Earlier this month, expansion of the NBA was put back on the agenda. Newly formed NBA blog “16 Wins A Ring” published a story discussing the likelihood of two new teams joining the NBA as early as the 2018-19 season. Following the publication of this article, it seemed every man and his dog came out with a rebuttal to certain expansion details – from other NBA sites such as Basketball Insiders and Yahoo to local reporters like Chris Daniels based in Seattle.
I am more than happy to leave the “will it/won’t it happen” argument to those far more informed. However, I’d be lying if I said all this smoke hasn’t lit a fire underneath my imagination. So although real expansion might be at least a few years away, I want to take a look at what it might look like if it happened now. Who would the expansion teams be? What would the first teams look like? How would it all go down? Let’s get speculating!
Firstly, let’s take a look at how the NBA might decide to expand. It is important to note that the rumoured likely shortlist to choose from right now is Seattle, Louisville, Las Vegas, Mexico City and Vancouver. Introducing two new teams at once would be best, in order to avoid odd numbers and it is likely any additions would also bring a much needed conference shake up. Current franchises such as New Orleans and Memphis would probably welcome a move East, if one or even both new franchises were located in the West of the country.
I say ‘the country’ because in my opinion no expansion team can be from outside of the States
while Trump is President at this point in time. Canada isn’t ready for another team again and I cannot see a viable team being run out of Mexico. Although the NBA seems very intrigued in the possibility of Mexico, I think they would be much better placed allowing a team like Phoenix to treat it like a second home. Playing 6-8 home games there per season could be beneficial to both sides. This leaves Seattle, Las Vegas and Louisville. Seattle has been a lock ever since they lost the Sonics and although I would prefer Las Vegas to be the second, much smarter minds than mine suggest Louisville is way ahead in the sweepstakes.
So there we have it, Seattle and Louisville become our two new franchises for season 17/18. But what about names? As much as I love creating new mascots, I think it is fair to suggest Seattle would remain the Supersonics (the city still holds the image and naming rights) while the Colonels name would be a popular tip of the cap to the past for any Louisville/Kentucky based franchise.
With that out of the way, these teams need coaches that will be able to handle the pressure of a new franchise, give the new teams a household name to market and also be able to develop the likely young rosters. I’ve got just the men!
The Sonics return will also see the return to the NBA for former Sonics coach George Karl, who has burned many bridges with the current player pool but shouldn’t have a problem with the next generation. He provides a known quantity along with some publicity and will allow the team to play a fun style from the beginning, where winning won’t be easy to come by.
The Colonels will also look close to home (and deep into their wallets), with Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari finally returning to the NBA but not having to move too far away to do so. Calipari will also bring stability and development to the second expansion team but above all, give them a drawcard for attracting the plethora of NBA talent scattered throughout the league who played under Coach Cal at Kentucky.
Now coaches need players and we can look at recent expansion in the NBA to set our parameters for creating two new teams from within the current player pool. In 2004 the NBA brought in the Charlotte Bobcats and before that, Toronto and Vancouver started teams back in 1995. We can use both occasions, to map out the general rules for expansion;
1. Existing teams are able to lock up to eight players from their current roster that cannot be taken by the new teams.
2. Only contracted players or upcoming restricted free agents can be locked and at least one player must be left available. Meaning if you only have eight lockable players, then seven is the maximum you could make unavailable.
3. Expansion teams take it in turns taking a maximum of one player from each existing franchise.
4. If a RFA is drafted, that player automatically becomes an UFA on July 1st and therefore a chance to join the expansion team (they gain any Bird rights) but not guaranteed to.
So if we pretend for a second that the end of January was the end of the current season, here’s how the situation might look for two new teams.
Adhering to the above mentioned rules and with the help of various friends of TFPP (thanks, guys!), each team has a list of locked players. That leaves a list of available players to draft and then also a list of free agents that all 32 teams can sign from July 1. Teams like Miami, Golden State and the Clippers have to cut their locked list short and only leave one player exposed. Whilst teams such as Portland, Denver, Los Angeles, Detroit, Toronto, Milwaukee and Phoenix all face tough decisions and potentially leave some good talent on the cutting room floor.
Come the 1st of July, any restricted free agents that were locked by teams would need to come to terms under usual RFA rules with their existing team or a new team by way of an offer sheet. There is also obviously the propensity for teams to use the “unlocked list” as an amnesty substitute, putting up only one player they want gone. An option the NBA might take and one we are going to add is;
5. Expansion teams allowed to choose between a minimum of 13 and a maximum of 15 players.
Before July 1st, two drafts will needs to take place; the expansion draft and the usual rookie draft. In previous expansions, there has also been an opportunity prior to the draft for teams to make trades. These have generally involved teams coaxing the expansion teams into taking players they don’t want and keeping them away from guys they want to keep. There has only historically been one or two of these deals each expansion and we aren’t going to speculate as to what might happen prior to or on draft day. So, to the draft!
6. A coin flip decides who gets to choose first in either draft.
For the purpose of this exercise Seattle win that coin flip. The Sonics decide to have the earlier pick (#4) in the rookie draft given it’s strength, leaving the Colonels with the later pick (#5) but also the first expansion pick. So who would they choose?
Coach Cal will be interested in any players with the Kentucky connection and therefore Knight goes first in the expansion draft, particularly as all the good rookie PGs could be gone by pick #5. Nurkic is the next high ceiling guy on the board, so Seattle would snap him up with their first pick. From there the Colonels strategy is pretty clear, taking on mostly high upside guys on valued contracts. Marjanovic is another risk/reward gamble, Afflalo and Hamilton provide shooting and the rangy mix of McDaniels, Siakam, Grant and McRae provide raw athleticism for Calipari to work with. The Sonics also add some shooting early with Teletovic and Burks, as well as add positional insurance with McConnell, Ellington and Zeller.
The back half of the draft is used by Kentucky to take a mixture of youth (Jones, Stone, Layman) and leadership (Watson & Dunleavy). Seattle seem to bank a little more on ready quantities, with their young (Anderson & McAdoo) and experienced (Seraphin & Hawes) picks all a little more playable. Now onto the rookie draft, where the expansion teams have their first pick after the Top 3, in line with previous expansions. However unlike in ’95 and ’04, the expansion teams are eligible for a top three pick after year one.
7. Expansion teams don’t participate in the lottery their first year but rather, have their picks at 4 & 5 after all existing non-playoff teams have their chance at the top 3 picks. Eligible for Top 3 pick the following year onwards.
Using Sam’s recently published early look at the ’17 Draft Class we can use his rankings to map out the first round. With Fultz, Smith and Tatum all off the board at #4, both teams could decide to trade back if offered an extra player and select a high risk/reward prospect like Harry Giles. Assuming no offers are forthcoming, Seattle will select Lonzo Ball from UCLA. The Sonics will have a potential franchise player running the point and a real shot at developing a superstar from day one. The Colonels will then select Josh Jackson out of the University of Kansas, who could start right away at either forward position. Jackson will have plenty of stiff competition on the wing after the expansion draft choices but will also have plenty of veteran leadership to guide him through his unique rookie season.
8. Expansion teams act under the full 100% salary cap from day 1 if they choose but don’t have to adhere to the salary floor, should they wish to save money.
Speaking of which, adding further veteran presence could come through free agency. The expansion teams would face an uphill battle convincing free agents to sign but a good start would be giving them the full 100% salary cap as opposed to the reduced one expansion teams have received in the past. They will be unlikely to persuade top end free agents searching for success but guys like Randolph, Bogut, Mills, Casspi, Patterson, Monroe, Ilyasova, Miles and Tucker would all be intrigued by opportunity to start, get paid or extend their career. Interestingly, both expansion teams would have roughly $50mil to spend if they only drafted the minimum 13 players and let the RFA’s drafted walk.
As suggested, the extra cash may not get the cream of the free agency crop but it’s not hard to imagine Seattle signing CJ Miles and Ersan Ilyasova to slot into their starting lineup. Michael Carter-Williams could be allowed to walk after the drafting of Ball, signing elsewhere and two extra roster spots can be created by not drafting Asik or Ndour. As for Kentucky, reuniting Patrick Patterson with his college coach is also not hard to imagine to fill quite a hole at PF after the two drafts. The addition of Patterson and Jackson for the starting forward spots simply means not drafting Huertas or McLellan at the end of the expansion draft.
So there we have it, the NBA could field two new teams that are arguably better than Brooklyn right away and with better futures. Whilst not amazing, they are certainly better than the original lineups Toronto, Vancouver and Charlotte rolled out in their debut years. Bring on expansion!