So … can a small market team really compete?

Anticipation for the Bucks season to start typically isn’t high. The team has the unfortunate task of competing for the hearts and minds of Milwaukeeans with the Green Bay Packers. Family Night in Green Bay, a team scrimmage, just drew over 40,000 fans and had many leaving with visions of a Super Bowl dancing in their heads. The NFL will do that to people. Every year the league is essentially wide open, waiting for one team with a strong defense and terrific quarterback to step up and outlast the competition. The Packers seem to meet both those criteria and just two season removed from a 6-10 finish look to be ready to make the final leap. It can be just that easy in the NFL, even for the smallest media market in the three major sports.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are looking to build on their most successful season in years and are generating some legitimate interest for the first time in a long time. I spoke with a worker at the Bucks booth inside the expo center at State Fair and he told me sales were three times what they were last year. Everyone’s getting ready to watch competitive playoff basketball for the second consecutive year, something Milwaukee hasn’t had as apart of our lives since Y2K was going to blow up the grid.

But for a small market team in the NBA, are title aspirations ever a serious goal? The Bucks are heading into this season two seasons removed from a 34-48 season that counted as a legitimate leap, albeit one few noticed. Unlike the Packers, Milwaukee is probably still a season or two from legit contender status, and that still depends on making the right move at every turn. The margin for error in Milwaukee is considerably less than  it is for the team 120 miles to the North. A step back in the next season or two and suddenly everyone’s jumping ship. For a small market team, that would be a blow that could be too significant to take.

And that’s what people often wonder about the NBA. Can small market team’s compete?

I say yes.

And I say no.

Isn’t this why salary caps exist? Aren’t they supposed to prevent the balance of power from tipping too far in the favor of the rich? Every year baseball fans watch the Yankees load up in the off season and then again at the trade deadline while so many are just trying to stay afloat. You don’t see the Lakers and Knicks pulling those moves off time and again. Now before you throw Pau Gasol back at me, remember that his acquisition was a one time, lucky ordeal. The Yankees are stocking up like that every year. And the Knicks, well, do we even need to go over their past 10 years? Both teams are willing to throw some crazy numbers out there in terms of dollars, but are examples of why money doesn’t mean everything in the NBA. If teams aren’t spending smart, it doesn’t matter whether they’re the biggest or smallest market, they won’t succeed. Look at the Nuggets, the Bobcats and the Hornets. All of them spent big time money last season and did it to compete for best afterthought as their ceiling. At least Denver and Charlotte made the playoffs for their money.

That’s why the draft is so important. Milwaukee seems to have hit it on the head with Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings and maybe even Larry Sanders. Having two of those guys on their rookie deals and one on an affordable long term deal makes all the difference in the world. Milwaukee gets great value on those contracts and can afford to gamble on more expensive, but not franchise crippling deals elsewhere with Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden. Whether a team is in a big city or little one, those are financial principles that can lead to great success.

But it won’t frighten the big market teams to deal with a little failure. The Knicks just spent three years throwing their season away simply to enter the free agent market this off season. They saw the horrors that can be bad news big money pickups and still had no problems shelling out over $150 million this summer. They can afford to make errors, just like they can afford to go over the luxury tax time and again. The little guys can’t make those mistakes and live with them. If Milwaukee fails miserably in the next two or three years, all we’ll hear about is payroll slashing, how much money the team is losing and the threat of moving. How fun is that? The Knicks can screw up all they want, they’re still going to make money and never going anywhere. And you know what the real problem is.

Money isn’t the only problem you say. Even if everything breaks right and the Bucks set the world on fire these next couple years, they’ll still need a few calls in the heat of the moment come playoff time. Calls that many say will be hard to come by for the Milwaukee Bucks if they’re up against the Chicago’s and Miami’s of the world.

Tim Donaghy! They’re going to screw us, why even bother playing the games. It’s five-on-eight! David Stern doesn’t want to see piddly Milwaukee against tiny old Oklahoma City for the NBA title. He wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night when he starts to even think about it. Didn’t you watch the special on NBATV last week? Milwaukee isn’t even in David Stern’s NBA, most teams aren’t actually. The Lakers and the Heat, that’s the NBA now. Nobody else matters.

But regardless of refs and executives, it still comes down to who’s the better team, regardless of what Tim Donaghy says. His claims have been struck down so many times it’s crazy to me that people still listen to this guy. Everyone thinks their team is getting screwed to no end during every single game in every single sport. It’s called being a fan. Can you remember the last iffy call that went in your team’s favor? Probably not, but I bet you can remember a whole line that went against you. Negative things stay with us longer, it’s unfortunate but true. That’s why when you’re getting disciplined at work it’s suppose to come with two positives and a negative.

Bucks-Lakers. In Milwaukee. Kobe Bryant. He charged, he traveled, they cowered to his feet. Typical.

Sweating officials isn’t worth anyone’s time. I know we’ll all do it here and there, but if there was really some grand conspiracy, wouldn’t we know by now? Would only one ref have come out and only after a federal probe started over his mafia ties? While I’m sure the league loves to see big market teams playing in the finals, they did just fine when the Spurs rolled off title after title last decade. The Spurs are playing in what was in 2006 (most recent I found) the 37th biggest television market in the U.S., two behind Milwaukee. They got it done with smart drafting and fiscal responsibility.

Sound familiar?

Sounds like a fairy tale to me.

Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog

Categories: The Off Season


  1. I think small markets can compete in the NBA, but a lot of it has to do with luck. The Spurs got Duncan by pure luck. The Thunder (Sonics) were lucky in that they ended up picking #2 in a 2 player draft and getting the best of the two guys. On top of that, by all accounts Durant appears to be a humble, loyal personality which would figure to give Oklahoma City the edge on keeping him for the duration of his career.
    The key is getting an elite player and then building around that player quickly and efficiently so you can maximize your potential before the player leaves for the bigger city.
    The Bucks can certainly contend, but what has to happen is that Jennings has to become an elite player, Bogut has to keep improving and stay healthy, and the rest of the team has to embrace their roles and improve. Also, it wouldn’t hurt if Larry Sanders turned out to be a huge steal at 15.

  2. On paper, there should be a more even distribution of championships in the NBA because of the salary cap and how, unlike most other sports, the draft can bring in a major contributor instantly. The Spurs did so well not only because of money management and smart drafting, but because their star player was very loyal to his team. Players like Kareem, Lebron, Kobe jump ship and go to bigger markets basically giving those big cities titles that they only earned because they are so large not because of management or luck of the draw.

    I think the CBA should start to exempt drafted players’ salaries (or at least half of it) from being counted towards the cap on the team that drafted them. It gives the player a reason to stay (they can build a better team with more cap space available) and doesn’t force small markets to let their star players walk because they can’t afford to risk going over the cap or into luxury tax. Players also gain a little security because their original teams are more likely to hold onto them. I can’t imagine that players like to switch cities every 2-4 years.

    It’d give the garbage bin teams an advantage, but it may also create a cycle of different teams competing instead of the same 4 teams always winning the title because the good players prefer to play there. There are obvious loop holes in this idea (teams “throwing” multiple seasons to get a bunch of high picks) but there needs to be something done to stop punishing small markets for drafting well and being financial prudent but having to play the role of a D-league team for the big markets to find their talent.

  3. Sadly, there is no way to financially manage it so that players with stars in their eyes don’t flee for the big market. The team that drafts a player already has advantages in holding on to them, but LA will always be LA.

    But we saw this summer that that only goes so far. Who’d the Knicks get again? The Lakers have mostly been well-run, while the Knicks haven’t. That’s the real key. Let’s hope we have that now.

    Also, the one argument against the “build around the superstar” argument will always be the Pistons of 6-7 years ago. And maybe the first time around. Admittedly tho, you have to go back to the ’70s to find another example. But what else can you do?

  4. Milwaukee’s record in games officiated by Dick Bavetta:

    From RealGM poster SCassell19:

    “””Record by year (Playoffs included):

    91-92: 1-5
    92-93: 3-2
    93-94: 1-5
    94-95: 3-3
    95-96: 1-2
    96-97: 0-2
    97-98: 2-1
    98-99: 1-2
    99-00: 3-6
    00-01: 0-7
    01-02: 1-5
    02-03: 3-2
    03-04: 1-5
    04-05: 1-5
    05-06: 0-1
    06-07: 2-2
    07-08: 1-1
    08-09: 1-3

    Overall: 25-59
    Playoffs: 1-5

    Notice how Bavetta’s “worst” year was also the Bucks best percentage wise. The Bucks had a 16 game losing streak in games reffed by Bavetta. This happened from 2000-2002 (playoffs included). Keep in mind what the Bucks record was during that time (especially in 2000-01). Its not like that was a 16 game losing streak when the Bucks were horrible. “””