Small Market Teams Find Success in the NBA

Posted: 05/16/2013 by levcohen in Basketball

Four of the eight teams in the Conference Semifinals were from Indianapolis, San Antonio, Memphis, or Oklahoma City. Those are four of the seven smallest market teams in the NBA. There was one team from New York, one from Chicago, one from Miami, and one from the Bay Area. But the smaller market teams seem to be exceedingly successful, and more so than in other sports, like baseball, where teams from big markets dominate. In fact, both teams from Los Angeles, the second biggest market in the NBA, lost to small market teams in the first round (the Lakers to the Spurs, and the Clippers to the Grizzlies), and the New York Knicks look primed to do the same, as they are down three games to one to the Pacers. With the Grizzlies into the Conference Finals and the Spurs and Pacers primed to follow, it looks like three of the four teams in the Conference Finals will be from the seven smallest markets. That’s incredible. And I don’t want to tribute it to the NBA, because, while they don’t admit it, the NBA tries as hard as possible to give New York, LA, Chicago, and other big market teams advantages. While there is a salary cap, teams can freely go into the luxury tax, and teams from bigger markets have the means to pay off the luxury tax (either with massive TV deals or insanely high ticket prices). Teams from smaller markets don’t have that same luxury (pun intended).

How Can Small Market Teams Stay Afloat?

1. Trade stars with inflated contracts. The key example of this comes from Memphis, a team that has turned into quite the model of a small city team. The Grizzlies were nearing the luxury tax and had to get under it, so they traded away leading scorer Rudy Gay. It turned out that it was a very smart decision, both financially and in terms of the actual basketball team.

2. Draft Well. Every small team has to draft well in order to succeed. It’s a fact. The Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Pacers all have key players that they drafted and stuck with. For the Grizzlies, that player is Mike Conley, the point guard who has exploded in the playoffs. For the Thunder, it’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the best one-two punch in the NBA. For the Spurs it’s basically all of their key contributors. The Pacers best player, Paul George, was drafted by Indiana. As was their injured star, Danny Granger. The Blazers and Hornets, who have exciting futures, are based around players they drafted. Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, etc.

3. Get as much as they can from devoted communities: The Spurs, Grizzlies, and Thunder in particular have communities that run as the team runs. That’s why the Spurs and Thunder have the 12th and 16th ranked payrolls, respectively. They can’t shell out large amounts of cash, but they aren’t exactly cheap. That’s because the fans give as much as they can, something that can’t be said in places like New York and LA.

4. Large home court advantage: The core four of small market teams went 131-33 at home. They went 92-71 (the Pacers only played 40 road games due to a Boston cancellation) on the road. That’s a difference of 38.5 games, or between nine and ten for each team. It’s a huge advantage, and one that is a necessity. Another small market team, Utah, finished four games above .500, and that was only because they went 30-11 at home. If the Dallas Mavericks, a big market team, had earned that home record, they would have had the 6th seed in the West. With their less impressive home record of 24-17, they were stuck in 10th place. That’s a substantial difference.

This post is more about congratulating the core four for their success than it is about congratulating the NBA for increased parity. While the NBA might point to these four teams as proof of parity, it just isn’t true. Only two of the top 12 teams in terms of city urban area size missed the playoffs. They were both largely because of injury. Of the bottom eighteen teams, only six made the playoffs. Those six? The four mentioned above, the Nuggets (a team that went 38-3 at home), and, randomly, the Bucks, who don’t really follow any of the four key things mentioned above and went 38-44 but still made the playoffs in a dreadful Eastern Conference.  A small market team is hugely disadvantaged, but these four (and to a lesser extent, the Nuggets, who play in a slightly larger Denver market) have thumbed their noses at that disadvantage and are now four of the greatest teams in the NBA. If only some larger market teams could run that way (I’m looking at you, Sixers).

  1. philabundant says:

    It might also have to do with smaller team size and smaller number of players on the court…you don’t need to draft too many impact players to build a strong core.

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