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Deconstructing the Myth and the Dogma of WNBA Parity

Anyone looking at today's standings would marvel at the notion of "WNBA Parity". Following Sunday's 89-51 humiliating destruction of the Minnesota Lynx after Thursday's 79-57 thrashing of the Silver Stars by the Indiana Fever, I started digging into the Myth and the Dogma of WNBA Parity.


The Myth of Parity

At the conference level, which I wrote about a week ago, the numbers can be best seen from Massey's Ratings: Eastern Conference teams have won 10-4 over Western Conference teams. That margin was severely exacerbated by Sunday's results (not included).

Following those observations, others have started looking into the topic this week.  Fortunately, Kevin Pelton stepped up with some solid numbers.

One team that has found balance is Indiana, which surged from last in the league in offense to seventh on the strength of an 89-51 win at Minnesota on Sunday. That was the Fever’s third consecutive victory, and Indiana is starting to look like the juggernaut that reached the WNBA Finals last season. The Fever’s defense remains far and away the league’s best.

KP doesn't find much evidence for parity at the conference level, team level, game level or even player level (Tamika Catchings with a single game per of 65?!  Yikes!).

I think there's no question at the moment that there are some very bad teams in the WNBA cellar and that there's some outstanding teams at the top. 


The Dogma of Parity - Why it matters

Parity is a fundamental guiding principle of the WNBA, a notion that cuts at the core of what the league is about, and how the league differs from the incumbent paradigm of professional sports. Unlike other leagues, the WNBA does not have fluff - a predetermined stable of Washington Generals teams facing an elite selection of Harlem Globetrotter teams.   

The importance of parity is that quality is maintained in the small 12-team league.  The WNBA cannot afford to have teams that are predetermined losers or games that don't count. 

Parity is about fairness in the league on the surface but the subtext is about quality despite so few teams.  Rather than a microcosm of the NBA distribution of teams, the WNBA hope to be a microcosm of the NBA's best teams, say only the playoff teams, without the meaninglessness the New Jersey Nets and the LA Clippers

"It’s so hard to predict," Orender said about what is ahead. "The parity comes off of strength because there’s just so much quality talent, and organizations have done such a tremendous job of melding that talent, picking talent that’s right for them, having them jell. It’s really exciting. It’s fun to watch."

Mechelle Voepel expounds on the notion, comparing the current WNBA to women's sport of 20 years ago and to the current men's pro leagues.

"You know, here’s a definite upside to the WNBA: There is a sense of real competitive balance." -Mechelle Voepel

Competitive balance, however, is not all good.  Parity can be vexing--that somehow quality teams are handicapped from greatness and bad teams are subsidized with talent.  If any team can, and does, win, what is the value of hard work, dedication and team engineering? Is parity evidence of strength or uniform weakness? 

What can we know about that strength or weakness, or even appreciate, when every game seems to be decided by solely by injuries, slight vagaries of chance scheduling and home court advantage?


Ex Ante Parity, Not a league full of 0.500 teams

The disparity that we see in today's WNBA doesn't bother me as much as a field of 0.500 teams would. The WNBA should not strive for ex post parity, but for ex ante parity. 

At the beginning of this season, it was clear in reading the previews, the GM surveys and all the various comments posted around the WNBA village that no one had strong feelings about the dominant forces in the league.  Too many things had changed.   Too many teams had the talent and the tools do come out on top.  Each game mattered.  In my view, there was ex ante parity or at least ex ante uncertainty.

Even now, the Sparks and the Lynx are loaded with talent.  With some tinkering perhaps they may yet turn it around.  The 0-4 Chicago Sky figured out what they needed to do to get the ball to Big Syl and went on a 4-0 streak.  Alternatively, it only takes an unlucky circumstance or play upturn the fortunes of some favorites.  Then with player movements, the draft and all of the external noise which influences WNBA economics and win-loss outcomes, any team in the cellar this year may put itself in a far better position to win next year.


Ex Ante Parity as Upward Mobility

There are teams in the WNBA cellar and teams with 0.800+ records, but there is a lot of upward mobility in this league.  More so than parity, what I see is a great opportunity for each team to better itself and to have a shot at winning.   That's what is exciting about the WNBA.