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Competitive Balance in Pro Sports Leagues: how does the NBA look?

After the review of NBA Team Playoff Records for the last decade, it seemed worthwhile to take a quick check at how the NBA numbers compare to other major pro sports.

Obviously "competitive balance" can be defined in many ways -- E.g. you could say it was:

    - how many different teams won a title
    - how many different teams reached a certain advanced stage of the playoffs/postseason
    - how many teams have been bad/not made the playoffs for a long period of time
    - how much correlation there is between a team's record one year and the next
    - how often teams finish with winning (or .500+) records
    - how closely grouped teams are around the .500 mark in a season

Let's be clear, there is no one right answer. My sense is that for most people "balance" comes down to how varied is the group of teams competing for a title over a period of time. Even how to gauge this is still open to intepretation, but a reasonable guide might be to look at final 8 (or perhaps final 4) finishes for a span of years.

TABLE: Last 10 completed seasons

# of Teams finishing
at least once in last 10yrs as
# of teams (yrs since Top8) # of Teams with multiple
top8 finishes in last 10yrs
League Champs Top Two Top Four Top Eight 4+ Yrs 10+ Yrs Worst Futility
2+ top8 3+ top8 4+ top8 5+ top8
NFL 7 13 21 27 14 7 22 years
21 13 9 5
NHL 9 14 23 26 14 4 19 years (NYIslanders) 21 15 9 5
NBA 6 10 16 25 14 4 13 years
(POR + NY)
18 14 9 7
MLB 8 13 21 24 14 6 31 years
20 13 8 7
EPL* (UK Soccer) 4 5 8 17 n/a n/a n/a 12 11 10 6
*EPL (UK soccer league) based on regular season finish as they have no playoffs. Also EPL has generally had only 20 teams, and the bottom teams get relegated to a lower league; so many differences.

So at a glance, the leagues look remarkably similar in many areas, including:

    - how many teams have made the top 8 at least once in a decade
    - the number of teams suffering "droughts" of not making the final eight for a while
    - the number of teams making the final eight 2+, 3+, or 4+ times in a ten year span
Where the NBA has not looked as good in terms of "competitive balance" over the past ten years is in the variety of teams in the final four and later stages, with just 16 of 30 teams making the final four at least once in the last decade compared to 21 of 30 for MLB, 21 of 32 for NFL, 23 of 30 for NHL. Yet, the explanation for this can be tied to some basic functions of the sports:
  • the NBA has the fewest players in action, where having a superstar gives you a bigger resultant edge than in other sports (NBA just 5 starters often with 8-man rotations in the playoffs, NFL has 24 starters if we include the K/P, Hockey utilizes multiple lines and bigger rosters, Soccer has 11 players, MLB 8/9 batters and then your starting pitchers/bullpen)
  • the NBA plays best of seven series where luck becomes less of a factor in a game with a high number of scores/possessions, with no one score counting for a huge percentage of the total score (unlike soccer where 1-0 scores are common, or baseball where four runs can be scored on one pitch)
If you look at competitive balance in say Tennis, you will see it's "awful" (if you don't like the same players winning over and over) since it's a solo sport and best of five set matches with potentially a couple of hundred points don't leave a lot of room for luck.

Even so, the NBA still managed to have over half its teams make the final four at least once during the last decade. To answer those who say "final four" is a better measure than "final eight" let's take a closer look at that:

Last 4 Seasons Last 10 Seasons # of Teams with multiple
top4 finishes in last 10yrs
League # of teams in Top4 # of teams in Top4 # no Top4 2+ top4 3+ top4 4+ top4 5+ top4
NHL 14 23 7 11 5 1 0
NFL 13 21 11 11 4 3 1
MLB 11 21 9 10 5 3 1
NBA 11 16 14 10 7 4 2
EPL (UK Soccer)* 6 8 many 6 4 4 4

Now I'm kind of picking on Premier League soccer here; and since it's regular season only you don't have "playoff upsets". Still, only six teams in the top four in four years? Manchester United has been top four ten years straight, same for Arsenal, Chelsea 9 of 10 yrs. Um, and some people say Pro Soccer has the best competitive balance??? Let's see though: no salary cap (and vastly different total team salaries and revenues as a result) plus no playoffs and long regular season = very bad competitive balance. They could do a top eight single elimination tournament at the end of the season if they wanted some extra oomph, but they already have the FA Cup, League Cup, Euro Cup stuff for more "playoff-y" soccer formats.

Also, while some people are clamoring about how bad the NBA competitive balance is, we've had the exact same number of different teams in the final four as baseball over the past four seasons!! And likewise in terms of dominant superteams over an era, both NBA+MLB have ten teams that have made the final four 2+ times in the previous decade, with similar spreads across other levels!

In truth, competitive balance (by a definition of variety of contenders) is pretty easy to predict I believe:
    - NHL = hard cap, lots of players, fairly random outcomes to a single game = GREAT competitive balance
    - NFL = hard cap, tons of players, 16game season, single game elimination = GREAT competitive balance
    - MLB = no salary cap, lots of players, fairly random single game outcome = MODERATE balance
    - NBA = soft salary cap, few players, predictable best of seven series = MODERATE to LOW balance
    - EPL = no salary cap, no draft (relegation instead!), quite a few players, no playoffs = BAD balance

Which sports really have had dominant teams over the past ten seasons?

# of times
in Top4
Sport Team
10 UK Soccer Manchester United
10 UK Soccer Arsenal
9 UK Soccer Chelsea
6 Basketball Detroit
5 Baseball St. Louis
5 Basketball San Antonio
5 UK Soccer Liverpool
5 Football New England
4 Baseball NY Yankees
4 Baseball Boston
4 Basketball LA Lakers
4 Basketball Miami
4 Football Pittsburgh
4 Football Philadelphia
4 Hockey Detroit

Break up the Pistons!!! Complaining about the Lakers always being there? Actually the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Detroit Red Wings have had just as many or more final four appearances over the last ten seasons.

Brilliant coaching and front office management still can have a huge impact on the respective fortunes of individual teams! The "reverse of brilliant management" can be shown by the "Futility" numbers (length of time till a team was last in the final eight in a season):

- NBA: New York (13 yrs), Portland (13), Milwaukee (12), Toronto (12)
- NHL: NY Islanders (19 yrs), Florida (16), Winnipeg (0/12), Columbus (0/11)
- NFL: Cincinnati (22 yrs), Detroit (21), Cleveland (18), Buffalo (17), Miami (12)
- MLB: Washington (31 yrs!! formerly Montreal), Kansas City (27), Pittsburgh (20), Toronto (19), Baltimore (15), Seattle (11)

Of course things may be looking up for some of the MLB downtrodden: Washington has the best record in baseball at the moment so seems a good bet to end their painful 31 year run, the Pirates have a winning record and are four games out of the wildcard spot so some hope, and Baltimore is clinging to the AL wildcard spot...can they hold on? Ah, but at the same time the Miami Marlins are out of contention and will, barring miracles, see their string run to 10 to make the list for next time. The Toronto Blue Jays' streak is perhaps the most memorable: they haven't made the playoffs since winning back to back World Series 19 years ago!

Now Basketball's limited number of players in action 'hurts' the competitive balance in the short term, but helps it over the long term since bad teams keep getting a shot through the draft at finding that one star player who can have such an impact. This may explain in part why when we look at the "Futility" ledgers across sports, that all the 15+ years since making the final 8 teams are in other, non-NBA, sports (EPL excluded from this since teams are relegated).

"Futility" Ledger
Last Top8 Sport Team
31 yrs Baseball Washington (prev: Montreal)
27 yrs Baseball Kansas City
22 yrs Football Cincinnati
21 yrs Football Detroit
20 yrs Baseball Pittsburgh
19 yrs Baseball Toronto
19 yrs Hockey NY Islanders
18 yrs Football Cleveland
17 yrs Football Buffalo
16 yrs Hockey Florida
15 yrs Baseball Baltimore

For hoops fans, what remains to be seen is whether the "new era" of the big three in the NBA will lead to another shift in final four diversity (probably not so much in final eight one would think). Stay tuned!


One final thought: competitive balance depends to a large extent on how a sport is setup. Let me prove it with Tennis:

Current format: 128 person, best of five set, single elimination tournaments = "bad" competitive balance (same people win, make final four over and over)

Suppose they now switch to a new format...
NEW format: 128 person, one point (flip coin for who serves), single elimination tournament = "amazing" competitive balance (virtually random winners) haven't changed any rules, just the duration of the match. Djokovic/Federer/Nadal/Murray's chance of winning a one point match where they only serve half the time...not great!!

Ah, but now imagine another new format...
NEW NEW format: 128 person, one point (flip coin to serve) match...each player plays 1,000 such matches, highest number of total wins WINS tournament = "bad" competitive balance

...even though the odds of winning a single match aren't much above 50%, over 1,000 matches Djokovic/Federer/Nadal/Murray will again be dominant! Food for thought.

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