The NBA is only as strong as its weakest teams, right?
(This article was originally published via HoopsAddict)
Cast your eyes back to 2012. Miami’s super-team of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had just won its first ring. The Knicks were a year into their Stoudemire/Anthony rebuild, the Brooklyn Nets decided Deron Williams was their $100 million point guard for the next five years, and Dwight Howard finally forced through his trade from the Orlando Magic to the LA Lakers.
Basically, then stars from Cleveland, Toronto, Denver, Utah & Orlando traded in small-market life for a shot in Miami, New York and Los Angeles, respectively.
The allure of a three-headed South Beach dragon that would win ‘multiple rings’, comprised of Wade, James and Bosh, simply meant there was nothing Cleveland or Toronto could do could to dissuade their two superstars for taking their talents to South Beach. Fair enough. After all, these guys won two rings and made four NBA Finals.
Anthony forced Denver’s hand by refusing to sign with any team not named the New York Knicks, who themselves also targeted Chris Paul and Deron Williams should they have failed to nab Anthony. But in the end, Anthony got his wishes and bolted for the bright lights in Times Square.
The transition from New Jersey to starry-eyed Brooklyn demanded a star lead their team. Enter Deron Williams for five years at $100 million.
While Howard, made public his desire to leave to everyone and their mum in the year or so before his trade. A shot at emulating Shaquille O’Neal, arguably one of the greatest free agent signings ever, alongside an in-his-prime Kobe Bryant? You’d be crazy to stay at a small-market team and turn any of that down, surely?
But what exactly is a ‘small market’ team?
The average overall value of an NBA team is $1.1 billion, which by the way, is the ‘biggest one-year gain since Forbes began valuing teams in the four major U.S sports leagues in 1998′. A small market team is usually defined by its population, TV revenue, and its fanbase.
A fairer luxury tax was negotiated as part of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which reduced the ability of teams like the Lakers, Boston & Dallas to outspending the competition. As such, teams that would previously go $20 million over the luxury tax and pay a $20 million penalty, would now have to fork over $45 million for the same crime, and with that, the NBA playing field has begun to level-out in favour of ‘smaller market’ teams.
As of 2015, the smallest-market teams according to Forbes were: Orlando (15th), Sacramento (16th), Utah (17th), Toronto (18th), Cleveland (19th), Denver (20th), Washington (21st), Indiana (22nd), Philadelphia (23rd), Memphis (24th), Detroit (25th), Minnesota (26th), Atlanta (27th), New Orleans (28th), Bobcats (29th), Bucks (30th).
Lets return to that 2012 flashback, and look at those ‘big market’ teams who nabbed all those superstar free agents.The last time one of the NBA Top 6 ‘Big Market’ teams reached the Conference Finals or won a ring was 2010, with the Celtics & Lakers, with the Lakers edging a close series, but this was before the luxury tax agreement reduced the disparity between the 1st and 30th most valuable NBA team.
In those four years since the 2011 lockout, today’s 22nd biggest team (Pacers) competed in two fiercely-fought Conference Finals, that dynasty-like team at 11th you might have heard of (San Antonio) have won a ring & the 13th biggest (Oklahoma) have reached the NBA Finals twice.
Heck, the 19th biggest team nearly won it all without two all-stars (Cleveland), while the 24th & 27th biggest team have made Conference Finals recently in Memphis & Atlanta respectively.
There’s something to alleviate the fears the cynical minds among us who believe teams must only be judged on trophies/major achievements.
The best part? The fun is only just beginning.
NBA’s official smallest market, the Milwaukee Bucks, had a rather pleasant off-season when Greg Monroe chose to become a Buck to the tune of $50 million over three-years, at the expense of the NBA’s first and second biggest market teams in the Lakers & Knicks.
Re-signing Khris Middleton for 5-years on a $70 million deal wasn’t bad business, either.
Monroe chose the team with the most ”immediate chance” of making the playoffs. Better yet, Monroe is the inside scoring big man the Bucks had been so void of recently, even if he can’t stretch the floor. His defensive deficiencies will be masked by John Henson and Middleton, and now, the Bucks rebuild has suddenly been elevated, albeit by a second-tier (for now) free agent.
Now, they look ready to reach the next stage of their rebuild, while the Lakers could only muster up Roy Hibbert, and the Knicks, had a good-but-not-great offseason splash when they signed Afflalo and Lopez.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Cleveland are definitely no stranger to good fortune in the NBA, boasting 3 #1 Draft picks in the last 5 years, and because there exists a town called Akron, in the state of Ohio, which happens to be LeBron James’ hometown. But, even still, Kevin Love still chose the Cavs over the Lakers, Shumpert re-upped on a four-year, $40 million deal, also shunning the Lakers. Tristan Thompson is due to resign for around $80 million, JR Smith should be back soon, and of course, King James extended his stay in Akron. They also signed Mo Williams and picked up Mozgov’s team option, an expensive but aggressive approach to bring a ring to Cleveland.
James turned town pretty much every team that could’ve accommodated him to return home. Why? Well, the answer isn’t just because the Cavaliers are James’ home-team, but additionally because he believes the 19th biggest team in the NBA is ready to win, and win soon if the 2015 Finals were anything to go by.
Oklahoma City Thunder (11th) re-signed Kanter (four yrs/$70m) to keep them as championship contenders, and to also, surround Durant with a talented roster to entice him to stay. The Spurs… well they’re just the Spurs aren’t they. David West on a veteran’s minimum deal (turning down $12m to earn $1.4m), Green at a much cheaper rate than your typical 3-and-D NBA player in today’s market (see Wesley Matthews – four yrs/$70m vs Green’s four yrs/$45m), Duncan back cheap and of course, LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Spurs have long been seen as a smaller market team, and they just so happen to have a coach in Greg Popovich, who since the 1997-98 season, has the highest win percentage at .702 (830-352), of any professional coach in any of America’s four major leagues.
Quite a return for one of the NBA’s ‘smaller’ teams.
Let’s dive lower down the list towards the five ‘smallest NBA markets’ in the NBA. The 26th biggest have three consecutive number one picks on their roster, and with that, a bright future (Minnesota), the 27th made the East Conference Finals (Atlanta), the 28th team (New Orleans) just re-signed arguably one of, if not, the very best young player in the whole of sport, Anthony Davis for five years/$145 million (the richest contract in NBA history, but also, a bargain), and the 30th team look a contender at least for the playoffs next year (Milwaukee).
Back at the top of the list you’ll find:
– The biggest market team – full scale rebuild (Lakers)
– The second biggest team – another season a million miles away from a deep play-off run (Knicks)
– The fourth biggest team – although they’re progressing handsomely, are still quite a while away from true championship contention (Boston)
– The sixth biggest team – have just bought out Deron Williams salary-zapping contract for around $27.5 million, even though he’s set to suit up for the Dallas Mavericks next year
For another year, no big name is coming to the Lakers, Knicks or Celtics, eroding their chances at signing guys like Kevin Durant and Al Horford next year, or other marquee free agents in 2016, which by the way is becoming a losers game; trying to prize top free agents away from their current teams.
Furthermore, the best NBA players nowadays don’t readily change teams with one signing of a contract. Besides Aldridge, no other major free agent swapped teams this summer. The Lakers last major free agent coup was Steve Nash, the Knicks have added few long-term top quality players to support Anthony, and the Nets and Celtics have both traded away their main players, in their own different ways.
Suddenly, the allure of Madison Square Garden is being sieved out, and replaced with a bold desire to win.
That purple and gold jersey and a spot next to the NBA’s best guard looks far less appealing to don considering Kobe Bryant is going to retire in the next few years, and the Lakers remaining rebuilding pieces are promising, but not yet proven in the NBA.
Don’t expect to see the Nets competing for a ring anytime soon, either.
The Celtics are a work-in-progress, and, while the Bulls and Clippers are potential contenders, neither are favourites to win a ring in 2016.
We are no longer in the age of big-market-dominance, but rather, an era of small-market-prowess. Free agents want to win. And with the salary cap boom set to kick in 2016, and 2017, ‘smaller market’ teams will have more leverage than ever.
This season, the salary cap lies at $63 million and $76 million for the luxury tax. By the 2017-18 season, teams could have a $108 million salary cap, with a whopping luxury tax threshold of $127 million.
With the average NBA team being worth $1.1 billion, expect few teams to lethargically attack free-agents, instead ruthlessly pursuing a variety of free agents they simply couldn’t afford to target before. Small teams will do it. Big teams will do it. All teams will do it.
The moral of the story here is – the era of ‘Big Market’ dominance is well and truly over, for now anyways. Sure, the Knicks and Lakers could rebuild well. Maybe one day the Nets will finally financially recover from their disastrous ‘Big 3′ of Williams, Garnett and Pierce. A healthy and MVP-calibre Rose throttles the Bulls into contention, and it’s safe to say the Boston Celtics will catapult themselves back into the hunt for an 18th ring in the coming years under Brad Stevens. But for now, the playing field is increasingly become even, for all teams.
The big market teams are having to pay catch up for making costly mistakes. Mistakes their big-market allure arguably got themselves into.
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