As the 2012-2013 NBA season begins in earnest this week, you have to wonder why they are even bothering playing the 82 game regular season. In the 28 seasons since David Stern became NBA Commissioner in 1984, only eight franchises have won the NBA Championship and given the continued stockpiling of talent by the most dominant franchises it seems highly unlikely that the monopoly will be broken this season.
In fact, on paper it looks like you can pencil in the defending champion Miami Heat and perennial champion Los Angeles Lakers for a star studded championship series.
Of course we all know that you don’t play the games on paper, but in a sports world where achieving parity and creating a competitive balance that provides every team and their fan base legitimate hope that they can win a title has generally become the norm, Stern and the NBA have gone in the exact opposite direction.
Not only does the NBA rank dead last in the percentage of franchises that have won a championship in the last 28 years with just 27%, compared to 43.8% for the NFL, 50% for the NHL and 60% for MLB, but they also are easily last in the total number of franchises that have even simply made it to the finals. Since 1984, 60% of NBA teams (18 of 30) have reached the finals. The NHL has the next lowest percentage at 73.3%, followed by the NFL at 78.1% and MLB at 80%.
What is quite amazing about those statistics is that the NBA continues to be able to convince cities across the country to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new facilities and fans to shell out thousands of dollars on season tickets even when there is little chance their team will ever have a chance at significant, or long-term, success.
In 2010 the Orlando Magic opened a new arena at a cost of about $480 million with the Magic contributing about $50 million and the remainder being financed through public funding.
Despite having this new facility, the Magic still were unable to convince their highest profile superstar, Dwight Howard, to sign a long-term extension with the team. After some strange exchanges and a lot of hard feelings, Howard was finally dealt to the Lakers to complete what many believe will be the next dynasty for the team that has won more titles, eight, than any other team since Stern became NBA Commissioner.
With the addition of Howard and former league MVP Steve Nash to the Los Angeles lineup, the Lakers are the favorite not just to win in 2013, but for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the now depleted Orlando Magic, who played for the NBA Championship in 2009, are picked by many to be among the worst teams in the league. Well, at least their fans will have a great new building to explore and enjoy when the games become unbearable to watch.
As the latest big market team to raid smaller market cities to re-establish themselves as a championship contender, the Lakers are following the blueprint used by the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat to win championships in recent years.
While it might be a stretch for the aging Celtics to reach the NBA Finals for the third time in six seasons in 2013, it would be somewhat of an upset if the Heat are not in the finals for the third straight year since acquiring LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
The other teams that could be considered to be legitimate contenders for the NBA title are a mixture between big-market teams that have bought their way back into contention and smaller market squads that are experiencing the rewards of good drafting and smart front office decisions.
The Oklahoma City Thunder made their first appearance in the NBA Finals a year ago and if it were not for the blockbuster deals of the Lakers this offseason they would be favored to again play for a title this season. However, now that the Thunder have traded sixth man James Harden, rather than pay him a maximum contract, they could end up just short of the Lakers this time around.
The only other team in the West that would appear to have a legitimate chance at upsetting the Lakers is the San Antonio Spurs, but the best small market team of the last 15 years has struggled to compete in the playoffs in recent years and have been unable to make enough meaningful roster moves to make a dent.
In the East, the Indiana Pacers have magically been able to build a contender even without the benefit of having a franchise player. Instead, they have eight players who averaged nine or more points per game a year ago.
The other primary contenders in the East are the two New York market teams, both of which have used finances to help return them from the abyss. However, both the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets seem to be still a little short of competing with the Heat.
While David Stern will be remembered as the administrator who made the NBA relevant and profitable, his legacy will also include a failure to develop and maintain a legitimate competitive balance.