June 23, 2024

Is the NBA in the middle of a new age of parity? Or is it about to exit one?


Six seasons, six different champions. Teams seeded fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth making the conference finals in a span of two seasons. And seemingly more unpredictability than ever: A team with one of the NBA’s two best regular-season records hasn’t won the title since the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors in 2019. (Although the Boston Celtics may end that streak this year.)

Are we in a new age of parity? And if so, how long will it continue?

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First, the prima facie case that something is possibly different from before: We haven’t had alternating champions like this since the span from 1970 to 1987, when we crowned a different champion for 18 straight seasons before the Los Angeles Lakers repeated in 1988.

That stretch ended nearly four decades ago, and even that era comes with something of an asterisk: Nine of those 18 titles were won by either the Lakers or Celtics, who spent most of the 1980s with joint custody of the Larry O’Brien trophy. Even in the 1970s, the New York Knicks and Celtics both had gap years between championships. Nothing of the sort has happened in the era since 2018.

The true stretch of comparison, then, might be the period from 1975 to 1980, where there was a genuine “first-time” champion five times in six years, with only the dying embers of the Celtics dynasty in 1976 intervening. Similarly, the last six years have seen the Raptors and Denver Nuggets win their first titles, the Milwaukee Bucks claim their first in 50 years and the Lakers their first since 2010. This year will give us another sort-of “first-timer” — the first for this group of Celtics or Dallas Mavericks. Much like that 1975-80 era, only the dying embers of a former dynasty, the 2022 Warriors, have intervened.

Additionally, there’s the matter of the relative unpredictably we’ve seen in the playoffs. One thing that stands out to me from this era is how postseason results have somewhat decoupled from the regular-season standings, which we can see by the abundance of lower-seeded teams advancing.

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If you break it down by round, you see something else happening: a fairly normal first round followed by mayhem in the second round. Lower-seeded teams have won 13 of the last 20 conference semifinals (65 percent). They’ve only won 14 series total in all the other rounds, out of 54 possible series (25.9 percent), in the past five years.

What this strongly suggests to me is that the notion of parity is still somewhat confined in the NBA, but it might be worded as something like “parity in the contenders class.” Fringy, flawed playoff teams still get obliterated in the first round right on schedule; lower seeds are 8-40 in the first round since 2019. Thanks for stopping by. However, as the data above shows, the few that survive can fare much better …. like the 2023 Heat or the 2024 Mavericks.

Basically, by the time we whittle things down to the top eight teams, the margins between them become razor-thin. That allows the forces of MOML (Make or Miss League) or four bounces on the rim or other strange phenomena to take over.

One golden rule that has still held up: Every champion but one for the last 44 years has been a top-three seed with at least 52 wins (prorated to 82 games) and a plus-3 net rating; that will hold up if Boston prevails in the NBA Finals, but not if Dallas wins. (The three teams in the West that met this criteria, Oklahoma City, Denver and Minnesota, have all been eliminated; the Mavs beat two of them.)

This data strongly suggests that a certain level of regular-season play is still required to be in the championship discussion, but there is a different, higher level of what we might call “unbeatable eliteness” that teams have had a difficult time achieving.

Contrast that to, say, 2018, where the Warriors and Houston Rockets were so much better than everyone else that it was obvious they were playing for the title in the Western Conference finals. Those two teams were 20-4 in the postseason if you take out their seven-game slugfest against each other.

Post-Warriors, I’m not sure any team has matched the level of those two clubs. We’ve had only four teams play at a 60-win clip (prorated) in six seasons, and the previous three failed to make the finals. (Boston ended that streak this year.)

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Notably, in comparison with the Kevin Durant-era Warriors, nobody has been able to get three A-Listers aligned on contracts at the same time except the Brooklyn Nets, who for various starstruck reasons have zero of the six championships I alluded to above.

Instead, we’ve had a lot of really good but not quite impervious teams competing at the same time (including the post-Durant Warriors in ’22), and we might be set up for that to continue (Might. Read on.)

In particular, the new collective bargaining agreement seems set up to make the current environment continue a while longer. The rules on the second apron are designed to rein in the big spenders and force elite teams to make hard decisions at every level of the roster once their stars graduate from rookie deals to supermax extensions. We’ll see how teams play their hands in the coming years, but the rules seem to incentivize even the most free-spending teams to limit themselves to a two-year run above the second apron before pulling back and avoiding the most severe penalties.

So are we looking at more years of alternating champions and new faces holding the Larry O’Brien trophy? Are we set for a five-year stint of something like PacersWizardsHornetsPelicansMagic as our NBA champions? (Not the Pistons, though. I’m keeping things realistic here.)

Hang on a sec. Because just as we’ve experienced a big surge in parity, there’s another force with which we must reckon.


Jayson Tatum and Jrue Holiday share a laugh during overtime of a Celtics’ victory over the Timberwolves. (Winslow Townson / USA Today)

The Big Green counterargument

I’m not sure the mass audience has totally caught on to this since commentators seem to want to dunk on the team anytime it allows something worse than a 4-0 run, but … isn’t the argument about parity a little ridiculous until or unless the Celtics lose?

Boston won 64 games — tied for the most since the Rockets won 65 in 2018 — and did it with the fifth-best scoring margin of all time, a plus-11.3 difference that lapped the field. Only two other clubs (Oklahoma City at plus-7.4 and Minnesota at plus-6.5) had margins that were even half as large.

While the Celtics haven’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of playoff competition, they’ve dispatched those opponents with haste, going 12-2 so far in the playoffs with a margin of plus-10.9 while ranking first in playoff offense and third in defense.

They’re also the one team in the postseason that has been able to withstand a serious injury and keep on ticking. While absences from key players have led to the demise of teams such as the Clippers, Knicks, Bucks, Cavs and most recently Pacers, the Celtics have barely skipped a beat despite not having star big man Kristaps Porziņģis for the last two playoff rounds.

He’s likely to be back for the finals, where Boston would already seem to have an advantage. Dallas lost its last meeting against the Celtics — with all of its current trade pieces on board — by 28 points in March.

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So are we entering a new era of parity? Or are we actually exiting an era of parity?

How differently would we be looking at this age if Jayson Tatum hadn’t injured his ankle on the first play of Game 7 against the Miami Heat a year ago and the Celtics had gone on to win the title?

If that’s a little too ifs-and-buts for you, consider also some of the circumstances that prevented recent champions from repeating.

Kawhi Leonard left a perfectly good team in Toronto that actually had a better winning percentage without him a year later. Milwaukee’s 2022 title defense was scuppered by a Khris Middleton injury. Finally, there’s a nearly inexhaustible supply of all the wouldas and couldas from the Brooklyn whinasty with Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

Events needed to break a very certain way to give us a scenario in which no champions repeated. Lady Luck looms large, too. In a 30-team league, fortune is always going to play a role in May and June unless a team builds a Durant-Stephen CurryDraymond GreenKlay Thompson level of steamroller.

Boston is possibly at that level, but nobody totally trusts that idea yet, and we won’t really know for at least two more weeks. Other teams could maybe get there soon, especially Oklahoma City and San Antonio.

Building that level of team in any era is extremely difficult, but we are entering a new reality on top of that. Now it’s hard to build such a team and equally difficult to maintain it for any appreciable length of time. Age, injuries, contracts and the apron all conspire to make succeeding at the 55-win level difficult but possible for a “run” of several seasons. But getting to the high-60s level of being nigh unbeatable? That just hasn’t been a thing since Durant left the Bay.

Again, Boston can make a case that it’s an exception to that rule if it wins the title this year. The Celtics seem exceptionally well set up for a multi-year run at a high level; extensions for Tatum and Derrick White would have Boston’s five best players signed through 2026, the exact type of two-year run above the second apron that I talked about above.

On the other hand, Boston has one crucial weakness most other dynasties didn’t: The Celtics don’t have the best player in the league. As good as Tatum is, they won’t have the best player on the court in the finals.

Then again, wouldn’t that be the perfect demarcation of our new parity era? Having the most dominant team of this stretch be the one who had one player (barely) make first-team All-NBA and instead beat you by signing smart contracts and going six-deep with true quality?

With or without a Celtics reign, however, this year’s Mavs are the latest example of another strong trend that is likely to be an enduring takeaway from this era: If you’re good enough to get to the second round, anything can happen. In an NBA in which seemingly 20 teams are “going for it” each year, the game within the game has become getting into that final eight.


Required Reading

(Illustration by Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Top photos of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokić and Stephen Curry: Gary Dineen, Rocky Widner, Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)



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