The Expansion Teams: Charlotte and Miami

Expansion. Big deal. Yawn. The Heat? It's eighty degrees, but what does that have to do with anything? The Hornets? Which team is that? Oh, Charlotte. I thought they were the Cheerleaders or something like that. That's right, it used to be the Spirit, but they changed it. Can you imagine Charlotte vs. Philadelphia? The Spirit and the 76ers. Sounds like a gas station, doesn't it?

The NBA decided to expand in four cities, two this year and two next year, to give it 27 teams of 12 man rosters to fill. That's a lot of people and a lot of teams. And an odd number of teams. Baseball and football try to keep an even number of teams in their sports so schedules work out easily. They still mess up the schedules sometimes, but at least some sense can be made out of them. Pro basketball has decided to keep 6 and 3/4 teams per division and to let some teams play some teams five times or six times, depending on the phase of the moon, and other teams to play other teams two times or four times, depending on rules set forth heretofore and theretofore under guidelines 14499.23 through 14489.01 of the Mayflower Compact. If you understand that, so do I.

The last time the NBA expanded was in 1980 when it added a franchise in Dallas. It was a good move because Dallas was obviously a very active, young, and enthusiastic city that had the facilities and the sports fans to support an NBA team. The current set of expansions aren't as clear in how they will turn out. Problems with building arenas and questions about personnel and potential fan support seem to be more prevalent now than they were in 1980.

The league has been on a high for the past several years as league attendance records have been set every year for the past five. Television ratings are also very high. Many NBA teams actually made money last year, a rarity for sports franchises. Things appear ready for expansion, but I have my doubts.

First, and most obviously, there is the problem with finding more quality players, especially at the center position where roughly half of the current teams are looking to improve on their situation at the position. Eventually, the problems with finding quality players should work themselves out because they always seem to do so and because more kids will recognize the greater opportunity and will work harder to become good. But, all 27 teams most likely won't be around long enough to see the increased talent flow. Within ten to twelve years, at least one of those 27 will probably have folded and two to four more will have moved.

Second, the pace of NBA basketball is slowing down, hardly noticeably, but it is slowing down. The slower pace has been caused by changes in offensive and defensive strategies, ranging from the incorporation of the three point shot into the normal offenses to the oft-switching defenses that prevent the traditional one-on-one match-ups. Another of these changes has been stall ball, the slow-down policy that came from teams trying to beat the Lakers. The Pistons used it (almost) successfully last year in the playoffs, keeping the games very slow, below 90 possessions per team in several games and averaging only 92 possessions per team per game. By no means were the Finals 'unpopular' last year, but complaints about slowness in sports have been coming from sports fans, especially football fans, for several years. Many football fans won't watch baseball because it is too slow, then they start complaining about their own favorite sport taking too much time for replays and for the last two minutes to end. I am unsure that the problem with a slower pace is one that the NBA will face because the pace is slow in the possession sense and not in the sense of minutes or seconds. Because something 'exciting', like a shot or turnover, is happening less often may not affect the popularity of the game, but it is a possibility.

Third, sports seem to go through phases of popularity and unpopularity. Pro basketball has been so popular recently that it's tempting to say that it's going to end. It might even be called a long-running fad. The outcry for more pro basketball teams may be like pleading for some great Christmas present that, when it finally arrives, becomes a letdown. Basketball will never die; that's stupid. But too much 'Hey, ain't this great!' tends to take lots of energy and it can eventually become work to promote something that should be naturally fun. Fans in some areas will get a little tired of the game in the next few years, not tired enough to justifiably scare the league, but enough to hurt some teams.

I also have to wonder about the future downfall of the Lakers and Celtics. While these two teams have been dominant, the league has gotten more popular. Fans have gotten to know and like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and have welcomed them every year in the playoffs as though it were a family visit. Some have been complaining that 'it's always the Lakers and Celtics', so the aging of Magic and Bird may not really hurt. Michael Jordan represents the next generation and he is a great star who can make up for the loss of Magic and Bird. It's going to be different, though, and 'different' can sometimes mean good things and sometimes mean bad things.

What will the new essentially unlimited free agency do? Can Florida's sun loving people, who support baseball and football so well, support two professional basketball teams? With more people involved financially in the game, will there be more bureaucratic complexities to deal with and to work through slowly?

The headline on the last two regular season final NBA Newsletters has been the same, "NBA Breaks Attendance Record". If they use the same headline next year, it will be with an asterisk. With 82 more games to be played next year because of expansion, total attendance will go up next year, but with two more losing teams, average attendance will go down.

The NBA appears to me to be in for a few years that won't be as smooth as the past several. The expansion teams as a group won't help. If I'm wrong, I'm happy, because I love the game and am always glad to see it prosper. If I'm right, this is just a warning.

Aside from attendance, how will the two new NBA teams do next year? Poorly, obviously. Expansion teams never go to the playoffs or have a winning record. Usually, they finish last in the league in won-loss record and usually are near the bottom of the league in both offense and defense. But how bad are they? They're SOOO bad...

Just kidding. I took a look at several of the past expansion teams to see how they did and also evaluated many of the expansion picks and NBA veterans that were picked up by Charlotte and Miami to try to decide exactly how they will do next year. The results, I think, are pretty accurate.

The most recent expansion team, the '80-81 Dallas Mavericks, finished their first season with a 15-67 record. They were 11-30 at home and 4-37 on the road, the road record being especially typical of expansion teams. The team had an offensive rating of 100.9, good enough for 20th in a league where the average was 103.8. Their defensive rating was 109.3 and was the worst in the league. The team was slow in its pace as it had no established scorers and no one who wanted to show that he could score. The top scorer was Jim Spanarkel, who scored 14.4 ppg with a floor % of .554. The Mavericks tried twenty different people throughout the season trying to find ways to improve.

The previous expansion team was the New Orleans Jazz of '74-75 and was the first of three recent expansion teams to pick a stupid nickname. The team went 20-21 at home and 3-38 on the road for a total record of 23-59. Unlike the Mavericks, the Jazz was a fast team that had an established scorer doing a lot of shooting. That scorer was Pete Maravich and it was his worst shooting year, shooting 41.9% from the field. As a result, the Jazz was worse offensively than it was defensively. Surprisingly, the team led the league in turnovers forced and did reasonably well on the defensive boards, which kept it's defensive rating only 2.4 points worse than average.

In '70-71, three expansion teams entered the league: the Buffalo Braves (the Clippers), the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Portland Trail Blazers. Statistical records weren't very complete at the time, which makes analysis of the teams somewhat more difficult. Generally, all three teams were 1.5% to 2.5% below the league average shooting from the field and rebounded marginally worse than average, which is actually quite bad because there were more missed shots to rebound. Free throw percentages varied widely from team to team and don't seem to indicate anything special about how the teams operated. (Cleveland got exceptionally unlucky with its opponents' free throw percentage. Generally the most consistent figure in a league is opponents' free throw percentage, with most teams' opponents shooting within 1% of the league average. In '70-71, the league average FT% was .745. Other than Cleveland, one team's opponents were .015 from that average and all other teams' opponents were within .010 of it. Cleveland's opponents shot 77.3% from the line, almost three standard deviations away from average and very strange.) All three teams had one or two players willing and able to shoot a lot.

Before the '70-71 expansion, there were four more expansion years that I looked at, involving six teams: '68-69 Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, '67-68 San Diego Rockets and Seattle SuperSonics, '66-67 Chicago Bulls, and '61-62 Chicago Packers. The statistical information was very incomplete, especially for the defense, and didn't prove very helpful. All teams had one or more willing shooters who could score around twenty a game, though not necessarily efficiently. Most teams appeared to run at a fast pace, but those that appeared to be slow ('66-67 Chicago Bulls, '61-62 Chicago Packers) were probably the worst offensively.

History didn't tell me much, at least nothing I didn't already know. It definitely didn't help in predicting first year records for the Hornets and Heat. The most informative thing it told me was that only 8 of 11 expansion teams improved in their second year. Expansion teams that start off so bad can get even worse.

In economics, it is warned that historical trends are useless in predicting what will happen in some future event. That may be the case here, too, but it would seem that history can usually give some indication of what will happen. How specific an indication it gives is probably the concern behind the warning. In fact, history does indicate that expansion teams are bad, but that is a very general indication and not something that doesn't follow from logic.

Thus, looking at both expansion teams from a more justifiable and accurate position, I calculated individual floor %'s for all the players taken in the expansion drafts and worked with them.

Charlotte expansion players combined for a floor % of .517 in almost 7700 possessions (over past two years). Point guards Rickey Green and Michael Holton appear to be the most efficient players on the team, with Mugsy Bogues close behind. Point guards are expected to be the most efficient players, so these players may not be the most important on the team. Ranking the three among the league's point guards, they are potentially just about average, but plausibly somewhat worse, though better than John Bagley or Steve Colter. The people who will be doing much of the shooting on the team will be Kelly Tripucka and Dell Curry (if he doesn't lose his job to Rex Chapman, in which case, this is a worst case scenario), who aren't efficient scorers. Tripucka can shoot only passably and commits too many turnovers, while Curry can't shoot or hold on to the ball. With them handling the ball, the team's offense will be bad, but not worse than New Jersey's of last year.

There are a few sure shots to make the Hornets' team next year: Tripucka at starting small forward, Kurt Rambis at starting power forward, Dave Hoppen at center, Curry at shooting guard (possibly starting), Green most likely at starting point guard, Holton at another guard, and Chapman at shooting guard. There are quite a few possibilities also: Bogues at point guard if his shooting can be overlooked, Michael Brooks at forward if his rebounding is heavily valued and his shooting improves or is overlooked, rookies Tom Tolbert and Jeff Moore at forward positions if they show potential, and Robert Reid at forward or guard and was acquired in a trade, but who has played very poorly for the past year and a half and doesn't seem to have anything at all left to contribute.

The team will probably score on between 51.5% and 53% of its possessions next year and have an offensive rating between 102.5 and 105.5. The team will run a lot and shoot a lot, probably averaging about 105 possessions per game. Defensively, the team will be awful, allowing a floor % between .555 and .570, with a defensive rating between 108.5 and 111.0. All in all, the team should score between 107.5 and 109.5 ppg and allow 113.5 to 117.0 ppg, projecting to a likely record between 19-63 and 25-57, with my guess being 22-60.

A team that has so many experienced veterans as Charlotte does would be expected to do a little too well at first, keeping it from improving quickly in future years as Dallas did. Tripucka, Rambis, and Green especially should contribute at first, but won't be developing, as younger players would be, into an up-and-coming team. It will probably take a while for this franchise to reach .500 unless it gets lucky in the draft lottery or attracts top free agents.

Miami appears to be in worse shape in its first season, with its expansion players combining for a floor % of only .510 in just over 4300 possessions. Jon Sundvold was tops in floor %, around .550, with no one else approaching him. Billy Thompson, Scott Hastings, Kevin Williams, and Pearl Washington should be around .500 or better in floor %, but that is very uncertain.

The players who should stick: Thompson at starting small forward, Hastings at center, Sundvold at starting guard, Washington at guard, rookie Rony Seikaly at power forward or center, rookie Kevin Edwards at guard, and rookie Grant Long at forward.

The players who could stick: Williams at guard if there is room and if he shoots better, Conner Henry at guard or forward if the Heat is desperate, rookies Sylvester Gray, Orlando Graham, and Nate Johnson at forward if they show potential, and Arvid Kramer only because I've never heard of him. As long as the team fills its rebounding needs, they can chop some of the awful big guys like Stroeder and Gnad (with this name, he couldn't be good).

Miami should be worse offensively and better defensively than Charlotte. They'll probably have a floor % between .505 and .520, with an offensive rating between 99.0 and 101.5. Defensively, the team should have a floor % between .550 and .565, with a defensive rating between 107.5 and 109.5. I don't know anything about their coach's philosophy, but the team looks to be ready for an average pace. The team should score 101 or 102 ppg and allow between 108.5 and 110.5 ppg, giving them a record between 15-67 and 21-61, with my guess being 17-65.

The youth of the team should help Miami develop better and quicker than Charlotte. Hastings and Sundvold are the oldest players likely to play and they're both under 30 years old. Thompson and Washington, who are both 24 years old, could turn out quite good, as could the rookies. Winning close to 40 games in their second season isn't out of the question at all.

Basketball Hoopla, 1988, L. Dean Oliver