The National Basketball Association has too many teams. It’s time to embrace contraction. The talent pool has become too diluted and there are too many teams that are losing money, forcing the richer teams to prop up their poorer cousins via revenue sharing. There’s a simple, albeit practically and politically difficult, solution to both problems: contraction.
There are currently 30 teams in the NBA. That’s the same as the MLB and two less than the NFL, so it’s not a large number in the American sports context. That said, it’s still too many. With 30 teams in the league competing for talent, what results is a massive inequality in talent. Simply put, there aren’t enough superstars or even just normal stars available for every team to be competitive.
As a result, we get teams like the Warriors and the Rockets, with gluts of stars, competing against teams like the Hawks and the Cavaliers, with not a competent NBA starter in sight. Fewer teams would eliminate, or at least reduce, the number of unequal matchups in the NBA. The talent pool would stay the same while the number of teams competing for that talent pool would decrease, leading to talent spreading more evenly throughout the league.
It’s a simple argument: Fewer teams means a more balanced league. What’s not so simple is the question of which teams get contracted. No one is going to volunteer to step up to the chopping block, after all. That’s where the revenue issue comes in.
According to a 2017 ESPN report, 14 NBA teams lose money. The revenue-sharing system, however, takes some of the profits from the other 16 teams and spreads them out through the league to mitigate this issue. After these payouts, there are nine teams that spend more than they take in through revenue.
Those nine teams are the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards. Those teams constitute our chopping block. If an NBA team is unprofitable even after it gets money from the rest of the league, it’s not a sustainable operation.
We can trim that list down for regional reasons and arrive at a final list of six teams destined for contraction: the Nets, Hawks, Cavaliers, Bucks, Magic and Spurs. One of the first things that jumps out about that list is how Eastern Conference-heavy it is. After contraction, we’re left with 10 teams in the East and 14 in the West. There’s an easy fix: Move the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies to the East and we’re back at an even split of 12 each.
This won’t be easy or uncontroversial by any means. There are, after all, plenty of Spurs, Bucks and maybe even Magic fans that won’t simply accept the disappearance of their favorite team. But for each team on that list, there’s a nearby alternative option. I’m not saying that glibly; I know that no Spurs fan is going to jump right to the Rockets or the Mavericks. After a few years, though, when passions have faded, we’ll see how things lie. Even if those fans don’t return, well, they weren’t exactly keeping their teams profitable in the first place.
Some people might object to using profitability as the arbiter of life and death in the future NBA. In all honesty, I’m not entirely comfortable in using such a soulless, capitalist benchmark. The issue is that there aren’t any better options for solving these pressing issues.
We can’t simply contract teams that are and have been bad. Talent fluctuates a lot more than revenue. Put in another way, players come and go but markets are much more stable. Anyway, contracting along those lines would take out my Sacramento Kings, and I can’t have that.
It’s possible that there’s a better method of contraction. If there is, I’m open to hearing it. The fact is, however, that the NBA needs contraction.
The superteam era has spawned an entire sub-industry of NBA takes on how to create a measure of parity in the league. What I’m arguing is that the way to combat superteams is to lean into them. There’s no such thing as a superteam when every team is a superteam. Not only would my contraction system combat superteam-ism, it would also be profitable for the league. By eliminating the teams that are losing money, the NBA would be able to reduce its revenue-sharing system, keeping more money in the pockets of the remaining teams.
Reducing the number of teams to 24 will improve the quality of play and reduce the number of teams losing money, all while making sure that every fan in every part of the country has a regional team to root for. The NBA doesn’t want to contract, but it needs to do it anyway.