Why Adam Silver measures NBA parity in opportunity, not success

As the NBA Finals tipped off in Oakland last week, league commissioner Adam Silver explained why his theory of competitive parity is based on "equality of opportunity", not championship titles.

Why Adam Silver measures NBA parity in opportunity, not success

The annual end-of-season news conference has become an integral part of the North American major league commissioner’s oratorical repertoire, and for good reason: after a lengthy regular season and the emotional rollercoaster of the ensuing divisional and conference play-offs, the commissioner’s de facto ‘state of the league’ address is an ideal moment to step back and take stock of where their game is at before the showpiece finale - be it a Super Bowl, World Series or Finals - brings the curtain down on another year.

As a trustworthy sporting and commercial health check, however, such addresses are only of limited value. Regardless of what has occurred in the preceding months, they are always biased and universally unrelenting in their positivity. Major leagues, it seems, have an uncanny ability to outdo themselves year after year, as each season comes and goes bigger and better than its predecessor.

Thus, the overriding theme of National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner Adam Silver's latest post-season diagnosis, delivered ahead of Game 1 between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers last Thursday, was not entirely unexpected.

“In terms of the game,” Silver beamed before assembled media inside Oakland’s Oracle Arena, “it’s never been better. It’s a fantastic time to be a basketball fan. It’s a fantastic time to be an NBA fan. It just seems like the game is being reinvented.”

The reason for this reinvention, Silver went on to explain, was to be found right there in Oakland, where the Warriors’ record-breaking regular season - a year in which they went 73-9 to surpass the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of 1995/96 - has been the talk of the town since October.

As for the embodiment of this reinvention, that honour could only belong to Stephen Curry, the NBA’s first unanimous MVP whose remarkable personal achievement of breaking the 400 three-pointer mark in a single regular season campaign was, according to Silver, akin to Roger Bannister running a mile in under four minutes.

“Its something that, just a few years ago, people thought wouldn’t be done,” Silver said. “My sense is that Steph, and together with Klay [Thompson], what they’re doing when it comes to three-point shooting, they’ve overcome a psychological barrier, I think, for a lot of players.”

Few would disagree. Never before has the game of basketball been played so far outside the paint by players who only partially conform to the sport’s typical somatotype. Yet Silver’s glowing praise of the heralded ‘Splash Brothers’ raised an intriguing question from the floor on Thursday: how would the league respond to Curry, the relatable everyman of relatively undersized stature, and his dumbfounding  ability to make the sport of giants look so incredibly easy?

Could the NBA’s competition committee possibly look to amend the rulebook in some way, as they have done in the past, perhaps by moving the three-point line deeper or changing the court dimensions to annul Curry’s threat and therefore the Warriors’ competitive advantage?

“Not anytime soon,” was Silver’s forthright response. “As I said, this is the best basketball many of us have experienced in our lifetimes. I think that in some ways Steph’s three-point shooting becomes an equaliser.

“You can’t dream that you’re going to be seven feet tall, but you can work at it and become a fantastic competitor on the floor.”

Though a league-wide rule change is unlikely, the very suggestion is revealing. It is, in essence, a suggestion rooted in suspicion: if someone can do something others can’t, creating a problem that the majority cannot solve, there must be something wrong with the system.

Yet the job of the major league commissioner, at least when it comes to on-court matters, is to protect the system already in place, not to bow to the playing style du jour by altering the rules that govern it. Silver, like every other team in the league, can do little about the Warriors' team-oriented, shoot-on-sight brand of basketball, but he can focus on maintaining a healthy level of competitive balance within an overarching system that holds true beyond current trends.

“You can’t dream that you’re going to be seven feet tall, but you can work at it and become a fantastic competitor on the floor.”

It would appear, however, that that is an increasingly difficult task. As one journalist pointed out during Thursday’s news conference, just four teams have contested the NBA Finals in the past four years, with Golden State’s rematch with Cleveland this year following two editions of Miami versus San Antonio. The obvious question - whether the NBA is comfortable with its current level of parity, or lack thereof - duly followed.

“The word ‘parity’ - it’s interesting,” Silver mused. “I’ve thought a lot about it lately…rather than parity being our goal, it should be equality of opportunity.”

After countering the journalist’s point by noting that no fewer than ten teams - a third of the league - have featured in conference finals during the past four years, Silver went on to elaborate on his theory of parity. Competitive balance, he said, should be measured not in the extent to which conference and league titles are shared out among the league’s teams, but in the perception that success is possible, no matter which market a team operates in.

“By definition,” he continued, “if there were such thing as true parity, and every team had the same chance of winning every year, statistically you would win once out of 30 years. That would be an odd result as well.

“I think what fans around the league, what the communities want, is teams to compete. It’s silly to say everybody wants their team to win because the fans are too smart and they know its a zero-sum game and the league office, at least yet, hasn't figured out a way to create more wins. Therefore, what the fans want is their team to always be competing, always building toward something.

“Now, that doesn't mean you’ll never rebuild but they want to understand the strategy and they want to understand that enormous passion and resources and creativity is going into it. Our goal is to have a league where 30 teams are always competing, and I think we’re increasingly moving closer to that model.”

For all that the strength of a sport continues to rely on the hopes and dreams of supporters, however, it is an equitable split of revenues that ultimately underpins any truly competitive league. In the NBA’s case, financial distribution is governed by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) hashed out every few years by the league and its players’ union.

Silver says the Warriors' Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have "overcome a psychological barrier" with their extraordinary three-point shooting.

The NBA’s current ten-year CBA, agreed after the lengthy lockout of 2011, is due to run until 2021, but it includes an option for either side to opt out of the agreement at the end of next season. In light of the uncertainty created by that opt-out clause, Silver confirmed last week that the league and its union are engaged in early discussions, with both sides keen to fine-tune the terms of the CBA whilst avoiding any future work stoppage.

“I remain optimistic,” Silver said. “I think there are aspects of the CBA that both sides would like to see addressed, and we’re engaged in constructive discussions over how we can find ways to make this system even better.

“One is the macro financials of the system, and that is measured by the league in terms of profitability, and for the players, of course, their individual salaries and what the players can make on a macro basis. But, just as importantly, the competitive issues…creating a system that allows every team, I would say, an equal opportunity to compete for championships.

“We’re never going to have NFL-style parity in this league; its just the nature of this league that certain players are so good that when they’re on teams, those teams are likely - almost automatically, if that player remains healthy - they become play-off teams and especially when mixed with other great players.

“Having said that, there are still things we think we can do that will further encourage strong competition throughout the league. One fantastic trend I believe we are seeing in the league, and you saw it with the Western Conference finals: that Oklahoma City, as the smallest market in the league, has the exact same ability to put together a fantastic team and create culture just like a team from the Bay Area. Just in the same way Cleveland does with the Toronto team. And I think that was one of our goals in the last collective bargaining agreement.”

Even as NBA revenues continue to soar, Silver insists the league’s model for achieving competitive balance is working. The NBA’s salary cap for next season is not due to be confirmed until next month but if recent reports are true, it will jump from US$70 million to some US$92 million in 2016/17. That increase, fuelled by the league’s new television deal that is worth a colossal US$24 billion overall, will give teams more money and extra scope to sign free agents. The size of the contracts offered to the league’s standout players will inevitably grow larger as a result, but Silver is adamant the days of the league’s biggest stars being drawn to big-market teams are long gone.

“Players are attracted to strong cultures and players are attracted to situations where they see an opportunity to win,” he said. “And [they] also recognise that all the economic benefits follow from that as well, rather than the economic benefits coming from a particular market or the fact that a market might be larger than another one.”

He added: “In this league, we recognise that certain players are so unique. When you add those players to teams, and then those teams are well managed and well coached, they have incentives to stay together because they know, ultimately, that nobody can do it themselves and it does require a team. The momentum gets built and then you have a salary system where teams, especially for superstars, are not competing on salaries because its a system that controls how much they make.”

Silver believes the same applies away from the court, too. His view is that “economic opportunities come from success, not from markets”, particularly when it comes to a player’s non-salary earning potential. To back up his point, Silver cited the example of Nike, which has signed top NBA players to lucrative endorsement deals based on their overall profile as opposed to the size of the market in which they ply their trade.

“The two largest endorsers by dollars for Nike — I think I have this right — are LeBron [James] number one, and he’s in Cleveland, and Kevin Durant, number two, in Oklahoma City,” Silver added. “And those deals were based on the global prominence of those players. They were not a function in any way of the markets they happen to be playing in.

“I think what’s positive in this league is the players realise that the additional success will come from staying in those markets.”

If indeed true, that realisation would represent something of a cultural shift for the NBA, a league traditionally characterised by big personalities representing fabled franchises in major markets. A more equitable economic system - the kind Silver hopes to achieve - would only decentralise the league still further and, eventually, render market size irrelevant.

That cultural shift is, at least in Silver's mind, the best indication that parity exists in the NBA. Meanwhile as the Warriors go about levelling the playing field with their reinvention of the game - and as Curry and Thompson continue to break down psychological barriers for their peers - it would appear the most individualised of team sports is showing itself to be a team sport after all.