Over the years, the importance of being located in a so-called “big-market city” has grown exponentially. It seems that every free agent wants to go to a big city and help those teams win. Cities such as Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, and Philadelphia stand out among these cities. However, even places such as Houston, Dallas, and Oakland have garnered the financial backing to draw free agents.
Due to this overwhelming desire to be in a large market, small-market teams have taken a massive hit. It is seemingly impossible to attract free agents outside of these major cities. In turn, winning a championship in a small market is harder than ever.
Well, last year we saw a great example of how a team can accomplish just that. The Milwaukee Bucks, ranked 20th on Forbes’ list of most valuable franchises, took home their first title in 50 years. A small-market team finally won a ring. However, they did so almost exclusively through the draft and trades. That’s how small-market teams are forced to build.
Just take a look at some recent stars that have changed teams and where they ended up landing. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving chose Brooklyn. Jimmy Butler chose Miami. Anthony Davis forced his way to Los Angeles. James Harden forced his way to Brooklyn. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George teamed up in Los Angeles. Picking up on a trend yet?
These trends can even be seen in the free agency class of 2021. Lonzo Ball went to Chicago. Kyle Lowry went to Miami. Evan Fournier went to New York. In fact, the highest-paid free agent to switch teams and join a small-market franchise (defined as bottom-ten on Forbes’ most-valuable franchises list) was Lauri Markkanen ($16.8 million). Next up after him are Kelly Olynyk ($12.4 million), Kelly Oubre Jr. ($12.5 million), and Torrey Craig ($5 million). See how fast those numbers went down?
Right now, building a championship contender in a small-market city is harder than ever. If small-market teams want any chance at long-term success, they need to mirror the Bucks. Luckily for Charlotte Hornets fans, their front office is doing things perfectly.
Charlotte, the 25th most valuable franchise, already beat the odds once by signing Gordon Hayward last summer. Though some see the deal as a bad contract, landing an All-Star caliber player in free agency is no easy task for a small-market team. He is a crucial part of the roster and was a massive signing.
The Hornets also managed to move on from Kemba Walker in the best way possible. Instead of letting him walk for nothing, they managed to turn nothing into Terry Rozier. Now, it can be easily argued that Rozier is the better player, and Charlotte just rewarded him with a huge contract extension.
Finally, the Hornets have done a phenomenal job at drafting players that can help turn their team around. In the 2020 NBA Draft, Charlotte drafted their franchise cornerstone in LaMelo Ball. The most important, and most difficult, part of building a championship team is getting a superstar to lead it. Well, the Hornets may have found theirs with the third overall pick.
In addition, the selections of Miles Bridges, PJ Washington, and James Bouknight in recent drafts seem to be putting the franchise in the right direction as well. Not every pick has to turn into a star, but if they can provide quality minutes, that should be considered a win.
Now, the Hornets are set up perfectly to compete for a play-in spot while also continuing to develop their young players. Ball is still improving, Bridges is playing for his next contract, and their new batch of rookies has something to prove. This has all the makings of being a very surprising team this year.
So, while this current Hornets roster is by no means a title contender, they are clearly on the right track. The key to small-market success nowadays is developing young talent and making the right trades at the right time. It’s crucial not to rush the process, and the Milwaukee Bucks are the perfect example of that. Great things are on the horizon for the Charlotte Hornets. They are the next face of small-market success in the NBA.