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?


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.

And the key here is not only the size of the city in which a franchise is located, but the broader metropolitan (or "metro") region of which it is a part, and increasingly the broader mega-region -- complexes of cities and suburbs -- in which it is located. Mega-regions are the great economic forces of our time -- many rival nations in size and scale. Home to just 18 percent of the world's population, the globe's 40 largest mega-regions produce two-thirds of its economic output, and nine in ten of its innovations. The map (below) charts the location of the league's 30 franchises by mega-region. The great Bos-Wash mega is home to five teams; Chi-Pitts boasts six. Six other mega-regions are home to two clubs each. More to the point perhaps, just three NBA franchises -- the Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, and Utah Jazz -- are located outside one of North America's mega-regions.

Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, the sport's historically dominant franchises, are each located in the country's biggest regional centers. With 3.8 million people, Los Angeles is the country's second largest city and the heart of its second largest metro (12.9 million). It is also the hub of the vast So-Cal mega-region, which is home to 21.4 million people and generates $730 billion in economic output. With 2.7 million people, Chicago is the nation's third largest city; its metropolitan area (9.6 million) is the third largest in the nation; and, it is a hub of the Chi-Pitts mega-region, with 46 million people and $1.6 trillion in economic output. Though Boston is a smaller city today -- with a population of just 620,000 -- it was a much bigger place relatively speaking in the Celtics' heyday back in the fifties and sixties (it was the nation's tenth largest city in 1950). It is still the hub of a large metro area of 4.6 million people, the nation's tenth largest, and a node in the gigantic Bos-Wash mega-region, which with 54 million people and $2.2 trillion in economic output is the biggest mega-region in the U.S. and the second largest in the world.

All that said, the two current championship contenders, Miami and Dallas, are no slouches either, locationally speaking. Both are major regional centers in the rapidly growing Sunbelt. With a population that's swelled to 1.2 million people, Dallas has become the country's 9th largest city and 4th largest metro (with 6.4 million people). It is a hub of the Dal-Austin mega, with 10.4 million people and $370 billion in economic output. As the hub for Southwest and American Airlines, it is a major transportation center and a gateway to the U.S. and Latin America; it is also a magnet for talent (along with Austin, it has become a major tech center) and corporations, having attracted the likes of Comerica, and J.C. Penney in recent years.

Miami is only the nation's 44th largest city (with just under 400,000 people), but it is at the heart of the country's seventh largest metro (with 5.5 million people); it is also the hub of the vast and fast growing So-Flo mega, which includes Tampa and Orlando and is home to 15.1 million people and produces $430 billion in economic output. It is a major center for Latin American finance and commerce and a major draw for global talent.

Sure, neither the Miami nor Dallas metros are as big as L.A. or Chicago or New York, but they're bigger than the Boston metro and they have the locational size, market and media clout to attract top talent. The Big Three chose Miami, as I wrote about here, because it was just the right size -- big enough to afford them, but diverse enough, open-minded enough, free-wheeling and hungry enough that they could make their own rules.

This doesn't mean that smaller-market teams have to give up. The San Antonio Spurs won four titles from 1999 through 2007 with team play and great coaching. For all his personal flash and bravado, Mark Cuban has more or less followed this model of his mega-region neighbors with the Mavericks, building his team around one great and extremely disciplined talent (Dirk Nowitzki) and a supporting cast of solid role players. Smaller cities like Memphis and Oklahoma City have been following this model with substantial success, and now even the big-market Bulls have taken it up. With its Big Three, Miami (ironically, a much smaller city than Dallas -- but perhaps one with more glitz and media throw-weight) has gone in precisely the opposite direction.

The finals are not just a clash of two cities but of two different models for leveraging talent and building successful teams. Which type of team -- and which type of city -- will win it all? Pass the popcorn.

Image credit: Jeff Haynes/Reuters

* This sentence originally read, "The only other team that approaches them is the Chicago Bulls, with six championships, four of them in the glory days of Michael Jordan." In fact, all six championships were won with Jordan. We regret the error. Thanks to commenter Tim Braun for pointing it out.