Parity in the NFL/NBA

One of my favorite writers, Bill Simmons, wrote an interesting piece yesterday. In his NBA predictions piece, he gave two and only two predictions:

1.   The Miami Heat will beat the LA Lakers for the NBA title.

2.   The Thunder will rue the day they traded James Harden.

The sad thing is, I completely agree with him. I don’t think there’s any way that the Heat and Lakers aren’t playing in the finals, and I don’t think there’s any other outcome than: the Thunder just screwed themselves out of a chance to be in the championship conversation with their trade of Harden. Yet I’m still here, on day 1 of the upcoming NBA season, and I can’t be more excited to watch.

Imagine if this was the case in any other sport. Imagine if, going into the football season, we said: “The Patriots and the Giants are the best teams in the league, and they will play in the Super Bowl” and then it happened. How much fun would that be? I bet you if that happened three out of five years, where there was clearly one team that was better than another, the ratings for the immensely popular NFL would decrease sharply. In reality, we have a league where 6 weeks into this season, the entire AFC east was 3-3. Everyone was simultaneously in first and last place. In the NBA however, when we did have a wide open race (namely, back in 2004-2008, when 8 or even more teams really had a legitimate shot at the title year after year) the ratings were as low as they had been back before Bird and Magic saved the league. What gives? Why is it that parity in the NFL creates insane ratings, but parity in basketball creates apathy? Well I’ve got three reasons.

To start, the number of games in their respective seasons is a big factor. The NFL has 16 games each year, and each game weighs heavily on a team’s final standings. The NFL frequently comes to tie-breakers in order to seed its playoff teams and many times, there is a short list of plays that can easily make or break a team’s season. Since the season is so short, fans don’t have nearly enough time to, for lack of a better term, get bored with a team struggling to stay at .500. In the NBA, 82 games is a long season. There are games in late December and early January where a team may not be fully invested in the game (It’s only human nature at that point) and the fans may forget that their team even plays on a given day. I’m a huge Suns fan, and even I forget their day to day schedule at times. When a team is struggling, it’s easy to forget and write them off, but when a team is great, and has a true shot at winning the title; it’s extremely easy to remember they’re playing. It’s fun to watch and most likely, they’re going to win that day.

As a secondary point to that: the current playoff system plays a huge factor. In the NFL, a 6 seed upsetting a 1 seed on their way to the Super Bowl is almost a yearly occurrence. The NBA, by contrast, has only had an 8 seed upset a 1 seed four times since they adopted the current playoff model. That is pretty self explanatory as to why that happens, when you factor in the 1 game playoff vs the seven game series setup. If you cheer on an 8-6 NFL team in mid December, you’ve still got a dream of going to the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl, if you’re cheering a 38-36 team in mid March, you’re probably hoping that they’ll lose some games and have a shot at winning the Draft Lottery.

The NFL is a team driven league, and the NBA is a star driven league. And that’s a simple truth of the world. An average NFL player’s career is about 3 years long, while an average NBA player’s career is about 8 years long. We can get to know our stars on what feels like a personal level. When you see Kevin Durant hit a dagger three in the opponents face or the cold, killer face of LeBron as he rips apart the Celtics in a do-or-die game 6, you can read their expressions and feel their emotions coming from them. It works the other way when you see the blank, expressionless face of Vince Carter, or the insane face of Kevin Garnett. These players tend to bring out the best in each other, and when there are 2-4 teams constantly at the top, we see these players over a long period of time and feel like we know them. In football, all we see is a logo on a helmet and a number on a jersey. As long as that logo is playing well we don’t care what his facial expressions look like. We root for laundry, not the player in football.

The biggest factor is the simple truth that it’s easy for a casual fan to recognize bad basketball, but more difficult to recognize bad football.  With the way the current fan watches football, it’s not easy to see when a linemen misses a block, or when a receiver doesn’t run a route properly, or when the running back misses a hole. We usually attribute offensive failures to good defense and vice-versa. For a good example look at high school football: it’s still fun to watch even though you can tell the players aren’t as big and strong.  You see the players move just like their NFL counterparts, and the scores are generally the same as their pro peers. However when we switch to basketball, it’s easy to see 2 poor teams on a court. You’ll pick up on the little things like wide open missed layups, people losing their dribble with no one around them, throwing a pass right over someone’s head, or even just physical attributes like the lack of dunking in a high school game vs an NBA game.

That recognition of greatness definitely transcends into the NBA. In basketball in general, the team with the best players wins. It comes down to who can put the ball in the hoop more often than the other team, unlike football, where the goal is covering territory. Any 5 year old can run down a field if they’re untouched, but only the best players can get to the rim, and then finish once they get there. In the NBA, the only time we see parity is when the league has too few superstars, and a deficit of talent. In those years we tend to see players like Smush Parker as the point guard of the Lakers, or Tom Gugliotta getting a huge contract from the Suns. It turns into a league where players who would be great at being a third option on a team are forced to be the #1 option, and they fail miserably. That means results are more random, the level of play isn’t as high, and the game isn’t nearly as fun to watch.

Basketball is my favorite sport because of that highest level of play. When you see a team truly gel, and play at their highest level, it is a thing of beauty. Passes are crisp, the team doesn’t miss a beat, and they somehow get any shot they want whenever they want it. Simmons again described it in this column, as he quotes the broadcast team of the Spurs during their 20 game win streak last year:

“Marv (Albert), you’re a basketball purist, you’re loving this right now,” Reggie Miller gushes, “Because this is old-school basketball. Everyone’s touching it, everyone’s on a screen, everyone feels involved. This is how basketball should be played.”

(Cut to me nodding with tears of joy rolling down my cheeks.)”

Yeah, I was right here with him, tears of joy rolling down my cheeks. Me. The guy who hates the Spurs more than any other team than the Lakers, and I was just so appreciative of the basketball perfection they had achieved in that game. When basketball is bad, it’s only watchable to the most dedicated of fans (like me…but still) when it’s good, everyone can appreciate it, even if you don’t see the minutia of details.

The next time you hear someone complaining about the NBA saying, “Who cares to even watch, it’s the same 3 or 4 teams every year,” ask him why he didn’t watch in 2006 when nearly 10 teams had a good chance to win. I’m glad this new NBA season is starting, because I can find appreciation for all the great plays in a season. Even though I know that I’ll have to stare at Kobe guarding LeBron in the finals this year, and a slight possibility of Steve Nash winning a ring with the Lakers (gag me), I still anticipate the journey there. Isn’t the journey more important than the destination?

I realize that I didn’t talk at all about the Suns in this post…forgive me. Shaun broke down the Suns’ upcoming season in which he says they’ll be a playoff team. We’ll see about that.

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