My Hypothetical NBA Expansion Ideas

Allow me to state this is not an earnest attempt at predicting how the NBA will expand, relocate or realign. Their official position on the topic is that they do plan to expand eventually1. Whether that hypothetical “eventually” is tomorrow or 25 years from now is anyone’s guess. Nothing I’m proposing is outside the realm of possibility, so rather than allow the Google search algorithm to spawn countless ESPN opinion pieces, I’m also throwing my thoughts into the collective fish tank of ideas.

Most of the cities listed are already long-proposed expansion locations or established cities willing to helm a sports franchise. The only major issue I notice that slips by regarding expansion are how many franchises should the NBA add? It never seems to come up on threads amongst fans; the mainstream media doesn’t cover anything of note with detail anymore, so nobody questions where the limit of franchises theoretically is. Rather than be conservative and increase the teams to 32 to remain in line with the NFL, I’m going to add six franchises to the league in my hypothetical expansion. Not only that, but I’m also going to relocate one franchise in particular and realign the divisions and conferences.

The skeptics would say 36 teams are far too many. It would deplete the G League and dilute the talent pool of the NBA. That’s a sobering fact for any exhilarated expansionist, but one must also consider the hundreds of professional basketball leagues worldwide. There’s no talent shortage; these hypothetical roster spots can fill up from players from the G League and overseas. One can argue a sudden influx of developing players and overseas talents would severely dilute the league’s quality, but that’s also an unfair accusation to make when, on average, 43% of the NBA is under .500 for at least the past 22 years. Despite that fact, 53% of the NBA makes the playoffs, a stark contrast to the NFL, where only 37.5% of teams made the playoffs. The NFL, for some reason, began allowing two more wild card teams to compete in the playoffs this previous postseason, and with the changes seemingly being permanent, that balloons the percentage up to 43.7%. MLB always was the best at balancing this, with only a third of the teams eligible to make the playoffs but, after last year’s gallimaufry that was the 2020 MLB season, it’s unclear if they will continue expanding playoff seeding as the NFL did.

With all that having been pored over, with nearly half the NBA owning a losing record and over half the league making the playoffs, one can claim the quality of play is already diluted. However, if one suddenly adds in six new franchises to the existing 30 and has the 16-team playoff limit remain, suddenly only 42.1% of the league is playoff eligible. 18-team conferences split into three six-team divisions would allow 44.4% of teams from each conference to participate and maintain an overall lower percentage of teams in the playoffs. As currently constructed, half the teams from each conference make the playoffs, which adds up to over half the league; all this expansion does is enlarge the bottle while contracting the bottleneck. If you think back to my article, “The NBA’s Peculiar Position2,” you’ll remember my season shortening proposition. If you didn’t read it, it went as follows; 76 games, broken down into four games against division rivals, three against intraconference teams, and two against interconference teams. One would assume this set-up no longer works with a 36-team league, but it actually may work even better in this fashion.

The NBA did reduce the games this 2020-21 regular season by ten in an attempt to get the league started quickly after the 2020 playoffs concluded a little over a month beforehand. However, after this upcoming offseason becomes the second consecutive shortened offseason, the NBA should perhaps consider permanently reducing the number of regular-season games. They intend to return to the normalcy of an 82-game regular season3, but after the declining ratings4 and hectic scheduling of the previous two seasons, normality is unnecessary. It’s time to shake up the status quo and make exciting talking points for the general public. My proposal would have teams schedule three games against their five division rivals, two games against the 17 intraconference teams, and two games against the 18 interconference teams. The final game would allow the NBA to schedule a tiebreaker for the playoffs. Alternatively, they could organize the schedule to operate on a rotation basis and grant each team one extra match-up per year against a team other than their division rivals.

An image of the standings for those not willing to download an excel link

In theory, the NBA could do both with that set-up. As stated in my earlier mentioned article, teams already play an uneven number of games against each other yearly. The current system only has a team play extra games against teams in their conference; at least this system would allow the franchises not threatening a playoff berth the chance to play against a random team every year. The downside of this could be a handful of stagnant teams continuously battling it out on the last day of the season for the eighth seed, but that can be flipped into a positive when you factor in the potential for rivalry-building. Not only that, but it forces teams to look themselves in the mirror and incentivize building a team properly amidst a more extensive playoff hunt.

Naturally, the greed and complacency of man will result in a handful of mediocre franchises struggling in the middle of the pack, which may see the quality of play suffer in the initial seasons of expansion. However, with the proper care and patience, these drawbacks won’t have to occur at all. Start slowly, begin reducing the games by 2023-24, and in 2024-25, introduce two expansion teams and move Minnesota and Memphis to the East. The most controversial decision of my theoretical expansion league is likely relocating Sacramento to Kansas City, but to keep a fair balance of distance in these new divisions, Sacramento had to relocate. The city has made strides to keep the franchise in Sacramento, where it’s been since 1985, including building them a new stadium within the last five years, but the franchise’s history is a nomadic one.

They started as a barnstorming team in Rochester, New York, in 1923, where they underwent three name changes before joining the NBL as the Rochester Royals in 1945. Three years later, they defected to the BAA, where they eventually moved to Cincinnati in 1957. After 15 years in Cincinnati, the franchise moved to Kansas City, where they shared home games with Omaha for six years of their tenure there, as well as the team’s name for the first three years. After thirteen years of being Kansas City’s professional basketball team, they moved to Sacramento5; it’s been decades since the franchise has stretched its legs, but I don’t possess any contrition in moving the team out of Sacramento and back to Kansas City. Vivek Ranadivé likely wouldn’t want his team relocating to a slightly smaller market, so the NBA can offer him a crafty deal that would promise him ownership in one of the new expansion leagues upon a sale of the Kings. California already has three other professional basketball teams, and my theoretical expansion would reward San Diego as well; there’s no need for a fifth team in the smallest market of the bunch to stick around.

Once the King’s relocation is complete, then that’s when you introduce the remaining four expansion teams. My expansion, as you’ve likely noted, prioritizes the west coast. The East Coast bias in sports journalism still exists6 despite us living in the age of social media, and providing more franchises to cities out west is the first step in combatting that bias. When looking at a map of the United States with the NBA franchises highlighted on them, it’s astonishing how many are east of the Mississippi River. Of course, the large sports markets are on the East Coast, and the ones that aren’t on the East Coast already have sports franchises dwelling in them, but we’ve seen franchises with loyal fanbases have success in smaller markets like Oklahoma City or Salt Lake City. We’re not living in the 20th century anymore, where the money strictly follows big markets; in the digital age, you can make money anywhere.

Still, how can I be so sure that slowly expanding, relocating, and realigning will result in a satisfactory level of quality in the overall play of the league? The assumption of introducing expansion teams weakening established franchises through expansion drafts and loading up with low-quality talent is only correct during franchise mismanagement. The first year of a new franchise rarely goes well in any sport, but the Bucks won their first Finals just three years into their existence. In the NHL, the Las Vegas Golden Knights went to the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season. Even in the MLB, the Arizona Diamondbacks were founded in 1998 and won the World Series in 2001; expansion teams do not have to remain horrible in perpetuity. A drastic increase of franchises could very well crash the sport’s competitive balance, but slowly expanding, relocating, and realigning will give the new franchises a tremendous opportunity to draft good players or sign top talent.

The owners would share a smaller portion of profits amongst themselves, no doubt discouraging them from expansion, but once again, a slow expansion will see decreased profits upfront turn into long-term gains. The salary cap will likely temper in the short term as these expansion teams attempt to assemble capable rosters, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A temporarily decreased salary cap allows competitive clubs a chance to remain dominant over the lesser competition through shrewd contract signings and trades to maximize their strengths. However, it also rewards a player who may not be a maximum contract player for their current franchise to gain more opportunities for that max deal elsewhere. Once rosters start to level out and franchises start to better value player worth, these issues will clear up without having caused much of a problem in the first place. If all goes right, the public will have bought into the exciting developments and spoken with their wallets, rewarding the league executives with more money and a higher salary cap.

Why choose those cities, though? Why give them names when they’re all theoretical ideas at this point? Well, suppositions aren’t fun unless you fully immerse yourself into the preposterous speculations you’re proposing. Why not name the hypothetical teams I’ve created; it’s better than just being the San Diego Basketball Team. Contrasting my amusing efforts of denominating the hypothetical teams was my selection process of actually choosing which cities to select. If you observed my divisional realignment standings closely, you would notice my aligning of the divisions largely hinged on assembling a cluster of concentrated cities into one division. The NBA attempted doing this with their 2005-06 realignment but did so at a less-than-stellar measure. In fairness, it was the best they could likely do considering the layout of the teams at the time. Most of my realignment primarily relies on theoretical factors to play out perfectly, so I won’t pretend as if this is the consummate alternative. There are still flaws with some of the divisions; ideally, Phoenix would be in the Southwest Division; San Diego would be in the Pacific Division, New Orleans would be in the Eastern Conference, but Conferences need to be balanced. With NBA Conferences centered around geographical foundations, the outlining of the Conferences need to be bent slightly to make everything fit.

Selecting Seattle was a no-brainer, considering their loss of the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. Not only should the SuperSonics be the first expansion team back in the NBA, but they should be granted their history from the Oklahoma City Thunder. It would be similar to how the New Orleans Pelicans transferred their franchise history as the original Charlotte Hornets to the Bobcats upon Bobcats’ owner Michael Jordan announcing the intention to rename the team to the Hornets in 2014. This deal retroactively made the relocated New Orleans Hornets in 2002 an expansion team; it should also be done for the SuperSonics moving to Oklahoma City and rebranding as the Thunder in 2008. Sacramento relocating to Kansas City is much simpler, as they already resided in Kansas City before and have no other franchise contending a piece of their history. I selected Mexico City because I admire the fact that the formation of Capitanes de Ciudad de México was by private investors solely concerned with revitalizing interest in basketball in Mexico’s capital city. Their first two seasons were a huge success, making the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional Finals both seasons. Adam Silver announced in December 2019 that they would be joining the NBA G League, but unfortunately, the pandemic delayed their participation until this upcoming 2021-22 G League season.

The NBA is a global brand that conducts billion-dollar deals with China, but they weren’t always the international powerhouse they are today. Their expansion efforts in the ’80s eventually culminated with the 1992 Dream Team that went overseas and embarrassed every national team they played. Foreign players started getting drafted in the ’90s, and now we flash forward three decades later to find the NBA at least 20% comprised of foreign players. If the NBA wants to continue extending its international influence, then creating franchises in other North American countries is a logical move to make. Bringing Capitanes de Ciudad de México into the fold would also create a feel-good story for the NBA, a team of private backers building a franchise that quickly shot up to the top ranks of their industry; it sounds like the American Dream. Vancouver was a no-brainer for the same reasons of global influence that Capitanes de Ciudad de México bring. They already had a franchise sold off from under them7 and are excited for another chance at a team; I chose Stars as a potential name because of the city’s “Hollywood North” nickname8.

Louisville’s selection was due to it being a hotbed for basketball alongside Indiana. The Kentucky Colonels were the most successful ABA franchise, but their owner, John Y. Brown, Jr., was convinced to sell the team for $3 million when the NBA would not elect to take them in as part of a four-team absorption amongst the six remaining ABA teams. Considering the NBA owns the ABA’s history, they could easily set a franchise in Louisville and bring back the Colonels, as well as that upland southern energy. San Diego is too big of a market to pass up, also considering the Chargers moved to Los Angeles in 2017; it makes San Diego a blue ocean of sports fans perhaps waiting for a team to latch on. Sure they have the Padres, but with the 29th-largest market9 of 67 cities with a professional sports franchise, they should have more than just one local sports team to root. Las Vegas is a smaller market than San Diego, but they also already have a professional sports team in the Golden Knights and possess the distinction of being “The Gambling Capital of the World.” Surf and Neon were chosen for San Diego and Las Vegas10 respectively as fair representations of city culture. They also both seemed to be popular suggestions on threads online, so it’s not as if I came up with these on my own.

The NBA will eventually go forward with some of the plans I have detailed today, but likely not to the scope I’ve envisioned. The cities I’ve selected have long been considered for expansion, so as stated earlier, I am not attempting a prophetic statement. I’m merely throwing my suggestions into the ether. Thirty-six teams, in all likelihood, are too many; however, it never hurts to speculate on the possibilities of an expanded league once the league itself opens that door of engagement. All I’ve done is taken that speculation and envisioned my process of NBA expansion.

Editor’s Notes

  1. NBC Sports – 12/23/2020 – Adam Silver hints at possible NBA expansion being on the table
  2. Havarti – 6/11/2020 – The NBA’s Peculiar Position
  3. The Comeback – 6/11/2021 – NBA attempts return to normal for 2021-22 season, scheduling 82 games beginning Oct. 19
  4. Outkick – 5/11/2021 – NBA Ratings Prove The League Is In an Undeniable Decline
  5. Deadspin – 1/24/2013 – A History Lesson For Sacramento: How Kansas City Lost The Kings
  6. ESPN – 8/14/2008 – Geography lesson: Breaking down the bias in ESPN’s coverage
  7. NBA to Vancouver – 1/10/2021 – NBA Expansion: Is Vancouver Ready?
  8. Stars seemed flashy enough for a city experiencing massive financial and population growth since their last franchise.
  9. Sports Media Watch – Major Pro Sports Teams By TV Market Size
  10. Neon is also the official State Element of Nevada.

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