NBA's Big-Market Teams Do Not Have as Big an Advantage as People Think

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
NBA's Big-Market Teams Do Not Have as Big an Advantage as People Think
Nick Laham/Getty Images

In the current economic crisis, the wealthy are the targets of many people's vitriol. Regardless of one's political views, those with power are not viewed favorably (the left blames the banks and large corporations, while the right blames the government).

The Occupy Wall Street protests have demonstrated that there is a considerable amount of anger towards financial institutions and publicly traded companies.

In the NBA, similar battle lines have been drawn between the haves and have-nots. It would seem that this divide should be even more relevant in the NBA. Unlike the real world where the total amount of wealth can be expanded, basketball is a zero-sum game (for one team to win, one team must lose).

However, the notion that the rich, big-market teams are destined for domination is completely false. Competitive balance issues in the league are not a product of some teams being situated in bigger cities or having higher pay roles.

Even casual basketball fans know that the NBA is a star-driven league. Of the four major American sports, a top-level talent can affect the fortune of his team the most in basketball. With very few exceptions (the 2004 Detroit Pistons for example), winning the Finals requires having a top-10 player on the roster.

Because of this, there will never be true competitive balance in the NBA...not in the "half the league has a chance to win it all every season" sense like the NFL has. This is not because some teams can outspend the competition, but because superstars are a rare commodity.

Recently, the argument of those pushing for more competitive balance is that the superstars are forcing their ways to big-market teams and need to be stopped. The NBA blocked the Hornets (who are owned by the league) from trading Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers.

While New Orleans turned a player who was about to go out the door into a nice set of pieces (Lamar Odom and then Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and a first-round pick from the Rockets), the league couldn't stomach facilitating a top-10 player landing in a big market.

The hyper-focus on the big market vs. small market issue started with "The Decision." Three superstars exercised their free agency to join forces. Although it was an unprecedented display of power over management, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh did not choose to play in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.

They chose Miami. According to Wikipedia's list of largest American metropolitan areas, Miami is the eighth largest metropolitan area in the States. Considering the New York metropolitan area has two teams and Los Angeles has two teams, the Heat are 10th in terms of market size in the NBA.

(Toronto is barely smaller than Miami, and since Canada's latest census was in 2006 as opposed to the 2010 census used to measure the American cities, Toronto might be a bigger market now.)

Miami isn't really a big market. If market size was what was so important, LeBron, Wade, and Bosh would be playing somewhere else. The Knicks' lust for LeBron was well known before he chose South Beach.

The reality is that superstars are individuals. They all prioritize different things when looking where to play. Some value playing alongside friends in a city with countless entertainment options like Miami's Big Three.

Others value loyalty and being in a position to win, like Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan. And yes, some do value the allure of the biggest cities, like A'mare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. The point is that everyone is different.

This is not to say that the big-market franchises do not have an advantage. Certainly being able to spend more money helps, but one only need to look at the Knicks when run by Isaiah Thomas to know that it does not guarantee success.

Championships are determined by good ownership, intelligent front offices and quite a bit of luck. Those three factors are infinitely more important than market size will ever be.

The successful big-market teams are well run franchises. There are two teams in Los Angeles. The Lakers have competed year after year. The Clippers were the laughingstock of the league until the arrival of Blake Griffin (they still missed the playoffs last year).

While the Lakers have benefited from free agents like Shaq wanting to play in L.A., they were still built from the ground up. The traded for Kobe Bryant on draft day. It turned out to be a smart trade, but the Lakers were also lucky. Bryant had not played a game above the high school level when they acquired him.

Did they have good talent evaluation? Absolutely. Could they have possibly known Kobe would reach his potential? Of course not.

Chicago is the third biggest market, but the Bulls were nothing special after Michael Jordan left. There recent rise to legitimacy is not the result of free agents choosing the United Center (if Carlos Boozer cannot turn it around, they may have been hurt by free agency).

The Bulls are contenders now because they built through the draft. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are homegrown.

Likewise, the Oklahoma City Thunder, are threatening to replace the Spurs as the model small-market franchise. Sam Presti has shown that he is a great general manager. Still, the Thunder would not have made the Western Conference Finals last year if the Portland Trail Blazers had selected Kevin Durant with the first pick in the 2007 draft instead of Greg Oden.

Getting a high draft pick in a strong draft year is the biggest key to landing a superstar. In the 2003 draft, Miami landed Dwyane Wade with the fifth pick. In 2004, the fifth pick was Devin Harris. In 2002, Nikoloz Tskitishvili went in the same spot.

Teams lucky enough to land a transcendent player via the draft must then be smart enough to build a winning team around them. Cleveland never was able to find a strong sidekick for LeBron like Oklahoma City has found in Russell Westbrook for Durant.

The Hornets never fielded a first-class team around Chris Paul. Orlando was never able to pair a dominant wing player with Dwight Howard. Can these guys really be blamed for wanting out?

The big markets do have their advantages, but they are not nearly as a great as some commentators or small-market owners make them seem.

The truth is, there will only be a few elite teams. Not because there only a few attractive markets, but because there are only so many superstars and brilliant general managers to go around.

Load More Stories

Follow B/R on Facebook

NBA

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.