Patrick Minton is the mastermind over at The NBA Geek. He’s also one of the few Timberwolves fans left in existence. He’s a software developer by day and a number crunching basketball expert by night.
You hear the talk every time any sports league sits down to negotiate a new CBA with its players (or, if you are an MLB fan, every time Bud Selig opens his mouth): the owners want more parity. Small market teams have no chance. Quite a bit of research has actually gone into the various measures that each league has put in place to encourage more parity, but as it happens I’m not going to debate the merits of any of them. Instead, I’d like to posit this: parity sucks. The only people that want parity are perennial losers. And even they won’t like it once they get it.
Games with Parity
To see why, let’s take a look at some games with perfect (or near-perfect) parity. There are a few reasons that a game may have perfect parity. Perhaps the optimal strategy is so easy that it becomes impossible for either player to win (Tic Tac Toe, Rock-Paper-Scissors). Or perhaps the game is so dominated by luck that strategy is nearly impossible (the card game War, Monopoly [unless you are using the original rules with an auction], coin flipping). And of course, some combine both — there is certainly strategy to Monopoly, and it’s slightly more complex than Tic Tac Toe, but it isn’t rocket science.
What unifies nearly all games with perfect parity, however, is that most participants become bored with them very quickly. And spectators even more so. Even most people that purport to like playing games like Monopoly usually enjoy it for the social interactions with other players, rather than on the merits of the game itself.
Games without Parity
Contrast this with games that lack parity, where luck is either not a factor or it can be mitigated through a strategy (one that is challenging to master): chess, backgammon, poker, Scrabble, Go, etc. In each of these games, “luck” or “variance” may play short-term roles but over the long run, to win more than one loses, one must simply be better at the game than the opponents. If you never win at chess, you can rant and rave all you want, but the only explanation is that you aren’t good at chess. If you lose consistently at Scrabble, it is probably not always because “my opponent keeps pulling the X, the J, and the Q!”
A Simple Solution
If the NBA wanted perfect parity, this would be easy to achieve. Simply put all the players’ names in a hat, and randomly dole out players to all teams at the beginning of the season. The beauty of this is that none of us stat-heads have to sit around and argue about what metric to use to divide the players “fairly” — randomly is, by definition, fair. I guess you can make an argument that coaching determines success as well, so let’s divide them up randomly also. Sure, this would put a lot of stress on the players and coaches, but the NBA owners seem to believe that there are plenty of players willing to play basketball for money, so forcing this kind of agreement down the players’ throats shouldn’t be a problem. Bingo, parity guaranteed!
However, I doubt the owners would want this (except, as mentioned, if you lose perennially). The owners of NBA teams are generally the types of people that have made lots of money by executing smartly in their businesses — by recognizing emerging markets before others saw them, or by out-performing their competitors in an existing market. In short, they strike me as the type of men and women that have earned their money and are proud of it. They wouldn’t enjoy being in a market where they could not outperform the competition, and indeed, they wouldn’t see a business opportunity involved in entering a perfectly efficient marketplace. And fans, I suspect, are the same — they’d much rather watch a game where they believe the outcome is driven by how well their team is put together, and how well their coach manages the team, and not, well, randomly.