Youth and the Nation: Small Markets and their Assault on the NBA Record Books

Updated: Feb 9, 2020

This is for everyone around the planet/that wishes they were from somewhere other than where they standin'/don't take it for granted, instead take a look around/quit complaining and build something on that ground/plant something on that ground, dance and sleep on that ground/get on your hands and knees and watch the ants walk around that ground/make a family, make magic, make a mess/take the stress, fuel your motivation, and build your nest - Slug (of Atmosphere), "Shhh"

A few years ago, I wanted to write about a businessman's move from Oklahoma City to San Francisco. The company he was leaving had just finished the year behind of his new company and although this businessman had spent his whole career at one company, he felt he was better suited to leave his friends and have a fresh start. If you're a basketball fan, you know I'm talking about Kevin Durant, a player who left the Thunder to join the Warriors and as a result, was able to start his own production house with a show on ESPN+, win two championships and build his brand through the endorsements living in such a demanding market offers. My point was to show sports is a business and players have to do what's best for them, regardless of loyalty.

I still believe that, but after my own perspectives changing, I realized I had the wrong point of view. In high school sports, players represent their neighborhood or their town. In college sports, players represent their state, but to lesser of an extent due to recruiting. And in pro sports, players represent...what? Their city? Sometimes, in the cases of Lebron James, Lonzo Ball and Derrick Rose (none of whom play for their hometown anymore). But usually they represent the organization. They represent a general manager from Massachusetts and a coach from Indiana drafting a player from California to a pro club based in Texas. That's not bad. It just is.

But after my last article, I tried an experiment on NBA 2K19. I added all six of the teams to MyLeague and started the expansion draft with one simple rule: only free agents were allowed in the draft pool. I'll explain. Most of the time, when a league expands, every other team can choose to protect certain players and the rest will be put in a pool for the expansion team to pick from. We saw this most recently with the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights. They made a motley crew of misfits who embraced their identity and became a powerhouse. But by leaving only free agents unprotected, a few interesting things happened: firstly, some of the game's biggest superstars were now left open to play as part of an expansion team, giving these new clubs an immediate face to the franchise and an established star. Secondly, it gave these stars a free choice. No longer can they be vilified as a snake or sell-out, they never had the choice to begin with. With this in mind, I ran the draft and some of the NBA's biggest stars found themselves in new homes: Lebron James in Las Vegas, Paul George in Louisville, Deandre Jordan in Vancouver, Kevin Durant in Seattle, Nikola Jokic and Brandon Ingram in Montreal, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony in Virginia Beach. But of all those players, only one signed their new contract with a new team. Lebron left Las Vegas to play for the Lakers, which ironically leads to my next point.

I got in an argument a while ago with this guy who thought the Lakers were bad for the NBA since they have all the best talent. After doing some research, I found that most of the Lakers' biggest moves to get the stars they had were trades or draft picks. Wilt Chamberlain? Trade. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Trade. Magic Johnson? Draft. Kobe Bryant? A two-for-one here with a draft day trade. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom? Trades. Anthony Davis? Trades. When you look back at the major moves that have made the Lakers champions, the only two that brought stars to Los Angeles via free agency were Shaquille O'Neal and Lebron James. And if we're being technical, Lebron hasn't won a title yet, although this might be his year.

Thinking about the Lakers' trade success and the (simulated) retention of NBA 2K19's expansion teams didn't make me realize that smaller markets have a fighting chance thru the max contract or by draft acumen, I've been using the success of the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic as arguments against the idea that big-market teams have an unfair advantage for a long time. But it did make me realize that small market teams can weaponize that advantage for themselves by trading away their superstars for pieces, essentially creating a sum vs. whole argument.

When Wilt was traded to the Lakers, he was the MVP traded for Darrall Imhoff, Jerry Chambers and Archie Clark. When Kareem was traded to the Lakers, it was for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, and rookies Dave Meyers and Junior Bridgeman. Kobe's draft rights were traded for Vlade Divac. Pau Gasol was traded for Javaris Crittendon, Aaron McKie, Marc Gasol's draft rights, and draft picks that later turned into OJ Mayo and Xavier Henry (quick aside: the Grizzlies could've had a team of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Kevin Love and Lance Stephenson or Landry Fields in 2010, but hindsight is 20/20). Lamar Odom was traded for Shaquille O'Neal, Caron Butler and Brian Grant. I listed all those deals to say it took almost fifty years for a team trading their star to win a championship. The Lakers sold penny stocks at dollar prices for a half-century and only the Heat won a title, although Memphis got close.

I think that might be changing, however. Big-market teams have gotten greedier for stars and are willing to pay more in players and in prospects to do it. We saw a proto-version of in Houston, when Sixth Man Of The Year James Harden was traded to Houston for prospects. I call this a "proto" because Oklahoma City wanted to keep Harden, but couldn't come to terms on a deal and Harden hadn't developed into the star he is yet. But this offseason, we saw two trades that could change the NBA. Oklahoma City traded star forward Paul George for point guard prospect Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and FIVE first-round draft picks, as well as sneaky star Danilo Gallinari. New Orleans traded star forward Anthony Davis for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks. With New Orleans having G League Executive of the Year Trajan Langdon and Oklahoma City having wizard Sam Presti at their respective helms, I think we're on the cusp of a new era of basketball business. In return for one player, New Orleans now has one of the most exciting line-ups in the NBA, especially when chosen one Zion Williamson returns. And Oklahoma City has so many options, it's difficult to count. We could be looking at the next Warriors-style youth movement in OKC.

I think this is the wave of the future. There's rumors reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo may be leaving Milwaukee in 2021. Why not trade him to New York for say, Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox and four first-rounders if you can? This may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, especially with the history of the NBA. Small-market teams have thrived on their scouting and coaching, and trading these stars for instant, immediate rebuilds seems like a strategy that may work. If New Orleans can make it into the playoffs once they get healthy, we could be looking at a scary team rather than a scary player, with the average age of the team being just over 25 years old by the time the playoffs start in April. We've already seen a line-up similar to this once with the Oklahoma City Thunder back in 2010 with the ascendant Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden on similar rookie deals. The Thunder had James Harden for only three years before a trade, but with the Lebron James experiment failing the way it did, maybe New Orleans can pitch their future stars on hometown loyalty and a sense of stability to save a bit of money on their contracts. The contracts should expire either the year before or the year of the expiry of the NBA collective bargaining agreement, which may see a rise in the salary cap.

The argument to balance big market cities makes less sense every year, especially with the NBA's parity having a chance to showcase itself the way it does. Over half the league makes the playoffs after an 82-game season, with the playoffs themselves being a seven-game series over four rounds. The best teams usually make the Finals and since NBA expansion, those teams are coming from increasingly smaller markets. Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, only fifteen franchises have won a championship. Those teams are the Portland Trail Blazers once, the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) once, the Seattle SuperSonics once, the Los Angeles Lakers eleven times, the Boston Celtics four times, the Philadelphia 76ers once, the Detroit Pistons three times, the Chicago Bulls six times, the Houston Rockets twice, the San Antonio Spurs four times, the Dallas Mavericks once, the Miami Heat twice, the Golden State Warriors four times, the Cleveland Cavaliers once and the Toronto Raptors once.

Of those fifteen teams, their market sizes as of Nielsen's 2018-19 rankings are #22 (Portland), #6 (Washington DC), #13 (Seattle), #2 (Los Angeles), #9 (Boston), #4 (Philadelphia), #14 (Detroit), #3 (Chicago), #7 (Houston), #31 (San Antonio), #5 (Dallas), #16 (Miami), #8 (Bay Area), #19 (Cleveland) and #1 (Toronto). Going back ten years to the 2009-2010 season, only Los Angeles has been in the top ten of American market size. Quick asterisk: Toronto is throwing this off a bit, because of their status as the biggest market in Canada as well as the only market outside of the United States. But whether or not you take them into account, the average market size ranking of the NBA champions hovers from 10 to 11. The tenth and eleventh largest markets in the United States are Atlanta and Tampa, but we need to expand those parameters since Tampa doesn't have an NBA team. If we include the ninth and twelfth largest markets in America, we have Boston, Atlanta and Phoenix. Boston and Phoenix are sitting with winning records as of this writing and what Atlanta is (severely) lacking in wins, they're making up for in Trae Young.

All this to say, the edge has been increasingly given to smaller markets and the three smallest markets in the NBA: Memphis, Oklahoma City and New Orleans have the tools to make big moves in the NBA landscape. If youth movements in smaller cities are the wave of the future, the future is now.

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