The NBA’s relationship with the city of Seattle is a little rocky, to say the least, even though some of the most memorable players, past and present, have suited up to play in front of the Emerald City faithful. The first heartbreak came as the team was sold to an ownership group that may (or may not) have wanted to relocate the team to Oklahoma City for significantly longer than they originally appeared. This is a nice way to say that co-owners Aubrey McClendon, Clay Bennett, and Tom Ward did not appear to be particularly enthusiastic about keeping the team in the Pacific Northwest.
The second? That one’s trickier to navigate. Back in 2013, the Sacramento Kings were for sale. There were serious talks about a Seattle-based ownership group buying up the NorCal franchise and once again returning basketball to the city that saw its team leave prior to the 2008–09 season. Ultimately (and rightly, to be honest) the Kings stayed in SacTown. While they continued on as the Kings we know and love (dysfunctional, awful, and so forth), it was karmically pleasant to see the NBA reverse course and keep a team in the community. Pleasant for everyone who wasn’t a Sonics fan, of course.
Once the Kings officially stayed, the road to an NBA team in Seattle hit a dead end. The league’s popularity (and revenue) is booming right now. Relocation of an established franchise seems unfavorable to the league office, ownership, and fans. This leaves expansion as the only real route forward, which seems like a pipe dream, because how often does the NBA expand? Once in a blue moon?
The answer might quickly become “soon,” as a noted but not particularly reported-upon clause in the NBA’s TV deal (announced in 2014) included language discussing expansion. In short: The TV deal increases (more money for the league) if the size of the league grows. And what city, do you suppose, would be on the list ahead of Seattle?
In a great piece for SBNation’s Sonics blog, SonicsRising, Kevin Nesgoda researched the idea. Namely, he messaged folks who could be in the know to ask if expansion was on the table as the league and players come ever-closer to solidifying the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. (Three cheers for no lock out in 2017!) The replies? Mostly positive, with a list of potential cities. Let’s break them down, and look at how expansion might change the NBA landscape as soon as 2018.
First, aside from Seattle, the other cities Nesgoda named as potential expansion candidates: Louisville, Ky.; Las Vegas; Vancouver; Mexico City; and Omaha, as well as St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., although they seem less likely.
From that list, we only give Vancouver the “Seattle advantage”; they hosted an NBA team before. (Nothing says ’90s throwback like a turquoise Shareef Abdur-Rahim Grizzlies jersey. Nothing!) Nesgoda’s sources cite Louisville as one prospect with “all their affairs in order.” But we think the likeliest spots are the two former NBA sites, as well as Vegas and Mexico City. No American sport has multinational appeal quite like the NBA, and it should be a natural fit.
We must consider the Emerald City first among equals, though, because of their recent history as well as the sustained community support to bring basketball back. If history is any indication, though, the league could bring on two expansion teams to balance the conferences. There’s historic precedence, too. During the last 30 years of expansion, teams entered the league in pairs all but once (when the Bobcats joined the league in 2004), and that was sort of a special circumstance, to say the least.
So, then, if expansion passes, how does it work? Luckily, this isn’t a new phenomenon, so we have some idea of what might happen.
Imagine it’s the year 2018 and the NBA awarded two new franchises, the Seattle SuperSonics and the Louisville Sluggers (sorry). Seattle rejoices as it finally gets a team again, and a new season is on the horizon. But where do their players come from? Do they just get a fistful of high lottery picks and draft all the promising young players they can?
No, actually. That’s not what happens at all. Instead the league holds what’s called an expansion draft. While it hasn’t happened in the NBA proper since 2004, the Developmental League has had one nearly every year since 2006, save 2011, 2012, and this year. What happens? Essentially each existing NBA team gets to pick a number (sometimes eight, sometimes twelve, it varies based on the number of teams being added as well as the number of teams in the league already) of players on their roster that are “protected,” meaning that they’ll stay on the roster. (Think the LeBron and Kyrie level guys, as well as the Kevin Love-s and the DeMarcus Cousins-es.)
Then, the new teams sequentially pick their rosters from the guys left until they have complete rosters. This is how the Bobcats built the bulk of their first roster. Although it’s worth noting that the expansion draft took place before the real draft, so trades are not uncommon. Concerns about diluting the talent pool are valid, as Adam Silver pointed out back in March. However, they might run secondary to another concern: finances.
While the NBA is bigger and (arguably) better than ever, the road to expansion is not all sunshine and rainbows. From that same Silver interview:
The issue with the NBA right now, is every team in essence, can have a global following, The need to expand the footprint by physically putting another team in a market becomes less important … And therefore, the way the owners see expansion at the moment is really the equivalent of selling equity in the (league).
We are 30 partners right now. Thirty teams. Each of those teams own 1/30th of all the global opportunities of the NBA. So the issue becomes, if you expand, do you want to sell one of those interests off to a new group of partners?
He’s not wrong, obviously. Shrewd businessmen comprise even the most philanthropic NBA ownership group. Adding another team or two means more revenue sharing. That said, there’s no city on earth that deserves an NBA team more than Seattle. We would be ecstatic to welcome the Sonics back to the league. The city’s fans feel similarly, especially the ones with the money. A wrinkle to getting a team in Washington again is ironed out, as reports recently surfaced that the folks behind a new arena deal are willing to privately finance the entire operation.