Small Market Success: How It’s Done


Jan 21, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) at the FedEx Forum. Indiana defeated Memphis 82-81. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

We constantly hear about small-market teams this, big-market teams that, inherent advantages, unfair, etc. But really, what does it all mean?

If you fire up the ol’ browser and research city populations, you might be stunned to discover that “small-market” San Antonio is actually the 7th largest city in the US, and ritzy, glitzy, celebrity-filled Miami is the 44th largest city in the US. Hmmmmm…

As with many things, this seemingly straightforward analysis is ineffective. What makes more sense is to consider a city’s total metro-area population. Basically, this population count includes surrounding suburbs and smaller cities near the main city. I grew up in Tigard, Oregon, which is a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Yet, when I talk with people from out of the state (or country), to keep things easy, I just tell them I’m from Portland. After all, the Trail Blazers are still my team – I don’t refuse to support them because I’m not technically from Portland, that’s just silly.

So it would be just as silly to look only at a large city’s base population as its “market”. Growing up, my family was definitely part of the Trail Blazers “market” – we went to games all the time and caught all the ones we could on TV. To ascertain the true size of an NBA team’s market, the entire metro-area has to be considered.

By this metric, Miami shoots all the way up to the eighth largest market in the country (thus reducing Heat owner Mickey Arison’s protests that the Heat are a small-market team to utter balderdash), and, for example, San Antonio drops to 25th in the country, validating the small-market claims. Portland is right ahead of San Antonio, at 24th.

It is not these teams I am interested in for this article, though, it is two teams that were/are among the last four standing this season – the Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers.[1] Indianapolis is the 33rd largest market in the country, and Memphis is ranked a staggering 41st in the country (only New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City [the Jazz]) rank lower.

If you are from Portland, you know the feeling of despair well – every time a big-name free agent is on the market, our name gets mentioned as a possible destination approximately…. 0% of the time. People forget, but Portland was well within their cap space to sign LeBron James during his infamous period of free agency. I wish it were different, but did anyone really think LeBron had a chance to end up in Portland? Sadly, no. (Sidenote: I am very much aware of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge’s stated intentions to recruit, and as I have said before, I genuinely wish they can help change the trend).

It’s only logical – if you’re young, rich, and famous, Portland really can’t compete with Los Angeles, New York or Miami.

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed us all, time for the good news: judging only by this market size / desirability metric, Indianapolis and Memphis are well, WELL behind Portland, and look at their success this season. Personally, I would enjoy seeing Timmy and LeBron duking it out for the final, but I was / am still ecstatic over the Grizzlies’ and Pacers’ achievements. They genuinely gave me hope. I was becoming a little too cynical (never a good thing for a sports fan), thinking that the deck is too stacked against small market teams. How could poor, small Portland ever truly compete?

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Do large market teams have inherent advantages? Yes, and to deny that is just nonsensical. Those advantages exist. But does this mean that Portland’s ceiling is middling seasons and early playoff exits? Not by a long shot. Success can be found, and the Grizzlies and Pacers are living proof.

That’s not to say it will be easy – Kobe Bryant won’t demand to be traded to your team (as in the Lakers’ case), LeBron James won’t voluntarily decide to join your squad (like with the Heat) and Shaq won’t voluntarily sign with you either (the Lakers again – funny how that works). It takes shrewdness, patience and excellent front office decisions, but it can be done.

The following tables compile each team’s key players, and how the team acquired them (The players are ranked according to the number of minutes they have played this postseason. Looking at the top seven pretty much covers each team’s main rotation):


PlayerMethod Acquired
Paul GeorgeDraft
Roy HibbertDraft
David WestFree Agency
George HillTrade
Lance StephensonDraft
D.J. AugustinFree Agency
Tyler HansbroughDraft


PlayerMethod Acquired
Marc GasolTrade
Mike ConleyDraft
Zach RandolphTrade
Tayshaun PrinceTrade
Tony AllenFree Agency
Quincy PondexterTrade
Jerryd BaylessFree Agency

Things to note: out of the teams’ combined 14 main rotation players, only FOUR were acquired via free agency. If you look at only the starting lineups, only TWO out of ten starters were acquired in free agency. The media likes to make a far bigger deal out of free agency than it should, but if your team is not a popping free agent destination, it can be worked around.

Jan 21, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward David West (21) shoots over Memphis Grizzlies forward Darrell Arthur (00) at the FedEx Forum. Indiana defeated Memphis 82-81. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

However, the caveat to this is that neither team would be here without David West or Tony Allen, the two starters who were acquired in free agency. The teams made smart decisions with them, and inked them to reasonable (if not even undervalued) contracts: Allen for three years / $9.7 million and West for two years / $20 million. Free agency still matters, but landing big name superstars via free agency is not a requirement for success. Smart, conservative signings combined with smart drafting and astute trades are most important for team building.

Aside from the lack of big name free agents, the next major point I want to address is that both teams got where they are with stifling defense. I have a theory on this: fans/the media/the market/everyone else overvalues offense (this is a sore point for me). For whatever reason, people just get starry eyed when looking at a player’s points per game. It makes no sense. Defense is half the game, but it is often ignored.

Yet, we live in a world where Allen Iverson gets an MVP (perhaps the biggest sham in the history of the award), Stephon Marbury earns a max contract, and Ben Gordon gets a $55 million deal. Many thought that Kobe should be in the MVP discussion this year (I love the man, but calling his defense this season atrocious is too nice). Even LeBron gets more love for his highlight reel dunks than his other-worldly defense. I could go on.

The entire structure of the league overvalues offense, which is thus overpaid. This is where savvy teams recognize the market inefficiencies, and realize that defense is the way to go. Additionally, the big name free agents who are available are usually famous for their scoring ability. For small market teams like the Blazers, the Grizzlies, and the Pacers, it is looking more and more, at least to me, like elite defense is the way to make a deep push into the postseason, especially without a superstar.

On some nights, shots just might not fall. We’ve all played in pickup games where that happens. Well, it can happen to pros too. You know what will never falter? A well-oiled, elite defensive system. It will always be there for you, and I think this is the biggest reason why both the Grizzlies and Pacers have had huge success this year even with middling offenses (17th and 20th ranked offensive ratings).

There are lessons to be learned here, and Portland has to take note. The NBA is not just a league where you can go on your own merry way and find success. There are 29 other teams navigating the same cutthroat business as you are, and that just means that there are 29 free lessons to observe.

Just because Portland is a small-market team does not mean that it cannot succeed. The blueprints are right in front of us this very postseason, and should both give hope to fans, and rudimentary maps for success to the front office. Prosperity can be found no matter what the team’s situation.


[1] I love the Spurs, and they may very well have the best front office in the league, but they do not belong in this discussion. They jumped two spots in the lottery to nab Duncan (the best player of his generation) with the number 1 pick in the 1997 Draft (21% chance). They would not have had this success without Duncan. For example, this season, he was the All-NBA First Team “big,” yet he agreed to play for the 27th highest salary among bigs, behind such basketball specimens such as Javale McGee, Mehmet Okur, Andrew Bynum, Amar’e Stoudemire, and ex-Mr. Kardashian himself, Kris Humphries. He had the 6th highest PER in the ENTIRE league, and 2nd among bigs, yet the 58th highest salary in the league. This is not normal, and in fact was sheer luck on the Spurs’ part.

There is also rampant speculation (more like just common sense) that Duncan’s presence allowed the Spurs to ink many contracts below market value, particularly among their core. For example, during Manu Ginobili’s most productive season 2007-2008, he was the second best shooting guard ranked by PER, yet earned the 14th highest salary among shooting guards. During Tony Parker’s most productive season, 2008-2009, he was the second best point guard judged by PER, yet he was only the 6th highest paid point guard. (In the above examples, neither player was still on his rookie contract.)