In the NBA, the debate rages on on how to sustain the sport in smaller markets. With the Milwaukee Bucks proving this season that small-market teams can win NBA championships, which small-market teams are next on deck to duplicate what Milwaukee accomplished this NBA season?
NBA small market necessity
Small markets exist in sports so cities with populations less than larger markets can also enjoy the sport up close and personal. As the leagues grew, many fans would travel to see teams they followed in different states. Building stadiums in smaller markets negated travel and fan bases were built locally accordingly.
Which teams are on the rise?
Aside from a commitment to winning, what the Utah Jazz has going on is an incentive to win. The Jazz were at the top of the league for most of the season and were the first to win 50 games. The second-round exit at the hands of the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers has to sting. Donovan Mitchell was banged up, and while sports are a war of attrition, it would be good for the NBA if the Utah Jazz were 100% healthy heading into next season's playoffs.
The Utah Jazz have to become more talented, and because their Western Conference peers are more gifted top to bottom, Utah will have to win with a galvanized team. Teams will go small vs. Utah, and getting better small ball defensively is a top priority in Utah - as is the case with most NBA teams. With the Jazz owing around 39 million in luxury tax, moves are being made, but will those moves be enough to stay at the top of the Western Conference?
Having the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic, on your roster surely does wonders for marketing the Denver Nuggets brand, and if Jamal Murray is healthy, the Nuggets are a far better team capable of winning it all. The problem is, Murray's health is a big reason the Nuggets were swept by the Phoenix Suns. There was no scoring to offset the opposition's backcourt, and Denver was exposed.
This team has improved steadily every season, yet it's all up to Jamal Murray and his health. If not, the next man up has to step up and help Jokic do his magic. Michael Porter Jr. seems to have turned the corner, and his NBA ceiling is limitless. Look for his scoring average to increase from 19 points a game as he enters the discussion as an NBA star.
Jokic's MVP numbers from last season will only be a standard to match this season, yet if his teammates contribute as expected, maybe those numbers won't have to jump too far off the page. Will Denver be healthy enough to continue this upward trend and truly contend for an NBA championship? Yes, yet as they grow heathly, so will other Western Conference contenders, so the maturation of Michael Porter Jr. really is the key to the future Nuggets' success.
New Orleans Pelicans
Surprised to see Zion Williamson's squad on this list? The New Orleans Pelicans are only on this list because of the young phenom. After an offseason that saw the Pelicans trade one of the best young point guards in the NBA, you'd think New Orleans would have at least brought in a shooter to expand the offense. David Griffin and the Pelicans brain trust did not want to pay Lonzo Ball 80 million. Signing and trading him for Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple and a second-round pick is not a good look.
Time will tell if one of the smallest markets in the NBA makes a move into contention as Zion Williamson's extraordinary gifts only improve. Who will be the lead guard on the Pelicans? Will Zion be comfortable as a point forward? Brandon Ingram and the aforementioned Williamson must get better in their approach to defense as well if the Pelicans are to ascend. If that happens, Willie Green will be NBA Coach of the Year.
Of course, the Milwaukee Bucks are on this list. The reigning NBA Champions are the current blueprint for small market teams to follow. Draft a player, hope that player becomes a star, surround that star with pieces that economically fit, and watch the team grow into an NBA elite power. The difficulty is, having someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo is not a common occurrence, and the two-time MVP might be the difference in an Eastern Conference ripe for some team to step up and dominate for years to come.