Big city teams have dominated the NBA championships for decades. Last year's finals pit the Dallas Mavericks against the Miami Heat. The year before the Los Angeles Lakers took on the Boston Celtics. In fact, big city teams have dominated the NBA championships for the past three or four decades.
Could this year be different?
The Oklahoma City Thunder have a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers and the Indiana Pacers, based in Indianapolis, are tied at 2-2 with the Miami Heat. Both hail from metros with populations under two million. Their success so far has led a number of commentators to suggest one or both could go all the way to the NBA Championship series. This season, in fact, four of the seven teams from smaller metros made it to the playoffs. If the Thunder and the Pacers do meet in the finals, if would be the first time in modern memory two teams from metros under two million people have done so.
Here's the rub. Teams from small-market metros may routinely make the playoffs (four small-market teams did so last year and in 2010), but they seldom, if ever, advance to the finals, let alone win a championship. That's according to detailed statistics compiled by Patrick Adler, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at UCLA.
Roughly one in four NBA teams come from metros with fewer than two million people. But all the way back to the NBA’s merger with the ABA in 1976, not a single one of them has taken home a championship. And only three times have such teams even made it to the Finals -- Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998 and Indiana Pacers in 2000. In addition, Portland, which had slightly fewer than 2 million people in the mid-1970s, won the 1977 NBA Championship.
The size bias in the NBA is also evident in the success rate of the franchises from the very largest metros, those with more than eight million people. Only three metros fall into this group—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—and they house five NBA teams: the Knicks and Nets; the Lakers and the Clippers; and the Bulls. Teams from these metros (mainly the Lakers and the Bulls) have been represented in 33 percent of championship series and won 47 percent of all titles since 1976.
Of course, there are also a few teams in metros with just slightly over two million people that have been very successful. The San Antonio Spurs, who hail from a metro of roughly 2.2 million people, have won four NBA titles, and are in the thick of it again this year. The Orlando Magic, with a population over 2.1 million, have been to two NBA Finals, losing both. And the Cleveland Cavaliers, with 2.25 million, went to one final, which they lost.
For the sake of comparison, Adler also tracked the role of teams from smaller metros in the three other professional leagues: the NFL, NHL, and MLB. Turns out small-market teams do uniquely badly in the NBA. In the NFL, teams from smaller metros have actually out performed teams from the biggest markets over this time frame.
There are numerous reasons for why this may be so. The rosters of basketball teams are smaller and superstars have a much bigger effect. Big city teams have both the dollars and media markets needed to attract superstars. The NBA has long had a "soft cap" on budgets that's allowed big market teams to spend more on talent, though this has changed as a result of the league’s recent restructuring. The NFL not only has larger rosters and depends on more specialists, it has full revenue sharing, including television rights.
If the Pacers and Thunder do move on to the conference finals, it will be the only time since 1994 that two teams from smaller metros have played in one in the same year. That time, neither moved on: Indiana lost to New York and Houston bested Utah. The way the Pacers and Thunder are playing this year, there's a legitimate chance they could face each other in the finals. If so, they'll be making history.
Top image: Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant drives to the basket on Los Angeles Lakers small forward Metta World Peace during Game 4 of their NBA Western Conference semi-final playoff basketball game, May 19, 2012. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)