Why the NBA Draft Is so Important to Small-Market Teams

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Why the NBA Draft Is so Important to Small-Market Teams
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All NBA draft war rooms are not created equal.

Some of them may be nonchalant. In the New York Knicks' case, they don't exist. Others, though, are undoubtedly inundated with urgency and stress and the nerve-racking realization that teams get only one chance to pick the right player.

Many of these hypothetical NBA think tanks will belong to early lottery teams desperate for a franchise-changer who makes straining through another year of losing worth it. 

Even more of these imagined brain trusts will be funded by small-market organizations that understand the importance of every draft pick and the pivotal role they play in pushing forward the only way these franchises realistically can.

 

Free-Agency Drawbacks

Darren Abate/Associated Press
What happened in Miami isn't happening in, say, Utah.

Certain teams elect to rebuild through free agency.

Cap space can be more important than draft picks or actual players. The Knicks are placing stock in 2015 free agency now. So are the Los Angeles Lakers. Roughly four years ago, the world watched as gobs of teams lined up to court LeBron James, hoping to stage free-agency coups and instantaneous rebuilds of their own.

These teams typically aren't from small markets. The word "never" might even apply here. 

Chasing star free agents isn't something they're interested in because it's something they're not equipped to do. Players don't flock to small markets. They flee from them. This is why so many teams tank: to put themselves in a position where free agency isn't paramount to survival.

"You need superstars to compete in this league, and the playing field for those guys is tilted toward a few big-market teams," an anonymous general manager told ESPN The Magazine's Jeff Goodman in October. "They are demanding trades and getting together and deciding where they want to go in free agency. It's tough for us to compete with that. So a high lottery pick is all we have."

Evidence to support this is everywhere. 

When LeBron James hit free agency in 2010, he was met by six teams—the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Bulls, New Jersey Nets, Miami Heat and Knicks. Notice anything? Pretty much all big markets.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
James, like so many other superstars before and after him, left a small market for a better situation.

Cleveland was James' incumbent team, and New Jersey was prepping its Brooklyn move. And what Miami lacked in size, it made up for in climate (and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh). We all know where he wound up. 

Before he even signed with Miami, James attempted to lure Bosh to Cleveland. The Cavs and Toronto Raptors had agreed upon a sign-and-trade. Bosh's approval was all they needed to move forward; he never gave it, because, as ESPN.com's Chris Broussard noted at the time, he was "cold to the idea" of playing in Cleveland.

One story after another has followed suit. Free agents and free-agents-to-be have forced themselves out of small markets and into bigger, flashier locales.

Carmelo Anthony pushed his way out of Denver and into New York. Chris Paul forced his way from New Orleans to Los Angeles (basically twice, mind you).

The Utah Jazz shipped Deron Williams to the Brooklyn-bound Nets before he even had the opportunity to spurn them in free agency. And Dwight Howard extravagantly orchestrated his move from Orlando to Los Angeles, then from Los Angeles to Houston.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
Melo and Paul used their leveraged as impending free agents to move on from smaller markets.

What's a small market to do as it watches superstars form an orderly queue in front of the league's biggest stages, their hands outstretched, hoping to secure stacks of cash from the Assocation's deepest wallets?

“With the rules set up the way they are, there’s minimal room for error,” said then-Memphis Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien last May, per NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. “You’ve got to be very thoughtful in your approach to how you build your team, how you build a roster, and you’ve got to keep the cap and the tax in mind.”

Draft picks are cheap talent teams don't have to compete for. Certain clubs tank for them, but there is no seducing involved. Teams select them and that's it.

Small-market rebuilds are generally done through the draft as a result. That's why you rarely see big markets topping the lottery boards.

For every Derrick Rose heading to Chicago or Blake Griffin heading to Los Angeles, there are a few more Anthony Davises to New Orleans, Kyrie Irvings and Jameses to Cleveland, Howards to Orlando, Boguts to Milwaukee, Odens to Portland and so on.

Pressing draft-night decisions are everywhere. They're just of more importance and usually come in higher volume when diminutive markets are on the clock. 

 

Combating Instability

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Putting a stop to big-market-seeking switches isn't possible. There is no magic bullet in the collective bargaining agreement, no panacea that forever ensures small-market limitations will ever be torpedoed.

There is only combating circumstances by prolonging what could be inevitable and starting over.

The Minnesota Timberwolves will soon know what we're talking about.

Kevin Love is on his way out of Minnesota one way or the other. Either he waits for free agency or the Timberwolves trade him. Whatever happens, he's gone. There's no turning back now.

Faced with the prospect of losing him for nothing, the Timberwolves should trade Love. If and when they do, they must seek draft picks over tangible talent in return, for reasons that SB Nation's Tom Ziller effectively broke down: 

Without Love, Minnesota would be among the NBA's worst squads. Trading him for a veteran player or two isn't actually going to solve the Wolves' long-term problems since you don't make a new version of the Melo trade and get Minnesota into the playoffs. The Timberwolves are too shallow. The only way to go if you're trading Love is to go for the full-blown rebuild. Again.

Veteran players have developed egos. They have a burning desire to win now. They hear the dreadfully discernible tick-tocking of their career clocks and are more likely to abscond from their new team if it's not an established winner.

Nameless, faceless draft picks pose no such problems.

Playing the draft market promotes stability, extending the life of benefits reaped from rebuilds. Freshly drafted rookies don't have leverage. They can be held under lock and key for three years before their next contract becomes an issue. 

And when they're up for that rookie extension, there's almost no chance they don't sign it. Three or four years deep into their career, restricted free agents aren't in position to decline massive, possibly max-extension paydays.

Take the curious case of Irving in Cleveland. In an interview with Cavs The Blog's Robert Attenweiler, ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst alleged that Irving hasn't wanted to be in Cleveland for "years." This may or may not be true. It doesn't matter.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Cavs hold most of the power even if Irving is unhappy. Move past having to house a disgruntled superstar, and they have all the power.

Players still on their rookie deals rarely leave because it's so hard. In Irving's case, he would have to reject whatever extension the Cavs are offering, play out next season, accept his 2015-16 qualifying offer and play through that year. Only then can he enter restricted free agency in summer 2016 and have complete control of his own destiny.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Minny has gotten six years out of Love before his departure became an issue.

Unhappy superstars working off rookie pacts are more likely to sign their extension than plod through two highly uncomfortable, conjecture-addled seasons. The best they can do is ink a shorter extension like Love and James did. Even then, they're in town for the long haul.

Minnesota has gotten six years from Love and can get seven if it pleases; James lasted seven years in Cleveland; Howard was in Orlando for eight; Melo stayed in Denver for seven-plus years; Paul remained in New Orleans for six; and Utah kept Williams for almost six. 

That's a long time, and while we cannot say all small-market clubs enter the draft for six- or seven-year rentals, that's basically what they're doing.

Relationships don't have to sour. Things can turn out just fine. There doesn't have to be any forced exits and severed ties.

But it's entirely possible.

Done right, though, it will be more than a half-decade before vulnerable markets have to find out.

 

When It Works, It Works

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Draft-reliant markets aren't all doom and gloom.

Attempting to matriculate and grow prospects from within isn't a sign of weakness. It's a matter of circumstance.

Executed properly, it's the first step toward a prosperous future.

Just ask the San Antonio Spurs.

San Antonio isn't an unattractive market. It's not Los Angeles. It's far from a post-apocolyptic wasteland, yet it's still not immune to these issues. Tim Duncan almost left to join the Magic in 2000.

The Spurs have created a culture and forged a dynasty mainly through the draft. Their core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan came from the draft. Kawhi Leonard basically came through there, too, since they traded George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for him on draft night. Tiago Splitter is a product of their draft emphasis.

It's not just them either. There are other teams.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder are all draft-night additions. As was James Harden. When they traded him for financial reasons, they netted two more first-rounders in return, one of which turned into Steven Adams.

Richard Rowe/Getty Images
Where would OKC be if it hadn't drafted Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka?

Paul George and Lance Stephenson were drafted by the Pacers. Damian Lillard was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers. The Pellies have Davis. The Cavs still have Irving. Plenty of small-market cores are built around draft picks—and selections acquired on draft night (Roy Hibbert, LaMarcus Aldridge, Leonard, etc.)—not headlined by superstar free agents and players poached from other teams.

Which markets have more riding on the NBA draft?

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Think about those squads in 2014. Think about them when you watch Milwaukee try to draft its next savior. When Orlando and Utah try to expedite ongoing rebuilds. 

When San Antonio and Oklahoma City try to deepen contending rotations with cheap, malleable talent rather than compete with the bank accounts and spendthrift tendencies of big-market franchises.

Think about all these teams, the ones that realize drafts are a lifeline for organizations trying to outsmart and outrun deeper pockets, brighter lights and superstar and financial precedents that don't offer small markets any free-agency safety nets.

 

*Salary information via ShamSports.


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