“It's certainly something to keep their eye on.” That's how Woj summed up the reactions to Zion Williamson saying Madison Square Garden is, outside of New Orleans, his favorite place to play. That statement from Zion was all it took for everyone to start talking about yet another New Orleans superstar putting pressure on the organization to succeed. They lost Chris Paul, they lost Anthony Davis, and the clock on Zion Williamson is already ticking.
“These small market troubles will always loom over small-market teams. This is probably the inevitable ... I'm sure Pelicans fans hate to hear this, I hope he stays. But I don't see him ending his career in New Orleans.”
Matt Barnes, The Jump
Barnes explained small market teams never seem to make it "over the hump" if they are lucky enough to draft a generational player. The last team to do it was Milwaukee in 1971 with Kareem, and he still asked for a trade to a big market! The supermax the NBA introduced has mostly backfired. Small market teams aren't as profitable, so owners are reluctant to offer it unless they have an MVP on their team. But if they have an MVP, that guy can take the regular max from a large market team and make the difference in sponsorships and business deals off the court.
The team that can give the Pelicans most hope actually is the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis staying was a major moment for all small-market teams, as the Bucks winning a title would create a modern precedent going forward. But we have to be honest here - you need to make the right moves to build a great team around your star, have injury luck, and most of all, be lucky enough to draft a superstar that doesn't crave the big city lights. Giannis stayed because all he wants to do is practice and spend time with his family. One of the main reasons the Antetokounmpos stayed in Milwaukee was the fact mama Antetokounmpo said she likes living there.
A similar story applies to Denver and Nikola Jokić. If he's not on the court, the Serbian superstar only wants to chill at home and read books about horses. For small-market teams, the odds are stacked against them because they have to do everything the big markets have to and then be fortunate enough to find a superstar that prefers privacy to IG followers.
But it's not all grim for small market teams. Giannis and Zion both have massive shoe deals, something that couldn't happen 10-20 years ago. Nowadays, they can make generational money playing in some of the smallest markets in the NBA. In the end, teams have 7 years with the guy they drafted. If they assemble a championship-level roster, their odds of keeping a superstar have never been better.