It was noteworthy, then, that Silver slightly changed his tune during a preseason conference call in December.
“I think I’ve always said that it’s sort of the manifest destiny of the league that you expand at some point,” he said. “I would say [the coronavirus pandemic has] caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion. We’ve been putting a little bit more time into it than we were pre-pandemic but certainly not to the point that expansion is on the front burner.”
Before the pandemic, Silver’s tenure was marked by extraordinary financial growth and stability. The league’s salary cap rose from $63 million in 2014-15 to $109 million this season, and the average franchise value increased from $634 million in 2014 to $2.12 billion in 2020, according to annual estimates by Forbes. In recent years, the financial picture was so rosy that deep-pocketed ownership groups such as the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers moved to self-finance billion-dollar arena projects.
But the pandemic represented an obvious inflection point, with estimated losses due to empty (or mostly empty) arenas and shortened seasons approaching $1 billion last year and up to $4 billion in 2020-21. While owners were not motivated to pursue expansion when the league was booming, adding teams could help compensate for their pandemic-related losses.
The NBA has had 30 teams since 2004, when the league granted a franchise to Charlotte after the Hornets relocated to New Orleans. Not since 1995, when the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies arrived, has the NBA added multiple franchises simultaneously. No franchise has changed markets since the Seattle SuperSonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008, although the Nets relocated from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012 and the Warriors moved from Oakland to San Francisco in 2019. The Sacramento Kings narrowly avoided relocation with a new arena deal in 2013, and the Milwaukee Bucks opened a new arena in 2018 after years of negotiations with local officials.
In theory, adding two franchises with $2.5 billion expansion fees, per an ESPN report, would offset much of the hardship endured by owners since March. Splitting $5 billion among 30 franchises would amount to a stimulus check for each owner of more than $166 million. Of course, those same owners would be cutting into their slices of future profits.
Seattle and Las Vegas have been mentioned as possible NBA destinations for years, and both check the most important boxes: They are top-30 U.S. cities by population with vibrant local professional sports markets and NBA-ready arenas. Fans in Seattle have clamored for the NBA’s return since the SuperSonics departed, and billion-dollar Climate Pledge Arena soon will host the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, an expansion team. Las Vegas has recently welcomed the NFL’s Raiders and the NHL’s Golden Knights, and T-Mobile Arena opened just off the Strip in 2016.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (D) told King5.com this week that she was “pretty optimistic” about an NBA return to the city after a recent conversation with Silver. Durkan said she believes the owners “are very seriously considering” expansion and that she “[didn’t] think it’s going to be a long, multiyear process.”
“It is very good news for the city of Seattle that they are thinking of an expansion team,” Durkan said. “And I was honest with [Silver]. He knows Seattle wants to be at the front of the line. We’re where the team should be.”
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in December that Mayor Carolyn Goodman (I) also spoke with Silver after his preseason comments. Goodman said her city “would look forward” to being an expansion destination and that Las Vegas was a “perfect fit” and “ready, willing and able” to host a team “as soon as we could get it going.”
A chief concern in any expansion effort is the possible dilution of talent. When the NBA added six franchises from 1988 to 1995, some felt the league watered down its product and its weakest teams didn’t have much of a chance. Indeed, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who launched in 1989, didn’t win their first playoff series until 2004. The Grizzlies began play in 1995 and moved to Memphis after six losing seasons.
Adding teams could affect the championship chase as well; the NBA’s large-scale expansion arguably assisted the Chicago Bulls in constructing their dynasty. With weaker competition added to the mix and established teams losing depth in expansion drafts, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were able to rule much of the 1990s.
Competitive balance has bedeviled the NBA throughout Silver’s tenure. The Warriors advanced to five straight Finals and the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 title, efforts that were aided by the moves of Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, respectively, from small markets. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Kyrie Irving are among the many stars who have recently sought to play in bigger markets.
“We’re very appreciative of the markets that have indicated an interest in having an NBA team,” Silver said in December. “It’s not a secret that we don’t have 30 competitive teams at any given time right now when you go into the season, measured by likelihood of ability to win a championship. One of our focuses as the league office is always on how you create better competition.”
Thanks to basketball’s rapid globalization, the talent pool is far deeper now than it was during the NBA’s last major round of expansion. Opening-night rosters featured 107 international players this year, and many of the league’s biggest stars, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic, hail from overseas.
However, it’s easy to imagine a Bulls-like dynasty playing out again in the player empowerment era. Modern superstars have become increasingly sophisticated at teaming up to build contenders, and the NBA has struggled to devise salary cap mechanisms capable of enticing top talent to remain in smaller markets. Adding two franchises would only make it more difficult for teams such as the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz to keep up with the Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Nets and other aspiring superteams in big markets.
“It’s always quite remarkable to me that you have a league that’s at the top of the basketball pyramid and therefore attracts the very best players from all corners of the planet,” Silver said. “Yet once the players come into the league, a select few fairly quickly stand out as being some special talent above and beyond the others. I think therefore the issue becomes: How do you fairly distribute those players potentially to expansion teams as well?”