When the Miami Heat added both LeBron James and Chris Bosh, setting up a top-heavy roster that won the 2011-12 title, it sent a message to the rest of the NBA:
Big-market teams buy talent. Small-market teams grow talent. The divergence has never been stronger in a league that invented the salary cap and recently increased its revenue-sharing. Hard as the NBA has tried to preserve parity, it's difficult to look at the Lakers and Knicks, vs. the Bobcats and Kings, and not see different species.
The Lakers, arguably favorites to win the title this season, have a core of six players with nine or more seasons of experience. Only one of them -- Kobe Bryant -- started with the Lakers. The Knicks have a core of four players, all with nine or more seasons of experience, and none of them started out with New York.
Compare that to the Charlotte Bobcats and Sacramento Kings, definitive small-market teams: Each franchise is building around four lottery picks with three or fewer NBA seasons of experience. In Charlotte, it's figuring out whether Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker are worth big second-contract investments. For the Kings, it's the same with Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins.
No matter what the NBA does collectively to encourage competitive balance, the divergence between big market and small market is inevitable. The Lakers recently signed a TV deal that, by itself, dwarfs total revenue for perhaps half the league's teams. That makes it easy to justify paying luxury tax, no matter how onerous those tax penalties appear.
Commissioner David Stern doesn't want to preside over a league that mimics baseball, where there's a huge gap between the Yankees and the Pirates. But the differences team-to-team in NBA revenue means the league's smaller markets must be more patient and better drafters. The big-market teams can afford to buy talent and trend older with their rosters, because a Jason Kidd or an Antawn Jamison will always sign on at the tail end of his career to chase a title.
That's what makes Oklahoma City such an impressive small-market franchise. The team has drafted well, traded wisely, and built a roster that beats the system. But that requires the acumen and luck to draft Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and that isn't going to happen frequently.
FIVE FACES IN NEW PLACES
Dwight Howard with the Lakers: Howard was determined to escape Orlando without losing his Larry Bird rights (which allow him to sign for the most money), hence the four-team trade between the Magic, Lakers, 76ers and Nuggets. Bryant has made it clear the Lakers are still his team, so Howard needs to fit in, rebounding and blocking shots. Howard is used to being stroked, so it will be interesting to gauge whether he's willing to defer to a veteran-rich group.
Joe Johnson with the Brooklyn Nets: The contract Johnson got from the Atlanta Hawks made him overpaid, but that seemingly isn't an issue with the Nets, where every starter makes eight figures annually. Johnson has never dominated the ball, and that's a good thing on a team where everyone else must defer to scoring point guard Deron Williams.
Steve Nash with the Lakers: A former two-time league MVP, Nash is used to being the best player wherever he has played. This will be different, as the point guard playing alongside Bryant, Howard and Pau Gasol. But Nash has never appeared to have a big ego and the only thing his career resume lacks is a championship. He'll adapt, finding scoring opportunities for teammates and hitting big shots. He might be the league's most under-rated jump-shooter.
Chris Kaman with the Dallas Mavericks: The Mavs have traditionally skewed toward defense with their centers (Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood) as a complement to scoring power forward Dirk Nowitzki. Kaman is a multi-faceted scorer, but he'll need to hug the low post in Dallas, with Nowitzki more of a high-post jump shooter.
Andre Iguodala with the Denver Nuggets: He's past the point where he's a franchise-type player, but he's still being paid like one. Iguodala now affects the game primarily as a defender, and the Nuggets need that. He's also a great teammate, subjugating himself for the greater good, and Denver coach George Karl values those guys.
FIVE ROOKIES OF IMPACT
Anthony Davis with the New Orleans Hornets: Blocking shots was his calling card at Kentucky, but he's a whole lot more. He played guard until experiencing a sudden 7-inch growth spurt in high school. That means he handles, passes and makes jump shots with a skill not typically associated with big men.
Damian Lillard with the Portland Trail Blazers: A scoring point guard from Weber State, Lillard blew up the Las Vegas Summer League. That's not always a sure indicator of success, but Lillard will define hard to guard. He has everything an elite point needs: a speedy handle, an eye for creative passes and a reliable scoring touch.
Bradley Beal with the Washington Wizards: If you were teaching your kid how to shoot, you'd simply say, "Watch Beal." He has a smooth, mechanically-ideal stroke, which means he'll make big shots when tightly guarded and off the dribble. He's also mature in a way that belies him being a rookie.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the Charlotte Bobcats: He'll have immediate impact as a takeaway defender, and the Bobcats (last in the NBA in scoring last season) sure need the easy transition baskets resulting from those steals. The question is how well he'll fix a flawed jump shot.
Harrison Barnes with the Golden State Warriors: He fell short of all that was expected of him at North Carolina as the country's top recruit. But he's still an elite jump-shooter, playing with a low-post scorer (David Lee) and a point guard with a wide skill set (Stephen Curry). He's well situated for success.
THE VAN GUNDY AWARDS
This will be just the second season since 1996 that neither Jeff Van Gundy, nor brother Stan, will be working referees along an NBA sideline. Who picks up the slack, "helping" officials be their best?
Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics: Maybe the most articulate coach in the league, Rivers uses an entirely different set of words when complaining about calls.
Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs: Pop seems permanently exasperated and indignant, so complaining comes naturally.
Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder: Maybe the NBA's most animated game coach. How many Red Bulls does it take to get that wound up?
Scott Skiles of the Milwaukee Bucks: He has a perma-scowl that shouts "I'm only happy when I'm unhappy." The Bucks give him plenty of reasons to worry.
Avery Johnson of the Brooklyn Nets: Not quite as excitable as Brooks, but no one sprints from scorer's table-to-baseline faster to scold.
TAKING A DIVE FOR TEAM
The NBA is cracking down on floppers, so it's a good thing Vlade Divac is long-ago retired. The five current pros who turn falling backward into performance art:
Shane Battier of the Miami Heat: Great body control and anticipation allows him to simulate collisions that didn't really happen.
Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs: He's getting a little old to be giving up his body to draw a few extra offensive fouls. But he was a master of the art.
Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers: Best among big men; can convince you a 6-foot-3, 180-pound guard really did run into him.
Raja Bell, late of the Utah Jazz: Great at getting to a spot before the player he's guarding does, but he also knows how to sell a charging call.
J.J. Redick of the Orlando Magic: Taking charges is really the only way he can survive, trying to guard NBA shooting guards.
IN A STATE OF CHANGE
Five NBA franchises going through major transitions:
The Brooklyn Nets: They moved across the river from New Jersey, into a spectacular new arena. The Knicks must consider them a real threat to be the primo franchise in the boroughs.
The New Orleans Hornets: Regrouping after losing Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Hornets build a future around Davis and shooting guard Eric Gordon.
The Orlando Magic: Dwightmare is over and Van Gundy is out as coach. They're starting from scratch, even more so than when Shaq left them years ago.
The Phoenix Suns: It's been eight seasons since the Suns didn't have Nash to run the show. Is rookie Kendall Marshall up to taking over?
The Washington Wizards: They remade their locker room with high-character guys like Emeka Okafor and rookie Beal. It's overdue for John Wall to realize his potential.
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