CBA Talk: Competitive Balance and Genetically Engineered Super Gorillas

This lockout has generated a lot of serious questions about what a hard cap will or will not mean – on the court, in the standings, to a player’s career, to a team’s finances. Just for a few moments, let’s move away from the nuts-and-bolts discussion of the CBA. Let’s forget about what either side will or won’t accept.

Let’s just look at the one question that can be definitively answered: Does a hard cap provide competitive balance?

Of course, it does.

A hard cap actually guarantees competitive balance, and it’s the only tool that can guarantee it in regards to player payroll.

It guarantees competitive balance in the same way that rules dictating the number of players per team on the floor and the height of the rim do. These rules do not prevent blowouts, 72-win teams or 73-loss teams — nor are they meant to. They simply preclude one team or the other from gaining an unfair advantage using those particular tools. A hard cap is the only direct way to preclude teams from using overwhelming financial strength to gain unfair competitive advantages.

To argue against a hard cap bringing competitive balance, generally people trot out reasons and number that refute the creation and or value of parity. But those are two different things.

Competitive balance is a structural framework that creates equivalence under which all teams compete.

Parity is an outcome in which there is very little difference between the success of the best team and the worst team.

Absolute parity is likely unattainable — and not even desirable — in any sports league. If each NFL team went 8-8, for example, the sport would become unbearably dull. But something closely approaching competitive balance, in structural terms, is attainable. And while we can debate where and how much competitive balance is necessary — or even desirable — we cannot debate whether or not it is an entirely different concept from parity.

Some may consider this parsing words, but it is not. The difference is crucial — and it’s one I’ve emphasized since I entered this conversation in May. No one wants parity. Everyone needs and — to some degree — is owed competitive balance.

But to what degree?

NFL Commissioner to Rule on Super Gorilla

A few years ago, Chuck Klosterman released a collection of essays entitled Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. One of the essays is called “23 questions I ask everyone I meet in order to decide if I can really love them.” In effect, it’s a collection of nonsensical hypotheticals designed to show how someone’s mind works, as opposed to eliciting a specific response.

Recently, as I have continued to try to understand of the different issues in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, I have been contemplating question #4.

4. Genetic engineers at Johns Hopkins University announce that they have developed a so-called “super gorilla.” Though the animal cannot speak, it has a sign language lexicon of over twelve thousand words, an I.Q. of almost 85, and–most notably–a vague sense of self-awareness. Oddly, the creature (who weighs seven hundred pounds) becomes fascinated by football. The gorilla aspires to play the game at its highest level and quickly develops the rudimentary skills of a defensive end. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson speculates that this gorilla would be “borderline unblockable” and would likely average six sacks a game (although Jackson concedes the beast might be susceptible to counters and misdirection plays). Meanwhile, the gorilla has made it clear he would never intentionally injure any opponent.

You are commissioner of the NFL: Would you allow this gorilla to sign with the Oakland Raiders?

If faced with this decision, the commissioner’s first responsibility to is to the health and safety of his players. He probably would not allow the gorilla to sign with the Raiders — or any team — primarily for player safety reasons. A 700-pound gorilla is going to able to do a great deal of harm to players a third his size, even if we accept that there will be no intent.

However, what if the commissioner could be sure that injuries inflicted by the gorilla would be no more severe than those that will potentially be caused by any other All-Pro caliber defensive end? With this caveat, what is the commissioner’s decision?

It would depend on how he viewed the gorilla. Does the commish see him as:

(a) An example of a player who has extraordinary gifts (size, strength) that give him some huge competitive advantages, but also don’t entirely make up for his remaining weaknesses that could possibly be exploited? For example, he is likely to have trouble with play-action and counter plays. In that regard, is the gorilla not all that different from other great players who are superior to their peers but not perfect? Would he be more dominant than, say, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Shaq, Jordan, Bird, Magic, Randy Johnson, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays?

or …

(b) An example of something that violates the spirit of the game. A force so strong that it basically would give the Raiders (or whichever team) the equivalent of 12 or 13 men on the field. Does the gorilla represent an unfair competitive advantage deeply distorting the game?

If the commissioner decides (a) then he has to let him play. If he decides (b) then there’s no way he can.

Los Angeles Lakers as Super Gorilla

Where do the advantages and disadvantages created by the varying financial strength of the teams, owners, and markets fit into the conversation on competition? Money undeniably provides a competitive advantage, when exploited properly. Sometimes, even when not. So, how much influence should it be allowed to have?

In other words, does the NBA actually want or need the kind of competitive balance that a hard cap would bring?

Neither the NBA, nor any other professional sports league, is under any obligation to assure competitive balance in every single aspect of the game. The most obvious examples can be seen in the wildly varying dimensions of Major League Baseball stadiums. Playing in Fenway and playing in Citifield can be vastly different.

An illustration of where the NBA draws a line in the sand regarding how far they’ll go to provide competitive balance is with scheduling. There are many different aspects of a team’s schedule that affect its prospects, but the NBA chooses to apply a strict competitive balance formula to only three: number of games played (82), home games vs. road games (41 each), and the prohibition against playing games on more than two consecutive nights.

But the NBA does not go to extraordinary lengths to address other potential scheduling inequities, such as strength of schedule, the length of road trips, the number of back-to-back games, and the number of four-game-in-five-night stretches. Schedule makers are aware of these factors. They will try to limit their impact, but distributing them equally is not a priority. For example, for the 2010-11 season, teams were assigned between 15 and 23 back-to-backs.

The reasoning in these instances is two-fold. First, such inequities are not 100% preventable. I’m sure the disparity could be less than 15 to 23, however, it may be impossible to ensure each team plays exactly 18 back-to-backs. Second, these differentials are expected to balance out over time. While a schedule maker may not necessarily be concerned that the Bulls had 23 and the Lakers just 15 in a given season, he will probably try to prevent that from being the case the following year.

To this point, financial issues have been given treatment closer to that of back-to-backs than home vs. road schedule. Some of this is conscious, some unintentional, and some is just merely a function of need to get the approval of the NBPA to make any meaningful changes in this area. However, the idea of the finances affecting competition has been one important aspect of the discussion surrounding the NBA.

Because now, the NBA is beginning to build financial super gorillas of its own. The following two charts use Forbes data to give a picture of relative revenue in the Association.

The first shows 2010 revenue estimates.

The second shows 2005 through 2010 cumulative revenue estimates.

And this curve will become even more exaggerated when the Lakers start seeing the benefit of their new local television deal with Time Warner. Should the deal generate the rumored $150 million or more in currently unshared revenue, it will likely be — by itself — larger than the total local unshared revenue streams (TV, gate, advertising — all of it) of any other NBA team, save the Knicks. Further, it will be going to a team that Forbes estimates to have the highest gate in the league — almost 20% higher than New York, more than 40% higher than the third best gate, and approaching seven times the lowest gate in the league.

Is this simply a case of the Lakers maximizing natural advantages, or does it distort the game? Could it go beyond that? Could this kind of massive financial strength present a risk to the “health and safety” of the other teams and owners in the NBA?

Again, the question becomes: how big of a role do you wish money to play in the field of competition?

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