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Longreads: The league doesn't understand parity

The NBA doesn't understand parity, and all their efforts to address it will fail without this one, simple change.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Parity. Giving everyone a chance. For many years we've heard that, and it can certainly LOOK like it's been achieved. At the least, it's proven difficult for teams to stay together, though whether that results in more parity or more mediocrity is an open question. Right now in the NBA, the Western conference playoff race is divided by 8 wins, or a win a spot, and even the 13th place team is only 4 games behind. The 3rd-8th Eastern Conference teams are 4 games apart, and four other teams are within 3 games of 8th. Parity.


Except there's a big problem, which is that the NBA fundamentally misunderstands parity. Or, to put it another way, the NBA has devised a parity solution which operates ceteris paribus, all things being equal. But a deep inequality ruins it. Because parity isn't about wins, it's about team quality, and while that might seem like the same thing, it isn't.

And it isn't because wins are dependent on schedules. Okay, no big deal, some years you have a good schedule, some years you get lucky and have a bad schedule, no big deal. Every sport has that. Sure, sure. Except.....

Okay. First, think of how many things win total affects. Your chances in the playoffs, your first round match-up, is determined by it. Your draft picks are related to it. Your front office plan, who you sign, whether you're a buyer or a seller, that's based on where you finished and what that's perceived to mean.

But every. Single. Year. If you are in the Eastern Conference you get a whole bunch of free wins. Actually, the mediocre teams get a whole bunch of free wins, while the truly awful teams, who can't get a win anywhere, give it to them. And there are far more of both in the East than the West.

The notable fact of the Eastern conference's putrescence this year is particularly notable FOR its notability. That is, the East has been godawful since more or less the days of Jordan, so it's clearly a pretty special "Gigli"-level brand of awful if we're all talking about it this much.

But don't let the fact of an extraordinary cancer on the body NBA make you forget the high-grade fever that has been racking that particular conference every year, for years. Because it's the latter kind, not the former kind of suck that makes a mockery of everything the NBA has done to enforce parity over the last few years. It's been true at least since Jason Kidd's Nets were falling backwards into getting swept by whatever Western team could run the gauntlet, three years in a row.

And teams play roughly 52 of their 82 games against their own conference. The upshot is, we have really no clue how good Eastern conference and Western Conference teams are relative to each other. Yet we're awarding everything,  playoff seeding, draft picks, etc, based on how many wins are achieved .

And it's even worse than that, because even playing 22 extra games against each other, the East is so bad that teams are making the playoffs with way worse records than you need in the West, which screws things up again.

That's crazy. Literally half the league has a big advantage in that race.

Think about it for Dallas, for example. They're in 8th place, and it's well known that there's a terrific draft coming up. But, they owe OKC their draft pick IF they fall out of the top 20. The way draft seeding is appointed is that the 14 teams which don't make the playoffs enter the lottery and then the 15-32nd picks are given to playoff teams on the basis of record.

That means that if the Mavericks make the playoffs, in order to keep their draft pick they have to be among the 6th worst playoff teams, record wise. Since they're in 8th place right now that doesn't exactly seem hard. Except that, with 16 wins, Dallas does have a better record than five eastern conference playoff teams and they're tied with a 6th. All it would take right now is for the 3rd seeded team in the East to get one more win over the rest of the season for Dallas to fall to 21st in the draft order and give their draft pick to OKC even if they finish 8th in the West.

The same logic clearly hurts the East as well since tanking, over there, has become one of the hardest things to do. 12-17 Boston is not in line for a lottery pick, nor are five other teams with a losing record, currently. Which is a big part of the reason the East stays bad. While the absolute dregs of the East do find their way into the top of the draft lottery, deservedly, the "mediocre" teams have deserved much better draft picks for years, and haven't been getting them.

Last year, for example, the first four picks were Eastern, but almost directly as a product of the fact that the rest of the East had those four craptacular teams to beat up on, they didn't get another pick till the 8th, then not another till the 11th, should have had the 12th (Toronto), then not another till the 15th. Meanwhile, once we get to the picks that were actually decided by record, the 15-32nd, 15, 16, 17, and 20 were all Eastern conference teams. And so were the 20th, 22, 23, and 24th.

Just the facts. As I'm writing this, three East teams are above .500 while nine West teams are, but that's just the beginning.  Six Eastern teams have winning records against their conference, another one is tied. Detroit, 14-16 against the NBA, is 13-6 against the East, therefore 1-10 against the West. Charlotte is 14-15, 12-9 against the East, so 2-6 against the West.  The Knicks are 9-18, 9-10 against the East, so 0-8 against the West.

I'm not much of a mathematician, so there's probably a better way to do this, but given the winning records against the East these teams with losing records sport, it's actually possible to calculate the East Advantage, or what we might call the West Disadvantage. Detroit's 13-6 against the East is a 68% winning percentage, while their 1-10 against the West is a 9% winning percentage, which means that over the course of a full season, if they played an even number of games against Eastern and Western opponents, they'd have 32 wins, as opposed to the 38 they'd win with a 52-30 split, making their "East Advantage" 6 games.

Charlotte has a 57% winning percentage against the East, a 25% against the West, therefore  would win 34 with an equal schedule and 37 with a 50-32 split.  The Knicks who have a 47% winning percentage against the East and a 0% winning percentage against the West, which means right now, theoretically, they would win 19 games with an even schedule, but 24 with it, a five-game swing.

The Wizards, with their 12-13 record, 10-8 against the East, are 2-5 against the West, for a 55% and 29% winning percentages respectively, would be a 34 win team with a balanced schedule, a 37 win team at a 50-32 split. Only the Pacers and the Heat have winning records against the West, not surprisingly, and even the 3rd place Hawks would get a one win bump. That, particularly, may seem like nothing but remember that the difference between 52 and 41 games against the East is only 11 games. A real shake up is likely to have an even greater effect.

In general, then, the "East Advantage" for mediocre teams is something like 3-5 games a season, which doesn't seem like much, but is the difference between having the 12th worst record for Philly last year, and having the 8th worst record, the difference, for the Mavericks right now, between 8th and 4th place, or 3rd to last in the West, depending on which direction you go.

There is, of course, an obvious solution to this problem, and one that would save everybody a lot of time and money. Rather than worry about CBA stuff, which only confirms things the way are, only keeps the East bad and the West good, only changes win totals, not talent. The NBA could address parity really simply by shaking up the conferences every few years. Or, we could just dispense with conferences at all. Or, for those who only want minimal change, they could simply reseed teams for the playoffs.

This is unlikely to be a popular idea, which is probably why it's never been discussed.. A lot of sports has to do with rivalries. My sports-watching life has been much improved, for example, by the Mavs-Spurs rivalry, which we saw again last night. But how hard would it be for the NBA to ensure some old fashioned rivalry games on every schedule?

If you want parity, then teams should play schedules that are roughly the same as each other and only then can win totals be a heuristically legitimate tool for determining rank. Only then will it be reasonable to seed the playoffs or the draft by record. The horrifically bad Eastern Conference hurts its mediocre members as much as it makes its powerhouses seem more powerhouse-y, though in this case the Pacers and Heat certainly are just powerhouses. Whether last year's second place Knicks were (37-15 against the East, just 17-13 against the West), or the fourth place Nets (36-16, a bruising 13-17), or fifth place Bulls (34-18, 11-19), seems wildly unlikely.

And until it's addressed, the league's search for parity  will keep getting false positives.