Plenty of hubbub gets made over major markets attracting and retaining the game’s biggest stars. But does the popularity of a city translate to the most winning?
Even with the world shrinking behind the constant evolution of digital platforms, social media and streaming NBA League Pass, big markets still have perceived advantages. The longstanding belief that booming coastal metropolises — with their elitism based mostly around access to fresh seafood — inherently draw better players, then more attention and success in seriatim. But do they?
Perhaps it’s all a manifestation of mainstream media, most of which are based in those big markets. Perhaps correlation doesn’t prove causation and this lies somewhere between anecdotal and coincidental. Or maybe, just maybe, everything we think we know is wrong.
Winning percentage isn’t the end-all-be-all way to qualify success but it’s certainly the essence of it. For the purposes of this piece, tracking winning geographically provides a decent case whether big markets have an effect over time.
First, to make things fair, each franchise needs equal footing. Starting back at the NBA’s genesis would weigh heavily in favor of the Celtics and Lakers, and their combined 45 percent of all the sport’s championships. For even ground, I’m using data starting with the 2004-05 season, the year the league expanded to the 30 teams in existence today. Those 15 years of numbers also provide a large enough range to paint a picture.
For a quick context of what was happening in 2004-05; George W. Bush beat John Kerry to win his second presidential term, The Incredibles and Shrek 2 hit theaters, Kanye West dropped Late Registration, “small-ball” wasn’t totally a thing yet, and the Spurs knocked off the reigning champion Pistons to win the title. Also, Game 7 of that series took place on the same night as my high school graduation party. Related side note, I’m now at that age where I slept funny two weeks ago and my neck still hurts.
The numbers revealed a clear geographical pattern, although not necessarily the one expected. The top three slots shared a commonality but strayed far from either coast.
The most regular-season success all came from inside the Texas Triangle.
Unsurprisingly, the Spurs and their machine-like consistency churned wins at a near-70 percent clip over the past 15 seasons. Even as their foundational stars aged and rode off into the sunset, Gregg Popovich kept everything humming.
To put that into perspective, their gap of 9.5 percentage points over the second-place Rockets measures 1.3 standard deviations and is by far the largest interval between any two contiguous teams on the list. Houston is closer to 15th-place Toronto than they are to San Antonio.
That comes from the Rockets lower stability relative to their cross-state rival. From the Tracy McGrady/Yao Ming combo behind Jeff Van Gundy all the way to today’s marriage of James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, Houston had more seasonal variance, even mixing in a few 34-win campaigns.
At the forefront was Daryl Morey, whose Moneyball-style innovation make the Rockets look like they belong in their own sport.
Dallas, despite its recent run of lean years, still made it into the top-three by riding Dirk Nowitzki, retaining an elite coach for over a decade and refusing to fully embrace the tank.
Any way you slice it, consistency — be it front office, coaching staff, incendiary players or a combination of the three — leads to winning.
Remarkably, Golden State’s utter domination since 2014-15 didn’t propel them above fifth. On the other end of the spectrum, chaos reigns. And for all the glamour of the Lakers, they didn’t finish in the top half of the league. All teams toward the bottom — regardless of market size or status as a coastal elite — revel in discord and turnover.
The Knicks, situated in the country’s center of commerce, playing their home games at the famed Mecca of basketball, only finished above the Timberwolves. For every season since what feels like forever, they had grand plans to reel in all the big fish from the free agency waters only to come away with some sunnies, mackerel and Julius Randle.
So the main lesson here is consistency matters more than geography because wherever you go, there you are. Or it’s not about the size of your market, but how you use it. Or everything’s bigger in the Lone Star State. Or, success comes from within…Texas. Yeah, yeah let’s go with that.