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Ryan Miller: The NBA is obsessed with big markets — it doesn't need to be

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) dribbles against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) during an NBA preseason game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) dribbles against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) during an NBA preseason game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. (Yukai Peng, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — Rudy Gobert believes the Utah Jazz have a "beautiful" story to tell.

"It's a story of resiliency. It's a story of overcoming adversity," he said. "I think it should be inspiring for everybody out there that pays attention."

That pays attention …

And therein lies the problem. The NBA is currently going through what some would call a catastrophe.

Here's a quick rundown:

  • LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated on Thursday.
  • The New York Knicks were knocked out.
  • The Boston Celtics are gone, too.
  • Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors didn't even make the dang tournament.

"So instead of a Lakers-Clippers Conference Finals, we're going to get Denver-Utah? And instead of a NY-LA Finals, maybe Utah-Milwaukee? League's gotta be happy about that," ESPN's Max Kellerman tweeted, summing it all up.

You may now be thinking, "Wait, so the crisis is that certain teams won?" Well, yes, but it makes more sense when you consider the financials. When viewed in that lens, the Lakers' early defeat means a loss of millions of eyeballs; and that just so happens to equate to millions of dollars.

But here's the thing: If a couple of teams or a couple of players not advancing in the playoffs leads to endless handwringing, there are probably much bigger issues at hand. Could you imagine if the NFL relied on the Dallas Cowboys making it to the Super Bowl to be successful? Or if it was worried they'd get an Arizona Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl (oh, that's right, that happened — and still got bonkers ratings like every other Super Bowl)?

The NBA brands itself as a global league, but times like these show just how regional it really is.

For the most part, fans in New York don't care about the Jazz; fans in Utah don't care about the Hawks; fans in Atlanta don't care about the Blazers; and so forth. So while regional numbers have been good this postseason — the 76ers, to use just one example, announced their Game 5 series-clinching win was the highest rated Sixers game on NBC Sports Philadelphia since 2002 — that doesn't necessarily equate to big national audiences.

So, it's true, the league and its television partners can't be happy with some of the early playoff results. But that should encourage them to change how they promote the league.

Before the "Splash Brothers" came along, no one would have mistaken Golden State as appointment television. In fact, it was a downtrodden team going through decades worth of ineptitude. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Steve Kerr changed that rather quickly.

It was a rock show when the Warriors rolled into town. Curry was the league's main attraction, with fans arriving hours early just to watch him warm up. It was funny: People wanted to see Curry actually shoot, dribble and play basketball.

No, that shouldn't be a novel concept, but in a league that focuses so much on a no-doubt thrilling offseason, the games themselves can sometimes be pushed to the background.

And when the conversation is about which teams are going to try and pry away Damian Lillard, as ESPN's Stephen A. Smith brought up on Friday (that list? Knicks, Heat, Clippers, Lakers and a few more — you can probably guess the other), it doesn't involve building up small-market franchises.

A couple years ago, Gobert met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver in New York City, and part of their conversation revolved around the apparent bias against small-market teams. Gobert and his Jazz teammates haven't been shy to talk about what they perceive as slights by national media, simply because they play in Salt Lake City.

Whether that's true or not, perception can be just as harmful as reality.

When the topic was brought up on Friday after Utah's practice, however, the Jazz's All-Star center said he thought "the league is doing a great job of making sure that they're able to promote not just the big markets but the small markets."

It was the politically correct answer, but the right one? Probably not.

The league has always relied on its stars — Bird, Magic, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Steph — and it has more young talent than maybe ever before.

Atlanta's Trae Young embraced the villain role of New York and bowed his way into the second round; Utah fans know how special Donovan Mitchell is; Phoenix's Devin Booker put on a masterpiece in Game 6 to eliminate LeBron. There's Nikola Jokic, Denver's likely soon-to-be MVP; and Luka Doncic, Dallas's 22-year-old phenom. All those players are still playing, and seem to have pretty good stories.

Speaking of stories, the Milwaukee Bucks are about to play the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. The player who stayed with their small-market franchise against a team that teamed up in the bright lights of New York. And the NBA is worried they can't sell that?

Instead of the league worrying about LeBron's early exit, maybe they should focus on how to actually market its young stars and teams to the masses.

"When you have a powerful market that generates millions and millions more than other markets, it's a business at the end of the day, but I think the beauty of this game is that you can tell stories," Gobert said. "And I think the beauty is always in the journey more than in the profit. At the end of the day, when you tell beautiful stories, it brings profits. I think the league understands that."

These playoffs, the NBA will get a chance to prove Gobert right.

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