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Until the NBA breaks up its "super teams," it is basically just European soccer

July 02, 2018

With the news that LeBron is going full showtime and Kevin Durant has signed a one-and-one deal with the Warriors to guarantee the return of the Hamptons Five, I'd like to present a short list of teams with a real chance to win the NBA title next season:

That's it. The Thunder and the Sixers and the Raptors will all be good, but none of them will have a legitimate chance to take the crown. I fooled myself into believing there was parity in this year's playoffs, but in truth there were just two actual contenders—the Rockets and Thunder—and 14 pretenders.

Now, let's look at a full list of teams from the English Premier League who had a chance to win their domestic championship:

Or how about La Liga, Spain's top league?

Or Germany:

You get the point—the pool of potential champions in Europe's top leagues is incredibly small. That's a shared trait with the modern NBA, but it happens for very different reasons. In Europe, there is essentially no limit to how much a team can spend on its players. The governing philosophy is unfettered capitalism, which means that if some Middle East oil billionaire or a Russian cobalt magnate buys your team, he can also buy the best coaches and players and facilities and, before too long, championships. It results in ridiculous imbalances within the league that can last decades, and if you're a fan of a mid-level team like, say, Everton, your only real hope is that you make a run in the FA Cup, or get lucky and advance in a European competition.

I'm sorry to report that we have come to a point, in the NBA, where fans of all but the three or four best teams have become Everton fans. There is no hope of cracking that ceiling. You can't say that in football, or hockey, or even baseball, where surprises happen every year.

There's a deep irony to the similarities between the NBA and European soccer. The latter operates on the laissez-faire free market system, and it leads to huge inequality between teams. Their national governments, meanwhile, are some of the most socialist in the world. Meanwhile, in America—one of the world's most capitalistic nations—our professional sports leagues have strong socialist protections to ensure fair competition. Baseball is the worst at this (but still far better than Euro soccer), while the NBA, with its revenue sharing and salary cap and luxury tax, has one of the most robust protection systems of any league.

The problem is the nature of basketball itself—it's the sport where results follow talent most predictably, especially in a multi-game playoff series, and it also tends to produce a small number of superstars whose mere presence can alter a team's fortunes overnight. There is no such thing as a LeBron James in baseball or hockey or football or soccer, in the sense that no single transformational player can immediately turn his team into a championship contender in the same way. It's still possible to build great teams organically, as the Celtics and Rockets have shown, but even that process requires a superstar on the level of Kyrie Irving or James Harden. Without them, it's mission impossible.

Of course, there's only so much you can do to combat this. No matter how hard you try to ensure parity, LeBron will still be LeBron. But in the age of the Super Team, when stars are joining with other stars, the situation is quickly approaching absurdity.

"Kevin Durant ruined the NBA" is one of the constant, somewhat tongue-in-cheek refrains of hardcore fans, and there's truth to it—by going to the Warriors and joining fellow superstars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, he made it virtually impossible even for a LeBron-led team to slow them down. The only team that came close this year was the Rockets, who have two superstars of their own. Even before the Durant era, the only teams that could beat or come close to beating the Warriors were the Thunder (with two superstars in Durant and Westbrook), and the Cavs (LeBron, Kyrie).


Anadolu Agency

This, of course, encourages further consolidation of the game's best players—how are you going to beat the Warriors unless you have at least two superstars?—which in turn exaggerates inequality. We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg here: As long as we define a player's legacy by titles—a fetish that's not fading anytime soon, and which is ruining team sports in America—those players will go to the necessary lengths to win. In the NBA, that means superstars joining other superstars, stacking a select few teams in a desperate arms race, and leaving everyone else in dearth. The rich get richer, etc. etc., and the NBA's economic protections aren't sufficient to prevent the mergers or the resulting oligopoly. (LeBron may be alone-ish in L.A. for now, but they're stockpiling one-year deals to add a second superstar in year two of his reign.)

There's a simple rule that could fix this, though it will sound crazy. I'll give you the extremely rough version: Commissioner Adam Silver could identify the league's top ten superstars (make it 15, make it eight, whatever works best) and implement a rule saying no two of them can play on the same team.

There are a million kinks that would need to be worked out, of course, and the list would have to be constantly updated and protected against manipulation, but the theory is sound. Keep the likes of LeBron/Curry/Davis/Westbrook/Durant/Harden/Giannis/Kyrie/Simmons/Leonard etc. away from each other, and the league will benefit. It will restore true drama to the NBA season, and reverse the current trend of superstar consolidation that only leads to predictability and boredom. More importantly, it will give hope to every franchise, and not just the blessed few.

Our Generation's Babe Ruth...of the Week: Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow Media Availability

Rob Foldy

Tim Tebow is still trying to play baseball, which is insane and kind of admirable, and the crazy S.O.B. just made an all-star team. Granted, it's just Double-A (he plays for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, the hilariously named Mets affiliate), but the 30-year-old Tebow is hitting .261 with a very respectable .733 OPS. He's been hot recently, with a .318 batting average in June, and while his selection to the All-Star Game might owe a littttle to his celebrity, the fact is that he's not a bad player. We live in a world where Tebow contributing to a major league team in the future is not totally impossible. And I don't know how to feel about that.

The Summer-Should-Be-Illegal Story of the Week: It's Too Hot in Chicago Now

As someone who hates the heat because it ruins my recreational tennis for three months here in North Carolina, I have nothing but sympathy for the three Twins players who had to leave their game against the Cubs due to heat-related illness. But a few notes. First, this was in Chicago. Not like, Montgomery, Alabama or the equator. Chicago. Second, this was not long-distance running or football. This was baseball. Third, while one of them (catcher Bobby Wilson) is kinda beefy, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler are thin! The lesson here is that summer is the absolute pits, and pretty soon there's only going to be a ten-mile square foot area in the Arctic Circle where it's possible to play baseball outside.

The World-Cup-is-Good-Now Goal of the Week: Edinson Cavani, Uruguay

Last week I wrote about how boring the World Cup was, and then suddenly the whole thing got good. So either I was wrong, or my column was a reverse jinx that immediately bolstered the quality of play. I'm leaning toward the latter. In any case, Portugal lost, which is fantastic, and this game-winning goal by Edinson Cavani is my favorite kind of goal—incredible from a skill perspective, but also struck very casually. It's why you can use the word "class" as an adjective to describe a soccer star, but really no other kind of athlete—here, Cavani exudes sophistication:

Now, if only this happened 13-20 times per match instead of just once, I could learn to love this sport.