How the NBA’s Return to Seattle Would Alter the League as We Know It

In 2008, the NBA viciously ripped the Seattle SuperSonics away and crippled a city that had supported its team for 40 years. Or at least that’s what folks from Seattle might say.

It’s been close to 15 years since the SuperSonics relocated and became the Oklahoma City Thunder. Since then, the city of Seattle, WA has patiently waited for the NBA to right its wrong and reward a new team to one of the largest media markets in the United States. Yet in 2022, there’s still no pro basketball (on the men’s side) in the Emerald City.

As Commissioner Adam Silver talks about possible expansion, Seattle sits at the top of the list. With increasing optimism about the NBA heading back to Seattle, it’s worth exploring how it would change multiple aspects of the league as we know it.

The mayor of Seattle likes the chances of an NBA team coming to his city

There were a few reasons why owner Clay Bennett moved the SuperSonics. Chief among them was the lack of funds available to renovate KeyArena, the team’s home of over 30 years.

Fast forward to 2022, and KeyArena (now Climate Pledge Arena) is fully renovated, serving as the home to the NHL’s Seattle Kraken. And with the city’s fans already proving their loyalty to the other clubs in town, there are no deal-breaking obstacles that stand in the way of the NBA playing in the Evergreen State.

Mayor Bruce Harrell was first appointed to Seattle’s City Council in Jan. 2008, months before the SuperSonics’ departure. Now, the town’s leader is optimistic that NBA basketball will return to his city in the near future (h/t: King 5 Seattle).

“The odds are high,” Mayor Harrell said on Wednesday. “We’re very intentional about it. I chase down rumors and I chase down actual people in a position to make that happen. I feel good about our opportunity.”

King 5 (NBC) Seattle

Harrell wasn’t the only mayor believing in an NBA reunion. His predecessor Jenny Durkan said in January 2021 that she’d been in touch with Silver and was “pretty optimistic”, according to King 5.

The story came just two days after longtime NBA columnist and current podcast host Bill Simmons admitted to having “intel” about the league’s plans to expand to Seattle and Las Vegas. A league spokesperson denied Simmons’ claims in an official statement to King 5.

Seattle will likely receive an expansion team over an existing club

There are two ways an NBA franchise can wind up in Seattle. One can either relocate from its current market, or one can be built from scratch.

The first option hasn’t happened since the SuperSonics moved to OKC in ’08. While it’s unlikely Seattle would be on the other end of the heartbreaking move this time around, there are at least two teams who could look to relocate: the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans.

Last summer, Minnesota’s ownership started its transfer from Glen Taylor to Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez. Lore and A-Rod own a 20% stake in both the T-Wolves and WNBA’s Lynx and will earn the right to purchase another 20% stake this year and another 40% share in 2023. Once the two are controlling owners, Rodriguez’s ties to Seattle from his baseball career could motivate him and Lore to relocate the Wolves.

As for the Pelicans, the franchise’s current lease at Smoothie King Arena runs through June 30, 2024. While Gayle Benson has deep ties within the city, John Hollinger of The Athletic reported that the Pels are the most likely team to relocate sometime within the next decade.

However, the league would have a strong preference toward expansion over relocation. An expansion fee for a new team would likely soar over $2 billion, the likes of which would be split amongst all 30 times. The purpose of this is simple: More money for teams now in order to offset a slightly smaller share of league revenue down the road.

Considering the NBA’s massive losses from the COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, the teams could use an influx of cash. The best way to do that is to approve the expansion to Seattle. Simply put, it’s a win-win.

How will an NBA team in Seattle change the NBA?

In all likelihood, the NBA wouldn’t just want one expansion team. In order to really generate an influx of cash and to keep the number of teams even, Seattle and another city would be awarded an expansion franchise. Based on reports from Michael Grange of Sportsnet, that city is most likely Las Vegas.

So what happens if Seattle and Las Vegas each receive an expansion team and pay fees of around $2.5 billion each? For one, the 30 existing teams would receive approximately $166.7 million each. That’s a lot of green to use as they see fit.

Second, the NBA would likely be forced to restructure its current divisional layout. Although it may not feel like it given the emphasis on conference standings, the league has six divisions: Atlantic, Central, and Southeast in the East, and Northwest, Southwest, and Pacific in the West. Each division has five teams, but the addition of two teams will throw off the balance, especially if they’re in two Western cities.

There are two solutions. The league can go with four larger divisions of eight teams each, although that seems unlikely. Or it can create eight smaller divisions of four teams each. The latter option makes much more sense, although the divisions won’t matter much if the current postseason seeding format remains intact. However, scheduling would be heavily impacted, especially for a team like the Timberwolves or Memphis Grizzlies that could move to the East due to geographic proximity.

NBA expansion also impacts the talent and depth across the league. When the Charlotte Bobcats did their expansion draft in 2004, the other 29 teams were allowed to keep eight players and expose the rest. Any future expansion draft could be very similar, leaving Seattle and Vegas to select from every other team’s bench in an effort to hang with today’s superteams.

Could an expansion team find fast success? It’s certainly possible. The NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights proved that back in 2018, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. But even the Milwaukee Bucks, who lucked into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in their second season and won a title by their third, went 27-55 in their debut campaign.

It’s quickly becoming a matter of “when” not “if” the NBA returns to Seattle. Once that happens, the league will undergo some of its biggest changes in decades.

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