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| posted on 7/28/2019 at 06:42 AM|
|This was in the Indy Star about a week ago. Interesting read. It can apply to alo t of teams.|
LAS VEGAS Ė The expression on Mark Jackson's face tells the story.
Each year, it's the same old song for the Indiana Pacers. They're stuck on a time loop.
It's been almost two decades since Jackson last wore the navy blue and gold, and the franchise still isn't a threat to nab top-shelf free agents.
>> The Pacers have first-class facilities, one of the best venues to play in in the NBA, a strong reputation for being player-friendly and a fiercely loyal fan base.
>> They win. Though they haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs since 2014, they've won 48 games in each of the past two years, including in 2018-19 without their only All-Star/All-NBA player in Victor Oladipo for 46 games.
>> Money. They were more than $40 million under the salary cap entering free agency.
Still, months before free agency would open June 30 at 6 p.m., IndyStar reported the Pacers wouldn't be major players in the process. If they were going to make a splash, it would have to come via trade.
That's exactly what happened in getting Malcolm Brogdon from the Milwaukee Bucks which required giving up draft picks in a sign-and-trade. The first free agent came in Jeremy Lamb and then T.J. McConnell. T.J. Warren was acquired via trade a few weeks before.
President Kevin Pritchard and coach Nate McMillan will continue to hammer their franchise's virtues throughout the season. They'll insist All-Star quality players should want to come.
They just haven't.
That's not a failure on their part as this problem predated their arrivals. And it's not about spending money because teams are required to spend at least 90%, or $98.2 million, of the $109.1 million salary cap.
It's time to put that question to some players, past and present.
Mike Conley grew up in a small market. He spent the first 12 years as a pro in one.
This summer, he was traded to the Utah Jazz. Conley has always been an afterthought when discussions arise about the league's top point guards.
He's been good enough to be an All-Star, but never quite popular enough. Location was a factor because his teams had a seven-year run of playoff appearances that included the conference finals.
ďA lot of it has to do with geography. You have cities like Miami or L.A., New York, big-time markets. Thereís a lot of growth that guys see," says Conley, a Lawrence North High School alum who began his NBA career with the Memphis Grizzlies. "Thereís a lot of things outside of basketball that guys see that can entice them. I didnít know anything about Salt Lake City. It's an unbelievable city. Itís an unbelievable place to be. Guys donít get to spend time in these areas and communities to realize how good the opportunity would be if they went there."
The Grizzlies contended with Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the latter two earning All-Star berths. They could never lure that special talent ó a 3-point shooting wing who could isolate and create for himself ó to get them over the hump.
"I saw it first-hand every year. Itís hard," Conley says of the free-agency challenge for small markets. "Guys just donít come to the cities as much. In the offseason guys migrate to Vegas, L.A. or Chicago. Thereís not many guys migrating to Memphis or Salt Lake to spend time."
A 50-win team last season, the Jazz were eliminated in the first round. The additions of Conley (via trade), former Pacers forward Bojan Bogdanovic (free agency), Jeff Green (free agency) and Ed Davis (free agency) make them threats to emerge as the class of the conference.
It's a slow build. There is no Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant knocking on the door at 6:01 p.m. on June 30.
Durant signed with the Brooklyn Nets in free agency and didn't even have a meeting.
It's big-market privilege.
A major factor in Amare Stoudemire wanting to go to the New York Knicks had to do with opportunities off the floor.
After eight seasons with the Phoenix Suns out of high school, and that included three trips to the conference finals, Stoudemire opted for $100 million and the bright lights of Madison Avenue.
"You have to have an extra incentive for these players to come to the town," Stoudemire says of Indianapolis. "Big-city markets have the city itself. Small-market towns have to come up with something else. Small-market teams got to understand what it is and articulate what they can do with the players so they can be excited about coming."
For Stoudemire, his outside interest was fashion. Even when he had his left arm in a sling, it complemented his finest haberdashery. He collaborated with designer Rachel Roy. He appeared at fashion week in Paris.
This wasn't Ron Artest dropping four letter words on records and insisting that qualified him as a rapper. Stoudemire takes fashion seriously.
as a rapper. Stoudemire takes fashion seriously.
"Owners have their hands in so many different things," Stoudemire says. "If they're able to say, 'Hey, I'll bring you around these guys, meet these people, help with off-the-court stuff,' a player will be like, 'All right, cool. It's worth going to a small market.'"
Kendrick Perkins, a 14-year NBA veteran who now is an ESPN analyst, endorses that tact by ownership. If the Pacers' Herb Simon has a clear understanding of the players his team is recruiting, he should let them know. He'd also have to show he cares about what's important to them.
"Absolutely," Perkins says. "A lot of people want to go play for organization where the owners are genuine. They should do their research behind certain things. It would help if it they know who these players are.Ē
The Golden State Warriors have used the lure of Silicon Valley to persuade free agents. When Kevin Durant shocked the basketball universe by joining a 73-win team three years ago, he also built a staggering investment portfolio with the help of venture capitalists. He was able to tap into a think tank of early investors in Google and PayPal, among countless others.
David West, who won championships with the Warriors in 2017 and '18 before retiring, saw it first-hand.
"Maybe smaller-market teams can find out if the guys theyíre going after are business-minded and partner with some of the business people in the community to help," says West, who remains the most accomplished free agent the Pacers have signed in recent memory. "Thatís what happens in the Silicon Valley. Oakland is cool, but there are some better cities. The lure of that environment, the people have really added a benefit to that organization. Smaller-market teams have to find the same opportunity from the local businesses and business people.Ē
Stars recruiting stars
Perkins has played for the smallest of NBA markets in Oklahoma City and won a championship with Boston.
"Itís almost a copy cat league. Thereís people listening to outsiders instead of doing whatís best for themselves," Perkins says. "Guys listen to people. ĎYou've got to get to a bigger market.í Thatís not the case at all."
Some players have an aversion to hard-selling other upcoming free agents. The reality, however, is that Victor Oladipo has to be more aggressive in helping facilitate the process.
Just like player agents can nudge clients in one direction, the lobbying from an All-NBA/All-Star such as Oladipo can have just as much influence.
"LeBron reaches out to people," Perkins, who played with James with the Cleveland Cavaliers, says. "Vic needs to start doing that. He's the franchise. You can't just expect guys to come. You got to put forth the conscious effort to make sure you reach out to people to initiate. ĎJust give us a chance. Give us a look.í That helps, too."
When James does it, it's widely criticized because he's often successful and a "super team" in a large market such as Los Angeles takes shape. Would anyone in Indianapolis complain if Oladipo succeeded?
This might not be in Oladipo's personality, but it's a reality in today's NBA.
What lured David West, who chose Indiana over Boston in 2011 free agency, are the same qualities that Jermaine O'Neal trumpets when reflecting on his eight seasons here.
O'Neal visits several times a year. His first four seasons were in Portland, and after Indiana he had stints in Toronto, Miami, Boston, Phoenix and Golden State.
His heart is downtown somewhere between Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, the latter of which was his postgame staple.
"I got there at 20 and they allowed me to grow as a young man, learn on the fly to the point where I can go anywhere in the world and loved and almost every single one of those jerseys is No. 7 Pacers jerseys," O'Neal says. "I was in China and I saw my No. 7 Pacers jersey. That means a lot to me."
West joined Paul George to lead the Pacers to the conference's best record and the cusp of the NBA Finals.
West knew he'd be comfortable. He went to Xavier in Cincinnati.
"If itís a basketball decision, you look at everybody the same," West says. "If you talking about a business decisions, it makes it a little bit harder for smaller-market teams to compete. It wasnít hard making the decision coming to Indy. If a guy has never played in the Midwest, doesnít understand the dynamics of the smaller-market teams, maybe itís a more difficult decision."
The happening spots around town, namely nightclubs, are more ornate and plentiful in the bigger cities.
To a person, no one believes that has much impact on decision-making by free agents. Most of a season is spent on airplanes, practices, games and then it's to an offseason home.
"Nightlife is not that important," Stoudemire says. "It tends to take you off the path. You have to be able to lock in whether it's nightlife or not."
Like Mark Jackson, Joe Johnson had never really considered the question of why not Indy.
"It's about having a winning atmosphere, a winning culture, an organization that believes in the team, having guys that work hard and push each other," Johnson says.
Toward the end of his 16-year career, Johnson spent two seasons in Salt Lake City. His entire career before that was spent in large markets such as Brooklyn, Atlanta, Phoenix and Boston.
Utah isn't diverse, especially compared to a league that's overwhelmingly black, but those suggestions are quickly rebuffed, too.
The Jazz have come close to a championship just like the Pacers. The former might've cracked the code to getting there first based on their offseason moves.
"When it comes down to it, everything has to be right when it comes to winning a championship," O'Neal says. "When it starts to unravel a little bit, it has to come back together. The organization and city have gotten close and had some really really good players. I would personally love to see that but itís not the easiest thing to do. Everything has to be perfect for you to do it."
That's what Tobias Harris wanted ó to compete for a title ó and the money.
The Pacers tried to pursue Harris, who's family has deep ties to the franchise's late/great Mel Daniels, but they failed to set up a meeting not because he wasn't interested in a small market. It was because, league sources tell IndyStar, Harris only would meet with teams that could present him with a max term offer sheet.
That was his line in the sand.
An exploratory call from the Pacers wasn't turned down. Given the other holes on the roster they had to fill, they knew they lacked the buy-in chips for the Harris sweepstakes.
There's an upside to all of this. Among the seven teams that were prepared to give Harris a max term offer sheet were New Orleans, Sacramento and Utah ó all small markets he'd scheduled to meet. The Jazz were near the top of his wish list but they went off the board when they traded for Conley and his $30 million-plus-a-year salary. Denver, not a big market but the No. 2 team in the conference last season, was of particular interest to Harris but the Nuggets couldn't offer the max after picking up Paul Millsap's $30 million option.
Harris ended up not meeting with anyone after the Philadelphia 76ers, who'd traded for him during the season, came through as promised with a max offer for $180 million over five years on June 30.
No one got a meeting.
The strong culture established by Pritchard and McMillan made them worth the look. But with Harris in his physical prime, he wants to compete for a championship now. The Pacers aren't there yet.
Market size and off-the-court opportunities were not disqualifying factors for a second-tier free agent such as Harris.
Conley sees a path to glory for small markets. They'll have to hit on draft picks like the Jazz have with Donovan Mitchell, pull off a nice trade or two such as the ones that brought Rudy Gobert on draft night and Conley and accent the roster with free-agent upgrades which is how Joe Ingles got there as an under-the-radar castoff from the L.A. Clippers.
"You've got to do the right things through the draft," Conley says. "It makes it a little bit of a harder road, but also I think it would be more enjoyable to ultimately win a ring in a place you have to work so hard for it."
That's the silver lining. The road for small markets isn't paved in gold.
It's full of potholes, a predicament Indianapolis knows well.
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