Around the NBA: Winning in a Small Market - 03/10/11

March 10, 2011
Nick Matkovich


Small Markets
Organizations in the Midwest like the Bucks, Cavs, Timberwolves and Pacers want to embody
their town's image as a blue-collared, shot-and-a-beer city teeming with pride.

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  • Critics of the NBA cook up the same bland, uninspired grievances about the supposed shortcomings of the association. "The players don't care," "No one plays defense," and "The whole group of `em are thugs," lack all the panache and biting creativity typical of a Bon Jovi title track.

    The complaints aren't much more than just that, complaints. They hold no water, lack conviction. Said dissenters struggle because the league has not been this popular since the Jordan Era.

    Yet for all the bluster of the critiques, one has festered as of late that I find myself struggling with.

    This topic first came to light when LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland for Miami. The trade of Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, based on his refusal to sign a contract extension anywhere except for New York was a reemergence of sorts for this conversation.

    Small market teams, hard as they may try, just can't compete with the Los Angeles' and Chicago's of the world when it comes to signing a free agent, a big name free agent.

    The "woe is us" bile spewed from the small market protectors who enjoy grieving in public is a nauseating, head-aching cry for help that would cause most of us to roll up our windows and count the seconds until the traffic light changes green. Though irritating and desperate as these claims come off, no secret elixir exists to simply force the Clevelands of the world to spend judiciously and inspire the big name superstars to sign as a free agent.

    The problem exists that all superstar athletes, including NBA Superstars, are conditioned to the praise and unwavering attention heaped upon them. This idol worship directed towards the league's elite has become a daily rite like new shoes and sponsorship deals, the groundwork which was laid since their AAU days. The spotlight becomes a life source for most of them. The large markets of Miami and New York pull on their mesh shorts with an influential grasp.

    Said superstar wants to win, but they want to do it on the main stage as the center of attention, a definitive product of superstardom, one that in James' case grew in Akron only to balloon in Cleveland. Cleveland would never be the final destination for someone who was told at an early age that they would be bigger than the game, someone who had the billion-dollar aspirations as an athlete, entertainer and product endorser. That can't happen in Cleveland. So the superstar leaves.

    Now, any small market team doesn't want to be known as a sad sack franchise that can't regroup for the loss of their superstar especially since the crying and ranting from losing a superstar is childish after a brief time. These organizations, particularly ones in the Midwest like the Bucks, Cavs, Timberwolves and Pacers want to embody their town's image as a blue-collared, shot-and-a-beer city teeming with pride. You don't want to be desperate in your angst over losing the superstar, but how does a team like the Cavs regroup?

    Those with little regard for the small markets make the presenting case of exhibits A&B in the forms of Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant as evidence to the contrary that small market teams can't compete consistently.

    In these instances, the superstar opted to stay in the small market. Their respective general managers built a competent roster around the superstars with both bit players and all stars.

    This seems like a novel idea, so long as you have the good fortune of the number one overall pick and/or the `Blazers are the only team drafting ahead of you, but for the majority of the small markets, a total team concept, along with utilizing draft picks and executing trades carries more weight.

    Team concept is not to be confused with team chemistry. Team chemistry presupposes that the entire team must get along, eat together, and join in revelry similar to an Elks Club after every game, win or lose.

    My template for the team concept comes from the assemblage of pieces Joe Dumars used to construct a Pistons team that made six consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Yes I'm aware this was an extremely rare circumstance in the grand scheme of NBA history, but the collection of the under-valued (Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton) and cast-offs (Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace) formed a group of Hank Kingsley's that didn't need a Larry Sanders (not the VCU variety) to make the show go. The veteran group had players of definitive skill sets, ones who knew what they did well and what they could not afford to do on the court. It's important to be Daryl Morey and Dr. Melfi. Having players work within the construct of a team while understanding their limits as a player is vital to a group that won't land a big name free agent. A different Piston beat you each time, whether it was Billups at the end of a game or Hamilton running through an obstacle course of screens.

    This was a collection of stars, not superstars. No one player was bigger than the team. The Pistons had a sustained run of excellence because they infused their bench with their own draft picks as players like Jason Maxiell and Tayshaun Prince became a bigger part of the team's success.

    Other examples exist as the Spurs drafted Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, and George Hill and took a limited risk on signing Gary Neal this season. The Bucks' success in the early 00's was centered on Glenn Robinson (drafted), Ray Allen (draft-day trade) and Sam Cassell (trade). The Pacers teams of the mid 90's were a compilation of draft picks (Reggie Miller, Rik Smits and the Davis forwards) and trades (Marc Jackson and Chris Mullin) that led to sustained success. Other examples exist, but these were the ones highlighted by an extended stay of dominance.

    Now if it appears that old-school NBA business presides over small market organizations with success, you're right. Free agency for these organizations is a tool to assemble complementary players around the core the team has either drafted or traded for. Winning in the smaller NBA does not involve out-wooing teams, but out-drafting them and making calculated trades.

    Of course, you could hope for the `Blazers to be on the clock one spot in front of your team.