Competitive balance in the NBA? Good one.

Why is it that even in the conference finals we can't seem to get an interesting game?

I was on my way to Tufts University this evening from Boston on I-93 when I saw a billboard on a vacant office building looking for lessees. It read: “Sitting in traffic? Not anymore if you work here.”

While I was neither sitting in traffic nor looking for office space at the time, the message was intriguing nevertheless. In fact, it got me to start thinking about the NBA and the shortcuts it has taken (If I don’t want to sit in traffic, I can just work here!”) to try and establish competitive balance. As a result, there is a complete lack of competitive balance present in the league today, something that David Stern and his cohorts need to address to stimulate interest in professional basketball here in the United States.

Amid playoffs in which five of the six matchups in the conference finals and semifinals could be sweeps, there is definitely a problem with the balance of the game. So let’s take a look at the plague of disparity around the league, shall we?

The MLB is the only sports league in the United States that doesn’t have a salary cap. And as long as the players association lives and breathes, there will never be a salary cap in baseball. That said, Major League Baseball succeeds where other leagues don’t in promoting a compelling, competitive league.

For one, the nature of baseball (and the construction of multi-game series during the regular season) is such that any team can beat any other team on any given day. In a three-game series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, there’s a considerable possibility that Pittsburgh will squeak one game out during the set. In the NBA, when the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves meet, nobody’s betting on the T’Wolves and rightly not.

In addition, the MLB went about establishing two systems to help curb extravagant spending by big-market teams. It instituted a revenue-sharing program and imposed a luxury tax on high-payroll teams. While these policies don’t quite dissuade teams like the Yankees from blowing large sums on free agents, it does well to control spending near the middle (in terms of payroll) of the league.

But the NBA does have a salary cap. Isn’t the whole point of the damned thing to keep games close? In theory, it sure is. But keep in mind that the NBA’s cap is a soft one, and there are plenty of channels by which to circumvent the loose limit.

The most prominent of those is via Bird Rights, which allow teams to go over the payroll cap in order to re-sign free agents who have been with the team for three years or more. That’s why the Lakers are allowed to sign Kobe Bryant to a 3-year, $90 million extension despite with will be over $85 million in payroll next season with a projected $56 million cap. So that’s one way in which teams in big markets with rich owners can weasel their way to greatness. Needless to say, you wouldn’t see the Maloofs offer that kind of money to keep a player around on the Kings because they just can’t afford the salary itself or the accompanying luxury tax.

In addition, to continue the comparison to baseball, the dollar goes a lot further in the NBA game, so going over the salary cap is more valuable to success. In baseball, starting pitchers (who command very high salaries these days) go only one out of five games. And those position players who do play nearly every game, they are only expected to contribute three out of ten times from the plate and once in awhile on the defensive side (depending on the position).

In the NBA, everybody’s playing every game, and each of the five players contributes to every offensive and defensive set. Besides scoring and the other major stats, there are ways to help your team: setting effective screens, moving well without the ball, affecting shots, and denying your assignment the ball, to name a few.

For a practical illustration of this mess, look at the payrolls of the four teams left in the playoffs: $91,314, 026 (Lakers), $83,875,420 (Boston Celtics), $82,087,014 (Orlando Magic), $74,012,783 (Phoenix Suns). The salary cap this year is $69,920,000. So none of the remaining teams is working under the s0-called “limit.”

With all this established, let me go about setting a few suggestions for bringing true competition back to the NBA.

(1) Make the cap a hard cap.

Much like instituting a salary cap or removing the DH in baseball, this will never happen. Setting up a hard-cap system infuriates both conflicting parties: the NBAPA because in such a scenario star players would have to take major paycuts to make payrolls work and the NBA because all the luxury tax payments go straight to the league anyway.

Nobody really wants this except concerned fans. Not the Laker fans that think they’re devoted because they know who Pau Gasol is but the fans of teams like the 76ers who can tell you the stat line of every player from Andre Iguodala to Jrue Holiday for the past season. If it is so obvious that you need to shell out the cash like the four teams mentioned above to compete, there’s no way all 30 teams can never hope to contend for a championship; it’s just not feasible.

(2) Cut down on the teams that make the playoffs.

Right now the NBA playoffs are a bit, well, imperfect. There are 16 teams, four 7-game rounds, and over two months of 20-game blowouts. No one wants to see that. No one wants to see the Magic beat up the Bobcats in four circus games. Certainly, the thrill of an underdog upset like the Warriors over the Mavericks in 2007 is great, but you have to play the odds. That type of series doesn’t come around too often.

One could argue that even the conference-finals round is bad this year, but again, play the odds. This is atypical of the NBA playoffs. Cut the the pool that makes the postseason in half, and the league will have a lot more satisfied and less exhausted fans.

(3) Oust owners who aren’t in it to win it.

Nothing serves as a greater doomsday to a fan base than an owner to has ulterior motives for owning a basketball team. Guys like Donald Sterling and Bruce Ratner who use the franchise as leverage for their real-estate ventures are true parasites to the league and bad for the game. Get rid of them, somehow, or else you’ll have more teams that fail to ever be in contention.

I know these rules aren’t terribly practical (and simply “getting rid” of unsatisfactory owners would prove to be a nightmare: Are there objective qualities? Who gets the team? Etc.). But something needs to be done to protect the integrity of the league. If we keep seeing blowout after blowout and sweep after sweep in the playoffs, fans will start to lose interest, and no one wants that. Just try and represent the little guy a little better because I can’t stand seeing the Lakers win anymore.

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