The book Moneyball popularized a narrative we all love: “In sports, the big market teams with all the money dominate. How can small market teams compete?”
This narrative forces us to ignore the fact that even in the 2000s, every MLB team was owned by a person or group of people worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Hell the end story of the “poor owners” in the As was they sold the team for $180 million in 2005 after purchasing it for half that price in 1995 (inflation-adjusted.) It’s a forced underdog narrative.
And that brings up another writer in the same vein as Michael Lewis. Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “Outliers” and “David and Goliath,” both of which focus on success and hidden advantages. One of the funniest cases of this is when advantages are framed as disadvantages and vice versa.
It is believed going to a top-ranked school like Harvard is an advantage. However, as Gladwell notes in David and Goliath, class rank has more correlation with success (at least in terms of things like publishing, etc.) than school pedigree. In short, a big fish in a small pond has more of an advantage than a mediocre student at MIT or Harvard!
On the flipside, Malcolm Gladwell notes there are disadvantages that can be, for lack of a better word, blessings in disguise. His controversial take was in some cases, children with learning disabilities are forced to learn other skills to succeed, and that helps them more in life than being a good student.
I feel both of these scenarios apply to the NBA and two of the most decorated teams: the Spurs and the Lakers.
The Goliath Spurs
The Spurs, are by all rights, a Moneyball team. I’ve written about this before. In terms of NBA market sizes, the Spurs are in the 20th sized metropolitan market. What’s more, the Spurs were a former ABA team. For those that don’t know, the ABA teams agreed as part of their buyout with the NBA to give 1/7 of their revenue to the owners of the defunct “Spirts of Saint Louis.” As such, the Spurs compared to other NBA teams for most of their history were at a disadvantage, right?
The Spurs lucked into David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and I refuse to discount this in their history (also, as I’ve discussed before Tim Duncan was not a result of tanking). Any monumental success, of course, requires a tremendous amount of luck. But the Spurs didn’t follow the path of other teams that luck into a star. No, they stayed a contender for almost two decades. And a huge part of it was the players they signed. Just like in Moneyball, the Spurs went after “untapped resources” like international players. They also went after other teams projects like Danny Green. And this is where I say their disadvantage was their advantage.
A big part of my work with the Wages of Wins and Boxscore Geeks is about how conventional wisdom in NBA talent evaluation is wrong. And the problem is, it’s tough to get teams to change their thinking. Markelle Fultz still went #1 in the draft. Donovan Mitchell was considered a Rookie of the Year and future star compared to superior young talent. D’Angelo Russell made the All-Star game over better “role players.” The Spurs were forced to look for underrated talent due to their financial constraints. And that’s the irony. Standard teams all go for the same 20 point-per-game player. And it’s a crapshoot. Some players, like LeBron James, are easily worth it. Others, like Carmelo Anthony, were not. But the Spurs were forced to avoid these players entirely and look at a crop of players the rest of the NBA was ignoring. And in business, taking advantage of an undervalued resource over and over is a huge boost.
As a funny postscript to this story. In 2014 the NBA settled with the Spirits of Saint Louis. The Spurs got back their TV revenue and just in time for the NBA salary cap to jump. Since then, they’ve gone after traditional stars like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. And while both players have played well in the Spurs system, it’s a far cry from their underrated and undervalued stars of old.
The Underdog Lakers
If there was any parable to the Yankees in the Moneyball narrative in the NBA, it would have to be the Lakers. In the 80s they went to eight NBA Finals. They won five titles in the 2000s, and have had money to throw around. The Lakers are in the second biggest market in the NBA and have the most storied franchise. How can other teams compete?
And here’s where I’m going to partially validate Lakers fans. The Lakers edge of being known as having an unfair edge hurts that edge. In 2011 the Lakers traded for Chris Paul. While I think the Pelicans were fleeced because they decided to send the best asset they got back (Pau Gasol) to the Rockets, it wasn’t a horrible trade in terms of what disgruntled stars normally go for. However, the NBA, thanks to complaints from other owners, blocked the move.
Recently both the Spurs and Pelicans vehemently refused to do business with the Lakers, arguably costing the Lakers a shot at a year of a star. Gregg Popovich allegedly called the Pelicans to not trade with the Lakers. Note that while the Lakers are a conference rival with the Spurs, the Pelicans are a division rival! Andre Iguodala was all set to go to the Lakers when the Grizzlies, likely upon hearing about it, decided to not waive Iguodala.
And while I agree the Lakers big market and cachet does give them an edge. They aren’t alone in this. The Clippers are in the exact same market, and Paul George was sent there with a bow on top. The Nets are in the biggest NBA market, and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving went there just fine. The Lakers advantage can actually be a disadvantage because other people perceive it as a huge advantage. Hopefully, that parsed!
I am not so naive to say that their perception around the league is enough to erase their edge. I just want to state that the perceived value of their edge is smaller than people think.
A topic that comes up all the time on the Boxscore Geeks Show is how much we force narratives in sports. We want heroes and villains. We want underdogs and unstoppable odds for them to overcome. And like most things, the truth is far more interesting. The things that let teams win aren’t always what you think. And while I enjoy the narrative in Moneyball of the big teams outspending the little guy, the data in both baseball and basketball says that advantage/disadvantage dynamic might not work how you think.