LeBron James recently raised some hackles among the basketball intelligentsia by suggesting that the NBA was leaden with hopeless teams, and that the league would be better served by trimming down, instead of expanding perpetually, like a spiral galaxy or Jimmy Doohan’s gut in the 1980s. James was pointing to a problem many writers, including the legendary Bill Simmons have pointed out with respect to the league’s continuing problems. This is what one writer, on the NBA’s own home page, calls The Battle of the Bulge. Empty arenas, a large number of perpetually hopeless and mismanaged teams, and a recent lockout that was triggered partly by small-city owners locking horns with big-market owners, all points to this one fundamental problem. There’s too many NBA teams, its talent pool is diluted, and a number of smaller markets struggle with fan apathy, and just can’t become profitable. No sustainable league can harbor fully 30 teams indefinitely and keep all of them running competently.
Consider where the league stood in the 1960s and early 1970s. Lew Alcindor (eventually known as Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar) and Oscar Robertson could co-exist on the Milwaukee Bucks. Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor could work together on the LA Lakers without it becoming a deliberate attempt to create a superteam, a la the current incarnation of the Miami Heat. The New York Knicks could boast a very strong lineup (Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere) that got two titles without a truly legendary player. And, of course, you could have a Celtics team in ’86 that had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton. This was all accomplished with 8 teams in the early 60s, perhaps 12 by the end of the decade, and still only 23 by the mid-80s.
How does this work? Keep salaries lower than they are today, and limit teams to 12 players, no more, and maintain a salary cap, although it will require some tweaking. The result is a competitive league with a larger percentage of exciting, worthwhile players per team, a league unmoored of dead weight and failed draft picks, that combines the high-caliber athletics of professional basketball with the cut-throat environment of college basketball.
With respect to teams’ historical significance, geographic dispersal, recent performance, and financial success. I would propose limiting the NBA to 20 teams, listed as follows:
- Boston Celtics (Atlantic division)
- New York Knicks (Atlantic division)
- Philadelphia 76ers (Atlantic division)
- Washington Bullets (Atlantic division. Washington Wizards was a stupid title, and calling the team The Bullets didn’t promote gang violence.)
- Miami Heat (Atlantic division)
- Chicago Bulls (Central division)
- Milwaukee Bucks (Central division)
- Indiana Pacers (Central division)
- Detroit Pistons (Central division)
- Atlanta Hawks (Central division)
- San Antonio Spurs (Mountain division)
- Houston Rockets (Mountain division)
- Dallas Mavericks (Mountain division)
- Denver Nuggets (Mountain division)
- Utah Jazz (Mountain division)
- San Francisco Warriors (Pacific division, its time to shed the Golden State moniker…)
- Los Angeles Lakers (Pacific division)
- Portland Trail Blazers (Pacific division)
- Phoenix Suns (Pacific division)
- Seattle Royals (Pacific division…move the Sacramento Kings up here. The franchise sucks, but it was part of the NBA’s history since its inception. Even though its moved from Rochester to Cincinnati to Kansas City before settling today in California’s state capital. I suggest this: give an NBA team back to Seattle, which was robbed of its Sonics by corporate maleficence. This would combine Seattle’s location, the King’ s history, and maybe the Thunder’s management.)
For those of you keeping track at home, that means we’ve eliminated the Toronto Raptors, New Jersey Nets, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Bobcats, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets, and, of course, the LA Clippers. Except for maybe the Magic and the Thunder/ex-Sonics, good riddance, right? Every region in the country, even those out in the West where nobody lives, is still represented,. Yet, it also acknowledges that the country has had strong growth in the Sun Belt, making Midwestern teams based in Cleveland and Minneapolis a bit passe. Moreover, the league doesn’t lose any extent teams that were founded in its formative years, so we don’t have to worry about forfeiting their historical quality. Every team from its classic 1960s 8-team roster lives on, as do three of the four NBA-ABA merger teams. Think of it– stars on departing teams– Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, would all be dispersed across the league, making each of the surviving teams stronger, more compelling, and interesting to watch. It’s a classic case of less being more. Instead of a somewhat dishwater league with over 400 players, you have 20 teams of 12, only 240 players, the cream of the crop. At least in theory, everyone will try harder, knowing that this league will be unforgiving of mediocre talent.
Now, this scenario isn’t going to happen. As one commentator put it, the NBA is more likely to place a team in Mexico City than it is to whittle down the league and trim its fat. Players will howl if compelled to downgrade from obscenely rich to filthy, stinking rich. And, most problematically of all, it would put lots of good people to work for the 10 eliminated franchises out of work. But purely as a fan fantasy, this would make the league far better to watch, and build on interest in professional basketball after the strong 2010-2011 season.