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Ball Don't Lie

The Nuggets think small-market teams are better, misunderstand the advantage of big-market teams

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Danilo Gallinari guards Carmelo Anthony, fears skyscrapers (Jim McIsaac/ Getty).

Over the past few years, particularly when the lockout brought franchise finances to the forefront, there have been many debates over the size of the NBA's divide between small-market and big-market teams. It was the central cause of the lockout — even if owners ended up turning that ordeal into an attempt to extract profits from players — and it's as yet unclear if anything's really changed. Every time a superstar engineers a move to a major market, it certainly seems like it hasn't.

Nevertheless, many small-market teams rank among the best teams in the NBA — one need only look at the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs for proof. There are enough success stories, in fact, that some think small-market teams are better than their big-market counterparts. Just ask the Denver Nuggets. From Mark Kiszla for The Denver Post (via SLAM):

On a mission from the basketball gods, the Nuggets are bent on busting the myth that the NBA title can only be won in a big city of bright lights and single-name stars. "When was the last time New York won a championship?" said Denver point guard Ty Lawson, barely able to conceal a smirk. [...]

"We have an organization that has a nucleus we think is going to challenge the top echelon of teams," Karl said. "I would bet on a small market coming out the West. I'm sorry. I'll bet that. I know the Lakers are good and all that. But you have San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Denver, Memphis." Throughout the league, Karl added, "There are as many, or more, good small-market teams than there are big-market teams." [...]

"In football, any given team can win in any given year. In basketball, fans connect well with the dynasties. But you can always have those Detroit Pistons or San Antonio Spurs as an exception. Those hot spots like Miami? That's always part of a cycle. Miami is a hot spot now, but one day it will be Toronto or someplace else," said Andre Iguodala, who joined the Nuggets in trade from Philadelphia.

I don't fully understand the argument that Miami is a hot spot and not a budding dynasty, or even a budding major-market (given Florida's lack of income tax and Miami's reputation as a fun city), but these are secondary issues. It's also fine that consider themselves a championship contender even though they likely aren't — teams thrive on confidence, it's a new season, and Kiszla seems to have asked fairly leading questions about their ability to win it all despite not playing in New York or Los Angeles.

What I'm most interested in here is Karl's point that there are more good small-market teams than those in bigger cities. This is largely true. The Lakers and Heat are title contenders, with the Clippers, Celtics, Knicks, and Nets (now a big-market team, whether we want to admit it or not) standing as good teams who should figure in the middle seeds of their conferences' playoff brackets. The small markets fill just about every other playoff spot, from contenders like the Thunder to eighth-spot challengers like the Utah Jazz. That's a lot of good teams from outside of the obvious big-name cities, and in terms of raw numbers there are more of them.

But that comparison disregards the fact that every big market team figures to make the playoffs. If there are more good small-market teams, it's only because there are many more of them in the NBA. By percentages, big-market teams are much, much more likely to be successful. For the most part, that's because they have a much higher margin of error — while a team like the Knicks can woo enough stars to stay relevant even in the face of terrible management, a squad like the Indiana Pacers must do a lot correctly (and get very lucky in the draft) to finish third in the East.

College football writer Matt Hinton, one-time editor of Yahoo!'s Dr. Saturday blog, is fond of noting that, while All-American teams are largely made up of players with sub-elite recruiting profiles, blue-chip recruits are still much, much safer bets to become stars and therefore a useful indicator of which programs will succeed long-term. The same general point holds true for NBA market size. It's not enough to note which teams do best — serious analysis of the NBA financial landscape must also consider if that team has a structural advantage that caused its success. Proper management will always win out — again, it's not as if the Knicks punch a ticket to the Finals every year just because they're in New York — but it's a whole lot easier to contend if a team has an easier time getting stars.

That imbalance might not be the worst thing for the health of the NBA, but it's still an imbalance. Successful small-market teams are outliers, and we should acknowledge as much if we want to be serious about the future of the league.

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