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The 23-Team League the NBA Needs

Tired of superteams? Make more of them. The answer to the NBA’s problem(s) starts with contraction.

All 30 NBA team logos with the seven post-1988 expansion teams’ crossed out Ringer illustration

There’s always room for improvement. So even though the NBA is now a 12-month league that we can’t look away from, we here at The Ringer have a few humble suggestions to make it even greater. Welcome to League Hack Week—the first of four weeklong series leading up to opening night of the 2017-18 NBA season.

What if the answer to the superteam issue—as well as the league’s pervasive financial issues—were fewer teams? Contraction rather than expansion. Ruthless realism instead of rich-guy idealism. Take the emotion out of it. Remove the fear of generations of fans cursing your name and burning you in effigy. Rejoice in the prospect of there being an actual penalty, like there is for everyone else, when teams and their fat-cat owners live beyond their means. Relish the idea of dismantling the sports-owner safety net. Let’s get rid of some teams. The obviousness of it is staring you in the face. It is, after all, simple math. In a 30-team league, one team having four of the top 15 players in the world means a diluted talent pool for two simple reasons:

  1. Superstars are a limited, zero-sum resource; there are only 10 to 15 of them in the league at any given time. If one team has four, 29 other teams don’t have those players.
  2. Superteams beget superteams. They will naturally spring up as stars whose contention windows are imperiled by the Warriors’ hegemony seek to team up with other stars, thus further weakening the pool of available talent. See: Rockets, Houston.
NBA Preview 2017 League Hack Week

So let’s turn the clock back 30 years, to the 1987-88 season, by contracting the post-’88 expansion teams: the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, and Minnesota Timberwolves. Yes, I know those teams, particularly the Heat, have rich histories. Get them out of here. We have too many teams. A recent report by Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst revealed that 14 of the league’s teams lost money last season, and nine of those lost money even after accounting for the NBA’s revenue-sharing system by which wealthy, mostly large-market teams subsidize the poorer, mostly small-market ones. (I love that when rich people do socialism it’s fine, but if regular people do it, it’s a threat to Western civilization. Whatever.) Anyway, let’s ax these seven teams (five of which, according to the aforementioned report, lost money) and redistribute their players to those that remain.

I modeled the process after the NBA-ABA merger of 1976. The now-unattached players would enter a draft pool. The remaining 23 NBA teams would get to select players in reverse order of win percentage from last season. When a team selects a player from the dispersal draft, they agree to honor that player’s existing contract. Teams that are over the salary cap, or would be pushed over by the salary of their selection, will have a three-year grace period to bring their spending down before penalties are applied. Players who are released to make room will have their contracts paid out in full, but their salaries would be subject to a onetime amnesty provision so that they don’t count against the cap. The draft lasts two rounds. Players who go unselected then enter the waiver system and become free agents, signable under standard salary-cap rules.

Opposition to this process would be fierce. The players union would be against anything that cost its members their jobs. Fans, local businesses, and television networks would revolt. Many rich dudes would be mad. BUT! Talent would be spread more evenly across the league. Ready? LET’S DO THIS.

Player Pool

Grizzlies: Marc Gasol, Jarell Martin, Brandan Wright, Chandler Parsons, Andrew Harrison, Mike Conley, Troy Daniels, James Ennis, Wade Baldwin, Deyonta Davis, Ben McLemore, Tyreke Evans, Rade Zagorac, Jeremy Morgan, Wayne Selden, Mario Chalmers, Dillon Brooks

Timberwolves: Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones, Jimmy Butler, Nemanja Bjelica, Cole Aldrich, Justin Patton, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Shabazz Muhammad

Pelicans: Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Alexis Ajinca, Omer Asik, E’Twaun Moore, Cheick Diallo, Solomon Hill, Jordan Crawford, Jrue Holiday, Frank Jackson, Rajon Rondo, Darius Miller, Ian Clark, Perry Jones

Hornets: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker, Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard, Treveon Graham, Malik Monk, Michael Carter-Williams, Dwayne Bacon, T.J. Williams, Isaiah Hicks, Julyan Stone

Raptors: Lucas Nogueira, Jonas Valanciunas, Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Alfonzo McKinnie, Kennedy Meeks, C.J. Miles, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Wiltjer, K.J. McDaniels

Heat: Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, A.J. Hammons, Hassan Whiteside, Rodney McGruder, Okaro White, Bam Adebayo, Udonis Haslem, Matt Williams, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk, Jordan Mickey, Larry Drew II

Magic: Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, Bismack Biyombo, D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac, Jonathon Simmons, Wesley Iwundu, Marreese Speights, Arron Affalo, Khem Birch, Shelvin Mack, Troy Caupain, Kalin Lucas, Damjan Rudez

Round 1

  1. Brooklyn Nets select Anthony Davis
  2. Phoenix Suns select Karl-Anthony Towns
  3. Los Angeles Lakers select Jimmy Butler
  4. Philadelphia 76ers select DeMarcus Cousins
  5. New York Knicks select Mike Conley
  6. Sacramento Kings select DeMar DeRozan
  7. Dallas Mavericks select Marc Gasol
  8. Detroit Pistons select Kyle Lowry
  9. Denver Nuggets select Jeff Teague
  10. Chicago Bulls select Hassan Whiteside
  11. Portland Trail Blazers select Andrew Wiggins
  12. Indiana Pacers select Goran Dragic
  13. Milwaukee Bucks select Kemba Walker
  14. Atlanta Hawks select Aaron Gordon
  15. Oklahoma City Thunder select Jrue Holiday
  16. Washington Wizards select Serge Ibaka
  17. Utah Jazz select Jonathan Isaac
  18. Los Angeles Clippers select Elfrid Payton
  19. Cleveland Cavaliers select Evan Fournier
  20. Boston Celtics select Dwight Howard
  21. Houston Rockets select Dion Waiters
  22. San Antonio Spurs select Kelly Olynyk
  23. Golden State Warriors select Justise Winslow

Round 2

  1. Brooklyn Nets select Jonas Valanciunas
  2. Phoenix Suns select Nic Batum
  3. Los Angeles Lakers select Chandler Parsons
  4. Philadelphia 76ers select Tyler Johnson
  5. New York Knicks select Frank Kaminsky
  6. Sacramento Kings select Mario Hezonja
  7. Dallas Mavericks select Norman Powell
  8. Detroit Pistons select Cody Zeller
  9. Denver Nuggets select Marvin Williams
  10. Chicago Bulls select Malik Monk
  11. Portland Trail Blazers select Gorgui Dieng
  12. Indiana Pacers select James Johnson
  13. Milwaukee Bucks select Bruno Caboclo
  14. Atlanta Hawks select Justin Patton
  15. Oklahoma City Thunder select Jakob Poeltl
  16. Washington Wizards select C.J. Miles
  17. Utah Jazz select Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
  18. Los Angeles Clippers select Rajon Rondo
  19. Cleveland Cavaliers select Jamal Crawford
  20. Boston Celtics select Jonathon Simmons
  21. Houston Rockets select Wade Baldwin
  22. San Antonio Spurs select E'Twaun Moore
  23. Golden State Warriors select Rodney McGruder

Eastern Conference Playoffs

  1. Celtics (Starters: Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Dwight Howard)
  2. Cavaliers (Starters: Evan Fournier, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson)
  3. Wizards (Starters: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr., Marcin Gortat)
  4. Sixers (Starters: Markelle Fultz, J.J. Reddick, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins)
  5. Bucks (Starters: Kemba Walker, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo)
  6. Knicks (Starters: Mike Conley, Tim Hardaway Jr., Carmelo Anthony, Frank Kaminsky, Kristaps Porzingis)
  7. Pistons (Starters: Kyle Lowry, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond)
  8. Pacers (Starters: Goran Dragic, Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, James Johnson, Myles Turner)

Western Conference Playoffs

  1. Warriors (Starters: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia)
  2. Rockets (Starters: Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela)
  3. Spurs (Starters: Patty Mills, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Kelly Olynyk, LaMarcus Aldridge)
  4. Trail Blazers (Starters: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Andrew Wiggins, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic)
  5. Thunder (Starters: Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Paul George, Patrick Patterson, Steven Adams)
  6. Nuggets (Starters: Jeff Teague, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic)
  7. Mavericks (Starters: Dennis Smith, Wes Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, Marc Gasol)
  8. Lakers (Starters: Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jimmy Butler, Chandler Parsons, Brook Lopez)

The Contraction League Playoffs are the best possible outcome in the worst possible world. The powerhouse teams—Golden State, Houston, Boston, and Cleveland—remain in place. The balance of power has been shifted, but not totally disrupted, giving the season a feeling of continuity despite the fact that 23.3 percent of teams no longer exist. The top dogs have no reason to complain, and, in fact, their teams have gotten deeper around the fringes.

In the West, Justise Winslow gets access to the Warriors’ light-years-ahead, top-tier developmental training and might even become a better shooter just by osmosis. Whatever the case, he and Rodney McGruder are likely a few seasons away from affecting outcomes in spring and summer. Kelly Olynyk joins the Spurs five years earlier than he otherwise would have. Dion Waiters joins Chris Paul and James Harden in the hunt for wins and Mike D’Antoni–rock-juiced stats on the perimeter, and either it works swimmingly or the ball splits at the atomic level and the arena is destroyed. In other words, it’s just the sort of high-variance gamble that Daryl Morey would take to try to beat the Warriors.

The addition of Andrew Wiggins to a starting lineup of Dame, C.J., Aminu, and Nurkic makes the Blazers an immediate threat to get to the second round. It’s the perfect spot for Wiggins, a Kobe lite–style player whose worst instincts will be (theoretically) blunted by sharing the court with two heady scorers in Dame and C.J.

In the East, Dwight Howard, in theory, would help with Boston’s dire rebounding situation and provide rim protection. With Isaiah Thomas’s future up in the air and Derrick Rose’s current incarnation as a bad basketball player who thinks he’s really good, expect Evan Fournier, who is legitimately good, to get a lot of time for Cleveland.

Meanwhile, the addition of DeMarcus Cousins makes the Sixers terrifying. Both to opponents and to locker room attendants, beat reporters, and anyone inside the Philly locker room at the wrong time. Joel Embiid (36.7 percent 3-point shooter) has the range and skills to play outside … and will probably play only liiiiiiiike 40 games? With a minutes limit? Which allows Boogie plenty of time to run wild inside. Much has been written about DMC’s deleterious effect on his team; so if this works, it’s a home run, and the Sixers could be conference finalists. If it doesn’t—hey, at least they got to amnesty Jahlil Okafor for free.

Other notable additions:

  • Kemba Walker gives the Bucks a viable second star and allows Malcolm Brogdon to slide to his natural position.
  • Kyle Lowry, alongside Avery Bradley, puts some steel in the Pistons backcourt.
  • Jeff Teague running high-low with Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris lurking around the wings will be a treat for the worst-attending fans in the league.
  • Mike Conley immediately becomes the best Knicks point guard of the past 30 years. The team’s fans are so ecstatic that they don’t get upset about taking Frank Kaminsky with Malik Monk still on the board.

It’s time, NBA. Time to stop this left-leaning, pinko socialism for rich people.