Keeping Score

NBA Playoffs: Why Are The Small Markets Winning?

The NBA's business model -- and some injuries to key players -- have helped small markets thrive in the playoffs. But would an Indiana-Memphis finals slow the league's momentum?

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George Hill of the Indiana Pacers celebrates in the game against the New York Knicks during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 18, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Are you psyched about a Pacers-Grizzlies NBA Finals?

Unless you’re from Indianapolis of Memphis, probably not. In truth, this matchup probably won’t happen, given that Indiana is trying to knock off LeBron James and the Miami Heat, who have looked unbeatable all season, and San Antonio has the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili triumvirate, along with younger legs (Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard) that it has lacked in recent years. San Antonio also crushed Memphis, 105-83, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals; Game 2 is Tuesday. The Eastern conference finals start Wednesday, in Miami.

We could care less that these towns are “small-markets.” Memphis has the fewest TV homes in the NBA, and Indianapolis ranks 21st out of 28 in NBA market size. Rather, a lack of marquee names hurts them. More than any other sport, basketball is a star-driven enterprise. A great player can take over a game in all kinds of wild, wonderful ways that, say, a baseball player who hits once every nine at-bats cannot. Basketball players are visible, larger than life, and not covered by helmets or pants. As viewers, we get a courtside seat to their exploits.

Indiana is a nice young team, with the Georges — Paul George, George Hill — mercurial guard Lance Stephenson, who had a breakout game — 25 points, 10 rebounds — in Saturday night’s Game 6 clincher against the New York Knicks, and the 7’2″ Roy Hibbert coming into this own. But Indiana is the first conference finals team since 1994 not to feature a player who was a Top 5 draft pick.

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Memphis has one such player — speedy point guard Mike Conley, taken with the fourth pick of the 2007 draft. Forward Zach Randolph and Center Marc Gasol are a skilled one-two punch in the frontcourt. The Grizzlies are a fun team to watch.

But the Spurs deserve at least shot at Miami. Tim Duncan has won four titles; Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, three each. San Antonio is getting older; you get the sense that time is running out on the Spurs. A Miami-San Antonio series would be loaded with future Hall of Famers. The LeBron-Kevin Durant rematch would have been epic, but Russell Westbrook’s knee injury spoiled that one. Miami-San Antonio is a pretty nice backup.

The NBA is probably praying for it. An Indiana-Memphis finals would slow the league’s ratings momentum. This year’s conference finals lineup may look like vindication for the NBA’s business model. In the last collective bargaining agreement, the owners’ share of league revenues jumped, from 43% to around 50%, and more of that pie goes to smaller market teams. The penalties for exceeding the salary cap got more severe. The largest market in this year’s NBA final four is Miami, and it only ranks 16th.

The little guys, however, got a little lucky (except for Miami, which benefits from having the best player on the planet). As Jason McIntyre points over at The Big Lead, injuries impacted many of the big market teams (in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol missed time; Derrick Rose missed the season for Chicago, Andrew Bynum didn’t play a minute in Philly, Rajon Rondo tore an ACL, etc.).

If the NBA — and most of its fan base — is lucky, Indiana and Memphis are competitive in the conference finals. But then Miami, San Antonio, and the Hall of Famers wind up fighting for the big prize.

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