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Small-Market Team NBA Power Rankings

Brett BallantiniContributor IISeptember 6, 2012

Small-Market Team NBA Power Rankings

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    With all the attention paid to the big NBA markets (cough ESPN), it seems a fine time to look outside of the NBA Atlantic (where five of the top 10 big markets reside) and throw a bone to those mini-mites of the league.

    There’s no clean spot to break big into middle, or middle into small markets. But there’s a bit of a gap between the Golden State Warriors (as the No. 15 population/TV market in the league) and the Minnesota Timberwolves at No. 16, so it's easiest to split the league right in half for these rankings.

    Categories considered in the rankings (lower scores, meaning a higher ranking, are better):

    These rankings aren’t super-scientific and each category was weighed equally. In case of a tie, advantages on the court won out.

    The winner is probably no surprise, as it ranks as one of the all-time best NBA franchises, period—small-market or not. Neither is the last-place club—the worst of the smallest—coming off of a record-breaking year of which no other team would ever be envious. But between bottom and top, there are bound to be a few shocks.

15. Charlotte Bobcats (10.2 Power Ranking)

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    The pre-ranking favorite to be the worst small-market in the NBA did not disappoint.

    After an all-time worst .106 winning percentage (7-59) in 2011-12, it’s one of the few times in recent memory the Bobcats haven’t disappointed.

    The Cats finished dead last in this survey in fan support (77.4 percent of capacity, 28th in the NBA), team heritage (nonexistent) and winning percentage (their nine-season winning percentage of .358 is worst among active NBA teams by a healthy margin and is the worst of any team, active or defunct, to play exclusively in the NBA).

    There is terrific growth predicted for the Charlotte area, which will help the Bobcats if and when they dig out of their “Worst Team Ever” hole. Additionally, while the team wasn’t a ton of fun to watch in 2011-12, the price tag to do so wasn’t bad ($203.06, second-best in the NBA).

14. Cleveland Cavaliers (10.1)

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    As a so-called mid-market team, Cleveland’s ranking as the second-worst small market club is pathetic. Consider that the Cavs finished in a near-tie with the Charlotte Bobcats for the absolute worst small-market club in the NBA is downright embarrassing.

    To be fair, this is a franchise still in transition after losing LeBron James in 2010. And the Cavaliers appear to be experiencing a swift renaissance behind Kyrie Irving, but an attendance showing of better than 77.5 percent of capacity (27th in the NBA) will be crucial in support of that renaissance come 2012-13—especially given that Cleveland’s future appears so dim (projected as the worst for future growth not only in this small-market survey but among all cities studied by NewGeography in its 2011 study).

    Truly, the only real boons for Cleveland in this study is an average ranking in both Fan Cost ($275.98) and market competition. But those marks alone won’t improve the team’s surprisingly poor standing among the smallest of the small.  

13. Memphis Grizzlies (10.0)

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    The Grizzlies rank below average in all but two of seven categories, which may seem surprising for a team on the upswing.

    But this small-market survey may reveal that while the fortunes of the franchise have certainly taken a pleasant turn since its days laboring in Vancouver with Mike Bibby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and an otherwise anonymous supporting cast (ah, to remember Stevie Franchise’s famous pout out of Vancouver before even setting foot in the city…), there’s still work to be done in Memphis.

    But the good news for Grizzlies fans isn’t only that they’re rooting for a competitive, 41-25 team that finished second in the NBA Southwest in 2011-12. The fan cost index (which measures the price of four average-priced tickets, two small draft beers, four small sodas, four regular hot dogs, one car parking, two game programs and two caps) places a trip to see the Grizz at the FedEx Forum the least expensive in the NBA, at $192.80.

12. New Orleans Hornets (9.7)

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    With the awkwardness of the George Shinn Era and the lame-duck nature of being owned by the league behind the Hornets, it’s easy to imagine New Orleans taking a leap forward in future small-market power rankings.

    The club will have to get past being in a terrible TV market and leap past its poor heritage and understandably dour future market growth to do so.

    On the brighter side, there is a love affair blossoming in the Crescent City. Hornets fans filled the New Orleans Arena at an eighth-best clip in this survey and were rewarded with the fifth-best cost index in the NBA at $217.96.

11. Milwaukee Bucks (9.4)

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    The Bucks have become a sort of shoulder shrug of the NBA. After all, Milwaukee’s best marks come in peering back at its past, with a still-solid team heritage and winning tradition (its .521 winning percentage all-time ranks 10th in the NBA and one place ahead of the storied Chicago Bulls to the south).

    But in the modern era, the usual grumblings over a new arena off the floor and a commitment to mediocrity on it lands the team on the lower end of this survey. Future growth that places Milwaukee 45th among all U.S. cities doesn’t bode well for the years ahead.

10. Minnesota Timberwolves (9.3)

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    It might come as a surprise that Minnesota is the 16th-biggest market in the NBA (putting it right on the cusp of a big-market club), but then, the Timberwolves have been acting like a tiny market ever since Kevin Garnett was shipped out to Boston.

    Perhaps unfortunately for the Wolves, their wintertime competition for Twin Cities dollars, hockey’s Minnesota Wild, went on a massive spending spree this offseason. If that doesn’t turn up the heat in Minnesota, Kevin Love’s looming free agency sure does.

    While there’s not much heritage or winning tradition to speak of in Minny, and future market growth is sour, the Timberwolves did boast the fifth-lowest cost index among the small-market clubs, at $225.50 per game.

9. Sacramento Kings (8.3)

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    You’d think a club that’s been threatening to move seemingly since moving out to Sacto would rank a little lower on this list. But then, there was a spate of winning out west in the Chris Webber years, and there’s a team heritage that stretches back beyond that of the NBA itself (…Kansas City Kings…Kansas City-Omaha Kings…Cincinnati Royals…Rochester Royals).

    Aside from the looming threat of a move to what now, Virginia (!), and the constant kerfuffle between Mayor and ex-NBAer Kevin Johnson and the Maloof ownership, the Kings fared poorly across the board in these power rankings.

    Their best asset—somewhat incredibly for a fanbase that made clanking cowbells de rigueur—is having so little area competition for fan dollars.

8. Denver Nuggets (8.0)

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    Given the heritage of the Nuggets and Denver’s true placement among mid-market teams, to finish in the middle of the small market survey is a sad showing indeed. But with plenty else to do in Denver (boding badly for the Nuggets’ future growth) and a fan cost on the high side, there’s not much to get excited about in the Rockies, NBA-wise.

    Fans came out to see the team at an about-average rate for a small-market team, so there may still yet be hope for the Nuggets not to slide down this list in the future.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder (7.6)

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    Place ’em at seventh, with a bullet. The defending Western Conference champions have a bright future ahead and could one day end up drafting behind a little ol’ team down in Texas as the best of the best small-market clubs.

    Looking past a small population and microscopic TV market, Oklahoma City fares no worst than 10th in any other survey category. The Thunder fare best in the related categories of there being little else to do sports-wise in OKC and fan support (the team’s 100 percent capacity ties for seventh in the NBA overall).

6. Indiana Pacers (7.3)

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    Basketball-hungry state? Check.

    Super-rich heritage as an ABA powerhouse and not-awful NBA team? Check.

    Ranking sixth among small-market teams…wha?

    It’s true. In spite of operating in the fifth-best future market among these tinier teams and boasting a terrific fan cost of just $208.74 (third-best in the league), the Pacers show disappointingly in this survey. Perhaps most shockingly sad is the fact that in spite of lower costs, Pacers fans filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse to just 78 percent of capacity, 26th in the NBA.

5. Phoenix Suns (7.2)

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    Phoenix appears due for a bit of a tumble in the future, which wouldn’t do the city proud, as a true mid-market NBA club.

    Future market growth is very rosy for Phoenix (ranking eighth among all U.S. cities), but the team may want to commit to some cost adjustment; fan prices were the highest among all small-market teams ($346.52) and the Phoenix faithful responded by showing up enough to rank the Suns just 10th-best support of this survey.

4. Orlando Magic (6.6)

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    For all the attention Orlando gets, being barely on the high side as a population center and TV market makes it a true small-market NBA team.

    Fan support borders on the outrageous, with fans filling the Amway Center to 102.1 percent capacity, fourth-best in the NBA. But with so much to do in the Orlando area and some potentially trying seasons ahead, the Magic will have to keep on their toes to remain among the top five small-market clubs.

3. Portland Trail Blazers (5.6)

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    Long extolled as a crown jewel of small-market clubs, Portland falters only in the amount it costs to watch the club ($296.58, third-highest in this survey).

    Otherwise, the Blazers rule as expected, ranking no lower than seventh in all other categories and topping the survey in fan support (102.6 percent of capacity, third-best in the NBA).

    So in other words: Paul Allen, raise prices some more—your Blazers faithful will keep on coming.

2. Utah Jazz (6.0)

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    The Jazz boast a lousy TV market, but like the Blazers finish no lower than seventh in any other category in this survey.

    The team’s best marks come in overall winning percentage (.544, fifth all-time in the NBA) and the relative lack of competition in Salt Lake City, so expect Utah to stick right near the top of small-market clubs moving forward.

1. San Antonio Spurs (4.7)

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    The Spurs are simply the class of all small-market teams—and in fact, there’s a lot the so-called big-market ball clubs could learn from the Alamo City as well.

    San Antonio truly crushes the competition here, finishing at the top of four of the seven categories when no other team led in more than one.

    Spurs dominance starts with winning—their four titles are fourth-best in NBA history, and San Antonio has the best winning percentage (.587) of all small markets and the third-best active percentage in the NBA behind the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.

    The only area in which the Spurs falter is in their very smallness—a TV market that ranks 12th even among the small towns in this survey. It’s not cheap to see the Spurs (second-highest Cost Index among small markets, at $319.34 per game), but fans still eat their silver-and-black suited stars up, to the tune of 99 percent capacity, 11th in the NBA.

    Surely the space of one season won’t strip the Spurs of their title as the best of the NBA small-market clubs. But everyone else—and the very definition of the 15 smallest NBA markets itself—could shift, so tune back in a year from now and see how the drama unfolds heading into 2013-14.

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