6 Small-Market NBA Teams That Could Steal a Title from the Big Boys

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2012

6 Small-Market NBA Teams That Could Steal a Title from the Big Boys

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    Every so often a club like the San Antonio Spurs or Detroit Pistons comes along to turn the NBA's balance of big-market power on its head.

    Over the last 24 years, those two teams have accounted for nine appearances in the NBA Finals. They've crashed an elite party that's more accustomed to inviting powerhouses like the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls.

    The Miami Heat have certainly joined that group, and the New York Knicks are looking for results more are befitting of a massive market.

    But financial resources and strong fan following clearly aren't enough to build a dynasty. Dynasties also require a whole host of really important clichés like a "winning culture," a "savvy front office" and the "right kind of system"—whatever that means.

    No team has epitomized those franchise fundamentals than the Spurs, but more than a few are attempting to emulate it. The Oklahoma City Thunder have it almost perfect, and the Orlando Magic are hoping to be next.

    Needless to say, some teams are closer than others to proving market size doesn't matter.

    Here's a look at six who have a chance to make some serious noise at some point over the next five years.

Denver Nuggets

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    The Denver Nuggets came improbably close to making a title run last season.

    Nonsense you say?

    To do that the Nuggets would have faced two very dangerous teams—the Thunder and the Spurs—but two teams who play the same kind of up-tempo brand of basketball the Nuggets thrive at. It would have been an uphill battle, but not an entirely futile one.

    The scary thing is that this young roster is just getting better with every month of cohesion and experience it adds.

    When that begins translating into some postseason upsets is anyone's guess, but it's hard to count them out of any series from here on out. Denver has depth, offense, scrappiness, athleticism and one of the best up-and-coming big men in the league in JaVale McGee.

    The Nuggets should be considered a perennial dark-horse contender for some time, probably up until it becomes too ridiculous to think of them as underdogs anymore. 

Golden State Warriors

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    No, really.

    Granted, it will take the Golden State Warriors a couple of years to turn this roster into a well-oiled machine, but there's an intriguing combination of talent here—the kind of mix that turned the Indiana Pacers into the East's third-ranked team and the kind that made the Denver Nuggets a legitimate threat to the Lakers.

    The Warriors have a point guard with All-Star potential in Stephen Curry and a center in Andrew Bogut who might be the third or fourth best in the league when healthy. Add to that a couple of young wings who have plenty of upside and scoring ability (Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes), and you have the makings of something that may surprise people sooner rather than later.

    With veterans like David Lee, Carl Landry, Richard Jefferson and Jarrett Jack helping out, Golden State could be one of the league's deepest team over the next couple of seasons.

    A title run would be improbable, but improbable things do happen.

    That's something Warriors fans who were paying any attention in 2007 will remember better than most.

Indiana Pacers

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    It's hard to tell whether the Indiana Pacers are just a really good regular season team, or if they have what it takes to win consistently in the postseason.

    Anyone feel like we've said the very same thing about Pacers teams of yesteryear?

    Indiana has all the elements you'd expect from a well-built, well-coached and talented team. But it doesn't have the kind of star power you'll find on other small-market contenders.  They'll have a tough time keeping up with the likes of the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls—to say nothing of younger teams in the East that will catch up sooner or later.

    On the one hand, keeping the core together seems like it would be the kind of patient move that makes the Pacers the Pacers.

    On the other hand, we'll almost certainly begin to hear some doubts about whether this team can cut it if it doesn't take another big step forward in the next season or two. Those doubts could translate into significant roster changes.

    The good news, however, is that key building blocks like Roy Hibbert and Paul George are still young and getting better. Whether Indiana sticks with its ensemble approach or moves to upgrade the roster down the road, it should have enough in-house talent to remain competitive in any given year.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies were in many respects the Indiana Pacers of 2011, proving themselves capable of beating good teams and establishing themselves as one of those clubs for which you "never know" if they can pull off the upset or not.

    That's exactly what they did that year as an eighth-seed taking advantage of the battered and bruised San Antonio Spurs.

    The only problem is that the 2012 version of the Grizzlies made strides during the regular season only to fall flat in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers. Did Memphis hit its ceiling? Or is it just going to take another year or two worth of polish and roster adjustment?

    How you answer those questions likely depends on whether you believe a core of Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley can get any better.

    Gay and Conley might, but it's hard to say the same for Gasol and Randolph.

    More likely than not, then, the Grizzlies will remain a dark-horse contender for at least the next couple of years. As the Lakers and Spurs begin their transitions to another phase, Memphis might have an opportunity to find space in that power vacuum. 

    Until then, the Grizzlies will struggle to get out of that first or second round.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    More than any small-market team, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the closest to inheriting the San Antonio Spurs' status as the cream of the under-the-radar crop.

    Unlike most clubs in their demographic, OKC is actually overflowing with young, superstar talent. In fact, you'd forget just how young this roster is if you looked at last season's accomplishments. But it wasn't long ago that this organization was rebuilding from the bottom of the standings.  Now it's working toward a return to the NBA Finals.

    It won't be financially easy to keep all that young talent together, but nor will it be especially hard to find talent that's interested in playing with Kevin Durant over the next five to 10 years.

    One way or the other, the Thunder should be in the title mix for a long time to come, dispelling all manner of myth about the dominance of large-market teams.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers went from a team with some intriguing potential to making us wonder just how crowded the top of the Eastern Conference can get.

    They join a group of contenders (and some pretenders) that includes the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and perhaps the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. Two things set the 76ers apart from much of that pack: depth and Andrew Bynum.

    If young guys like Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner make some strides, Philly could make some noise. They will never garner quite as much attention as their counterparts in the East, but that has a lot more to do with big names and media fascination than anything pertaining to title odds.

    That said, the title odds for this season will be pretty slim.

    After that? Don't be so sure. 

    The 76ers needed a go-to guy like Bynum. It doesn't hurt that he's the second-best center in the game. If he sticks around for a few more years, Philly could quickly become a team to beat.