The thought of NBA expansion always excites me! This is a topic I have a lot of thoughts on. Before I share what they are, let me remind all of us that the league as of now is not interested in expanding in the near future. But, that doesn't mean they won't ever expand. I do expect expansion to happen within the next 10-15 years and possibly even sooner than that.
When expansion does happen next, I expect it to expand to 32 teams, though I do think a 36 team league is very possible in the next 25-30 years. The game is becoming more global and the NBA has fewer spots than any other league in the world, so there's definitely enough talent to expand to 36 teams.
When expansion does happen, the league should consider realignment of the divisions/conferences to give teams a more balanced travel schedule. Minnesota for example has a brutal travel schedule being located in the Western Conference despite being really close to Eastern Conference teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls. Actually, I think the NBA should already consider abolishing conferences and giving everyone a more balanced schedule. Help the Midwest teams in the Western Conference out. New Orleans and Memphis have brutal schedules as well.
As for what cities are likely to get a team (let's say six cities get a team in the next 30 years expanding to 36), these are the cities I think that are most likely to get a team:
#1. Seattle: When the NBA does decide to expand next, Seattle will be the first city that gets a team. The SuperSonics were stolen from Seattle and should never have left for OKC. Bringing back the Sonics would right that wrong. What also helps is Seattle is getting an NHL franchise, so that means a new arena is coming to the city.
#2. Las Vegas: Las Vegas I think will get a team because the NHL and NFL are already there. There were concerns about gambling, but I think those concerns have died down. The NBA is even embracing partnerships with legalized betting services, so when expansion does come again, Las Vegas is almost certain to get a team after Seattle.
#3. Kansas City: Kansas City has an NBA arena in place in the Sprint Center and it's a great sports town in the Midwest. They have the NFL and MLB there with a history of the NBA (Sacramento Kings). I think if the NBA adds to the Midwest, Kansas City is the first place they'd look.
#4. Austin: Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and one of the biggest without a major sports team (11th largest city in the country). The NBA is thriving in Texas, so it stands to reason they could have a fourth team in the lone star state.
#5. Louisville: The ABA had a really successful team in Kentucky called the Colonels that for whatever reason didn't survive the merger with the NBA. Louisville has an NBA ready arena in the KFC Yum! Center that also houses the Louisville Cardinals. Louisville is definitely a place the NBA should strongly give consideration to.
#6. Vancouver: The Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis due to being really bad and having poor attendance, but in hindsight, the NBA probably wishes they were more patient with them and kept them in Vancouver. It's a beautiful city that is much bigger than it was in the 1990s and would give the NBA a second Canadian team. They also have an arena in place that houses the Vancouver Canucks of the NHL.
#7. Montreal: There has been a movement to get an NBA team in Montreal and if Vancouver doesn't make a strong enough pitch, Montreal could very well be the second Canadian city to get an NBA team. Plus, it has a very international feel being French speaking and all. The NBA loves to go international and become more global, making Montreal a viable option. An arena also wouldn't be an issue as they house the Montreal Canadians of the NHL.
#8. St. Louis: If the NBA wants to go Midwest, St. Louis would be another great option. They have an MLB and NHL team and recently lost their NFL team. The ABA had a team in St. Louis with the Spirits, so why not bring them back?
#9. Virginia: Virginia doesn't have a major pro sports team, making them an untapped market with lots of potential. DC doesn't count as a substitute. A lot of people see Virginia Beach as the place to put a team. Great market that is certain to support a team. On top of that, the ABA had a very successful team in Virginia called the Squires. Bring them back!
#10. London: If the NBA really wants to go international, they could roll the dice on London. It's not too far from New York and they could set up two teams there just like New York and Los Angeles. An arena is also there.
There are other options as well like Buffalo, Mexico City, Pittsburgh, San Jose, San Diego, Fresno, Omaha, and Cincinnati but those markets aren't as likely to see a team.
Buffalo because it's so close to Toronto and New York already has two teams in the Knicks and Nets. Upstate New York is its own region, which is why Buffalo is a possibility, but I don't see it happening.
Mexico City is intriguing because of it being international and a huge market. There are two major issues that I don't see being overcome:
#1. Living conditions. It's going to be a tough sell to the NBA Players Association on board with playing in a place like Mexico. The whole appeal of playing in the NBA is playing in the United States/Canada. It's going to be tough to get NBA players to agree to play in a more dangerous, underdeveloped place.
#2. Altitude: Mexico City has huge elevation (7,350 feet). That's way higher than Denver or Salt Lake City. A lot of players would succumb to altitude sickness and it could be deemed both an unfair homecourt advantage and hazard to player safety. Actually, I think altitude is the bigger hurdle of the two.
Pittsburgh has never really been a basketball city. Plus, Cleveland is pretty nearby. It is a big market with an MLB, NFL, and NHL team, though.
The issue with San Jose is the Warriors would fight it and probably successfully block an NBA team from coming to the South Bay. Plus, the NBA sees San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco as the same region/market. That all said, San Jose is one of the top ten biggest cities in the United States with an NBA level arena in the Shark Tank. It's definitely a possible market, but I find it less likely.
The same with San Diego. The Lakers and Clippers would probably fight it. Unless the Clippers decide to return to their San Diego roots and get that whole market to themselves. They might want to consider such a move. Especially since San Diego is one of the top ten biggest cities in the US.
Fresno is the 34th biggest city in the country and has its own market in the central valley of California. The issue is there just hasn't been much discussion about it. Plus, I'm not sure if the NBA wants to give California another team. They already have four. If they were to expand into California once more, Fresno might get the nod over both San Jose and San Diego, though.
The only issue with Omaha is it’s a bit smaller than places like Kansas City, Louisville, and Las Vegas. But it is the same size as Virginia Beach, so perhaps it's a more viable option than I think. I just don't see them getting a team. Purely a gut thing.
Cincinnati is smaller than Omaha and Ohio already has the Cavaliers. A Cincinnati-Cleveland rivalry would be pretty cool, though.