We’ve all heard the same tired cliche about winning in the NBA. Most of the stars flock to big markets in free agency, leaving the small market teams at a competitive disadvantage. The only way these small markets can compete, they say, is drafting incredibly well. You often hear people talk about “tanking” and “losing to win,” meaning these small market teams need to have several bad seasons to stay in the draft lottery and acquire affordable talent. You know, the “Thunder Model.” A lot of folks in Charlotte are hoping the “Thunder Model” works for our organization.
Like most cliches, the perceived competitive gap between the large market teams and small market teams is inaccurate. Of the four teams remaining in the conference finals, Miami plays in the country’s 17th largest T.V. market, followed by Indianapolis (26th), San Antonio (36th) and Memphis (49th). For reference, Charlotte is the 25th largest T.V. market. Now, I understand Miami is a sexier city than, say, Detroit, which is a larger market. Being a hot destination in free agency is more complicated than number of T.V. eyeballs, but as of now I don’t know of a way to quantify a market’s sex appeal. Even if you consider Miami a large market team because of those unquantifiable advantages, you have to concede that Indianapolis, San Antonio and Memphis are not prime free agent destinations.
So let’s take a look at how Miami, Indianapolis, San Antonio and Memphis put their contenders together. I’m listing every player who averaged more than 15 minutes per game over 50 or more games and calling them rotation guys. Then I’m categorizing each of those players as a draft pick, a free agent or a trade – depending on how they were acquired by their current organization.
LeBron James – Free Agency, via sign and trade
Dwyane Wade – 5th pick 2003
Chris Bosh – Free Agency, via sign and trade
Ray Allen – Free Agency
Shane Battier – Free Agency
Mike Miller – Free Agency
Udonis Haslem – Free Agency
Mario Chalmers – 34th pick 2008
Norris Cole – 28th pick 2011
None of their rotation players were added through trades, unless you consider LeBron and Bosh’s sign and trades, which don’t really count. So Miami largely fits the description of a contender put together through free agency.
Paul George – 10th pick 2010
George Hill – Trade
David West – Free Agency
Lance Stephenson – 40th pick 2010
Roy Hibbert – 17th pick 2008
Gerald Green – Free Agency
Tyler Hansbrough – 13th pick 2009
Ian Mahinmi – Trade
D.J. Augustin – Free Agency
This list doesn’t even include All-Star forward Danny Granger, the 17th pick in 2005, who hardly played this year due to injuries. Essentially, The Pacers signed one very good player to a smart contract in free agency (David West, 2 years $20 million), picked up one via trade (George Hill) and got a ton of value out of the middle of the draft – which isn’t easy. So the Pacers are three wins away from making the NBA Finals without bottoming out or signing a max player through free agency, remarkable.
Tony Parker – 28th pick 2001
Kawhi Leonard – 15th pick 2011
Tim Duncan – 1st pick 1997
Danny Green – Free Agency
Tiago Splitter – 28th pick 2007
Manu Ginobili – 57th pick 1999
Boris Diaw – Free Agency
Gary Neal – Free Agency
Stephen Jackson – Trade
The Spurs bottomed out once, in 1997, and drafted the best power forward ever. You can’t really call that smart management though because every GM in the league would have selected Duncan at #1. And they bottomed out by accident due to injuries to David Robinson and Sean Elliott. What they’ve done since then is beyond smart management – it’s genius. They’ve put together a perennial contender through a combination of non-lottery draft picks (Leonard, Parker, Ginobili, Splitter) and finding value in the free agency bargain bin (Green and Neal).
Marc Gasol – Trade
Mike Conley – 4th pick 2007
Zach Randolph – Trade
Tayshaun Prince – Trade
Tony Allen – Free Agency
Jerryd Bayless – Free Agency
Quincy Pondexter – Trade
Darrell Arthur – 27th pick 2008
Ed Davis – Trade
The Grizzlies bottomed out and blew it, really blew it. While Mike Conley was a nice pick in 2007, the following two drafts were a disaster for Memphis. In 2008 and 2009 they traded Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo and selected Hasheem Thabeet over James Harden and Stephen Curry, colossal eff-ups. Yet they’ve built a contender in a highly unorthodox way – by winning trades. Their only two free agent signings of note (Allen and Bayless) were affordable guys.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the role of coaching in building a contender. All four teams remaining have a head coach who’s in at least his third season leading the organization – Poppovich 17th, Hollins 5th, Spoelstra 5th and Vogel 3rd. Contrast that with the large market underachievers in New York and Los Angeles who raked in big name free agents and all have been eliminated from the playoffs – Del Negro 3rd, Woodson 2nd, D’Antoni 1st and Carlesimo 1st.
What It Means For Charlotte
There are no excuses for a small market team in the NBA, period. There also isn’t a blueprint for building a contender. Miami used free agency. Memphis won trades. San Antonio drafted insanely well. Indiana did a little bit of everything. Charlotte simply needs to be great at something – be it drafting, trading or luring free agents. Finding a good coach and letting him stay for a while might help, too.
~Lewis Woodard, WFNZ Sports Radio The Fan 610 AM
Find Lewis on Twitter @LewWoodard