Small Markets vs. Big Markets: Do They Actually Exist in the NBA?

Anthony Beers, Staff Writer

   James Harden is the NBA’s reigning sixth man of the year. Last season he was vital to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s success on their road to the NBA finals. As a member of the Thunder, Harden averaged 16.8 points, 3.7 assists, and 4.1 rebounds off the bench. These stats don’t even begin to explain the contribution Harden had to the Thunder every night. He was also a key asset to the Thunder during their shocking upset over the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

   The most alarming fact that NBA fans forget is that James Harden is only 23 years old still. That may be due to the pure ferocity of his beard, but nonetheless, a sixth man award at that young of an age means only one thing: a rising star. The Thunder are loaded with young talent, particularly in point guard Russell Westbrook and small forward superstar Kevin Durant. Last week Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets for guards Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin and they also acquired two first round picks and a second round pick. That’s a total of five players, but the trade came as a shock to the NBA because Harden is a rising star in the league. The Thunder decided to trade Harden right before the season began because of his contract situation. They had the option to either resign Harden before the season started, or allow him to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Rather than deal with the politics, the Thunder went with the trade.

   This had nothing to do with Harden’s commitment to the Thunder or his capabilities as a player. They traded him entirely because of their limitations as a market in the NBA. It’s a controversial subject and most people believe it is extremely difficult to rebuild a team in the NBA. In fact, people believe that this is an unfair thing, a small market team unable to perform against the big market teams that constantly dominate and can rebuild their franchise overnight. Big market teams are stealing super stars from the smaller teams that simply cannot match them.

   The truth is that’s all garbage, being a small market team is often a choice from the franchise, not necessarily a limitation. The Thunder had a ridiculous crowd at every one of their games last year. In fact they were known for being one of the loudest most hostile places to play, with extremely dedicated fans. It’s actually quite simple; a small market team means big profit. It has much more to do with the business; this is not a geographical tragedy. If fans don’t agree, remember the Seattle Supersonics were in the 14th largest television market and owner Clay Bennet and NBA Commissioner David Stern were in full support of bringing the franchise to Oklahoma City, the 45th largest television market in the country.

   The Thunder said peace to Harden and as a result saved millions. They’ll be able to pay Durant and Westbrook in the future and it won’t hurt their payroll as significantly had they signed all three of these young stars. Financially it helps the Thunder and the NBA. Unfortunately it’s the players and fans that suffer from this business model of balancing the league with large and small markets to maximize revenue for the league. In some cases NBA fans will blame players like James Harden for taking more money rather than sticking with their team.

   Harden rightfully played with a chip on his shoulder in his debut as a Houston Rocket. Harden had 37 points, 6 rebounds and 12 assists in the Rockets’ win over the Detroit Pistons. The Thunder had offered Harden roughly a 4-year, 60-million-dollar contract, which is much less than Durant and Westbrook got. The Rockets, after the trade, signed him to a max deal for about 5-years, 80-million. From a business standpoint, Harden simply maximized his best option in a very narrow opportunity. Of course he will be the one that gets criticized for not sticking with the Thunder when they very well could have offered him the same exact deal. Professional sports writer Dave Zirin wrote in his weekly blog, “ I have never understood how sports writers can turn so much bile on players for trying to maximize their incredibly narrow earning windows while owners, who have inherited—or in Bennett’s case, married—generational wealth, are exempt from the same criticisms. Last year’s Stern engineered lockout, it should now be clear, wasn’t about small-market competitive balance, but extracting wealth from the players and redistributing it into the bank accounts of ownership.”

   Fans may believe that the NBA is advantageous to larger markets, but obviously that is not always the case. The New York Knicks are one of the biggest markets in the world and haven’t done a thing since the 1999-2000 season. James Harden simply took his best opportunity, and NBA fans should wish him the best of luck as a Rocket.

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