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Lakers And Celtics Again—The NBA's Embarrassing Parity

For the fifth time in 30 years (27 to be exact), the Boston Celtics will play the Los Angeles Lakers.

It's the most any two teams in the four major sports have played each other in championship games over the last three decades.

Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics shoots over Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers at the TD Garden.
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Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics shoots over Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers at the TD Garden.

But perhaps more statistically interesting is the fact that over the last 30 years, the NBA has only had eight different champions—the Lakers (9), the Bulls (6), the Celtics (4), the Spurs (4), the Pistons (3), the Rockets (2), the Heat (1) and the 76ers (1).

Compare that to the other leagues.

Counting this year, the last 30 Stanley Cup Finals, will have yielded 14 different champions.

The last 30 Super Bowls have crowed 15 different teams as Lombardi Trophy winners.

And the league that often gets mentioned the most as somehow having the least parity, Major League Baseball, has produced an amazing 19 different teams as winners over the last three decades.

Parity is defined in many different ways. For some, it's how competitive the league is. And while some might define that as the number of teams that win roughly half their games, others might define parity as the number of teams, in a given season, that truly have or had a chance to win it all.

If we just look at who won in the last 30 years, it doesn't give us the complete picture.

First, we should define the number of teams that had a chance to win. Since that's subjective and you can base it on a variety of statistics, including regular-season record of course (would you say the Cavaliers had a shot this year?), we're going to define chance as the ultimate -- making it to the Finals.

Take a look at how many different teams, over the last 30 years, made it to their league's respective final series.

  • NBA: 18
  • NHL: 22
  • NFL: 25
  • MLB: 25

Why is it harder for more basketball teams to make the Finals and ultimately win?

David Berri, sports economist and co-author of "Wages of Wins"and "Stumbling on Wins,"hypotheses in his books that this is because playing basketball, unlike other sports, relies on the physical characteristic of being tall. Since tall people represent a more select group from the population, Berri and his book writing cohorts reason, the talent pool is automatically smaller when trying to find good players.

Then figure in the fact that one or two players can affect a basketball team more than any other major sport because there are fewer total players on the playing field.

The Bulls of course had Jordan.

The Celtics had Bird, now Garnett.

The Lakers had Magic, Kobe and Shaq.

The Spurs had Duncan and Robinson.

But there's also something that's strange about the NBA Finals. Only 44 percent of teams that have played in it over the last 30 years have managed to win once.

In other words, the NBA has had 10 non-winning teams get to the Finals and lose.

Compare that to baseball, where only six World Series participants didn't win. In the NHL, where only eight Stanley Cup finalists didn't win. And in the NFL, where nine teams that made it to the Super Bowl in the last 30 years didn't win.

Look it at from a percentage standpoint and it becomes more drastic.

Baseball teams that made it to the World Series won at least once 76 percent of the time over the last 30 years. NFL teams in a Super Bowl won at least once 64 percent of the time and NHL teams won at least once 63 percent of the time.

Is there something about basketball that in a best of seven series favors the dynasty? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in the NBA, more than the other leagues, one team is so much better than the other.

But then there’s one more thing worth mentioning. Thirty years is a long period of time. Is it possible that the NBA's parity problem just might not lie just in the fact that one player can help make a dynasty, but also that those teams that haven't won in the last three decades aren't particularly good at identifying those stars.

Next month, the NBA will hold it's annual draft. In an attempt to make the worse teams better, they've had the lottery since 1985. But since that year, when the Knicks got the number one pick, only one team with the No. 1 pick has ever won the Finals (The Spurs, who drafted Robinson in 1989 and Duncan in 1999).

Has this lack of parity affected the business of the NBA? Not really. Lakers vs. Celtics seems to be what the nation wanted if they couldn't get LeBron.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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