Four Best Expansion Teams of Modern Era: Jaguars, Golden Knights & More
Josh Markowitz | 12 mins
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Expansion has long been a hot-button issue in North American professional sports. As the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL grew in popularity, the leagues spent much of the last third of the 20th century adding new teams.
However, this has largely come to a halt, as the NHL is the only one of the big four leagues to expand since 2004. But that may soon change as speculation persists regarding eventual expansion in the other major sports, despite attempts to rebuff some of the rumors.
These discussions, along with the conclusion of the Seattle Kraken’s inaugural season, inspired Bookies.com to examine which recent expansion teams achieved the most in their first three seasons of play. The last four teams* to join each league (five in the NBA because of how the expansion drafts worked out) were analyzed, not only based on their initial regular season and postseason success, but also their attendance figures, percentage of playing time by expansion draft picks, trade/free agency/draft decisions, all-stars/award winners and additional assets controlled.
This wholistic look at each franchise allowed us to capture a snapshot of which franchises set themselves up best for long-term success.
Best Expansion Teams Across Major 4 Sports
NFL – Jacksonville Jaguars
- Pro Bowlers
- QB Mark Brunell, 1996/97
- WR Keenan McCardell, 1996
- OT Tony Boselli, 1996/97
- WR Jimmy Smith, 1997
- P Bryan Barker, 1997
- OT Tony Boselli 1997
- P Bryan Barker 1997
- Key Free Agent Signings
- WR Jimmy Smith
- WR Keenan McCardell
- OT Leon Searcy
- DE Clyde Simmons
- LB Eddie Robinson
- Key Draft Picks
- OT Tony Boselli
- RB James Stewart
- OLB Kevin Hardy
- DE Tony Brackens,
- CB Aaron Beasley
- DE Renaldo Wynn
- DT Seth Payne
While the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville’s 1995 expansion mates, actually had a slightly better record through their first three seasons at 26-22, the Jaguars earn the nod here based on a variety of other factors. Both teams made it to the conference championship game in 1996, but the Jags made an additional playoff appearance in 1997, whereas the Panthers failed to get back to the postseason that year. Jacksonville also had stronger attendance numbers and received more playing time from their expansion draft picks.
The Jaguars' success was built on a series of shrewd personnel moves that considerably supplemented these initial picks. They selected Hall of Fame left tackle Tony Boselli with the second overall pick in the 1995 draft and traded their third and fifth round picks in that draft to Green Bay for Mark Brunell, who went on to start 117 games in a Jags uniform and is the franchise’s career passing leader.
Brunell teamed with free agent receiver additions Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell to form one of the most explosive aerial attacks in the league, as Jacksonville finished first in the NFL in passing offense in 1996 and fourth in 1997.
Defensively, the Jaguars never found the same level of play, but 1996 No. 2 overall pick Kevin Hardy helped orchestrate an improvement on that side of the ball upon his arrival. After finishing 28th in scoring defense in 1995, Jacksonville jumped to 19th with Hardy as one of eight new defensive starters his rookie year. They followed it up by rising to 15th in scoring defense in 1997, though the Jaguars were torched by Denver for 42 points in their wild-card loss that year.
Still, Jacksonville built a strong foundation in their first three years that helped them to further playoff appearances in 1998 and 1999. Their asset collection even netted the Jaguars an extra first rounder in the form of the ninth pick in the 1998 draft thanks to a trade of backup quarterback Rob Johnson. The ultimate result of that pick: Jacksonville career rushing yards leader Fred Taylor.
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MLB – Arizona Diamondbacks
- CF Devon White, 1998
- 2B Jay Bell, 1999
- 3B Matt Williams, 1999
- LF Luis Gonzalez, 1999
- SP Randy Johnson, 1999/00
- CF Steve Finley, 2000
- Award Winners
- CF Steve Finley, Gold Glove 1999/00
- SP Randy Johnson, Cy Young and 1999 Pitching Champ
- Key Free agents
- 1B Travis Lee
- 2B Jay Bell
- SP Andy Benes
- SP Randy Johnson
- SP Armando Reynoso
- CF Steve Finley
- RP Mike Morgan
- Key Draft Picks
- SP Brad Penny
- 2B Junior Spivey
- OF/DH Jack Cust
- RP Javier Lopez
- RP Mike Koplove
- 1B Lyle Overbay
- SP Chris Capuano
- SP Brandon Webb
Like most expansion teams, the Diamondbacks failed to find success in their first season. They finished 27th in the majors in runs scored in 1998 and also conceded over five runs a game (though as it was the heart of the steroid era, 10 other teams also allowed at least five runs per game that season). However, these poor results displeased team management, who went on an offseason spending spree to improve the roster.
Arizona more than doubled its payroll in 1999, headlined by the free agent agreement with Randy Johnson that made him one of the MLB’s highest earners. The Diamondbacks also heavily revamped their offense, trading for established hitters in Matt Williams and Luis Gonzalez, while signing Steve Finley to fill the hole left by Devon White’s departure. The moves worked out superbly.
Arizona took a staggering 35-win leap from its opening campaign and finished with the second-best record in the majors. The new bats helped power it to the league’s third highest run total, while Johnson anchored a staff that allowed the league’s third lowest run total, throwing a career-high 271.2 innings on his way to his first of four consecutive Cy Young wins in a Diamondbacks uniform. Although the Mets quickly dispatched them in the playoffs, Arizona’s presence was established.
The Diamondbacks took a step back in 2000, winning 15 fewer games and failing to make the playoffs, but they are still the only recent MLB expansion team to have multiple winning seasons in their first three years. The 2000 season also saw Arizona deal for one of its most important pieces, as it acquired Curt Schilling from Philadelphia five days before the trade deadline.
Though he could not guide them to the postseason that year, Schilling was instrumental in the Diamondbacks' 2001 World Series run, earning co-series MVP with Johnson as Arizona became the fastest true expansion team to win a championship in any major pro sport since the Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 NBA title in their third year of existence.
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NBA – Orlando Magic
- Award Winners
- SF Dennis Scott, 1991, 1st team all-rookie
- C Stanley Roberts, 1992, 2nd team all-rookie
- Key free agents
- C Greg Kite
- PF Jeff Turner
- SG Anthony Bowie
- Key Draft picks
- SG Nick Anderson
- SF Dennis Scott
- C Bison Dele
- C Stanley Roberts
Every recent NBA expansion team has struggled mightily coming out of the gate, with no individual squad posting a .500 record during its first three years, let alone making a playoff appearance. Although the Charlotte Bobcats won seven more games than the Magic during their initial three seasons, they failed to draft as effectively and had some of the league’s worst attendance numbers.
Orlando’s early seasons were primarily focused on roster building, though its expansion picks provided it with more contributions than any other team examined. Expansion draftees made all but 32 of the Magic’s 410 collective starts in 1989-90, and players like Terry Catledge and Scott Skiles became key multiyear contributors for the team.
While Orlando’s percentage of starts given to its expansion picks fell sharply in 1990-91, this was partially due to its collegiate draftees earning playing time. 1989 first round pick Nick Anderson made 42 starts after starting just nine games during his first season and rookie Dennis Scott, the fourth overall selection in 1990, was inserted into the starting lineup permanently by the 15th game of the season. Anderson and Scott remained stalwarts on the wing for more than half a decade, as each made over 300 career starts for the Magic.
Injuries hit Orlando hard in 1991-92, causing a 10-win drop-off, but it proved to be an excellent year to have a losing season. The 1992 draft was strong at the top with three decorated big men headlining the class, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner. The Magic finished with the NBA’s second-worst record and ultimately won the lottery, netting them a player who would change the course of their franchise in O’Neal.
Within another three years, Orlando had reached the NBA Finals thanks to his dominance, some fortuitous ping-pong ball bounces (in addition to winning the 1992 lottery, the Magic also won the 1993 lottery despite going 41-41 and used the pick to select Chris Webber and then traded him for Penny Hardaway) and the complementary play of previous draftees like Anderson and Scott.
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NHL – Vegas Golden Knights
- Award Winners
- C William Karlsson, 2018, Lady Byng
- D Derek Engelland, 2018, Mark Messier Leadership
- Coach Gerard Gallant, 2018, Jack Adams
- Key Free Agents
- C Paul Stasny
- Key Draft Picks
- C Nick Suzuki
- D Erik Brannstrom
- D Nicolas Hague
- C Peyton Krebs
Expansion teams are not supposed to look like the Golden Knights. In its opening season, Vegas stormed to the Pacific division title and ultimately the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Washington thanks to a roster with a level of talent previously unseen from new franchises.
A strong expansion draft and a number of savvy trades allowed the Golden Knights to stack assets that helped set up their fast start. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was left unprotected by Pittsburgh after Matt Murray’s performance during the Penguins' title run rendered him expendable and Vegas selected him after receiving additional draft pick compensation to do so. This guaranteed salary cap relief for Pittsburgh and gave the Golden Knights a proven netminder who became instrumental to their early success, especially in the playoffs.
Vegas’ six leading goalscorers in 2017-18, William Karlsson, Erik Haula, Jonathan Marchessault, James Neal, Reilly Smith and David Perron, also all came to the roster as expansion picks, along with several key defensemen. Karlsson, Marchessualt and Smith are still critical contributors to the Golden Knights to this day.
Following its run to the Stanley Cup Final, Vegas continued to act like a contender, working to augment its core and generally eschewing prospects in favor of players who could contribute right away. Max Pacioretty was acquired from Montreal before the 2018-19 season and Mark Stone was brought in from Ottawa at that year’s trade deadline. Though the Golden Knights were bounced in the first round of the 2019 playoffs by San Jose, it was another quality season.
Vegas’ third season saw the team once again claim the Pacific division crown, as the Golden Knights were three points clear of Edmonton when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NHL season to shut down with eleven games still on the schedule.
Following the return of hockey in the fall of 2020, Vegas made another playoff push, this time to the conference finals, where it lost to Dallas. It was the conclusion of the strongest three-year opening stretch seen from any recent expansion team in the big four professional leagues, one whose momentum still carries on as the Golden Knights have yet to post a losing season in their first five years, though they finally did miss the playoffs for the first time in 2021-22.