Is the Geography of NBA Dominance Shifting?

Big cities can attract big talent, but this year's Dallas-Miami final features teams from medium-sized markets. What do populations and regions have to do with rings?

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This year's NBA finals pitting the Dallas Mavericks against the Miami Heat is a rematch of 2006 championship, but still it's just the second time that each team has appeared in the finals. Miami came away victorious in that first matchup; Dallas has yet to claim a title. Will the "Heatles" -- Lebron, Wade, Bosh -- win the championship they banded together for? Will Mark Cuban, the Mavericks billionaire owner and former Dancing with the Stars contestant, finally get a crown after years of falling short? Which city will get its parade?

But might this budding rivalry signal something bigger at play? Are we witnessing a shift in the geography of the NBA's dominant teams?

Others have already speculated on this (here and here). With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleagues Patrick Adler, Charlotta Mellander and Zara Matheson, I decided to look at the geography of NBA champions over the past six decades spanning 1947 to 2010.

The first map (above) shows the teams that have won the most championships. With 17 crowns, the Celtics -- the team that dominated the 1960s, with an astounding nine titles -- are still the winningest franchise by far, followed by the Lakers with 11 (16, if you count the five won by the Minneapolis Lakers). The only other team that approaches them is the Chicago Bulls, with six championships.* San Antonio (also eliminated this year) has four. Over the decade just past, a very small number of teams have been dominant. Since 1999, nine crowns went to either the Lakers or the Spurs, while the Pistons, Heat and Celtics have won one each. And get this: Between them, the Lakers and the Celtics have featured in two-thirds (40 out of 63) of the NBA finals completed to this point. The two have met each other head-to-head for the championship 11 times.

This year, of course, things are different. Dallas swept the Lakers, the defending champs, while Miami vanquished the perennial eastern conference winners the Boston Celtics in the second round, before taking out Chicago in the conference finals.

But championships are biased towards bigger cities, which can afford the best players (though clearly size isn't everything, or New York City would be more dominant than it is). So we controlled for championships per capita, dividing the number of championships won by the population of the metro where the team is located (see second map, below):

Boston is still on top. But San Antonio, with four titles between 1999 and 2007, now takes second place. Interestingly, two smaller market teams from the 1950s tie for third -- the Syracuse Nationals, who became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963, and the Minneapolis Lakers, who moved to Los Angeles in 1960.  LA is sixth, Detroit eighth, and Chicago ninth. For all its money and media-might, New York is at the very bottom, its last titles dating back to the Willis Reed-Walt Frazier-Dave DeBusschere era of the early '70s. But San Antonio and smaller-market Syracuse and Minneapolis half a century ago notwithstanding, smaller-market teams and locations do not fare substantially better even on this metric. Which brings me back to my main point.

With LA and Boston both showing signs of age, some believe the league's two most storied franchises are headed for longer-run decline. I suspect it's way too early to write their eulogies. While new teams have certainly emerged, those older powerhouses still have much to build on. But what's even more interesting is how the dynamics of place and talent are shaping not just the make-up of the NBA's dominant teams, but the strategies that the smaller-market teams are adopting to combat them.

Location plays a huge and sometimes underestimated role in sports, even more so than in many other more traditional industries. The biggest cities have the biggest markets and the biggest attendance, true--but only up to a point.  Arena size is more or less fixed. Dallas, a big but far from the biggest city, leads the league in attendance and Portland, a medium-sized city, is second. It's not so much "big" that matters for attendance as "big enough." Plus, there is a close relationship between attendance and wins in most cases, as my previous post on the playoffs showed.

Where location really matters is in determining where the most talented players end up. In the modern NBA, the location decisions of a few highly talented superstars can have a radical impact on which teams excel and which teams fail. Just look at the turnarounds of the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks this year, and the decline of the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers -- two teams that had been perennial playoff participants. Place acts as a key axis of talent attraction -- few if any other types of talent are as closely linked to a city and its identity as its sports stars. Look at the fallout over LeBron James's move from Cleveland to Miami, or perhaps more to the point, Amar'e Stoudemire's rocket-like ascent to mega-star status when he moved from Phoenix to NYC.

Beyond attendance, larger cities bring something else that is critical to talent's locational calculus: Franchises in the largest cities not only have the money but the essential media clout required to lure top talent and put together super-teams. A larger, more central media market means a bigger platform, more coverage, and of course the potential for more endorsement deals that make for a more lucrative career.

Presented by

Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here

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