me happy.  

Speaking of the Celtics, what is wrong with that team? On that subject I will try and comment later today.

– DJ