The Oklahoma City Thunder put the Lakers away last night to set up a matchup with the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Russell Westbrook, maligned last year for the Thunder’s failure to make the finals, turned in an incredible performance and sparked his team to a second-half run that put the Lakers away.
The OKC–San Antonio showdown pits two of the NBA’s smallest four markets against each other. While LeBron James’s move to Miami was heralded as the end of small-market competitiveness, the country can look to Oklahoma City and San Antonio as model franchises. San Antonio is famous for front-office stability and the steady hand of Gregg Popovich. Oklahoma City’s front office, overhauled in its move from Seattle, has been similarly brilliant in building the Thunder through the draft over the last five years. While it’s not necessarily easy to win in a small market, it’s clearly not impossible.
Those who lamented the death of the small-market team ignore that big markets don’t bring guaranteed success. The New York market has been saddled with the sad-sack Knicks and Nets, and Los Angeles supports the Clippers — historically one of the league’s biggest laughingstocks. Miami, the city that supposedly ushered in the new era of superstar alliances and the inability of small markets to compete, is the 14th largest market in the NBA, trailing such powerhouses as Oakland, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.
The truth is that it’s hard to build a consistently good basketball team. The Spurs have defied the odds with a combination of coach, front office, and unselfish players. It remains to be seen if Oklahoma City will be able to keep together their core of young players (who are all, outside of leader Kevin Durant, playing on contracts that are stunningly cheap and paying them below what they’d make on the market).
Regardless, the small-market Western Conference Finals is going to be a fun series to watch.