When LeBron James spoke out in favor of contraction last week, at least in theory, it reignited the debate over whether a smaller NBA would be a better NBA.
"Hopefully the league can figure out one way where it can go back to the '80s where you had three or four All-Stars, three or four superstars, three or four Hall of Famers on the same team," James said. "The league was great. It wasn't as watered down as it is [now]."
For some perspective on the issue, I thought it might make sense to look back in time at what contraction might have looked like in the past. What teams would not be with us if the league had previously cut some of its weaker franchises? I decided to look back in five-year increments, so at the league is it stood at the end of the 2005-06 season, the 2000-01 season and so on.
The primary criteria for selecting franchises was attendance over the previous three seasons (from Basketball-Reference.com, weighted by a factor of three for the most recent year, two for the year before that and one for two seasons prior). I'll show that for each season in question as well as record in that season, then discuss the rationale behind my selections.
2006: Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers
Team Wtd Att Record
Atlanta 600,775 26-56
Orlando 616,516 36-46
Houston 646,002 34-48
Portland 649,397 21-61
New Jersey 654,172 49-33
Who would have missed the Atlanta Hawks had they been contracted five years ago? The Hawks had been one of the league's weakest teams for years, riding a seven-year stretch without a postseason appearance. Their ownership was in the midst of a court battle that would not be resolved until last week. Meanwhile, fans in Atlanta had tuned out, leaving the Hawks with the league's worst adjusted attendance.
Despite poor attendance, neither the Orlando Magic nor the Houston Rockets looked like ideal candidates for contraction. Both teams featured No. 1 overall picks at the center position (Dwight Howard and Yao Ming) and were reasonably competitive on the floor. Houston's low attendance at this point stunned me given that the Rockets made the playoffs the previous two seasons and were playing in a new building. Orlando had some arena issues at the time, which would subsequently be resolved with the construction of the sparkling Amway Center.
That brings us to the Portland Trail Blazers, who had won a league-low 21 games the previous season. The combination of poor play on the floor and bad behavior off of it turned away Portland fans, long among the league's most loyal supporters. At the time, the Blazers would have been an obvious choice for contraction. Of course, within 12 months, the emergence of Brandon Roy as a rising star and the selection of Greg Oden with the No. 1 overall pick would reinvigorate the market. But none of that was apparent at the time.
2001: Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors
Team Wtd Att Record
L.A. Clippers 556,424 31-51
Golden State 557,510 17-65
Atlanta 571,245 25-57
Houston 578,756 45-37
Vancouver 585,808 23-59
Going back five years, things were little better for the Hawks, who were just beginning what would prove to be an extraordinarily lengthy rebuilding process. For the second time, they would have been cut. Houston also makes a surprising repeat appearance on the list. At the time, the Rockets were coming off a near-playoff season and had a dynamic young star in Steve Francis. Five years earlier, Houstonians did have the excuse that the Compaq Center was nearing the end of its run. With the Toyota Center under construction, it would have made no sense to contract the Rockets.
Instead, our second choice is the Golden State Warriors. If we're paying attention to market size in this exercise, leaving the Bay Area would be a bad choice, but based strictly on the criteria of attendance and team performance we've established, the Warriors were a logical pick a decade ago. They had gone seven years without a playoff berth and die-hard fans had been turned off by the poor performance.
Lastly, the fans of Vancouver deserve kudos for avoiding the very bottom of this list with a terrible, lame-duck team on its way to Memphis at season's end.
1996: Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers
Team Wtd Att Record
L.A. Clippers 431,870 29-53
Philadelphia 498,841 18-64
Atlanta 507,733 46-36
Miami 605,506 42-40
L.A. Lakers 612,845 53-29
For whatever reason, there was little connection between team performance and attendance in the mid-1990s. Atlanta (yet again), the Miami Heat and (gasp!) the Los Angeles Lakers were all playoff teams the year before, yet struggled to put fans in seats. It's worth noting with the Hawks and the Heat the tendency of teams in the Southeast to perform poorly by this measure. The Lakers are much more difficult to explain. The small size of the Great Western Forum was an issue (even when the Lakers were playing to less than 100 percent of capacity on average, it made it impossible to draw big crowds for marquee games), but the Lakers made the playoffs in both 1994-95 and 1995-96 and ... they're the Lakers. How could they have possibly had attendance issues?
Again, I'm going with franchises, not markets, so Los Angeles' second team and Philadelphia are out of this imaginary league (which had just expanded to Vancouver and Toronto). The Clippers dealt with more significant attendance issues before bolting the Sports Arena for Staples Center, though Donald Sterling was surely still profiting at the time. Meanwhile, the 76ers were an afterthought in the Philly sports scene until they drafted Allen Iverson in the summer of 1996. Within five years, the Sixers would be in the NBA Finals and in the league's top five in terms of attendance.
1991: Denver Nuggets and Washington Bullets
Team Wtd Att Record
Washington 468,667 28-54
Denver 484,769 19-63
Indiana 491,889 40-42
New Jersey 497,504 29-53
L.A. Clippers 498,363 32-50
It's worth noting how much lower NBA attendance was as recently as the late 1980s and early 1990s (some of the halcyon days James recalls). Five teams had weighted attendance of lower than 500,000 a year in 1988-89 through 1990-91, an average of barely 12,000 fans per game. Flash forward 15 years and no team had a weighted attendance below 600,000 from 2003-04 through 2005-06.
As of 1990-91, both the Nuggets and the then-Bullets were struggling on the court and in the stands. Washington had last won more than 42 games in 1978-79, when the Bullets lost in the NBA Finals to the Seattle SuperSonics, and missed the playoffs all three years in consideration. Denver, meanwhile, had unsuccessfully turned to Paul Westhead's high-octane attack to breathe life into the once-proud franchise. It would take Washington more than a decade (and a name change) to find its way out of the abyss, though the addition of talented youngsters like Juwan Howard and Chris Webber helped improve attendance. The Nuggets would become competitive again more quickly before slipping in the late 1990s.
The big surprise in this group is Indiana. The Pacers were two years away from hiring Larry Brown and becoming contenders in the Eastern Conference for the rest of the decade.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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