5 Small-Market Teams That Will Always Funnel Stars to Big-Market Teams
Parity has long been one of the NBA’s major issues. The owners of small-market teams have struggled to keep their talent around after their initial contracts expired and had serious difficulty bringing in high-profile free-agent talent.
Star players understandably love the spotlight and want to be in high-profile situations where not just a team’s fanbase, but the entire basketball community can appreciate their talents.
This has prompted players to flock to basketball havens like Los Angeles, New York and even Miami, places where team management is willing to shell out money to field a competitive roster and will spare no expense to pull in top-shelf talent.
It has also left a handful of franchises reeling as they have watched their hometown heroes skip town when the opportunity presented itself. Historically these teams have, for a myriad of reasons, simply not been able to hold on to their talent.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at five NBA teams that will always be stepping stones for players on their way to major markets.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have not funneled a slew of talent to high-profile teams, but they were a part of the most famous defection in league history. When LeBron James opted to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat and a shot at a championship with friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it left a permanent black mark on the organization.
James spent the first seven seasons of his career from 2003 through 2010 with Cleveland. Though he brought the team to a Finals appearance; they never surrounded him with the kind of top-tier talent that a superstar in his prime deserves.
Cleveland also saw former All-Star Antawn Jamison, who was brought in to be LeBron’s foil, depart for a sixth-man role on the Los Angeles Lakers. Jamison took a significant pay cut, opting for just the veteran’s minimum, in order for an opportunity to win a championship.
Though the Cavs have a dedicated fanbase, the problem is that Cleveland has never been the most inhabitable NBA cities. The team has a history of failing to spend the necessary amounts of money to field a truly competitive roster and as a result has seriously struggled to keep players for the brunt of their careers.
Kyrie Irving’s free agency is not until summer of 2015, but the Cavaliers’ front office should be doing everything possible to ensure that their franchise point guard hangs around, because there is some historical precedent for him bolting for greener pastures.
The poor, poor Orlando Magic. First it was Shaquille O’Neal bolting for Los Angeles and just this past year Dwight Howard held the team hostage and ended up being sent to the Lakers for a thoroughly underwhelming package.
The team has watched two franchise-caliber centers walk away and leave the franchise absolutely reeling. O’Neal left in free agency, leaving the team with nothing for their troubles, while the trade they ultimately accepted for Howard was not the kind of haul expected for a player of his caliber, primarily consisting of young, underdeveloped pieces and Arron Afflalo.
Orlando reached the Finals with both Howard and O’Neal but was never capable of bringing home a championship while facing superior competition in the L.A. Lakers and Houston Rockets, respectively.
During the Howard era, the team handcuffed itself by signing players like Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu to lucrative contracts that ultimately proved to be cumbersome. This kept the team from building a perennial contender and once Howard began to yearn for a bigger spotlight, they had no way to appease him.
The Magic franchise suffers from the curse of many small-market teams in that in order to snag decent free agent talent they have to grossly overpay players. Giving role players long-term deals rarely works out well for the team and it usually leads to the kind of stagnation that makes star players discontent.
The Utah Jazz have had two recent high-profile free agent departures, with Carlos Boozer leaving the franchise in 2010 for a role with the Chicago Bulls and a dissatisfied Deron Williams ultimately being shipped to the New Jersey Nets due to his detrimental impact on the team’s culture and locker room.
Boozer left Utah to sign a long-term deal with Chicago, citing the team’s talent and the coaching of Tom Thibodeau in a 2010 interview with Jack Jensen of Dime Magazine as the reason for his decision. Though he has been much maligned during his stint with the Bulls, Boozer believed that joining a young, hungry Bulls team gave him a better opportunity to win a title than staying in Utah.
Williams clashed frequently with coach Jerry Sloan during his final year with the Jazz and clearly relished the opportunity to play in a major market, as he opted to stay with the Nets franchise once the team made the move to Brooklyn.
Utah also had another high-profile player opt to join a major market in recent history: Karl Malone. Malone spent his final season in the NBA with the Lakers, where he lost in the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons.
Seeking one final opportunity to cap his illustrious career with a ring, Malone knew his best opportunity was with a Los Angeles juggernaut that also boasted small-market transplants Shaq and Gary Payton.
The problem with Utah is that it is simply not a desirable place for NBA players to be. Salt Lake City is one of the tamer, restrained cities to have a professional basketball franchise and while the team’s fans clearly love their Jazz, it is not exactly a thriving city.
The Toronto Raptors franchise has rarely had good luck, never making it to the Eastern Conference Finals and winning the Atlantic Division just once, in 2007. Along the way the team has watched multiple franchise-level players leave the team because they felt they were languishing on a squad that would never truly be competitive.
Chris Bosh is the most recent Raptors defector as the All-Star big man spent seven solid seasons with Toronto and led them to two playoff berths before departing for Miami and the opportunity to be a part of an elite team in a city that truly loves basketball.
In 2004 Vince Carter, famously unhappy with the direction of the team, was dealt to New Jersey and admitted openly that he did not play as hard as he could have while with Toronto.
His third-cousin, Tracy McGrady also was exported from Toronto to a bigger market in a sign-and-trade deal. Granted Orlando has had its own issues holding onto star players, but it is certainly a more favorable environment for a professional basketball player due to its warm weather. McGrady is also a Florida native and wanted to play closer to home.
The main problem with playing for the Raptors is that the team has a relatively small number of devout fans. NBA basketball has never been much of a high profile sport and so most Canadians are simply ambivalent when it comes to the Raptors’ success and failure.
This has led management to stagnate and not try as hard as possible to field truly competitive teams, something that will eventually get a star player to flee the premises, no matter how much he is being paid.
The 2012-2013 Toronto Raptors have plenty of intriguing young talent and have the potential to be a very strong team one day if they can keep their nucleus together. However, history shows that that is a very big “if”.
The championship-contention era of the Phoenix Suns was a wildly entertaining period as the team ran a crisp, up-tempo offense centered around Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash that earned them plenty of regular-season wins and high playoff seeds. However, it never earned the team a trip to the Finals and ultimately both Nash and Stoudemire moved on to pursue new opportunities.
Stoudemire sought the spotlight of New York and the chance to lead his own team, albeit a rebuilding one. STAT became an instant icon in the city of New York after having one of the best seasons of his career and leading the Knicks back to relevancy in the Eastern Conference.
Nash hung around for one last year in Phoenix, making another push for the playoffs but once again falling short. This summer he left in a sign-and-trade to join the Los Angeles Lakers (are you seeing a theme here?) and try to earn the one thing that has eluded him during his Hall-of-Fame career: a championship ring.
Even Grant Hill left the team in the summer of 2012 to play for the Los Angeles Clippers after failing to make the postseason for two consecutive years with the Suns, and one could hardly blame him for not wishing to spend his last remaining productive years on a middle-of-the-pack ball club.
The problem for the Suns has been the baffling moves of their front office. The team did not make much of a push to sign a young, improving Joe Johnson when he was a free agent, which led to the shooting guard heading to Atlanta, traded Rajon Rondo after nabbing the Kentucky point guard at the tail end of the first round and using a high draft pick on perennial disappointment Robin Lopez, among other baffling gaffes.
Phoenix’s problem is that they have committed to a style of play which simply cannot earn them a championship. Under Mike D’Antoni and now under Alvin Gentry, the team looks to run on every opportunity and does not focus on playing any kind of aggressive, consistent defense.
Until the Suns can fix their culture and show that they have the coaching and front office necessary to build a true contender, players will always flock either to true championship caliber squads or for an opportunity to play in a huge market like New York or L.A.