Vancouver, Vegas or … Dakar? Ranking the candidates for NBA expansion cities

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

The NBA may boast the most talent it’s ever had. There are all-time greats still dominating (LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant) and one-of-a-kind rookies (Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama). The league has 30 teams and only a few (Detroit, Washington, Portland) are devoid of an All-Star or a surefire future one.

In short, the NBA is robust. That also makes it the perfect time for expansion, something NBA commissioner Adam Silver says the league intends to explore when its current media rights deals ends in 2025. But where would the league look, and what are its best options? The first stage of expansion would probably be for two more teams but a couple more in the years after that is not out of the question.

With global basketball leagues flourishing and the 2024 Paris Olympics coming up, there is a lot to consider. So, let’s look at a selection (and please note that the list is not exhaustive – this is a mix of moonshots, possibles and probables) going from least to most likely.

10) Dakar, Senegal

The league has already established the NBA Academy Africa a few hours’ drive away in Saly, and the facility will continue to grow its footprint in the country and, perhaps, the continent. The NBA has also established the Basketball Africa League and players such as Joel Embiid and Hakeem Olajuwon have raised the profile of the game on the continent. But while an African franchise is decades away at best, the NBA, which loves to view itself as a global enterprise, should at least consider establishing a team in Africa. Dakar’s position in west Africa also puts it closer to the States than cities such as Nairobi or Cape Town. Other global wildcards include Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Beijing, which have huge NBA fanbases but would be tricky because of political or logistical challenges.

Chances of a franchise: 0% in the near future. But with Africa’s young population and the NBA’s increased foothold, there could be a team on the continent towards the end of the century.

9) Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville has long been bandied about by those in inner NBA circles. When a city already has a professional hockey arena, as Nashville does, the move could be made easily. The problem for Music City, though, is that its population isn’t especially large and the Memphis Grizzlies, located 220 miles away, probably wouldn’t be happy about losing market-share in the Volunteer State.

Chances of a franchise: 5%. It won’t happen in the next round of expansion but Nashville should continue to hold out hope as it’s one of only a handful of North American cities that could see a team sooner than later.

8) Madrid, Spain

There are many great basketball leagues in Europe. What started in Italy has grown to areas like Turkey, the Balkans, Greece, Russia and Spain. And while the Real Madrid basketball team may not quite have the heft of the football team, it competes in the strongest competitions outside North America. The team has also employed future NBA stars such as Luka Dončić, Dražen Petrović and Serge Ibaka.

Related: From Mahorn to Jordan: a brief guide to the NBA’s finest trashtalkers

Chances of a franchise: 5%. Expansion outside North America seems unlikely in the short-term: the time difference would create problems and the powerful Real Madrid organization’s influence could help keep the NBA out of its back yard. But European expansion has to be on the minds of league officials and while football will always be king in Spain, basketball has a strong following.

7) Louisville, Kentucky

Kentucky loves hoops, whether you’re talking the University of Kentucky in Lexington or the University of Louisville. The city was also home to the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels in the 1960s and 1970s. A new team in the state would serve a big local need. But the area just doesn’t seem populated enough to support a franchise.

Chances of a franchise: 10%. Like Nashville, there is low likelihood of this happening soon. But since there are so few other US options (Omaha? Jacksonville?) and the region is basketball crazy, it’s not impossible.

6) Paris, France

This is where things get really interesting. Paris has a huge population and a love affair with basketball. France also boasts several big name NBA players, from Hall of Famer Tony Parker to the league’s next big star, Victor Wembanyama, who would make tremendous ambassadors. In 2024, the city will host actual NBA games, as well as the Olympics, which itself will feature some of basketball’s biggest names. With popularity on the rise and the league always looking to expand, it wouldn’t shock us if Paris was on the shortest of shortlists for new sites.

Chances of a franchise: 20% within the next decade. Time zones and travel would be the biggest hurdles. But if a team were to surface in Paris and Madrid, then maybe one or two more in European cities not long after, it would give the league a potential new European division and viable multi-city road trips abroad. Heck, the distance from Paris to New York City isn’t much longer than the Big Apple to LA.

5) Vancouver, British Columbia

The city was once home to an NBA franchise, the Grizzlies, before the team moved to Memphis in 2001. And if another city (Seattle) on this list gets a team, that would set up a Pacific corridor from Vancouver down to Portland, which the NBA would most likely fancy. Vancouver, is a favorite city among NBA players, the Raptors have shown a team outside the US can win the title, there are some brilliant Canadian players in the league, and any team could share an arena with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. Seems like a win-win.

Chances of a franchise: 25% chance in the next 10 years. Doing so would give Canada a second team, create a Cascadian hub and fix the mistake of losing the Grizzlies at the start of the century. That’s a lot of good business.

4) Montreal, Quebec

Silver recently mentioned Montreal as a possibility for league expansion, which set off alarm bells in places like Seattle and Las Vegas. Nevertheless, the city makes sense. It has a professional hockey arena, a large population and it’s relatively close to NBA cities like Toronto, Detroit and New York. While Montreal seems less likely than the other cities below, because Silver mentioned it, it has to be watched closely.

Chances of a franchise: 30% chance in the next 10 years. Silver said it, so it could happen. Montreal is a big, beautiful city full of culture. Why not bring the NBA to the otherwise hockey-crazed town and try to make some inroads?

3) Mexico City, Mexico

Now we’re getting into the real meat. Mexico City has been hosting preseason and regular season games since the 1990s. It already has a popular G-League team, there is a huge sports-crazed population and, like Canada, there wouldn’t be the time-zone issues that come with a team in Africa or Europe. Some officials have voiced concern over player safety and the city’s high altitude (7,000-plus feet) but having a team in Mexico, along with the US and Canada, would be very appealing (and something its rival, the NFL, cannot say).

Chances of a franchise 50% in the next decade. The NBA has clearly given the idea serious thought. Mexico City just has to prove it can handle a team – and it’s in the process of doing so with the G-League Capitanes.

2) Seattle, Washington

Ever since the Seattle SuperSonics left in 2007, the city has pined for the team’s return. If you ask residents, they’ll tell you the franchise was stolen by Oklahoma City and former NBA commissioner David Stern. Even today, Seattleites like Jamal Crawford continue to talk about Seattle needing its team back. The franchise won a championship in 1979 and boasts famed alums like Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Jack Sikma.

Chances of a franchise: 95% in the next few years. All the tea leaves indicate the NBA will make a move. And the city, with its tech money and rabid fanbase, is as ready as any.

1) Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas became a real possibility for expansion once the NBA began to partner with various gambling outlets. Not to mention the fact that LeBron James has stated that he wants to one day own a team in Sin City. Vegas is already home to the NHL’s Golden Knights, the NFL’s Raiders, a Formula One race and, soon, MLB’s Athletics. It also hosts the NBA summer league, the In Season Tournament final rounds and, of course, the reigning WNBA champion Aces. So, it seems only a matter of time before the city gets an NBA team – most likely by 2025, if you believe the rumors.

Chances of a franchise: 98%. This will almost certainly happen within the next few years. There’s a reason why Vegas has been given summer league and In Season Tournament. It could also share an arena with the Golden Knights.