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Does the NBA have too many teams?

There are currently 29 NBA teams in the U.S. and 1 in Canada (Toronto).
There are currently 29 NBA teams in the U.S. and 1 in Canada (Toronto).
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Is the National Basketball Association (NBA) saturated with too many teams?

There are currently 29 teams in the U.S. and 1 in Canada (Toronto). The league has recently weighed options toadd franchises in London and Mexico City, which would bring the total to 32 NBA teams.

Talent Dilution

With 30 teams, NBA talent is spread out too thinly across too many markets. Thus, most franchises no longer have a realistic chance of ever becoming a championship contender: It's fair to say we'll probably never see a team like the Sacramento Kings compete in the NBA Finals.

The league started with 11 teams in 1946; by 1980 it had expanded to 23 teams. Back in the old days, teams assembled talent largely through the draft. Casual fans could identify which basketball star played for what franchise because players usually stayed with the organization that drafted them.

You knew that Magic Johnson was part of the Los Angeles Lakers, just as you knew that Larry Bird spent his entire career with the Boston Celtics. Michael Jordan, who was drafted by Chicago, was the face of the Bulls franchise. The association of star players with their chosen teams helped transform basketball into a global sport. Teams could count on their star player to be a long-term ambassador for their franchise.

Revolving Door

Today, players go through the revolving door of free agency, which has a couple of negative consequences.

First, free agency diminishes a team's brand -- especially in small markets such as Milwaukee, Phoenix, Portland, and Utah -- because casual basketball fans no longer recognize who the players are. Today's player may suit up for four to eight organizations during his entire NBA career.

Recognition suffers, and a team's brand is marginalized.

Secondly, players, coaches, and owners know that creating a "super team" is now a required strategy for building a playoff team in the shortest amount of time.

In an era of high-stakes free agency, talent has become diluted to a point where 30 teams must all fight for the services of a few All-Stars. In such an environment, super teams are the only hope of having a chance to qualify for the playoffs and make a credible run at an NBA championship.

LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade to win two rings in Miami. Shaquille O'Neal joined Kobe Bryant to win three consecutive championships in Los Angeles. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston to win a title in 2008.

Fans should question the value of the draft because, in most cases, it's no longer relevant to building a strong franchise.

Certain conditions lead to perennial losers in the sport. And that's not fair to loyal, ticket-paying fans.

Small Market Blues

"When I played, I didn't want to play with a certain guy," said Chris Webber, in an NBA Open Court panel on TNT. "I wanted to beat him." Later in the show, Webber said he could have won several NBA titles if he joined Tim Duncan in San Antonio, but rather chose to attempt to defeat his Spurs rival.

Talent dilution and super teams have a parallel phenomenon in the business world, where large companies acquire smaller organizations to consolidate their industry. We see a natural instinct to monopolize talent in a competitive setting. That's probably fine in business. Just make NBA players compete on a more even field; otherwise, the basketball season degenerates into an ongoing drubbing exhibition between star teams and scrub opponents.

The military axiom goes like this: "Concentrate your forces."

The problem is that basketball studs -- like Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Blake Griffin, just to name a few -- don't want to play for tiny markets. Small cities can't afford to pay them the big bucks. Small markets aren't sexy. There's less advertising and TV exposure. There's nothing to do in Cleveland when you're not practicing.

Here are NBA franchises perched in small markets:

  • Portland
  • Indiana
  • Milwaukee
  • Sacramento
  • New Orleans
  • Charlotte
  • Oklahoma City
  • Cleveland
  • Orlando
  • Portland
  • San Antonio
  • Denver
  • Minnesota
  • Memphis

Exit Strategy

Look at Orlando and its futile effort to win an NBA championship. In the past two decades, the team drafted elite centers in Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard. Once their contracts expired, both players left the Magic to join a big market organization (the L.A. Lakers).

The inherent unfairness with free agency -- as opposed to the draft -- is that small market teams (given their limited revenue) almost always lose bidding wars when they try to recruit high-profile players.

Franchises should scout the best amateur players and have the opportunity to draft promising talent. Unlike free agency, the draft isn't a bidding war. Free agency discounts the value of basketball virtues such as scouting, player development, practice, teamwork, and the ability to perform under pressure. When you assemble a super team, you get plenty of room for error because the talent gap is so wide.

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu -- the great military strategist -- wrote: "The battle is won before it is ever fought."

Today's elite teams (think Miami Heat) won their NBA rings by winning an auction. If LeBron James and his teammates face the Toronto Raptors on any given night, it probably wouldn't matter how hard the Raptors compete. They'll still lose because they're not a super team.

The points of a game, and the outcomes of a sport, shouldn't entirely be determined by the contract signings in free agency. Scouting, player development, training, hard work, teamwork, and coaching should matter more.

After all, what are we teaching our kids? That they can buy their way to the zenith of their chosen profession?

Eliminate or Relocate Small City Teams

Most small city franchises should be removed from the NBA. It would concentrate talent within a fewer number of teams, and give them a better chance to compete.

Small market teams that can't be eliminated in some form of buyout should be relocated to bigger markets such as Seattle, London, and Mexico City.

For decades, small market fans have paid tens of millions of dollars to watch their favorite teams continually lose in lopsided contests; miss the playoffs; and then feed false hopes that "things will be better next season."

Most franchises should have a decent chance of competing in basketball's biggest stage. There's too many teams, and the holy grail of NBA championships shouldn't be determined by an auction's highest bidder.