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Shaun Powell

The Thunder may be a small market, but they've built a legit contender through the draft.
The Thunder may be a small market, but they've built a legit contender through the draft.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Blueprint for small-market success starts with a good draft

Posted Dec 5 2011 5:05PM

He stood about as tall as his teammates' kneecaps, and he sometimes needed to reach up in order to tip a ballboy. Muggsy Bogues was 5-foot-3, a curse for someone in his chosen profession, but he never looked at it that way.

"I just have to work harder," he explained, which he why he had a longer career than anyone ever imagined.

That's probably a good bit of advice for the small markets in today's NBA. In order to stand out, chase championships and thrive on the bottom line, they must work harder than the large markets. It's really the only way they can overcome the so-called curse of being Portland, or Indiana, or Milwaukee.

The big myth is those markets are hopelessly doomed, because all three of those teams were winners once, good enough to either reach the conference semifinals or the NBA Finals. Same for Phoenix and Sacramento and New Orleans and just about every member of this population-challenged club. They all have built-in disadvantages but there's no need to adopt a defeatists' attitude.

Here's what the small markets must do to pull a Muggsy:

Draft well. If these teams are indeed going through tough times, that must mean they're in position to build well through the draft, still the No. 1 way to construct a winner. Oklahoma City is a prime example. The Thunder grabbed Kevin Durant and then Russell Westbrook for a potent 1-2 punch. Then they added James Harden. In short time, the Thunder formed a foundation. Now they're in position to shake up the Western Conference.

Too many small market teams whine about their existence without explaining why they're stuck at the bottom. Being small has no impact on drafting well. In the last six years, the Timberwolves had seven of the top seven picks and only Kevin Love (obtained in a draft-day trade for O.J. Mayo) made the All-Star Game. That's a poor percentage and the main reason the Wolves struggle for 25 wins a season.

Obviously the Spurs were blessed to be in position to draft David Robinson and then Tim Duncan, but those big men could've been resigned to a Chris Paul fate in San Antonio if not for the shrewd drafting that followed. The Spurs kept Duncan happy by surrounding him with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and with a few other decisions. Which leads to ...

Sign the right free agents. No question, a number of the small market teams either don't have the financial flex to arm-wrestle the Knicks, or they'd rather not. Plus, most A-list free agents want to work and play in nicer cities. If you were in your early 20s, wouldn't you rather be on the beach or in Midtown Manhattan?

That doesn't mean the small markets are completely shut out of the free agent chase. Sometimes, the free agent market is about collecting complementary pieces, the kind every team needs to win championships. Although it cost them a nice penny, Utah grabbed a good one in Wesley Matthews. He's the type who can be a difference-maker, provided his team has everything else in place.

Teams that draft well will make themselves attractive to free agents. How many players would want to play alongside Durant? And not all free agents want the big city headache. Sure, it's another sport, but Reggie White, maybe the biggest NFL free agent of all time, signed with the Packers. Sometimes, being small-market can help.

If the money's available for free agents and the franchise reeks of quality from the coach to the front office, small markets are not shut out. Not everyone can play in New York and Boston and L.A. Anyway, if L.A. is such an attractive destination, why aren't free agents rushing to sign with the Clippers?

Extend the right players. Michael Redd was a solid shooter before his knees stopped cooperating, but was he really a max contract player? The Bucks thought so. In hindsight, he wasn't, even with healthy knees. And Redd wasn't even the biggest bad-contract player in recent Bucks history. Tim Thomas, anyone?

Small markets must really think twice before locking up their players to long and pricey deals. Durant was a no-brainer for the Thunder because he not only brings people to the arena, he's good enough to make his team a contender, the two criteria for giving anyone a max contract. Redd, however, was neither box-office or a franchise player, and even if he signed with the Cavaliers (who wanted him at the time), so be it. Go find someone else, rather than overpay and kill your salary cap flexibility. And speaking of which ...

Manage your cap wisely. Micky Arison and Pat Riley played the cap game better than anyone in recent history when they cleared enough room for LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Yes, they did have the additional bargaining chip in Dwyane Wade, but he was an example of smart (if not lucky) drafting. So Miami did well on two fronts to make the Heat attractive enough for LeBron and Bosh to leave their teams and take less money.

The lesson: Keep your salary mistakes small. A team such as Phoenix can't afford to dig itself out of bad contracts, and yet that's exactly what the Suns are doing right now, after shelling out $80 million for Hedu Turkoglu (since traded), Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick. Imagine if that money was better spent. Would Steve Nash's twilight be wasted as it is now? Besides, in the 1980s and '90s, Phoenix was the choice destination for many players, attracted by the sunshine and Jerry Colangelo's deft hand at running the show. Now, Phoenix is struggling for wins and money. Has any franchise fallen harder?

Make the right trades. Orlando and New Orleans could be on the verge of losing Dwight Howard and Chris Paul to free agency next summer. The wrong move for those franchises is to pull a Cleveland and sit tight until then. The Magic and Hornets need to be proactive and force the issue while they still have some leverage and control. They need to take notes from the Nuggets (who traded Carmelo Anthony) and deal those players, pronto, if they can't secure a long-term commitment from them. The fans will understand, and yes, the process will feel like a sucker-punch. But it's better than the alternative of losing a franchise player and getting nothing in return. And then costing yourself dearly the following season and maybe the next one as well because of your inactivity.

In some respects, there are obvious advantages enjoyed by the larger markets. But in the end, there is no big market/small market. There are good teams and bad teams.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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