There’s renewed parity in the NBA due to an expanded salary cap, a higher dearth of incoming talent, and a flood of international players.
For the last four decades, a handful of teams have dominated the NBA championships. In the ’80s, it was the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. In the ’90s, it was the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, and Houston Rockets. The early 2000s saw the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs dominant. Last decade, the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors created new dynasties. Over the previous four seasons, there have been four different winners (Toronto Raptors in 2019, Lakers in 2020, Milwaukee Bucks in 2021, and Warriors in 2022). It’s guaranteed the Eastern Conference representative in the Finals this season will be a new potential winner.
Four of the best teams in the Western Conference, led by talented young cores, are located in small-market cities. In the last 40 years, there’s only been one championship between the Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies. Even worse, those four franchises have suffered setbacks after setbacks for decades and are now enjoying the brightest future in years. The Nuggets and Bucks have MVPs on their teams, with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić. The Kings and Grizzlies have two of the best point guards in the NBA, De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant, and will continue to be at the top of the West for years to come. Even better, Memphis has a top-five protected pick from the Warriors in 2023 and all of its own picks.
The Nikola Jokić court vision and floor IQ are on another level.
"That is just ridiculous."- Doris Burke🏀🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/sOkLqw4hk7
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) October 22, 2022
Speaking of the Warriors, their big three are getting old. Steph Curry is 34, and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are 32, making way for a new wave of teams to run the NBA.
Other big market teams are also aging out. Miami has Jimmy Butler at 33 and Kyle Lowry at 36. The Phoenix Suns traded the farm for Kevin Durant, who’s 34, while Chris Paul is 38 and injured in the playoffs yet again. The Clippers’ four best players are all over 30 and constantly injured, and on the Lakers, LeBron James is 38.
The popularity of NBA teams comes down to star power. And thanks to this being the most talented the NBA has ever been, almost every team in the league has at least one star player.
There are two small-market teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic, who did not make the playoffs this season, and one who added a superstar last summer in the Cleveland Cavaliers, that are set up to dominate the league in the next decade. All three of these franchises are run by competent front offices and have talented young coaches leading the charge.
As young teams depend less on star-chasing and more on internal development, we see teams escape poverty quicker than in the ’90s and 2000s. As well, teams are trending towards making draft capital the primary trade component in pursuits of star players. Gone are the days when franchises mortgaged half their roster to acquire someone. Now they mortgage their draft future instead. This allows great players to join great teams without the acquiring team having to deplete their roster to bring in a centerpiece. Just look at what the Minnesota Timberwolves gave up for Rudy Gobert (four first-round picks, one first-round swap) or what the Clippers gave up for Paul George (five first-round selections and two swaps).
So what are teams doing with all of these draft picks? They’re building through the draft, of course. Just look at the Orlando Magic. After breaking apart the most successful team since the Dwight Howard era (Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vučević, Evan Fournier), the Magic now boasts the league’s best young core led by Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero. Along with Wendell Carter Jr, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Markelle Fultz, and the Wagner brothers (Franz and Mo), they were able to win 34 games, their best season since 2019.
The Orlando Magic select Duke's Paolo Banchero with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft! 🏀 pic.twitter.com/STn4znHccI
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) June 24, 2022
The Magic are in a favorable position, owning all their picks, including this summer’s top-four protected pick from the Chicago Bulls and Denver Nuggets’ 2025 unprotected first-round pick. They have the two through five positions covered and are awaiting their three-headed dragon at point (Fultz, Suggs, and Anthony) to figure out who will be the long-term solution. Typically during tear-downs, a team will draft a high Lottery pick and try to then build around them. The Magic have the luxury of integrating Banchero into a talented, multi-dimensional rotation. Banchero took off in his rookie season, averaging 20 points, seven assists, and four assists. Once his efficiency improves, the Magic should be able to take the next step toward the postseason.
The Cavaliers suffered an embarrassing defeat in the first round of the playoffs this year to the New York Knicks. But it was still a successful season after acquiring Donovan Mitchell, a legitimate first option to complement All-Star Darius Garland at the point. The two All-Stars led the Cavs to the first playoff berth since the LeBron James era. While Garland and Mitchell handle the offense, the league-leading defense is anchored by All-Star center Jarrett Allen and sophomore Evan Mobley. Of the two, Mobley shows superstar potential, earning All-NBA Defensive First Team this season.
It only took the Cavs four years for the Cavs to return to the postseason after James left in free agency for the second time. This is partly because of the Mitchell trade’s offensive impact and the internal development that buoyed Garland and Allen to All-Star status. They sacrificed a ton of draft capital to net Mitchell, who would have never chosen Cleveland in free agency. They traded unprotected first-round draft picks in 2025, 2027, and 2029 plus the ability for the Utah Jazz to swap draft rights in 2026 and 2028. As a small-market team, their ability to improve is limited to trading Allen or consolidating a couple of their defensive-minded wings like Isaac Okoro. This summer will be pivotal in upgrading their scoring to better balance the offense and lessen the load their lethal backcourt has to carry.
But the real sleeper is Oklahoma City, who’s currently in the second iteration of executive Sam Presti’s genius team building. Nobody has a better eye for talent in the draft, and after squandering three future MVPs during the 2010s, he has accumulated the largest collection of draft picks in NBA history. His cache includes 33 picks as far as 2029, including 15 first-round picks. Presti has used the seasons since Westbrook was traded to execute the most brutal tank job ever seen. It’s earned him several Lottery picks that have turned into his young core, second only to the Magic.
The team’s future is built around long, high-IQ wings who can play multiple positions and play-make across the starting five. The point-of-attack is led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose superstar leap this season earned him First-Team All-NBA honors. He was the best penetrating guard in the NBA this year, averaging 31.4 points per game on 51% field goal shooting, 35% 3-point shooting, and 91% free throw shooting. He also ranked fourth in the NBA in scoring, third in free throw attempts, and first in free throw makes. Presti won the Paul George trade just on the SGA inclusion, not to mention the salacious amount of draft picks the Thunder fleeced the Clippers for.
SGA game-winning 3 to tie his career high at 42 points! 🏀🔥pic.twitter.com/4je9x5GOCc
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) November 17, 2022
SGA is surrounded by the point-forward savant Josh Giddey, who, at 20 years old, has everything but a three-point shot. Lu Dort’s already one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA, and he needs to continue to work on his offensive game, specifically his three-point shooting (he shot .330% this season). Banchero might have been Rookie of the Year, but the Thunder’s Jalen Williams was a close contender. After earning the starting power forward spot as a rookie, he posted averages of 14.1 points on 52.1% shooting, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists while shooting 35.6% from three on 2.7 attempts while also being named to the All-Rookie Team.
Almost all of the small-market teams we reviewed still have the players and draft picks to make one or two big swings. Meaning the arms race over the next decade is just getting started. Teams no longer depend on landing one of the five to six top players to be contenders. Most playoff teams have two or three All-Star caliber players. With the age of the dynasty seemingly dead, teams are focusing on depth and development more than ever. This has balanced the scales of the league, increasing parity and giving greater opportunities to small-market teams. If only the American economy could work the same!