• gabrielblanc

Maurice Duverger v. Lebron James

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

Every year, it seems like the NBA fields a new and seemingly unbeatable combination of talents. Chronologically, they include: The Boston and Miami "big threes," the 2014 Spurs, the 73-win Warriors, those same Warriors plus Kevin Durant, both LA teams in 2020, and now the Brooklyn Nets.

Even the greatest teams of previous generations maxed out at two superstars, as opposed to the three or four that are the norm nowadays. Why is this the case? Why is it that, as time passes, fewer and fewer teams can conceivably win a championship, while more and more talent accumulates on a few teams?

Ever since the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant and went to five consecutive Finals, people have been asking these questions. Most explanations involve the character of this generation's professional athletes. The trend of teaming up with your friends for the easiest path to a championship is attributed to "soft" millennials, or the influence of one Lebron James starting in 2010. Others prefer a more systematic explanation: As shorter-term contracts have become the norm, players have more power over who they play for. In general, I'd agree with this interpretation, but there's an element that can make it even more convincing: Duverger's Law.

I've written about this before, so I'll be brief. Duverger's Law posits that all plurality voting systems end up with two parties. This is demonstrated most clearly by the United State political system, in which third parties serve no purpose other than to play spoiler to Democrats or Republicans.

Just as Duverger theorized for electoral politics, in professional sports, as long as there is only one winner, there will only be two serious contenders for the championship. Or rather, the league tends towards a two-superteam system; We need to allow for some variation year-to-year. Sometimes there are surprises, such as the 2019 Raptors, or the 2021 Miami Heat, but those teams winning generally means a few things have broken in their favour.

The two parties that rise to the top, according to Duverger's law, tend to be on either side of the political spectrum, but fairly close to the centre. Similarly, the two superteams tend to be in different conferences, because being able to make it to the Finals before meeting the other superteam increases your chances of winning it all. It seems that stars have kept this balance in mind when looking for potential teams to join. As some have pointed out, since Lebron James moved West, the net flow of superstar talent has been Eastwards. The inverse was true when he was still in Cleveland.

If we accept that Duverger's Law applies to professional sports leagues, it becomes clear why the accumulation of talent has become the norm: As long as there is freedom of movement for players, stars that want to win will find each other. The more freedom of movement there is (shorter contracts, player options, trade demands, etc.) the more talent will accumulate.

Who knows, were players more empowered, if Karl Malone might have signed with the Bulls? Or Kevin McHale with the Lakers? Its strange to imagine the trappings of the modern NBA in the context of previous generations, but my guess is there was more keeping players from joining their rivals than a "competitive spirit." If anything, joining your rivals for a shot at a championship is the norm, and it's only been able to manifest in the past ten years.

The real loser here is Lebron James, the one man superteam, who watches the league rebalance itself around him every few years so that other stars have a shot at winning. Sure, talent accumulates around Lebron, but it also accumulates where he isn't, for the express purpose of beating him in the Finals.

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