The NBA is driven by star talent with big-market franchises as the ones who have typically embraced superteams. The trend has guided several teams to championship success, leaving small-market organizations with a steeper hill to climb.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks broke that mold last year by earning their first NBA title in five decades, and that has led reigning Finals MVP to voice confidence that Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies could follow in the Bucks’ footsteps. Being a small-market contender is tough, but Memphis might be next.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bucks break small-market team stigma
Over the years, the NBA has struggled to experience parity as big market teams have largely found success.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics won eight titles in the 1980s, while the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets combined for eight in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs totaled seven championships in the 2000s while LeBron James-led teams and the Golden State Warriors combined to win six titles in the 2010s.
The formula for sustained championship success has become star talent teaming up together rather than years spent together growing and developing into a powerhouse. The Celtics in 2008 championship team started the trend that became further fueled by the Miami Heat’s big three that came together in 2010.
After signing Kevin Durant in 2016, Golden State became engulfed in that method that helped them win two NBA titles in three years. Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee bucked that trend after an impressive run to the 2021 championship shortly after inking a five-year, $228.2 million super-max deal.
The two-time league MVP could have tested free agency, but he trusted the franchise. Antetokounmpo’s patience was rewarded with his first NBA title, snapping the franchise’s 50-year drought.
The Bucks’ success has also given the star forward reason to believe another rising star can accomplish that with a small-market franchise.
Giannis Antetokounmpo believes Ja Morant can lead the Grizzlies to an NBA title
Antetokounmpo has become the shining example of a star player leading a small-market team to a championship.
The two-time league MVP has since advocated players to embrace that pathway. During All-Star weekend, Antetokounmpo voiced that he believes Ja Morant has the talent and the team around him that could vie for an NBA title.
“Like, why not?” Antetokounmpo said via Damichael Cole of Commercial Appeal. “Why can he not win a championship in Memphis? A lot of people think that it can not be done (in small markets). For me, that motivates me even more. It’s not necessarily true. You just got to do what makes you happy.”
Morant and the Grizzlies will head into the second half of the season in third place in the Western Conference standings with a 41-19 record. They trail the Golden State Warriors by 1.5 games for the second spot after winning eight out of their last 10 contests.
Memphis has piled up some impressive wins while Morant is playing like a perennial MVP candidate. The first-time All-Star has voiced unwavering confidence that he and his team could accomplish that ultimate goal.
Morant’s health will be key to the Grizzlies’ success, but the team has a balanced young and talented roster. Playoff experience will undoubtedly play a significant factor, but Memphis possesses a bright future that could feature many deep postseason runs.
Ja Morant and Grizzlies primed to follow Bucks’ footsteps
Morant’s emergence as one of the game’s best players has given the Grizzlies a foundational piece to build around.
The key to maintaining the franchise’s promising trajectory depends on the front office allowing their young talent to develop while adding proven veterans. Memphis must also sign Morant to his projected five-year, $181 million rookie max extension this upcoming summer to keep him under contract through 2027.
Nonetheless, Big-market organizations will continue to acquire star talent through free agency and trades. Still, small-market teams such as the Grizzlies can prove it’s possible to contend for championships.
Contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.