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The Art and Science of Ballin’ on a Budget in the NBA

How, exactly, are the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder staying in the playoff hunt? Boardroom examines that and more from around the NBA.

A former NBA Eastern Conference executive said to me once: “We always have a good understanding where our team is headed by Christmas.”

Until then? Be ready to be surprised.

There’s been no shortage of surprises this year, and perhaps none has been bigger than the 12-7 Utah Jazz, who sit atop the Western Conference alongside the Phoenix Suns. And how about the low-spending, tanking teams in the midst of an early playoff run? Stand up, Kings and Pacers nation.

Of course long-term sustainability is a factor, but let’s have some with this while we can, shall we?

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Who’s Ballin’ On A Budget?

OKC Thunder

How about these guys? They’re one of four teams with an active payroll sitting below $100 million, yet they’re only a half-game behind the Warriors and two games out of a play-in spot. The Thunder have the youngest team in the NBA with the fourth-lowest active payroll ($94.8 million). Sam Presti is building through the draft, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is quickly ascending into a superstar at 24 years old.

Indiana Pacers

Here’s another team that entered the season with low expectations, but they’re the East’s No. 4 seed at 10-6 — nearly halfway to their projected win total. Indy traded for Tyrese Haliburton during last year’s trade deadline and he’s leading the charge, averaging 20.4 points, 10.7 assists, and 1.8 steals. They might’ve also snagged the Rookie of the Year in Bennedict Mathurin (19.3 PPG).

Both of these guys are still on rookie deals, attributing to the Pacers’ third-lowest active payroll ($94 million).

Speaking of the Kings…

It’s time to show Sacramento some love. At 10-6, the Kings have won seven straight games for the first time in 18 years. De’Aron Fox (25.4 PPG) is the face, Domantas Sabonis (17.5 PPG, 10.9 RPG) has justified the Haliburton trade, and their summer acquisition of Kevin Huerter (16.6 PPG) is proving worthwhile. Not to mention they found the right coach in Mike Brown — their eighth different head coach in 10 years.

They have the best offense in the NBA, averaging 121.4 points with a 119.3 offensive rating. Even with their early success, they rank 23rd in attendance, but maybe that’ll change with some innovation from the business ops team.

Fan Engagement

LIGHT THE DAMN BEAM! Talk about a fun way to engage the fanbase. The Kings unveiled a victory beam earlier this season, powered by four purple lasers on top of Golden 1 Center that light up downtown Sacramento after every team win. During games, fans chant “LIGHT THE BEAM” and it’s taken on a life of its own.

Additionally, Vivek Ranadivé relaunched the team’s mobile app, providing fans opportunities to get even closer to the team by earning rewards, ordering food, managing tickets, and more.

These things matter when you’re trying to build a fanbase and establish some sort of culture, specifically for a team like the Kings who haven’t been good and have to play in the same state as the Lakers, Warriors, and Clippers.

Trending Exec: Koby Altman

The Cavs (11-6) are an absolute force to be reckoned with, despite a 22-50 record two seasons back. General manager Koby Altman deserves the keys to the city as this rate. Here are a few of his noteworthy moves:

  • Acquired Donovan Mitchell this summer (30 PPG).
  • Traded for Jarrett Allen in 2020 (13.6 PPG, 11.1 RPG).
  • Drafted Evan Mobley in 2021 (15 PPG, 8.4 RPG).
  • Drafted Darius Garland in 2019 (24 PPG).

Again, this is a team that just made its first postseason appearance since LeBron James left in 2018. Last year, he became the first GM to get a second term from Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert, signing a multiyear deal with a promotion to president of basketball operations.

Trending Player: Lauri Markkanen

Remember that Donovan Mitchell trade we just mentioned? Markkanen was the centerpiece of that deal from August — and he’s leading an impressive early run in Utah. For the longest time, everyone wondered which star the Jazz would trade between Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. This summer, team president Danny Ainge traded both in what appeared to be a tank for Victor Wembanyama.

Not so fast. Markkanen was never a bad player by any means, but he became an afterthought during a Chicago rebuild. Now, he’s reminding folks why the Bulls selected him with the No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft — the 7-footer is averaging 22.4 points and 8.5 rebounds, highlighted by a 38-point performance in a one-point win over the lethal Suns on Friday.

Contract & Salary

Years: 4
Total Value: $67.5 million
Guaranteed: $55.4 million
Avg. Salary: $16.9 million
2022-23 Salary: $16.5 million
UFA: 2025

Reminder: He’s only 25 years old. Keep this up and he’ll be a frontrunner for Most Improved Player, while Utah celebrates a young team with a projected $32.7 million in cap space this summer.

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