Monday, October 11, 2010

Equity vs. Efficiency

Just 14 more sleeps till the next NBA season tips off. I want/need NBA back in my life but I'm honestly not too excited about this season, at least nowhere near as excited as I was last season for the starting date. Last season the offseason brought Ron Artest to the Lakers and Rasheed Wallace to the Celtics, it promised to be epic and sure enough 80 regular season games and 3 playoff rounds later we saw possibly the greatest finals series in recent history.

But this year is different, Lebron pussed out and went to Miami along with Chris Bosh in a move that promises some of the most meaningless championships to the Miami franchise ever. Conversely all the excitement doesn't come from the Miami Heat super line-up but from the prospect that anybody that beats the Miami Heat this year or in the next five will win one of the most meaningful 'David v Goliath' championships in the history of the game.

Because in one free agency season, the NBA went from something midway between AFL and English Premier League to English Premier League.

In professional sports the relevant league can take two paths - equity or efficiency. Equity is promoting a level playing field presumably with the aim of ramping up competition. Efficiency is to concentrate talent as densely as possible and remove losers from the mix.

In AFL you see possibly one of the better 'equity' sporting models in the world's professional sports. They have measures like the Salary Cap and Draft to ensure that teams are roughly equal. A 'winning' team is penalised in the draft and has a harder time attracting new talent to rejuvinate the club. A 'losing' team is rewarded in the draft and over time can build a list of talented players that can mature and reverse their fortunes. Similarly the Salary Cap prevents too many of the leagues elite joining the same team and becoming some kind of super team. Sure it still happens - the three-peating Brisbane Lions with 3 Brownlow medallists in the mid-field and just about the best player in the league in every key position comes to mind. But on the whole it works pretty well.

By contrast the English Premier League the richest team can sign all the best players, hence you have 4 or so big teams (I must confess I'm speaking from a largely ignorant base here) and then a bunch of also rans that can get relegated out of the league. That's an effeciency model for you. The extreme going to the Spanish League with Real Madrid...

The NBA has a salary cap and arguably a superior drafting process to the AFL (it's a lottery with the odds based on a teams performance, the weakest team has the best odds, but no guaruntee- this prevents 'tanking' in theory) however if you are a rich team like the Lakers you can exceed the salary cap and just pay a luxury tax on those players contracts. If you can get a super eam together and sell out your season then it's certainly worth paying the tax. The Lebron to Miami wasn't quite this situation though, it was almost a voluntary/collusion decision by the players to become the Real Madrid of the NBA and potentially ruin the sport.

Enough has been said about Lebron such that Lebron is better left forgotten. The cruel thing about free agency though is that you can have a star player one season that gives you the leagues best record, then they leave and you get nothing in return (except for a big pile of money you don't have to spend on that player anymore) and you have to suffer through a season before you get any draft consideration.

This is true also of the AFL except that the AFL isn't really conducive to one player being able to take over a game like the NBA is, thus the departure of a superstar isn't necessarily going to push you from first to last, but maybe from first to 8th. Yet in a league with more teams, it's quite possible (and probable) that the Cavs can go from a regular season 1st to 30th just like that.

I prefer equity in sports. I would have rather watched Wade and Bron face off for a championship than cooperate. Just as last season watching two teams of seasoned champions duel it out was just about the most stressful and rewarding viewing experience of my life. I can only hope the Celtics manhandle the Heat out of the playoffs this year and we get a rerun of last years championship series.

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