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.
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