This NBA offseason has brought tremendous change to the overall landscape of the league. After years of the Golden State Warriors’ presence looming over the sport, there is no clear favorite for next season’s championship. The Warriors lost Kevin Durant to Free Agency and Klay Thompson to injury, and many of their Western Conference foes reshaped their rosters specifically to dethrone Steph Curry and co.
In the East, the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors were spurned by Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, opening the door for other burgeoning teams to earn a trip to the Finals. After so many years of repetitive Finals matchups, its highly likely that neither conference will return the same representative as last season.
And yet, something feels uniquely familiar about this newly leveled NBA landscape. What, exactly? Think of the top duos that have been forged in the flames of this offseason. LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. Russell Westbrook and James Harden in Houston. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George… also in Los Angeles. What do these newly risen rosters all have in common? They are all in the top 10 television markets in the United States, and New York and Los Angeles are #1 and #2. Even if we take a step back to examine the teams who have re-tooled this summer, we see more evidence of large-market prevalence.
The Golden State Warriors added a slew of young talent to make up for the permanent loss of Durant and temporary loss of Thompson, most notably All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell. Though their dominance is nothing new, their new home of San Francisco attracts most of the same television viewers as their old one in Oakland, and when grouped in with San Jose they are the nation’s 8th largest market. Philadelphia comes in at #4, and the 76ers are poised to be one of the East’s premier teams after adding Al Horford and Josh Richardson. Boston is not only one of the nation’s most avid sports towns, but also the 9th largest market overall. Their hometown Celtics added Kemba Walker to make up for the loss of Irving, and are expected to contend as a top dog in the East.
Large-market dominance in the NBA has returned.
Now, this statement is not to be misinterpreted. I am not saying that a small-market team is incapable of success in the modern league, nor am I suggesting that there was ever a time in which small markets had the upper hand. However, the last decade or so has seen the rise of many teams who don’t necessarily sell out the arena night in and night out.
The most notable example of this is the perpetually elite San Antonio Spurs. Since 1999, the “other,” Texas franchise has claimed 5 NBA championships, and they haven’t missed the playoffs since 1997, when the first Harry Potter book was released and computers still used Internet Explorer 4.0. Arguably the most impressive part of the Spurs’ time at the top was, quite simply, their refusal to go away. In the early 2000s, it seemed like a sure thing that if Gregg Poppovich’s team wasn’t hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy one season, they were bound to do so the next. They had a 7-year gap between their 4th and 5th titles, and their 2014 iteration was arguably one of their most impressive.
The reason San Antonio stuck around for so long was because they didn’t have to face the problems of a typical dynasty. Cap space. Egos. Off-court distractions. These were foreign concepts for the silver and black, and they were able to avoid them so completely because their stars were willing to accept a lifestyle that came with a little less glitz and glamour.
Alongside the Spurs, several other small-market success stories began to crop up throughout the 2000s and 2010s. They may not have had the dynastic level of success San Antonio did, but they were inspiring nonetheless.
Cleveland, Oklahoma City and Memphis are not the sprawling meccas of civilization represented by many of their NBA counterparts. They’re sizeable cities, sure, but many areas with larger market caps don’t have a single professional sports team. Only Cleveland is a top 30 media market, and Memphis nearly ranks outside the top 50. Yet, despite being at an inherent disadvantage, each of their NBA organizations made their mark on the association.
Memphis was a perennial playoff contender, and even, in a tragic case of small-on-small crime, knocking off the top-seeded Spurs in the 2011 playoffs. Oklahoma City was once home to 3 future MVPs, and although they were capable of much more, they reached the Finals in 2012 and routinely visited the Western Conference Finals.
Cleveland is a more puzzling instance. Shortly after drafting LeBron James in 2003, the Cavs were Eastern conference powerhouses. Unfortunately, this elite status rested almost solely on the back of James, who drug them to the 2007 Finals where they were euthanized by San Antonio. Once their star left for Miami, Cleveland wallowed in the lottery like many of their small-market companions. Once James returned, the Cavaliers went on a tear through the East, making 4 straight Finals and claiming the 2016 championship. Afterall, they had lucked into 3 #1 overall picks during James’ absence, so they ought to have found him some help.
The one common denominator among these 3 small-market success stories is that their prevalence was not contingent on landing big Free Agents, or otherwise putting their fate in the hands of anyone but themselves. San Antonio, Memphis and OKC all drafted and developed their star players in house, betting on the quality of their organization as a selling point rather than their location. In certain cases, this approach works seamlessly. The Spurs and Grizzlies were slowed down only by the steady aging of their franchise players. However, Oklahoma City’s time in the limelight came to an end when Kevin Durant left for a bigger, more successful team, and the Cavaliers were sent spiraling when James realized you couldn’t build an entertainment empire in Northeast Ohio quite like you could in Southern California.
Each of these franchises, with the exception of San Antonio, has recently entered a period of rebuilding. The Spurs will likely be the only one to make the playoffs next season, as each of the other organizations has accepted that their time in the spotlight has come to a close for now.
Success is far less sustainable for teams in less glorious areas, as they often have to rely on landing their draft picks (and those draft picks wanting to stick around) in order to be competitive. The phrases “Come to our team so you can live in Memphis,” and “Come to our team so you can live in Los Angeles,” have slightly differing effects on desired free agents. For quite some time, that hadn’t seemed to matter too much. However, with the ludicrous events of this offseason, we have largely returned to the era of large-market dominance and small-market suffering.
Large-market NBA renaissance
To fully grasp the large-market renaissance this summer has brought on, we have to look at some of the more league-altering moves and determine what exactly caused them. Was the acquisition a direct consequence of a team’s larger media reach, or simply a matter of coincidence?
The first major domino to fall was the Lakers dealing for disgruntled Pelicans star Anthony Davis. The mucky details of the Davis-Lakers saga go all the way back to January, when Dell Demps and Magic Johnson were the main negotiators. There was trust broken, and some had doubts as to whether or not a deal would be able to get done after the catastrophic trade deadline mud-slinging contest.. After New Orleans landed the top selection in the NBA draft and Los Angeles missed the playoffs, both entered the offseason with a renewed desire to get a deal done. Eventually, both sides got what they wanted. The Pelicans received a bounty of young players and draft picks for their trouble, and the Lakers restored their illustrious reputation by adding another superstar.
Winning the AD sweepstakes was just that; an effort to restore the sublime brand of the Lakers. From the “Showtime,” teams of the 80s to the era of Kobe Bryant, the purple and gold has been equated with the NBA’s gold standard. With 16 championships to their name, it’s impossible to tell the league’s story without them. Their location only enhanced their legend, and it’s not unrealistic to say they may be the most esteemed franchise in professional sports.
However, since Bryant’s decline, the Lakers have fallen on hard times. Their last playoff appearance was in 2013, and front office drama combined with their pitiful performance has caused L.A. to become somewhat of a league laughingstock, a premise that would’ve been mocked had it been brought up just a decade ago. Being 7 miles from Hollywood allowed them to land James, but after a disappointing 2019 campaign, it was clear they needed a second star to take some of the pressure off his aging shoulders. Davis fit the mold, as he wanted the Lakers just as badly as they wanted him. They may not be next season’s consensus title favorites, but it’s safe to say the days of relentless scorn are over for one of basketball’s most storied franchises.
Davis ending up in Los Angeles centered around a variety of factors, but 2 of the most prominent were the location and James, who wouldn’t have been there if not for the location. Although other franchises may not have the unattainable reputation the Lakers do, the remainder of the big-city teams that made waves this summer did so while taking advantage of their hometown and other unique factors. These organizations may be starting with a leg up, but we have to give them credit for not solely relying on their city to draw star Free Agents. (cough cough, New York Knicks, cough cough).
The largest of bombs dropped in the bomb-fest that was the first 24 hours of Free Agency was that the Brooklyn Nets had landed 2 of the market’s most highly coveted Free Agents, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The league rumor mill had been swirling for months around the assumption that the duo would be joining the bigger, more dysfunctional New York team, the Knicks. It was supposed to be a summer of rebirth for the NBA’s most valuable franchise, much like it had been for the cross-country Lakers. Unfortunately, the Nets’ quality as a franchise prevailed, and the Knicks were left wondering how their local rivals stole the superstar duo from under their feet.
Irving joining Brooklyn seemed like a foregone conclusion the closer June 30th got. All signs pointed to a Kyrie-Nets union, including his signing with RocNation Sports, which was founded by Nets superfan Jay Z. However, Durant’s decision seemed more up in the air. In the end, it seemed his friendship with Irving was the deciding factor in his choice, as some reports say he didn’t even speak with Nets General Manager Sean Marks before announcing his decision. The move is a risky one for Brooklyn, given Irving’s reputation as a negative locker room presence and Durant’s torn Achilles, but it could be one that delivers them an NBA championship. At the end of the day, that’s the mountaintop everyone in the league is aiming toward.
Finally, the Clippers and Rockets improved their title aspirations by putting an end to the contending days of one of basketball’s most successful small-market teams: the Thunder. In one of the most landscape-altering moves in sports history, the Clippers managed to nab Paul George from the Thunder and sign Kawhi Leonard all in one fell swoop.
For years, the Clippers have been “the other L.A. team.” Despite the Clips being objectively better for the past couple seasons, the history and glamor surrounding the LakeShow has always left their Staples Center counterpart on the outside looking in regarding of media attention and fan affection. When given the chance to procure 2 of the most dominant 2-way players in the league in one night, they seized it. Their new duo, coupled with their elite supporting cast and coaching, has resulted in the Clippers catapulting from the 8th seed in the Western Conference to next season’s title favorites.
Leonard and George both grew up in Southern California, but neither seemed to favor the Lakers. Leonard, famously quiet and self-contained, was never built for the relentless attention surrounding the 16-time champs. George, a product of nearby Fresno State, spurned the Lakers just a year ago in order to sign a long-term deal with Oklahoma City. In the end, the Clippers did take advantage of their location in order to obtain their shiny new superstars, but it wasn’t their only card to play. As perennial underdogs, they make the pair feel like franchise-changers instead of just another piece of the tapestry. More importantly though, they represent a first-class organization without the immense pressure of a Laker uniform, and that was what most enticed the 2 home-grown stars.
Finally, after Los Angeles and New York were given new life, Houston decided to join in on the large-market resurgence. With George gone, it signaled a rebuilding period for OKC, and the next logical step was to part ways with former MVP Russell Westbrook. The Miami Heat were long rumored to be Westbrook’s destination, but in a surprise twist, Houston shipped Chris Paul and several first round picks to the Thunder for the 30-year old triple-double machine. He isn’t a perfect fit with James Harden, but it’s safe to assume the Rockets will be better off with Westbrook than Paul for the upcoming season. The concept of 2 large-market teams ripping both franchise cornerstones away from a small-market team in a matter of days is peculiar one, but it seems oddly at home given the rest of the summer’s events.
When looking at the remainder of the top 10 media markets, all but 2 of the combined 12 teams (multiple in New York and L.A), have a favorable outlook on the future. The Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks all have their own collection of young talent that could make them championship contenders in the seasons to come. Their rosters were built solely through the draft and each have the potential to break through in the upcoming season. The lone head-scratchers are the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks. The Wizards are coming to terms with the fact that their once elite nucleus of John Wall and Bradley Beal is no longer fit to compete, and the Knicks have made grave mistakes in their personnel hiring. They have also relied far too much on their status as the “basketball mecca,” to lure Free Agents. Both are entering rebuilding stages, but it’s safe to say that despite their inherent advantage, neither are in an enviable position at this point in time.
The age of the internet and social media prevalence has brought on an entirely new meaning to the term professional athlete. In decades past, most stars simply practiced, showed up to games, and when they could, spent time at home with their family like any regular individual. Maybe they signed a sneaker deal if they were lucky, or even appeared on a Wheaties box. However, with all the opportunities presented by the world wide web, both monetarily and otherwise, it’s sensible for athletes to try to build a brand for themselves. Players in large markets are objectively more marketable than small market ones. With more eyes on you, brands are more likely to take you on as a client, and your Twitter and Instagram followers will likely be higher, regardless of how well you play.
This has brought on an entirely new set of benefits for playing in a larger media market. James may very well be the athlete with the most diverse entertainment portfolio, and the desire to grow it was most likely the driving force in his decision to sign with the Lakers last summer. In the modern era, players have an understandable desire to be more than just athletes. They can use their influence to spread positive messages, speak up for what they believe in, and gain endorsements to supplement their league salary. Whether we like it or not, the microphones are simply bigger in New York than they are in Oklahoma City, and that will continue to impact offseason moves for years to come.
The major players in this NBA offseason have received major praise for “resetting the league landscape.” After years of 2 or 3 teams having a shot at the championship, everything feels wide open. However, for as much parity that was restored, just as much power was taken away from the league’s small-market organizations.
Excluding the Toronto Raptors (since they aren’t an American market), and the ever-elite Spurs, the NBA champion that resided outside of the top 20 U.S. media markets was the 1977 Portland Trailblazers. 42 years ago. This gives credence to the notion that there was never a time when small markets were on equal footing with the big guys. To a degree, this is true. At the end of the discussion, it’s more difficult for teams in smaller cities to compete for and win championships. That has always been the case, and not just in basketball. However, over the last decade or two, through teams like the Thunder, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, and many others, these automatic underdogs seemed to have a chance. It seemed that there was a legitimate possibility that franchises residing in rinky-dink regions could attract elite talent, and use that talent to end the reign of large market supremacy.
Given the seismic events of this offseason, it appears those days are over.