IS THE TIME RIGHT FOR NBA EXPANSION?

With the bulk of the off season lifting completed, the remaining free agents are scrounging for whatever veteran minimum contracts can be found. While the narrative has been about the focusing of talent into an isolated amount of cities, and rosters, there are still plenty of NBA level athletes available on the market, and overseas.

If you were to start an NBA franchise with the likes of Nerlens Noel, Michael Beasley, Shabazz Muhammed, Tony Allen, Monta Ellis, Andrew Bogut, Ian Clark, JaMychal Green, Gerald Henderson, Alex Len, Nikola Mirotic, and Rodney Stuckey, would you be a championship contender? No, of course not. Would you be fielding a viable NBA team? While this particular line up lacks a starting quality point guard, it doesn’t lack for talent.

This is just examining the current remaining characters from the island of misfit toys that is NBA late July free agency, not taking into account former NBA players who have opted for the security of deals overseas vs. competing for a spot during training camp, or the draft and stash prospects littering the rosters of Euro-league squads.

Even looking at the “poorest” NBA squads, their lack of competitive talent isn’t a direct result of the league lacking enough talent to go around, its a result of mismanagement. The 76ers? They were purposely trying to tank. The Nets? They mortgaged their future (what is now the present) a ways back by selling their souls to Danny Ainge. The Knicks? Phil Jackson was in such a zen like state that he forgot he was running a franchise. Even the storied Lakers franchise had been embroiled in inter-Buss family turmoil that has only recently resolved itself.

When you review the landscape objectively, the concern about expansion shouldn’t be about watering down the product. In fact, expansion could enhance the quality of play. As with any major alteration to the league, to expand the league would become a bargaining chip at the collective bargaining table. So what can each side hope to gain in the negotiations to pass expansion through?

The reduction of the schedule from 82 games to 80 games first of all, this benefits the players. Two less games for the same pay day. The concession would be to expand the actual calendar length of the season by 2 weeks, starting in mid-October instead of around Halloween. This combination would allow the league to more easily reach their objective of avoiding back to back games, thus creating less frequency of star players sitting out road games for energy conservation purposes, if not eliminating it all together. (Pop may throw a fit, but if players agreed to fines being levied for such actions, that could be a viable concession point).

Along with the reduction of games, with a 2 team expansion, the NBA players union would be adding 30 jobs for their membership. An additional ripple that could be tied to this could be the mandate of each NBA team having an exclusive rights relationship with a NBAG League franchise.

G League logo

As currently constituted, the G League has 26 teams. The Wizards, Blazers, Nuggets, and Pelicans do not have their own minor league squad. Along with the expansion of 2 NBA cities, the G League could expand by 6 teams with Baltimore, Boise, Albuquerque, Little Rock, San Diego, and Vancouver being the most obvious geographic choices. (Picture the 4 teams currently without a team, and who their G-League buddy would be, and it should become easier to guess the landing spots for the 2 expansion teams, its like a mind game for you, trying to keep my readership sharp)

With 32 NBA teams at 15 players per roster, 32 teams each with 2 of the new 2-way NBA-G League contracts, and 32 G-League teams with 10 roster spots (assume a G League team has 12 rostered players, with 2 of those players being the 2 way contract guys), that is 864 paying roster spots, up from the current 770. With the movement toward the MLB model of each team having its own minor league squad, it would be logical to suggest an increase in the number of 2 way contracts teams can hand out.

Also on the table here would be a review of the benefits of the one and done rule. With the solidification of a minor league system, could the NBA also copy baseball’s amateur rules? If you don’t sign a contract out of high school, you’re not eligible to be drafted again until after your junior year of college. If this is the case, you would likely have more players being drafted to be developed. And with the reach of the NBA rosters expanding into their minor league system, you could see the NBA draft expanded to 3 rounds, as teams look to find players with developable NBA traits.

So, if the owners give all that up, the additional roster spots, the additional responsibility of a minor league chain, reduction in number of games, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for them to expect a little something to wet their beaks. How about the expansion fees are not subject to the player/owner revenue split? That’d be a fairly significant chunk of change going directly to the owners, bypassing the players feedbag. Why is that important, other than it being a key trade off? It wouldn’t create another spike in the salary cap similar to that which allowed for the formation of the uber-team Golden State Warriors.

So if all these points are agreed upon, the reduction of games, expansion of actual length of the season, expansion of the G-League, alteration to the one and done rule, mandate for each NBA franchise to have an exclusive relationship with a G-League team, the distribution of expansion fees, and expansion of the 2 way contract allotment, what cities would be the beneficiaries of the NBA broadening their horizons?

Seattle skyline

If the NBA gave Charlotte back a team after the original Hornets franchise left, I don’t know how much longer they can go without replacing the Super Sonics. The fit of adding a team in Seattle is so obvious I don’t know that it requires much explanation other than to say it should never have been without. Greater Seattle has become a hotbed for producing NBA talent over the last 10-15 years, and the market deserves a local professional team to support. The league could wait to see who wants to move next in its seemingly endless game of musical chairs. The most obvious teams to relocate are in the process, or have just gotten new arena deals though as the Kings and Clippers are both getting new homes. If the Hornets were to uproot and head the way of Lewis and Clark, the NBA would forever be done in Carolina, and I don’t see the league allowing that to happen. Barring Al Davis coming back from the grave to purchase the Thunder and return them to the great Northwest, it appears expansion is the best bet for delivering basketball back to Seattle.

Las Vegas skyline

Speaking of the Davis family and moving franchises, the next most obvious city for the league to expand into is Las Vegas. The city has already hosted an all-star game for the league (though it was famously a disaster), and it also hosts the league’s biggest and most successful summer league annually. The opening Saturday of the summer league this year sold out. That is two gymnasiums sold out. The capacity for the Thomas and Mack Center, home to UNLV’s Running Rebels (though they don’t really run anymore, that’s a bit of a misnomer) is 19,522, and the attached Cox Pavilion where half the summer league games take place holds another 2,500. That’s approximately 22,000 seats, sold out days in advance. For comparison’s sake, the Staples Center has a 21,000 seat capacity.

Those games take place in the dead of the Las Vegas summer when temps are routinely hitting 110 degrees plus, and people are still showing up and filling the seats. Selling luxury boxes would never be a problem as its all but guaranteed the casinos would scoop them up before they even hit the market. The city even has a brand new facility located right on the strip, the T-Mobile Arena will be home to the Vegas Golden Knights (please pray to the team name gods that the would be owners of any NBA franchise would do a better job naming their team than their NHL brethren did), and would be tailor made to host an NBA franchise.

Las Vegas has already landed an NHL team, and the NFL will be setting up shop as soon as the new stadium is built for the Raiders. As much as those two sports have stars that are household names (allright, maybe not currently in the NHL, how many homes could Sidney Crosby walk into and not be recognized? Admittedly I may not pick Crosby out of a line up, but I can tell you right now Wayne Gretzky or even better, his daughter are more than welcome to knock on my door anytime), the NBA is defined by its stars more than any other pro league. Sure some teams have their history to rely upon like the Celtics or Lakers, but more than anything the league is Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal, and Lebron James, and Steph Curry. Marquee names, stars as attractions, fast paced, glitter, showmanship. The NBA is Las Vegas’ spirit animal.

So if you’re reducing the schedule from 82 games to 80 games, and you’re adding 2 teams located in the Pacific time zone, how will that work? Well, I’m glad you asked. With 32 teams, the sensible outcome would be to split the Eastern and Western conference into 4 divisions each, with each division having 4 teams. It would involve a shift in divisional alignments. Each team would then play each team in the opposite conference twice a year (as they do now, one home, one away), they’d play each team in their conference 3 times, with an extra game added for each of the teams within their division. So it’d be divisional rivals, 4 games each, conference opponents 3 times each, and league opponents twice. That equals 80 games.

The clamor would be to align the teams in such a way as to avoid the current situation where the West has quality teams jockeying to get out of the lottery, while the East is serving up a buffet of mediocrity. The issue is, the current landscape is not the perpetual landscape, and the strength of the league is like sand on a beach, always primed to shift. Based upon their current rosters and future draft capital it wouldn’t at all be shocking if the 76ers, Celtics, Bucks were all viable NBA champions 5-6 years from now with the Rockets, Spurs, and Thunder being lottery bound.

The only proper way to align teams is geographically. The addition of 2 teams clearly in the western part of the country allows the league to correct what is an obvious error to anyone with a map, and that is by moving Memphis to the Eastern conference.

I would propose the 4 Eastern divisions be composed as such:

Division A: Celtics, Knicks, 76ers, Nets

Division B: Raptors, Pistons, Bucks, Bulls

Division C: Pacers, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Wizards

Division D: Hawks, Hornets, Heat, Magic

The Western conference counterparts would be grouped as such:

Division A: Suns, Lakers, Clippers, Las Vegas

Division B: Blazers, Kings, Warriors, Seattle (The obvious choice btw is to grant the Sonics their name and history back, similar to what the NFL granted Cleveland).

Division C: Nuggets, Jazz, Thunder, T-Wolves

Division D: Spurs, Mavericks, Rockets, Pelicans (the worst name in the NBA, the league’s equivalent to the Vegas Golden Knights).

With the 4 division set up, it could open the way to a tweak of the playoff structure. Currently the top 3 seeds go to the 3 division winners, regardless of if they have the best record, and the brackets are then set going forth.

I would propose that the 4 division winners are not granted the top 4 seeds, that should be done by record and record alone. But the trade off would be that if you win your division crown, you have home court in the first round of the playoffs, regardless of seeding. This would make winning your division a worthwhile goal, and not just something the Indianapolis Colts would hang a banner for.

You could potentially have the 1, 5, 6, and 7 seeds with home court in the first round, so why do it that way? As currently set up, the 2nd best team in the conference could be the 4 seed if they play in the same division as the best team. Thus the top seed could potentially play the 2nd best team in the 2nd round, instead of the conference finals. By seeding based upon record, not division winners, you create the potential for more competitive conference finals, while also leaving a carrot out there for teams to go for their division crown with the promise of home court in the first round.

That’s a lot of changes for the league to make. A lot of dominoes all lined up to be knocked over, ending with a more solid foundation for the league. Former commissioner David Stern’s legacy was bringing the game of basketball to the entire world. The result is a deeper reservoir of talent to choose from. Its time for Adam Silver to create his own legacy, but laying the foundation for the league going forward, the expansion of the NBA, and subsequent legitimization of the G-League as a true minor league system. There is a lot of talent in that reservoir Stern built, its time to tap into it and bring them home. The ultimate current goal in expansion shouldn’t be putting teams in London or Mexico City, it should be making sure viable options domestically are established and healthy, while also making sure the G-League can legitimately lay claim to be being the 2nd best league in the world.

Its time for the NBA to bet on itself furthering its success, and there isn’t a surer bet than Seattle and Las Vegas.

 

  • Jason Sullivan
  • Find me on Twitter @TopDucker
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