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NBA Culture Matters: Why being a big market team isn’t good enough anymore

Having a solid NBA culture matters in the new age of player empowerment, with stars free to go to whatever organization they choose.

Don’t believe me? Ask the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Clippers how their offseason went.

The Nets went out and signed free agents Kyrie Irving from the Celtics and Kevin Durant from the Warriors. Then the Clippers went out and signed the second-most coveted free agent in Kawhi Leonard, then traded for Paul George.

All of the chatter for most of the season was how the New York Knicks were going to sign Irving and Durant this summer, but they ended up signing Marcus Morris and Julius Randle. While it was the Lakers, who were the presumed favorites in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, they too, struck out on a big name star to pair with Anthony Davis and LeBron James.

Do you see a pattern here?

The big market teams, such as the Knicks and Lakers thought that their market size and popularity as a franchise would triumph over the smaller, lesser markets such as Brooklyn and the Clippers. However, both the Nets and Clippers took a different route in the pursuit of these superstar free agents. They took the route of building a foundation and culture that could resonate with potential star free agents, despite not having the storied success of the Lakers and Knicks. This is what it means to have a sustainable and solid NBA culture for your respective franchise.

Little brothers can be annoying to big brothers.

This is what the Nets and Clippers have become to the Knicks and Lakers. They have become an irritant; a challenger to the throne for NBA supremacy in their respective geographical locations because of the culture they’ve built.

Just a few years ago, it seemed as if the Nets were not going to get their act together after the infamous Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade. Sean Marks, the Brooklyn general manager, signed Spencer Dinwiddie to a multi-year deal in 2016 and selected current center Jarrett Allen in the first round of the 2017 NBA draft. He also made the trade on draft night for D’Angelo Russell, who would blossom into a first-time All-Star during the 2018-2019 season. Marks also traded Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for Caris LeVert and some draft picks in the summer of 2016.

The Brooklyn pipe dream of attracting NBA free agents to a big city with a unified culture and solid role players like Dinwiddie and Allen did not just happen overnight. It took months of planning, building and re-building a culture and playing system that players would buy into. This is why the Nets attracted Durant, Irving and brought along DeAndre Jordan as well — to create a superfriends team while being a title contender.

What Brooklyn has now is what the Knicks have been trying to be for years. However, too many indecisive moves by owner James Dolan and the Knicks brass has made the goal of becoming one of the best teams in basketball unrealistic in the foreseeable future. A great culture with players buying into a system and sacrificing for the betterment of the team helps attain championship aspirations; similarly to what the Nets and Clippers are trying to do and how the Golden State Warriors operated the last five seasons.

The Clippers, on the other hand, were a solid, competent franchise, who knew what they had in “Lob City” with Chris Paul throwing up lobs to dunk machines in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. However, injuries, reported locker room tension and a team on the rise with a young star named Stephen Curry crushed those championship aspirations by changing the whole geometry of basketball.

It was not until the Clippers’ core started to leave that the franchise’s luck began to turn around. Paul left on his own accord, while Griffin and Jordan were traded, ending a bittersweet time period for Clippers fans. Lawrence Frank, the Clippers general manager traded Griffin to the Pistons to get Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris, two nice additions, but were soon offloaded the next season.

In addition to all the moves being made by Frank, the add-on of legendary Jerry West as a consultant from the then-champion Warriors was perhaps the best move of all. West helped build a historic championship team in the Bay Area by helping convince Kevin Durant to come play for the Warriors. Now, he’s trying that same trend with the Clippers with Leonard and George steering the ship.

The Lakers tried to build a championship team without the draft picks and free agency signings. With LeBron James on board, and holding the incredible amount of power in his hands that he does, he aided in getting Anthony Davis to the purple and gold, hoping to also attract Kawhi Leonard in the process. However, Leonard did not want that, so he decided to go to the lesser known team and form a duo with George. The Lakers traded away Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball to New Orleans for Davis. They traded away young, promising talent to get a star and tried to recruit another star without doing any of the drafting or culture building to get that third star player. Attempting to recruit a star without doing any groundwork should not be rewarded in trying to win a championship.

There is no right or wrong way to build a championship level team, but if there was a “right” way to do it, it would be how the Spurs did when they drafted Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, or the Warriors when they drafted Curry, Thompson and Green, while building a culture that attracted a free agent like Durant.

The big market teams such as the Lakers and Knicks are faltering in getting big-name free agents (except LeBron) due to the entitlement these franchises have, and where these teams are geographically located and the history behind them. They are not building from the ground up with a great culture to build a title-contending team like the Warriors, Spurs, Mavericks and even Raptors. The Nets and the Clippers are just the new kids on the block that are hoping to follow in the footsteps of previous champions of a solid NBA culture.