LeBron James is an unequivocal superstar in every possible regard. The NBA veteran is a three-time world champion with an incredible streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances ranging from 2010-2018, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has become a successful actor poised to star in the sequel to the ever-popular “Space Jam”. Between James’ media portrayal, social activism, and extravagant outfits, we can sometimes forget that LeBron James is human. The 2018-2019 NBA season was legitimately the first time we’ve seen LeBron as anything less than the best NBA player in the world, the first time where we’ve questioned whether “The King’s” reign was over. Although there is reason to believe that health issues plagued James’ first season with the Lakers, a large part of his waning production (although he still managed to rack up 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists a game in 55 starts) was due to a lack of help provided by Rob Pelinka (Go Blue!) and the Laker’s front office. While there were young pieces in place upon James’ arrival in LA including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart (and Mo Wagner - Go Blue!), the lack of a real complementary asset to LeBron was the definitive downfall to the Laker’s season. If we delve into the historic finals run LeBron made from 2010-2018, a clear pattern presents itself regarding roster structure: a premier athletic guard, a stretch big who is capable of stretching the floor when necessary, and three-and-D oriented veterans with playoff experience joined with LeBron who served as the team’s primary ball handler and scorer. This is exactly how Miami’s “Big Three” was structured with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, as well as James’ second time around with Cleveland including all-stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. LeBron just simply can’t do everything himself, and while it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to throw him out 1v5 against the Warriors to “prove himself”, the modern NBA is too talented for a championship-caliber team to include only a single superstar.
Cue Anthony Davis, the 26-year old monster out of Kentucky, whose efforts to forego his final year of control under the New Orleans Pelicans have finally come to fruition in a trade involving all the aforementioned Laker’s talent in addition to three first round picks. LeBron finally has his “guy”, a 6’10” dominant big-man with the ability to stretch the floor and rain down shots from both mid and long ranges. Sure, the Laker’s couldn’t even physically field a team with the number of players currently on the roster, and they don’t possess enough cap space to comfortably stretch themselves to get another marquee free agent, but Vegas still projects them as the favorites to win the 2020 NBA championship with the addition of Davis. This, as with all major acquisitions by big-market teams, has led to questions about the equity of the NBA; how fair is it that the cities of Los Angeles, New York, and Boston are able to consistently acquire superstar-level talent even in a state of complete chaos within the organization? Why even do small-markets franchises like the Pacers, Hornets, Thunder, and Nuggets even exist in lieu of a single championship when twelve out of the last nineteen years have seen a California-based team hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy? This isn’t just a basketball issue either, frustrations have been mounting amongst small market fans for years as they’re forced to sit and wait through years of “rebuilds” or tanking seasons by their hometown teams. But is parity in modern professional sports really an issue, or simply a scapegoat by fans of dysfunctional franchises who exist to mitigate contracts?
For this analysis let’s consider strictly the “modern era”, or the seasons between 2000 and present day, and only the four major sports leagues; the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL.
The turn of the century saw the rise of a Laker’s dynasty that hadn’t been relevant since Magic and Kareem dominated the hardwood in the 1980’s. Fielding a dominant duo in Kobe and Shaq, the Laker’s would go on to three-peat from 2000-2002, only to be cut down by the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals in 2003. The Pistons would steal the crown in 2004, only to be dethroned again by the Spurs in 2005. Dwayne Wade’s Heat won their first championship in 2006 with the help of old-man Shaq but would be out of the running due to a young man named LeBron James coming into his own in 2007 only to lose to the Spurs. Boston’s Big-three began their run in 2008, only to lose in 2009 and 2010 to the Lakers, then promptly dethroned by LeBron’s Miami Heat the following two years. The Spurs ruined the Heat’s shot at a third title before the Golden State Warriors dynasty took over the NBA from 2014-2018, dropping only a single title to “The King” and company. Oh, and the Raptors won with the Spur’s best player like two weeks ago.
In 19 years, the NBA saw 8 different teams win a world championship. Definitely the worst of the four sports but compared to the 1970’s and 1980’s which saw the Lakers win an eye-popping 11 championships, the modern climate appears to be fairer than it ever has.
When one thinks of NFL championships in the 2000s, they immediately think of the New England Patriots. In actuality, the NFL has shown a surprising amount of variation in the new millennium. The St. Louis Rams stole the show in 2000 as “the Greatest Show on Turf”, although they were dethroned by the Patriots and their young dynasty in 2002. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Raiders in 2003 with the best defense in the league, but the Patriots put on the gas to take home the Lombardi trophy in 2004 and 2005. ‘06 saw the Pittsburgh Steelers and their new QB Ben Rothlisberger overcome Shaun Alexander and the Seahawks en route to their first championship in 10 years. The Colts took the title in 2007, despite giving up the 7th-worst YPC in NFL history. Jealous of Peyton Mannings championship ring, his brother Eli won his own in 2008 as the Giants took down the Patriots. The Steelers were able to come out with the win against the Cardinals in 2009, followed by Drew Brees’ Saints winning their only championship in team history in 2010. Aaron Rodgers was able to cement himself as a legitimate replacement for Brett Favre as the Packers bagged a championship in 2011. 2012 saw a Patriots/Giants rematch which once again proved Eli Manning was the only solution to Belichek’s defense. The Ravens squeaked by the 49ers in the 2013 championship 34-31, giving San Fransisco their first ever Super-Bowl loss. The Seahawks overcame the Broncos in 2014 for their first franchise championship but were handed the loss the following year by the Patriots on a legendary Malcolm Butler interception. The Broncos handed the 17-2 Panthers their third loss of the season en-route to their 8th world championship, but the Patriots would once again prevail in 2016 with their legendary 25-point comeback against the Falcons. The Eagles were able to wound the Patriots dynasty in 2017 to capture their first Super-Bowl in franchise history, but the king wouldn’t stay down for long and came back for blood against the Rams to take home their 5th title in 20 years this past season.
I mean just look at all the different teams I mentioned here! The modern era has shown that nobody is invincible, and teams can fall just as quickly as they rose. There were 12 unique Super-bowl champions in the past 19 years, several of whom had yet to win one in franchise history. While it could be the variation due to a shorter regular season, or the variability of the harsh conditions that certain teams are forced to play in, every team can come into the season expecting to be competitive (except for the Lions, I’m convinced we’re cursed).
Admittedly I am completely clueless when it comes to the NHL, but the story here is somewhat the same as that of the NFL. The cream rises to the top as certain franchises are able to stay relevant, but the Stars, Devils, Avalanche, Red Wings, Lightning, Hurricanes, Ducks, Penguins, Blackhawks, Bruins, Kings, and Capitals were all able to take home the Stanley Cup at some point during the past 19 years (excluding the lock out in 2005).
If you think that the NFL has too much variability with every game being a best-of-one, the 7 game Stanely Cup finals having the same outcome should surely convince you that there is plenty of equity within both Football and Hockey.
2000 was the final year of a Yankees dynasty which pit them against their cross-town rival the Mets which was over before it started. The Diamondbacks were able to go the distance with the Yankees in 2001 to take home the world championship, complete with the most iconic first-pitch in baseball history by George W. Bush and a walk-off game 7 single by Luis Gonzalez. 2002 saw the Anaheim Angels win their first World Series against Barry Bonds and the juiced-up Giants in 7 games. Miguel Cabrera and the Florida Marlins fought to the end against the Yankees to take home the title in 2003, much to the dismay of the Florida Marlins front office who went on to follow through with their 2nd fire sale in 6 years. The Red Sox swept the Cardinals in 2004 followed by the White Sox sweeping the Astros in 2005 (someone make a socks joke, please), although the Cardinals returned to defeat the Tigers in 5 games in 2006 The Red Sox established themselves as a premier MLB organization with another championship in 2007 against the Colorado Rockies who truly had no business even being in the playoffs. The Phillies began their stint as the top-dog in all of baseball in 2008, only to be defeated by the Yankees in 2009 which marked the end to the Bronx’s dynasty. The San Fransisco Giants took three out of the next 5 championships against the Rangers, Tigers, and Royals in 2010, 2012, and 2014. The Royals were able to not only have every starting member of the AL All-Star team in 2015 but also took out the New York Mets in the 2015 World Series. 2016 famously saw the Cubbies break their 100-year championship skid, followed by Houston and Boston each taking out the Dodgers in 2017 and 2018.
In theory, the MLB should consistently have the “best” team taking home the title year-over-year; the seasons are 162 games long, there is plenty of rest time between games, and there is no salary cap to prevent a team from resigning their best player. Simply put, the best team should always win, and the franchises with the most amount of disposable cash should be able to sign the best free agents. Why then, do we see the exact same amount of parity as the NFL and NHL? Perhaps because players are loyal to a specific fanbase, they come up through the minor-league ranks and, barring a trade, develop a relationship with the city, the franchise, the fans. 12 different teams have won the World-Series since 2000; that’s almost half the league, many of whom are in the least attractive markets (Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Arlington, etc.), again showing that the bigger market doesn’t always win.
Well clearly it appears as though the NBA has fallen behind in terms of parity within the modern era, but that seems to be less to do with a disparity in market size and more so to do with the quality of each team’s front office. Sure, the Warriors have absolutely dominated the league for the last 5 years, but they are a team that was primarily built through the draft. Five teams had the opportunity to take Steph Curry in the 2009 draft, 10 teams chose not to take Klay Thompson in the 2011, and 30 teams elected to pass on Draymond Green in 2012. Screaming about an unfair advantage to coastal teams and big markets does nothing but acquit small market GM’s of responsibility for performing poorly in the draft and free-agency. It’s not that free agents like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving don’t want to go to Phoenix, Minnesota, or Detroit, it’s that those franchises have shown time after time that they are incapable of surrounding their superstar players with the talent required to be competitive. Ultimately, we are living through the most competitive period in the history of sports, we should be enjoying it while it lasts.