With just a few weeks before what is shaping up to be an unpredictable NBA playoffs, both the media and fans are getting exactly what they wanted: teams from the league’s glamour markets commanding the national headlines.
The NBA is increasingly becoming a big-market league. In recent years, the NBA has seen major free agent movement, with LeBron James going to the Los Angeles Lakers and Kawhi Leonard moving to the Los Angeles Clippers. In addition, both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signed with the Brooklyn Nets. Disgruntled star players forced trades out of middling teams, with Anthony Davis moving to the Lakers from the New Orleans Pelicans, Paul George to the Clippers from the Oklahoma City Thunder and James Harden to the Nets from the Houston Rockets. Recent free agencies have shifted the balance of power to the league’s most populous cities: New York and Los Angeles.
Any entertainment industry thrives on fan and media attention, and recent events in the NBA’s largest markets have commanded the awe of fans around the country.
Fans from small-market teams bemoan the fact that certain cities, such as Memphis and Charlotte, are not as glamorous as their coastal counterparts and cannot coax star free agents to sign with them or compel the national media to cover them. Yet the reality is that when the NBA’s big-market teams thrive, so too do the NBA and its fans.
The league’s entertainment value skyrockets when its most marketable athletes play against the backdrops of the flashiest cities. Matchups between stars take on a new dimension when they are framed in the context of the cities in which they play.
Both New York teams have dominated headlines all season, reminding the world of the city’s fitting status as the mecca of basketball. The Nets sit comfortably in second place in the Eastern Conference, even without Harden, who has been out with a hamstring injury since April 5. Durant and Irving have also dealt with their own injuries and absences this season, prompting fans to ponder if this trio will be fully healthy come playoff time.
Surprisingly, the Nets’ crosstown rival, the New York Knicks, have also garnered their fair share of fanfare. Predicted by many before the season to finish as one of the league’s worst teams, the Knick’s recently clinched their first winning season since the 2012-13 season and restored some dignity to a fanbase with little to celebrate in the past few decades.
On the West Coast, the spotlight shines brightly on the two teams from Los Angeles.
Even after Davis’ and James’ recent returns from injuries, the Lakers continue to slip in the Western Conference standings and now find themselves fighting to stay out of the play-in tournament, leading James to publicly criticize the NBA for its new postseason format.
James’ comments generated enough chatter as is, but what would certainly ignite the media into a frenzy is that if the season ended today, the No. 6 Lakers would face the No. 3 Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. This would be a hotly anticipated and surprisingly early battle for the Los Angeles teams, which experts had previewed as a potential Western Conference Finals matchup.
If the Lakers and Clippers face off in the first round, the contest will transcend a simple James vs. Leonard narrative — it will be “L.A.’s team” facing off against its perennially underachieving crosstown rival.
Similarly, every time Durant or Irving misses a shot for the Nets in the 2021 playoffs, many will insist the two stars should regret their decision to sign with the Nets in 2019 instead of the now-ascendant Knicks. The New York rivalry recently became even spicier when Harden snubbed the Knicks on Twitter, cropping Knicks players Julius Randle and RJ Barrett out of a New Yorker cover drawing that also featured the Nets’ big three.
The Knicks may not be championship contenders, but few can deny that the league’s appeal intensifies when its oldest team is relevant again. The rest of the aforementioned big-market teams, the Clippers, the Lakers and the Nets, are title contenders, and the fact that they play in the league’s glitziest cities only enhances the NBA’s popularity.
Christian Baldari is a first-year in the College. Bringing the Heat appears online every other week.