Paul George requested and received a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the L.A. Clippers. The Thunder followed that by trading Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets.
The unprecedented star teardown stoked the flames of the ever-burning market-size debate.
How can small-market teams like Oklahoma City compete if stars won’t stay or become unaffordable?
Thunder general manager Presti in The Oklahoman:
Despite our city’s rapid rise and growth, Oklahoma City remains the second-smallest market in the NBA. While this brings many benefits, it also poses strategic challenges. 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.
This caused some snickering, because the Thunder could have stayed in a larger market – Seattle. Nobody forced the SuperSonics to relocate. It’s a funny aside, but it’s still just an aside. Presti didn’t move the franchise. To his main point:
OF COURSE small-market teams operate with significant disadvantages. It’s a wonder that statement is at all controversial. Nobody can make NBA players prefer Oklahoma City to Los Angeles. With free agency, players will gravitate toward certain places when given the option.
But Presti isn’t dwelling on that. He’s acknowledging the reality the Thunder face. They must build differently than teams in destination markets should. It’s an important realization.
Oklahoma City’s disadvantage does not mean elimination. Small-market teams are not hopeless.
The last five teams to win a championship:
How many of those are big-market teams?
Cleveland and San Antonio meet everyone’s definition of a small market. With the other three, it’s tricky.
Despite its actual size, Toronto has always been considered a small NBA market. Canada brings complications – for players and TV ratings.
The Warriors ranked near the bottom of Forbes franchise valuations for years and years while making the playoffs only once between 1995 and 2012. Nobody was calling Golden State a sleeping giant.
When the Heat formed, they faced questions about their viability in Miami. It was unclear whether the city would support and NBA team.
But now, the Warriors are universally feared as a big-market team. Miami is considered a premier market. Even the Raptors – who get the big-city perks of Toronto and the support of an entire country – have people coming around to the idea they have a significant market.
Because those teams won.
The Knicks and Lakers will always be big-market teams. The Pelicans and Thunder will always be small-market teams.
But there are plenty of teams that can get labeled either way.
Often, it depends how they’re performing on the floor. When they’re winning, they tend to get grouped with big-market teams. When they’re losing, they tend to get grouped with small-market teams.
People didn’t quite know how to sort the Clippers and Nets, who play second fiddle in their cities. When those teams struggled, they often get dumped into the NBA’s lower class. But now that both has emerged as the league’s freshest powers, the Clippers and Nets are absolutely treated as big-market teams.
The wide disparity between large-market and small-market teams becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when it’s based on the success they’ve already experienced.
So, Presti is correct in his diagnosis and prescription. The Thunder face a disadvantage and must account for it when building their team.
But nobody should give up on them. They just had one of the best-ever runs by a team that didn’t win a championship. With all the assets acquired for George and Westbrook, Oklahoma City could rebuild again.
Playing in a small market doesn’t doom a team. Likewise, playing in a large market doesn’t guarantee success.
It’s just one factor – of many – that influences the final outcome.