By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — New York … who needs you?
Los Angeles … maybe next time.
Chicago and Houston … not since Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, respectively.
The NBA playoffs thrive no matter which cities are represented. But with this year’s final four, we’re going to have something of a small-market extravaganza come Finals time.
With San Antonio up 2-0 on the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers tied at 1 heading into this weekend’s Game 3 matchups, the only thing we know for sure is that the 2014 NBA champion will hail from outside of Nielsen’s Top 10 media markets. (The Heat rank highest of the remaining teams at 16th, while Indianapolis comes in at 26th, San Antonio 36th and Oklahoma City 41st.)
The biggest headlines off the court are being generated by the teams ranking at the top of the Nielsen list. Phil Jackson and the Knicks are still looking for a coach in New York, the No. 1 media market. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are doing the same in Los Angeles (No. 2). And that’s not to mention the Clippers and the Donald Sterling affair, which has engulfed Dallas (No. 5) Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as well.
On the court, however, the small(er) markets continue to dominate the landscape, to the delight of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who touted the game’s “renaissance” in all places, big, small and in between, before Tuesday’s NBA Draft lottery. The three best regular-season records in the league this season belonged to the Spurs (62 wins), Thunder (59) and Pacers (56).
The Heat, winners of 54 games during the regular season, have won the last two Larry O’Brien trophies and are attempting to complete a coveted three-peat. They beat the Spurs in The Finals last season and the Thunder the year before that. The Pacers, who fell to the Heat in seven games in the 2013 East finals, are looking to crash that three-team party this season and plant their own flag in this small-market surge.
If that’s not medium-to-small-market domination, someone needs to tell the rest of us what is.
Small-market freedom fighters would point to the current collective bargaining agreement (more restrictive salary cap rules, expanded revenue sharing and perhaps, most importantly, shorter player contracts) and how it has leveled the playing field for this resurgence in flyover country.
But the tide has clearly turned from this notion that superstars need big cities to cash in on their championship dreams. We know better. You don’t hear TNT’s Charles Barkley advocating that LeBron James go to a market bigger than Miami’s. He’s talking about how he’d love to see him go back to Cleveland (Nielsen’s No. 19 market).
That doesn’t mean the big markets don’t still hold sway. The biggest names still love the biggest stages, for all of the obvious reasons (bigger really is better when you’re talking off-the-court opportunities).
The number of superstars who have moved from smaller markets to bigger markets in recent seasons has been steady. James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010. Since then, Carmelo Anthony was traded from Denver to New York, Utah traded Deron Williams to New Jersey (which became Brooklyn), Chris Paul was dealt from New Orleans to the L.A. Clippers, Dwight Howard went from Orlando to the L.A. Lakers to Houston and James Harden was traded from Oklahoma City to Houston. Next in line? Perhaps it is Minnesota’s Kevin Love, who could be in the midst of orchestrating his own departure to a situation more to his liking on one of the coasts (Los Angeles and Golden State or New York and Boston).
But for every one of these departures, there seems to be a star willing to go against that grain. The Spurs have their unique trio of stars — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — who all have had chances to bolt for a bigger market. They chose to stick around and chase titles together in San Antonio, where reigning NBA Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich and reigning NBA Executive of the Year R.C. Buford have been schooling their big-market counterparts for years.
The Thunder have their own trifecta of young, homegrown stars — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — who. under the guidance of Thunder GM Sam Presti (he cut his franchise-building teeth in San Antonio), are poised to create a similar environment in Oklahoma City. They’ve already been to The Finals once (2012) and with the reigning MVP (Durant) and a top-10 talent (Westbrook) alongside him, have all the star power any team could need.
The Pacers, with Hall of Famer Larry Bird pulling the strings, built a potential powerhouse organically, too. Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert form the core of a team that has made back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals, passing up their big-market Central Division rivals (Chicago) for that spot opposite the Heat at the top of the standings.
The Heat are stuck in the middle of this entire equation, from a market size standpoint as well as the theory on how to make this championship mix happen. Hall of Famer Pat Riley was the architect who leveraged South Florida’s considerable resources to lure James and Chris Bosh to take less money to play alongside Dwyane Wade in what was, at the time, a groundbreaking way to build a team.
Duplicating this smaller-market success involves as much luck as it does planning and high-level leadership. The Thunder, for example, could have been without Westbrook this year after a couple knee surgeries, but he recovered much more quickly than many anticipated. Not so with another lightning quick guard, former MVP Derrick Rose, whose injury problems have put him out of two straight seasons in big-market Chicago.
Whether this small-market renaissance is good for the league, its TV ratings and overall health is another story. But it’s great for fans of the league, or fans who may not have ties to any one team. And it’s especially great in places like San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Indianapolis, where teams are proving that size doesn’t keep a team from being one of the NBA’s big boys.