In an op-ed for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti tempered expectations for fans in the NBA’s second-smallest media market after the departure of a third Most Valuable Player in seven years signaled the end of an extraordinary era, preparing them for the lengthy and difficult rebuild ahead.
Within this call for patience with a process that now includes 15 first-round picks in the next seven drafts, thanks in large part to the recent trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook, Presti shared a hard truth with Thunder rans in The Oklahoman:
“Given the way the league’s system is designed, small market teams operate with significant disadvantages. There is no reason to pretend otherwise. This in no way means we cannot be extraordinarily successful — we, and several other small to mid-market teams, are our own best examples of the ability to overcome these realities. It simply means we must be thinking differently, optimistically, finding our advantages by other means.”
There is little doubt that small-market teams are disadvantaged in the NBA. Just look to this summer, when six of the biggest names to change teams in a landscape-altering offseason landed in either Los Angeles, New York or Miami.
How much that has to do with the league’s system is open for debate. Several of those players spurned significant financial incentives to make those moves. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis all left tens of millions of guaranteed dollars on the table in recent years to leave the small-market teams that drafted them. If the NBA cannot financially incentivize players to remain with their incumbent teams, what other options are realistically at its disposal?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has elevated tampering and trade demands on its list of priorities for the league this summer, but any rule changes will do little to alter an underlying reality: If players would rather be elsewhere, it is in the best interest of both parties to heed their wishes, or risk infecting the team with their unhappiness.
The Thunder did well to facilitate George’s request, as the New Orleans Pelicans did with Davis, acquiring rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a host of picks with which they can hope to reconstruct the franchise. It is at least encouraging to see that such deals are trending toward something close to equal value in return, whereas in years past teams often got 50 cents on the dollar in blockbuster trades.
Many of the NBA’s recent small-market success stories can be traced through the draft. The San Antonio Spurs are this century’s model NBA franchise because they drafted Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. That the Spurs kept that core together for so long is a testament to their organizational strength.
It may also be an anomaly we do not see again for some time. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks tenure will be a litmus test for whether teams can still sell superstars on small-market culture over big-market allure.
There is an extraordinary amount of luck required to achieve success in small markets. The Cleveland Cavaliers benefited several fold because LeBron James grew up in Northeast Ohio and entered the draft in a year they held the No. 1 pick. That, combined with the good fortune of winning three more draft lotteries in the four years James spent in Miami, paved the way for his historic homecoming.
This is not a reliable team-building strategy, even if the Clippers just benefited from Leonard and George growing up in L.A. Based solely on statistical odds that areas of greater population will yield more high-end basketball talents, that too counts as an inherent advantage of big-market teams that cannot be collectively bargained.
Presti is right: Small markets must rely on working smarter, from drafting well to improving incrementally through a series of sound transactions and establishing a culture of success, however difficult it is given their fundamental disadvantages.
Even then, though, the odds are stacked against them. The Thunder selected future MVPs in three consecutive drafts and still failed to reach the mountaintop. Presti was not perfect in his efforts to build around them, nor should we expect him to be, but there is little doubt that his efforts were hindered by the constraints of operating in a small market — first financially, and later geographically. Not only is the margin for error thinner in small markets, but the window of opportunity is equally slim.
No amount of reconfiguring the league’s system will change the fact that some cities are more attractive than others, and any alterations to it will be designed to mitigate players’ unhappiness. This is the harshest of realities for the Thunder faithful, fans of small-market teams everywhere and the NBA as a whole. Let us all hope it does not result in a battle between big and small markets when those teams can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in December 2022.
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