SALT LAKE CITY — Jerry Colangelo is one of the most decorated figures in the NBA’s history, along with being one of its most influential men.
When USA Basketball was a mess, he became its executive director and created a program that restored national dominance, requiring a commitment from players for consecutive summers that many didn’t believe was possible.
He got it done.
He’s been arguably the most important figure in the history of the Phoenix Suns, being team owner and chief basketball executive during separate stints.
So, when he speaks on the future of basketball, it would be wise to take note — or at least understand he’s not just riffing.
The chairman for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame announced the finalists for the Hall, and stuck around Friday after the likes of Dwyane Wade and Pau Gasol took the stage. He was part of the Suns’ expansion group, and he believes the league is ready for more teams now.
“Personally, I do. OK, I do,” Colangelo told Yahoo Sports. “And I think you just hit on a couple of markets that make the most sense, [Seattle and Las Vegas].”
Thirty-two teams seems like a bit much on its face, but Colangelo feels like the talent can sustain 30 more jobs. During the biggest expansion boom of the late-'80s to the mid-'90s, the league went from 24 teams to 30.
Minnesota, Orlando, Miami, Toronto, Vancouver and Charlotte were added during that time. Some would say the league suffered because of the dilution of talent, and the Chicago Bulls dominated starting in the early '90s when they had no top-level talent peer.
“The stars continue to come,” Colangelo said. “[Mikal] Bridges in Brooklyn, he gets 45 in his [third] game. That’s a new [star]. I don’t worry about, ‘Well, how are you going to populate these new teams?’ There’s plenty of talent and more stars on the rise.
“I think basketball is in great shape. I think the game has grown so much. And I can think back. I used to hear things said about other players in the league. Well, who’s gonna replace Oscar Robertson, who’s gonna replace Jerry West? Who’s gonna replace Bill Russell, there was another wave of people, and another wave and the waves keep coming.
“You look at some of the individuals today, there’s a number of international players who are [Hall] finalists — Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Gasol, right. It’s amazing that the growth around the world of the game itself continues to explode. And I think it’s going to continue, you know why? Because it’s a great game.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about it, saying there hasn’t been any direct discussions on expansion, given the more pressing needs of getting a new collective bargaining agreement done.
“What I’ve said before, because the topic comes up a lot, I would say mainly people asking me or others in the league about it is that it is natural at some point that an organization expands,” Silver said. “In this case, because we’re both in a CBA cycle and a national media [rights] cycle, our current deals are up in two and a half years.”
The expansion fees are sent around to every team when the league expands, so the teams probably wouldn’t be against it. And with the recent purchase of the Phoenix Suns by Mat Ishbia at a $4 billion price tag, the market is set for franchise markers.
It seems like things are lining up that way, especially with Silver’s note about the CBA and media rights deals.
“The view from our governors has been, let’s figure out exactly what the new CBA looks like, let’s figure out what our new media deals look like. Then let’s think about expansion,” Silver said.
“So invariably, we will. There’s no active discussions in the league office right now, but we’ll turn back to it in a few years.”
For the present, Silver had to call for a vote to approve Ishbia, which passed unanimously. And Colangelo has been a welcome sounding board for Ishbia in his early days.
“I’ve met with both he and his brother. They’re two young guys who are enthusiastic, they’re committed,” Colangelo told Yahoo Sports. “Mat is a basketball guy in the sense that he played at Michigan State. Not much, but he played. And we had a chance to meet in Phoenix, he reached out to me and I told him I’m there to help any way I can.”
“Well, I’m so happy for Kevin, because I think he’s happy to be where he is,” Colangelo said. “I can’t say enough about him. I love that guy. I love that. His attitude — he’s a hooper. Yeah, he just wants to play basketball. Yeah, I will tell you this about the Phoenix team. Now, when you look at Chris Paul, you look at Booker, you look at Durant. There’s no high maintenance. These are guys who just want to play. I’m just excited for the whole team.”
And even at 83 years old, Colangelo still finds excitement and new things on the horizon.