What the NBA can Teach Us about American Politics

The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are favorites to meet in the NBA finals. What can these dynastic teams teach us about America’s two-party system?

Oct 25, 2017

The 2017-2018 NBA Season is just over a week old, and with only a fraction of the 82-game season complete, there is already a strong consensus on who NBA fans will see in the 2018 Finals. FiveThirtyEight has the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers as clear favorites to make it to the NBA Finals, giving them a 48% and 41% chance respectively. The next highest team is the Houston Rockets with a 16% chance of claiming a spot in the finals. Oddsshark, a premier sports betting service came out with their 2018 championship odds the day after the 2017 Finals. Updated over the postseason, Oddsshark also has the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers as runaway favorites. How can these sites, whose business models rely on accurate odds, be so sure about the Cavaliers and Warriors meeting in the 2018 NBA Finals?

Let’s start with the obvious, the Cavaliers and Warriors were opponents in the last three consecutive NBA Finals. Golden State beat the Cavaliers in 2015 and 2017, and Cleveland won its first ever NBA championship in 2016. Last year, the Warriors controversially acquired superstar Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder, making them a juggernaut team with four NBA All-Stars. This year, the Cavaliers have responded by signing three new stars of their own, Isaiah Thomas, Dwayne Wade, and Derrick Rose.

All of this has led to plenty of outrage and derision from some NBA fans of the other 28 teams in the league, especially teams that have lost their star players to one of the two NBA goliaths. Thunder fans famously burned jerseys when Kevin Durant left for the Warriors last year, calling him a “snake” or a “cupcake” for joining an already stacked team instead of building a team to compete in Oklahoma. Many argue the lack of “parity” among NBA teams started when LeBron James left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in order to create an instant Championship contender in 2010. In fact, Lebron James has – first with Miami and then returning to Cleveland four years later – gone to the NBA Finals every year since that 2010 trade. Disgruntled fans argue that NBA players have lost any sense of loyalty to their teams and cities and only care about winning championships…

…But it’s because of the fans themselves that players care about nothing but making it to the NBA Finals. Pay attention to any two NBA fans debate who is better between their favorite players in the NBA right now. It will almost always boil down to “who has won the most championships?” Players are aware that the only way to be recognized as great is to win championships. It is becoming harder and harder to be elected to the NBA Hall of Fame without winning the league title. Last year, NBA legend Julian Earving said every NBA season ends one of two ways, “you either have a ring, or you don’t”

So, if NBA teams are split into two camps each year, a champion and 29 losers, then why wouldn’t an NBA player sign with the team with the best shot of being the one?

The political system in the United States is built on elections where there is only one winner. Only one person can be elected President every four years. The state where you live has two Senators, but they each run in separate elections once every six years. This isn’t the case everywhere. Many democracies use a proportional representation system where entire legislatures are chosen by the country at-large, voters choose what party they prefer, and the number of seats that party receives is determined by the proportion of voters that chose them.

The way the U.S. conducts elections allows for more “local government” because representatives are elected in districts that cover a fraction of the country, rather than a legislature where each representative is voted on by the country as a whole. A side-effect of this system is that it operates like the NBA, each year’s contest has one winner and a whole bunch of losers. And just like the NBA, this dynamic causes two dominant teams to emerge.

In Political Science, this phenomenon is described by Duverger’s law which says that, “plurality-rule elections structured within single-member districts [the elections we have in the U.S.] tend to favor a two-party system.” This conclusion is backed up by a whole bunch of statistics and game theory, and Poli Sci mumbo jumbo that you can read about here if you’d like, but I think it’s easier to think about the NBA. The point is that it isn’t an accident that every election that isn’t won by a Republican is won by a Democrat.

Americans despise two-party rule, but love the system of local government which makes it inevitable. Similarly, NBA fans hate that they know their home team isn’t going to make it to the finals this year, but love the cutthroat all-or-nothing dynamic of “you either have a ring or you don’t.” But it’s important to understand that it is the institutional structure of American Democracy and the National Basketball Association, and not a failing of morality or loyalty, that makes things the way they are.

English politics are no more or less corrupt than American politics, but England has third parties. Mexican politics are no more or less corrupt than American Politics, but Mexico has third parties. Indian politics are laughably corrupt, and they have 38 parties!

I happen to be a fan of the Golden State Warriors, my views also happen to be well represented by one of the two major American political parties. This isn’t the case for everyone. Some people are Thunder fans or Bucks fans, and some people align more with the Democratic Socialists or the Libertarians. But if you think Bernie would have won, or that Gary Johnson is the only way to return to American values in government, you should know that the reason your candidate had no chance has nothing to do with corruption, and everything to do with the electoral system set out in the Constitution.

The Libertarian Party and the Green Party; the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, they all deserve a chance to show their stuff on the national stage. And those who believe in those underdogs have every right to be angry that they are being woefully underrepresented. But if that reality is to change, it’s time to stop bashing the Democrats and the Republicans – or calling Durant a snake and LeBron a crybaby. Instead, focus on what is really keeping you from being represented, the institutions themselves. If you identify with a third party, join organizations that are fighting for proportional representation in your state legislatures, or for jungle primaries that select more than one candidate at a time. If you are a basketball fan, demand that the NBA lower salary caps so that winning teams can no longer sign three, four, or five expensive all-stars every year. Otherwise, basketball fans and third-party supporters alike will continue to be pushed to side as the blue team from California and the red team from Ohio are the only viable options year, after year, after year.