The NFL made a massive push toward parity in the 1990s, opting for a hard cap on salaries and extensive revenue sharing to put teams on a fairly level plane. Major League Baseball has avoided both routes, but has somehow found itself with league-wide parity on par with that of the NFL, and championship parity unrivaled in major American sports.
But the NBA? Parity has been a struggle for decades, and nothing the league has done works.
Despite the creation of the luxury tax system, the past decade hasn't seen noticeable improvement in league parity. In fact, using the Noll-Scully metric, NBA parity has been as bad over the last two seasons than at any point in the last two decades.
You'll notice that wins are doled out far more equitably in the capped NFL and uncapped MLB than in the soft-capped NBA. Why? There are a few theories.
* Roster/team size. Given that an NBA team can only play five men at any given time, each player is responsible for a greater share of performance credit or blame than in the other sports under discussion. The more players you add, the more decentralized production becomes. In the NBA, this works to the advantage of teams with megastars -- look at Cleveland since the dawn of LeBron. But for teams lacking one of those supernovas, it's generally a tough slog.
* Lack of escape routes. Fairly strict trade rules, set salary scales, long guaranteed player contracts and the cap restrict player movement quite a bit. It's much more difficult to make trades in the NFL, but unguaranteed contracts allow teams to quickly change course on ineffective, overpriced players. In the NBA, it's not easy to get out from under the shackles of bad contracts. Ask Donnie Walsh.
* The long season. In the NBA, the contenders have announced themselves by December, and the potential playoff teams are pared down by the All-Star break. Teams with no shot, at that point, typically slip into passive tanking: veteran stars sit with the slightest injury, aging vets with expiring contracts get bought out, the fight so necessary to winning at basketball dissipates. I'm not taking about Mark Madsen jacking up threes in the last game of the season. When there's not much left to play for but pride, it's inevitable that most bad teams will get worse. That leads to quite a bit of ugly, imbalanced basketball -- and a widening gap between the good and bad -- from January to April.
Two questions come out of all this: does it need to be fixed, and, if so, how can the league fix it? The NBA has boasted terrific postseason ratings in recent years, and all told achieving greater parity isn't the more important item on the league's to-do list. But shrinking the gaps between the good and bad would be a net positive for the NBA.
Check back the rest of this week for further discourse on the key points of the coming NBA collective bargaining.