Teams Without Full Rosters On Opening Night

The Bulls have deals with 12 players, fewer than any other team in the NBA, as our roster counts show. They’ll surely make additions in the two weeks that remain before the start of training camp, but it would be somewhat surprising to see any more than one of the players they’ll be signing soon remain on the roster come opening night. Chicago is the only team in the NBA to start each of the last three regular seasons with the NBA-minimum 13 players on the roster.

Financial concerns are often at the root of a team’s decision not to carry a full complement of 15 players. There’s little call for the 14th and 15th men on a team’s roster, especially considering that only 13 players can be active for any single game, and rather than shoulder the cost of their salaries, teams like the Bulls have cut corners. Of course, rarely do players occupying spots Nos. 14 and 15 on a roster make more than the minimum salary, but as Chicago’s tightrope-walking with the luxury tax line demonstrated last season, every dollar counts.

Short opening-night rosters don’t preclude a team from success. The ever-contending Spurs carried 13 players to begin the 2011/12 season and have had just 14 as each of the last two regular seasons has begun. The Spurs have 14 fully guaranteed deals for this coming season, so history bodes poorly for Bryce Cotton, Josh Davis and JaMychal Green, each of whom has a partial guarantee of less than $100K. San Antonio’s reluctance to carry 15 players in recent years is also an ominous sign for the prospect that restricted free agent Aron Baynes will be back in black-and-silver. Still, the team continues to scour the market, having shown interest in Allen, Julyan Stone, Ryan Hollins and others, so it seems a distinct possibility that the Spurs will buck their trend and carry 15, or perhaps stay at 14 and shed one of the fully guaranteed deals on their books to make room for someone else.

The Clippers have carried 14 players on opening night each of the past three seasons, whether it was former GM Neil Olshey, a triumrivate of Gary Sacks, Vinny Del Negro and Andy Roeser, or current president of basketball operations Doc Rivers in charge of player personnel. The difference this year is that Donald Sterling is no longer around, replaced by Steve Ballmer, who’s already demonstrated a willingness to spare no expense, having dropped $2 billion to buy the franchise and having committed more than $50MM over the next five years to Rivers. That gives rise to the idea that the Clippers, who have 13 known fully guaranteed deals plus one for Hedo Turkoglu that’s presumably fully guaranteed, will make room for one more.

Other teams have carried fewer than 15 twice in the last three years. Oklahoma City has begun each of the past two regular seasons at 14 players, a foreboding precedent for Lance Thomas, who’s the only one of the 15 players the Thunder are currently carrying who’s without a fully guaranteed deal. The Pacers, who have only 13 fully guaranteed deals as it stands, have started the regular season with 14 players in each of the last two seasons that president of basketball operations Larry Bird has been at the helm. The Grizzlies have entered the regular season with only 13 players in both of the past two seasons, but after an offseason shakeup restored GM Chris Wallace to power, there’s reason to suspect that Memphis will at least keep the 14 players on fully guaranteed deals whom they currently possess. The Celtics have twice carried 14, but their roster is bloated with 21 deals, a logjam that’s prevented them from officially signing Evan Turner. A handful of other organizations have also kept an open roster spot on two of the last three opening nights, but all of them have seen regime changes in the front office over that time.

The 2011 lockout appeared to have an effect on the opening-night rosters for the 2011/12 season, when nearly half the league started with fewer than 15 players. Still, nearly a third of the league has done so in each of the past two seasons, and surely there will be open roster spots when the regular season commences late next month, to the disappointment of many camp invitees. Here’s a look at each team to have started the regular season at less than the 15-man roster maximum over the past three years. Those that began with 13 have (13) by their names.

2013/14

  • Boston Celtics
  • Chicago Bulls (13)
  • Golden State Warriors
  • Indiana Pacers
  • L.A. Clippers
  • Memphis Grizzlies (13)
  • Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Phoenix Suns
  • San Antonio Spurs

2012/13

  • Atlanta Hawks
  • Charlotte Hornets (then known as the Bobcats)
  • Chicago Bulls (13)
  • L.A. Clippers
  • Memphis Grizzlies (13)
  • New Orleans Pelicans
  • Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Philadelphia 76ers
  • Sacramento Kings
  • San Antonio Spurs

2011/12

  • Boston Celtics
  • Charlotte Hornets (then known as the Bobcats)
  • Chicago Bulls (13)
  • Dallas Mavericks
  • Detroit Pistons (13)
  • Golden State Warriors
  • Indiana Pacers (13)
  • L.A. Clippers (13)
  • New York Knicks
  • Philadelphia 76ers
  • Phoenix Suns (13)
  • Sacramento Kings
  • San Antonio Spurs (13)
  • Utah Jazz (13)

RealGM was used in the creation of this post. 

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