What if the NBA added two new teams this year?
The league’s hiatus gave us an opportunity to explore the possibility.
NBC Sports conducted a mock NBA expansion draft.
Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.
Keith Smith set protected lists for existing teams and explained his rationales:
- Celtics, Nets, Knicks, 76ers, Raptors
- Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Pacers, Bucks
- Hawks, Hornets, Heat, Magic, Wizards
- Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs
- Suns, Clippers, Lakers, Suns, Kings
- Nuggets, Timberwolves, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Jazz
Now, the Seattle SuperSonics (run by Kurt Helin) and Flint Tropics (run by Dan Feldman) make their selections.
Key rules for the expansion draft:
- A coin flip determines who picks first. The winner’s choice is: Nos. 5 and 36 picks in the 2020 NBA draft/second choice in expansion draft or Nos. 6 and 35 picks in 2020 NBA draft/first choice in expansion draft.
- Expansion teams alternate picks.
- Expansion must select one player from each incumbent team. Exception: If the only players available from an incumbent team earn at least $10 million, the expansion teams can bypass selection from that team. Expansion teams can’t select more than one player from each incumbent team.
- Expansion teams operate at 80% of the league-wide salary their first season and 90% of the league-wide salary cap their second season. The usual salary floor applies.
- Expansion teams draft without regard to the salary cap.
- Expansion teams can waive any selected player before the start of the season, and his salary doesn’t apply toward the salary cap and luxury tax. Essentially, expansion teams get unlimited amnesty provisions with selected players before the start of the season.
- Incumbent teams can offer draft compensation to entice expansion teams to select certain players.
You can listen to a podcast of the expansion draft, which includes haggling over those enticements and other on-the-fly strategy.
Here’s a tracker of all unprotected players:
Flint won the coin toss and opted for the higher first-round pick in the 2020 NBA draft. That put Seattle up first in the expansion draft.
Here are our selections and teams and analysis of each (listed salaries are for 2020-21):
I get Omari Spellman was an unlikely No. 1 pick, and it’s fair to question how much better the 22-year-old Spellman will get. But what I want on this team are bigs who can hit the three and play inside a little, and Spellman can do those things. I may be higher on him than most and see a future solid rotation guy, and if I can get that out of this draft, I will take it.
If all goes well, Gordon Hayward will be the face of the franchise. He’s still a good player who hasn’t necessarily left his prime despite health issues previously sidetracking him. Hayward should hold positive trade value on an expiring contract, even if his salary is high. That provides flexibility if the Tropics and/or Hayward want to pivot before the next trade deadline. Even if Hayward opts out this offseason, sign-and-trade possibilities exist. The worst-case scenario is Hayward immediately opting out and leaving Flint with no return. But even in that scenario, more than $34 million of salary relief is a silver lining.
This is a roll of the dice. Keita Bates-Diop has shown flashes of potential (while in Minnesota), he’s a good shooter on corner threes, and it’s worth the pick and a little bit of money to see if he can develop into a part of the Sonics’ future.
Isaac Bonga has the size, athleticism and raw talent to become a good NBA player. I’m not sold he’ll get there, but he’s trending in the right direction. The Tropics are happy to take a chance on the high-upside 20-year-old.
Another floor-spacing four, JaMychal Green fits into my “he can be a solid rotation player for us and we might be able to trade him to a playoff team/contender at the deadline” mold. He has a player option, so there is risk he just walks, but it’s a reasonable risk from my perspective.
I was high on Dennis Smith Jr. in the 2017 NBA draft. Frankly, he has nearly completely disappointed since – even while getting a change in environment. But Smith is still just 22, and point guards tend to develop later than other positions. So, he gets yet another opportunity to prove himself.
This is simply a bet that Kevon Looney can get and stay healthy. He has shown on the league’s biggest stage that he can play, that he is an athletic five who can play in the modern game, but he just has to stay healthy. The Sonics will be banking on their medical/training teams to keep him on the court.
Boban Marjanovic has produced at elite levels in limited minutes. No team has ever fully unleashed him. Maybe that’ll happen Flint. Maybe it’s too late for Marjanovic, now 31, to get that type of treatment. At minimum, he should bring joy to fans and teammates.
Seattle receives the Suns’ 2020 second-rounder (via Memphis) on condition of selecting Grayson Allen.
I liked Jontay Porter a lot in this draft, but there are legitimate health concerns for a player who has yet to step on an NBA court, so I took the Grizzlies’ offer of a high second-rounder, plus a guy in Grayson Allen who can shoot the rock and maybe he can become a rotation player. Mostly this was about the pick. But someday the Sonics may regret not grabbing Porter here.
Points guards came at a premium in free agency last summer. T.J. McConnell is a perfectly reasonable backup with a small salary. There will probably be a point guard-needy team happy to trade a pick for him. If not, he can fill a role on the Tropics.
A solid, trustworthy veteran point guard who has played on the league’s biggest stages, Patty Mills can get the ball to our multitude of forwards on the roster, be a veteran leader in the locker room, plus he is another guy I might be able to trade at the deadline.
Isaiah Hartenstein – a 7-foot center – has fit issues in the modern NBA. But he’s mobile enough to have a fighting chance. The 21-year-old scores well inside, and his size is useful on the glass and defending the paint.
Nicolo Melli has become a solid part of the New Orleans rotation as a 6’9” big who can shoot the three and space the floor. No team can have enough shooting, he fits that, and at this point in the draft that one skill was enough for me.
Flint receives a Pistons’ top-three-protected pick in 2020, 2021 or 2022 (becomes unprotected first-round pick in 2023 if not conveyed) on condition of selecting Blake Griffin.
Blake Griffin was an All-NBA third team forward just last season. Will the expensive and injury-prone 31-year-old return to stardom? Probably not. But there’s at least a chance. Far more importantly, that’s a PRIME draft asset incoming from Detroit. Griffin – with a $38,957,028 player option – has the Tropics’ only guaranteed salary for 2021-22. They can afford that.
Seattle receives a Cavaliers’ lottery-protected first-round pick in 2022 or 2023 (becomes two second-round picks if not conveyed) and a Bucks’ first-round pick top-10 protected in 2022, top-10 and 25-30 protected in 2023 and top-8 protected in 2024 (becomes two second-round picks if not conveyed) on condition of selecting Kevin Love.
Kevin Love can still play, he’s averaging 17.6 points and 9.8 rebounds a game, and he still throws a mean outlet pass. He gives me a player from the Pacific Northwest the Sonics can sell to fans. However, the real reason for taking him is two first round picks. This was about adding to the stockpile.
Sterling Brown fills a limited role in the Bucks’ guard rotation. His toughness is endearing and gives him opportunities to grow as a defender and shooter. The Tropics would like to keep him at a low price.
Much like JaMychal Green above, Mike Scott is a veteran big man who can space the floor, he can play a role for us, and I might be able to flip him at the deadline to a team that needs a shooting big man.
Shaquille Harrison has quietly become an advanced-starts darling. His combination of athleticism and effort results in positive plays all over the floor. If he continues to progress as an outside shooter, he’ll be a keeper. Unfortunately, Flint will have to pay to keep the free agent before evaluating him further.
Garrett Temple is a solid, versatile guard who is not a great shooter but on my roster can give me respectable rotation minutes.
The theory of Skal Labissiere is nice – a big who can shoot 3-pointers and protect the rim. There are still major questions about his ability to handle the physicality of the NBA, though. Yet another player the Topics would like to keep at a low price.
There was no chance I was going to let the one Long Beach State player on the board not come to my team. James Ennis is also a solid wing player who can give me minutes this season.
Rayjon Tucker shined on the Bucks’ minor-league affiliate then hasn’t done much in Utah. He’s still just 22 and athletic. Maybe he needs more time to adjust to the NBA, though Flint certainly isn’t banking on anything.
Justin James is a guy the Kings’ like and has shown flashes of potential (a lot of Kings fans wanted to see him get more run). At this point in the draft, the pickings are slim and James’ potential separates him.
Jevon Carter is a dogged defender with no size to spare (6-foot-1). His offense looks far better when his 3-pointers are falling. The Tropics like him enough to pick him without the benefit of him being under contract, though that obviously creates uncertainty into him ever making the roster.
Abdel Nader has shown flashes in Oklahoma City and, in Seattle, he will get the opportunity to prove he can take advantage of more run. A late-draft roll of the dice.
Dwayne Bacon showed intriguing flashes last season then backslid this season. Maybe he just needs a fresh start outside Charlotte.
Mario Hezonja is a guy who everybody loves on paper but has never really put it together. He can have the ball in his hands more in Seattle, maybe that sparks something. With a player option, he could walk. Which would be fine, too.
Unlike the players drafted before and after him, Malcolm Miller is due no money. That’s the appeal. He’s unlikely to stick in Flint.
- Point guard: Patty Mills, Quinn Cook
- Shooting guard: Grayson Allen, Garrett Temple
- Small forward: James Ennis, Keita Bates-Diop, Mario Hezonja, Abdel Nader, Justin James
- Power forward: Kevin Love, JaMychal Green, Mike Scott, Nicolo Melli
- Center: Kevon Looney, Omari Spellman
- Own: Nos. 6 and 35 in 2020
- Extra: Future Bucks’ first-rounder, Future Cavaliers’ first-rounder, Suns’ second-rounder
Overall, what I was aiming for was a team with some young talent that could be part of what is being built in Seattle — not a superstar, there isn’t one of those available in this draft, but solid players — add a few picks, and get some veterans who can make the team competitive in the short term and potentially be traded to get prospects and picks down the line. Then, go hire a developmental coach — hello Kenny Atkinson — and use this draft as a foundation to build something over the next few years.
What I thought by the end of this was I didn’t get as much young talent as I had hoped, it got away from me a little bit. But I got a few players worth the gamble because of my team’s focus on development, some additional draft picks (a couple of first-rounders, if things break right), and a number of players I can trade during the season to bring back more prospects or picks. It’s a foundation we can build on.
- Point guard: Dennis Smith Jr., T.J. McConnell
- Shooting guard: Rayjon Tucker
- Small forward: Gordon Hayward, Isaac Bonga
- Power forward: Blake Griffin
- Center: Boban Marjanovic, Isaiah Hartenstein
- Own: Nos. 5 and 36 in 2020
- Extra: Pistons’ first-rounder
- Sterling Brown, Shaquille Harrison, Skal Labissiere, Jevon Carter, Dwayne Bacon, Malcolm Miller
Only the longshot chance of Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin remaining healthy and playing like stars will prevent the Tropics from being bad next season. The core of this team will be the No. 5 pick and Detroit’s first-rounder.
Hopefully, one of the young players selected in the expansion draft (Isaac Bonga, Dennis Smith Jr., Isaiah Hartenstein, Rayjon Tucker) hits. It’s tough to count on that. This will likely be a several-year buildup. The goal is striking the right balance between being entertaining and trading veterans for picks.
After selecting so many free agents in the expansion draft, Flint must still fill a third of its roster in free agency – on an extremely limited budget. The Tropics hope to retain as many of those free agents as possible (besides Malcolm Miller), though that’s easier said than done.
The big thing to watch this offseason: Griffin’s health. If he still looks significantly hampered, the Tropics could waive him during their de facto amnesty window prior to the season. Though they’d still have to pay him and liquidity can be an issue after posting the expansion fee, that’d free considerable salary-cap flexibility. Most likely, Flint keeps Griffin and hopes for the best.