The NBA season begins this week. For most NBA fans, the week is filled with much hope and anticipation. After all, all teams begin with the same record. Therefore, all teams can think right now that maybe this will finally be their season to win a title. Right?
Although everyone might have hope this week, if we look at some history and some economics we can see that for most teams the season is already over. At least, it is over in the sense that most teams have little or no chance of winning a title in 2019.
To illustrate, let’s talk about the Milwaukee Bucks. If you are a Milwaukee sports fan, you should probably know the following three things:
- The Brewers have reached the final four in baseball and certainly have a chance to be World Champions.
- The Green Bay Packers — despite losses to Washington and Detroit –can still make the playoffs. At least, if Mason Crosby learns how to kick field goals again. If that happens, it would not be inconceivable that the Packers could win the 2019 Super Bowl.
- And it is almost certain the Milwaukee Bucks are not winning an NBA title in 2019.
Wait, that can’t make sense. The NBA season hasn’t started. How can anyone be sure the Bucks won’t win a title in 2019?
Well, we can’t be completely sure. But a survey of NBA general managers from the beginning of October revealed that these general managers thought only three teams — the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Boston Celtics — were likely to win a title this season. When it comes to the conference titles, there were a few general managers who thought the Toronto Raptors would overcome the Celtics and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. But no general manager picked the Bucks.
This seems like a clear oversight. The Bucks star player – Giannis Antetokounmpo — is one of the top players in the game. The Bucks also have a new head coach and will be playing in a new arena. And Khris Middleton even argues the team has a “new vibe”.
So, how can we know the Bucks are not title contenders?
Let’s first talk some basic NBA history. In 1967 the NBA started playing 82 games each season. Across the last 51 years, the NBA champion has won on average 72.6% of their regular season games or 59.6 wins across an 82-game season. This is not surprising. NBA champions are generally very good teams.
What might be more surprising is what those champions did the year before winning a title. Last season the Milwaukee Bucks won 44 games. Across the last 51 years, only four teams won 44 or fewer games in one season and managed to win an NBA title the next year. Three of these four titles happened in the 1970s (Golden State in 1974-75, Portland in 1976-77, and Seattle in 1978-79). Since 1979, only the Boston Celtics in 2007-08 managed to win a title without winning more than 44 games the year before. And since 1979, only the Celtics in 2008 and the Chicago Bulls in 1996 managed to win a title without winning at least 50 games the year before.
The Celtics improvement in 2007-08 came about when Boston added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. In addition, Paul Pierce came back from injury. Behind these three stars, the Celtics went from 24 wins in 2006-07 to 66 wins in 2007-08. It was a similar story for the Chicago Bulls in 1996. In 1994-95 the Bulls only won 47 games. But Michael Jordan was not available the entire season. And then in the summer of 1995, the Bulls added Dennis Rodman. Led by Jordan and Rodman (Scottie Pippen helped as well), the Bulls managed to win 72 games and the championship in 1996.
Can the Bucks expect a similar transformation? Yes, Milwaukee has a new coach and new arena. And maybe a new attitude. But when we look at the team’s roster, the major change has been the addition of veterans Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. Neither of these players will cause people to think of Garnett, Allen, Pierce, Jordan, Rodman, or Pippen. So it’s hard to see with these additions that the Bucks — a team that only won 44 games last year — will suddenly be title contenders.
Of course, Milwaukee is hardly alone. Last season, only six teams in the NBA won 50 games. One of these was the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, despite what Tristan Thompson says it seems likely that without LeBron James the Cavaliers are not winning a title in 2019.
That suggests that only five teams — the Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia 76ers — can be thinking a title is really possible in 2019. Of course, Lebron James joined the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron is definitely like Garnett, Allen, Pierce, Jordan, Rodman, and Pippen (i.e. he is really good). So, perhaps we can say the Lakers — despite only winning 35 games last year — have a chance to win a title in 2019. But even with the Lakers added to the list, this means the other 24 teams — and their fans — are already waiting for next year.
Again, football and baseball seem quite different. Certainly, there are more than six NFL teams who still think they have a shot at a title in 2019. And in baseball, it was not inconceivable that all ten teams that made the post-season had a chance to win the World Series. So, why should we think the season is already over — before it even begins — for all but six teams in the NBA?
The issue is the basic economics of basketball talent. The average height in the NBA is around 79 inches. However, 95% of the adult male population in the United States is 74.3 inches tall or shorter. This means the NBA — relative to other sports — is drawing upon talent from a relatively small population. In essence, the NBA suffers from a “short supply of tall people”. And the limited supply of talent limits the ability of most teams to compete.
The textbook explanation from Sports Economics tells the basic story. When a league draws upon a large population — like Major League Baseball today — the number of players who are very good at their sport is also quite large. And that means more teams have a chance to win. But when talent is restricted — like Major League Baseball early in the 20th century — a few teams will have amazing talent (like the 1927 Yankees) and other teams will have to make do with lesser talents (like the 1927 Red Sox or the 1927 St. Louis Browns). In the early twentieth century, baseball tended to only employ white Americans from the Eastern United States. As baseball racially integrated and then expanded its talent search beyond the United States, the supply of great baseball players increased dramatically and the game became far more competitive.
The NBA has also expanded its talent search beyond the United States. But even when we consider the entire world, extremely tall people are still relatively rare. Consequently, some teams have players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, and James Harden. And other teams don’t.
The impact of the short supply of tall people is seen when considering who produces wins in basketball. Whether we consider the WNBA or the NBA, the Pareto Principle appears to hold. Specifically — as the Pareto Principle suggests — about 80% of a team’s wins in basketball should come from 20% of their roster. This means your top three players (i.e. 20%) primarily determine your team’s outcomes. If you are the Rockets and your top three are James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela, then you are going to very good. But if you are the Bucks — whose top three last year were Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe — you will likely be less good.
All this history and economics tells a simple story. Although every team does start with the same record this week, the inequality we see in each team’s talent is going to lead to very different outcomes when the season is over. A few teams will remain in contention until the end. But most teams will not. And we already have a very good idea which teams will be among those “most teams” before the season tips off Tuesday night.
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