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How the Grizzlies, Nuggets, And Cavs are Spearheading a Resurgence of Small-Maket Teams in the NBA

(Market size rankings in this article come from

The year is 2008. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen just dropped a combined 52 points to defeat the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers in six games. Bryant ended his sole MVP campaign with a dreadful 7-22 shooting night and was forced to watch in disappointment as his rivals celebrated their first NBA title in over 20 seasons.

His disappointment wouldn’t last long.

The very next season, Bryant won his first NBA title without Shaq. Then, he did it again. And while that may have been the the last title of Kobe Bryant’s legendary career, he and the Celtics had unknowingly co-founded a 15 year run of dominance from the NBA’s big-market franchises, a run that extends all the way through last season, a season in which that one team in the Bay Area hoisted their fourth title in eight years.

From 2008 to 2022, 10 of the last 15 champions have come from a “big-market” franchise (top 10 in combined TV market/metro population). Two of the remaining five titles belong to the Miami Heat who, despite what the numbers might indicate, operate much more like the Knicks' of the world than the Pacers'.

That means that the other 20 teams have split three titles in 15 years. And this stretch is far from an anomaly. It’s the norm. The Spurs just put a little dent in it in the 2000s. Here are other notable stretches of dominance from big-market teams.

1980-1998: 16 of18 titles (The other two were both the Bad-Boy Pistons)

1960-1976: 17 of17 titles (Bill Russell might have had a… um… slight impact on these numbers.)

The point is, small market teams have never, in 76 years of NBA basketball, had an era of sustained success outside of the early 2000s (which was due to the presence of the once-in-a generation Spurs).

Until now. Maybe.

And that’s because some of these small-market teams have put together cores that are downright ridiculous. The Pelicans are 12-deep and have young talent rotting at the end of their bench that would be household names if they played with Lebron on the Lakers. With good health, the Ja-Morant led Grizzlies will be a legitimate contender for the next decade. Same with the Jokic-Murry-MPJ Nuggets. Not to mention the surprise team of the season, the Cavs, who might have the most terrifying 5-man unit in basketball right now. The Bucks, while not exactly young, will remain in contention for the duration of Giannis’ career. The Magic aren’t there yet but… man Banchero is good. The Thunder are simply waiting for their endless treasure chest of draft picks to lead to wins. The Jazz will be joining them this off-season. While you can’t predict the future, it’s also hard to see a world in which any of the nine teams I just mentioned are not near-elite teams in five years. five of them are now.

But let’s take a step back…. How did this happen? The simple answer is that most small-market teams came to a very important realization:

Championships aren’t built overnight.

Every team I just mentioned went through a small stretch of NBA hell before acquiring their rosters. But it’s more than just tanking. It’s drafting well and knowing when to cash in on your assets.

The most conventional example of this would be the Memphis Grizzlies. After enjoying a championshipless (but fun) era of “Grit-And-Grind” basketball, they sold the farm. In the 2018 season, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were the faces of Memphis, with Jaren Jackson Jr joining them as a rookie. By 2019, they were gone. Ja Morant was drafted and he assumed the face-of-the-franchise role. In 2020, the Grizzlies did what every successful small-market franchise does, and hit on a late draft pick with Desmond Bane, taking him with the last pick of the 2020 draft. All of the sudden, Memphis, statistically the smallest market in basketball, has a big three with championship aspirations.

But it doesn’t stop there. Assume you’re a small-market GM. If your team sucks, you don’t sell tickets. No one talks about you. You’re never televised. The Lakers make money because they’re the Lakers. The Grizzlies do not. And if you’ve ever played MyGM in NBA2K, you’re well aware that NBA owners don’t give a damn what your “plan” is if it results in them losing dollars. Remember Sam Hinkie? “The Process” worked (sort of) but he was unemployed by the time his vision was realized.

For these reasons, phase two is the most difficult phase for small-market teams to navigate. Because owners and fans alike are ready to win now but a win now move isn’t necessarily always the right call. Want an example? Look no further than the Timberwolves who, high off a 7th-seeded first round loss, went all-in on Rudy Gobert, giving up the following:

  • 2 unprotected 1st round draft picks

  • 2 protected 1st round draft picks

  • 1 first round pick swap

  • Walter Kessler

  • Jared Vanderbilt

  • Malik Beasley

  • Patrick Beverly

  • Leandro Bolmero

No wonder the Jazz are doing well this year. Minnesota sent them an entire roster, not to mention enough first round picks to put Sam Presti in a coma.

We’re only a couple weeks into the season but I think we can agree that this acquisition did not make the Timberwolves a contender to win this year’s title. And Gobert isn’t getting any younger. With this trade, the Minnesota Timberwolves just took their first glimmer of hope for the future in years and threw it away for about six extra wins this season (assuming they do, in fact, improve, which no longer appears to be a given).

But hey… more ticket sales right?

This is the prebuilding litmus test that teams like Memphis, Denver, and New Orleans passed with flying colors. Because instead of shooting for the stars as soon as they notice a glimmer of hope, they waited, realized what exactly they had with their respective talents, and surrounded them with complimentary talent. These are now legitimate teams who are built to win basketball games, and the growth of their young stars will only expedite their hopes at a title.

And speaking of team-building, that brings me to my final point. I believe that the main reason that small market teams are positioning themselves for a never-before-seen run is because… well… they’ve built legitimately scary rosters, not trios. Teams like the Lakers and Nets are quickly realizing that teams built around three $50 million dollar superstars (injury prone ones at that) are compromising any hope that they might have had of putting together a competent supporting cast. The NBA talent pool is richer than ever and every player wants their financial security. Bobby Portis isn’t cheap. Aaron Gordon is a $20 million per year guy now. The 2011 Miami Heat strategy of 3 Hall-Of-Famers and 12 minimum contracts just isn’t feasible anymore and it’s led to big-market franchises like the aforementioned Nets and Lakers, among others, with a cupboard once full of assets now barren. They are both headed towards NBA purgatory once their stars inevitably jump ship from the mess that they themselves helped create.

Culture and team-building matters. A lot. The NBA talent level is absolutely mind-boggling right now and as I mentioned earlier, championships simply aren’t built overnight anymore. This is especially true for small-market teams lacking the appropriate resources to buy a championship to begin with.

In a league where the little guys have been overlooked and stepped on for decades, finally, there is a blueprint for success, and more and more front offices are beginning to pick up on it. With a little bit of tanking, smart decision making, and patience, anyone can build a title contender. And all of the sudden, we as NBA fans are enjoying a league with more parity than ever. Half the league feels like they may be an upset or timely injury away from pouncing on their chance at history, and really the only losers here are the sports betters like myself who have no clue which "future" bets to place anymore.

So get ready. The NBA's worst nightmare is here. We may be headed towards some of the least sexy finals matchups of all time here in the next few years. Can you imagine a Cavs/Pelicans finals? Magic/Grizzlies? Adam Silver might retire on the spot. New Yorkers will chatter among themselves in barbershops calling it a "boring year of basketball."

But me? I can't wait.


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