The L.A. Kings (to all non-sports fans, we’re talking hockey, guys skating reasonably fast knocking a small circle around with sticks, that’s about the extent of my understanding) were seeded dead last in their playoff division coming into the hockey playoffs. They are now on verge of winning the whole shebang. To make some sort of real-life comparison, that would be like a Presidential seeding where the heavy-weights like Obama, Romney, Hillary, etc are top seeds and Dennis Kucinich comes in as the final seed and ends up besting them all.
So the natural question is, what happened during the regular season with the L.A. Kings and what has changed for the better in the playoffs? Naturally, if they had some of the best talent in the league they would not have had such a pedestrian regular season, right? If you look at basketball, for example, the NBA, of the 64 teams that have made the NBA Finals since 1980, 50% had at least one #1 pick playing on their team. But when you compare this to hockey, the NHL, only 23% of those teams that made the Finals had a #1 pick on their roster, and in baseball, just 29%. It seems baseball and hockey occupy a similar space and the NBA, basketball, and the apparent need to have top flight talent to win a championship appears to be an outlier here.
I thought about this more after the most recent basketball draft and wondered if the current system, the NBA draft, is actually working. The way it is set up now is a lottery system where the worst team only gets a 25% chance of securing the #1 pick. This was enacted in the 80s to keep teams from purposely losing down the stretch of the regular season to assure themselves the top pick in the draft. In a league where 50% of the Finals teams had a #1 pick on their roster it is understandable why the #1 pick is so coveted.
The alternative would be to scrap the draft and let players enter into the NBA as free agents. There is a salary cap in place which is supposed to prevent the wealthier NBA teams from outspending the others and simply stockpiling the best talent. I have heard this argument made as a protective measure to insure parity. But I personally don’t buy it. What I would see happening is a small market like Charlotte being able to offer player X $5M per year, and New York saying we’ll pay you $3.5M and the other $1.5M you will make up with endorsement deals and media exposure playing in one of the largest markets. I could also see many players willing to take less money up-front for a chance to play on a championship caliber team. What would happen is the worst teams despite offering more money to land a top talent would still be priced out due to extraneous factors such as team location and the personal desire to play for a winner over a loser.
While the lottery system is not perfect and you will have teams tanking down the stretch to better their odds at securing that #1 talent, opening the league up to free agents would not to do much better in creating parity.