Hassan Whiteside

Mock NBA expansion draft
(Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

Mock NBA expansion draft: Nuggets, Timberwolves, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Jazz

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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an 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.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division, Central Division, and Pacific Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Northwest:

Denver Nuggets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: Denver had maybe the easiest protections decisions in the NBA. Two rotation players (Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee) are ineligible, so the Nuggets simply protect their other rotation players.

Keita Bates-Diop is the exact type of player an expansion team should snag. He’s shown some upside in limited minutes. Vlatko Cancar has the benefit of an additional year on his contract, and will be only 23 years old at the start of next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: The Wolves are keeping guys who might be a part of the future. Most were no-brainers. The decision point was Omari Spellman v.s Juancho Hernangomez. Keeping Hernangomez doesn’t mean Minnesota will definitely re-sign him, but he has more upside than Spellman.

After Spellman, the rest are take it or leave it. Also, the Timberwolves aren’t paying either expansion team to take James Johnson off their hands.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: If this was done before the season, there could have been an argument for the Thunder to expose both Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. Both have played far too well to chance that now. Steven Adams is overpaid, but not by enough to leave him unprotected. The rest of the players, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, are young players with upside.

Abdel Nader has been a part of the rotation at times for OKC, but he’s not getting protected over a younger player. Deonte Burton and Mike Muscala were easy decisions due to their minimal roles for the Thunder.

Portland Trail Blazers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: Portland is keeping its key veterans and younger players. The decision point was Wenyen Gabriel vs. the three unprotected veterans. In the end, the Trail Blazers chose to protect Gabriel, who they’ll likely renounce in free agency.

As for the three veterans, they all had strong cases against protecting them. Trevor Ariza is overpaid at this point his career. Rodney Hood is coming off a torn Achilles’. And Mario Hezonja just isn’t worth protecting, even despite his minimum salary.

Utah Jazz

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: Utah’s first seven players were easy decisions. They are all rotation players. The decision point was keeping a non-guaranteed player (ultimately chose 2019 second-round pick Miye Oni) over either Mike Conley or Ed Davis.

The Jazz are leaving Conley and Davis unprotected because neither acquisition has worked out as hoped for. If Utah can clear Conley’s salary, that would be helpful for a team that is starting to get very expensive. Davis makes less than Conley, but the fit just doesn’t work. And of the minimum players, none have found a rotation role.

Watch Aron Baynes score career-high 37 points, lift Suns past Trail Blazers

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PHOENIX — Aron Baynes scored a career-high 37 points on a career-high nine 3-pointers, Dario Saric added 24 points and the Phoenix Suns beat the Portland Trail Blazers 127-117 on Friday night to snap a four-game losing streak.

Baynes was 9 of 14 from long distance and 12 of 23 overall. He also had 16 rebounds.

The huge night came one game after the big Australian didn’t even play against the Toronto Raptors because coach Monty Williams didn’t like the matchup.

“It can be funny in the NBA like that,” Baynes said. “Night to night it can be completely different. One thing we’ve done well as a team is a next-man-up mentality. If you go out there and play within Monty’s system, he usually puts you in places to succeed.”

Phoenix never trailed and made 19 3-pointers. It was a much-needed win for the Suns after they had lost four straight home games to hurt their already fading playoff hopes.

The 6-foot-10 Baynes is an eight-year NBA veteran but almost never shot 3-pointers until last season. He made it a big part of his game when he joined the Suns this season and was hitting them at a 33% rate coming into Friday.

He came out firing against the Blazers, hitting five from beyond the arc in the first quarter, which already beat his career high of four, He was especially good from his favorite spot at the top of the key and his nine 3-pointers tied a single-game franchise record.

By the end of the night, the crowd was screaming for him to shoot every time he touched the ball beyond the arc.

“Exactly how I drew it up this morning,” Williams said laughing. “Aron, go for 37. Nine threes. He got the guys going when he started dropping a few of them. Then we started running a few plays for him.”

Devin Booker added 23 points and 12 assists for the Suns.

CJ McCollum led Portland with 25 points, and Damian Lillard had 24. Hassan Whiteside added 23 points and 20 rebounds. The Blazers are among the teams fighting with the Suns for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. They’re 3 1/2 games behind eighth-place Memphis. The Suns are six games back.

Whiteside said the Blazers simply didn’t have an answer for Baynes.

“He had a career night, bro. It happens,” Whiteside said. “He took 23 shots. He got hot. Once he hit a step back over (Lillard), I knew he was feeling good.”

Said Blazers coach Terry Stotts: “You expect him to make some threes but you don’t expect him to make that many.”

The Suns led 56-33 midway through the second quarter but Portland responded with a big run to close the gap to 67-58 by halftime. Baynes had 22 points by the break, making six 3-pointers. McCollum had 16 points for the Blazers.

Pacers All-Star Domantas Sabonis has 20 and 11, leads Pacers past Blazers

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INDIANAPOLIS — Domantas Sabonis had 20 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Indiana Pacers to a 106-100 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Malcolm Brogdon had 17 points, eight assists, and six rebounds while T.J. Warren and Victor Oladipo scored 15 points each for the Pacers, who have four of their last five.

CJ McCollum had 28 points and eight assists, Gary Trent Jr. had 20 points, and five rebounds, and Hassan Whiteside had 18 points and 16 rebounds for the Trail Blazers, who have lost five of six.

The Pacers were able to hold off the Blazers’ late push.

After Brogdon made a jumper to give Indiana a 103-93 lead with 1:54 remaining, Portland went on a 7-0 run. McCollum’s floater made it 103-100 with 30 seconds to go.

Myles Turner drilled a 3-pointer with 9 seconds remaining to seal it.

The Trail Blazers went on a 10-1 run late in the first half to push ahead.

McCollum made a 3-pointer to give Portland a 42-40 lead with 3:13 to go in the second quarter. After a free throw by Oladipo, McCollum made another three and then a fadeaway to put the Trail Blazers in front 47-41.

Portland led 49-43 at halftime.

Watch Zion Williamson score 25, lead Pelicans to crucial win vs. Trail Blazers

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Zion Williamson had 25 points for his seventh straight game with at least 20 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 128-115 on Friday night.

The No. 1 draft pick was playing in just his 11th game after a right knee injury sidelined him for the first half of the season.

The Pelicans, who led by as many as 22 points, have won four of their last five games.

The Blazers, who have lost three straight, were without Damian Lillard, who is expected to miss three or more games because of a groin injury that occurred in Memphis last week. It kept Lillard out of the All-Star Game and the 3-point contest last weekend.

Lillard is averaging a career-high 29.5 points and 7.8 assists per game. His absence hurts the Blazers, who went into the game 3.5 games back of Memphis for eighth in the Western Conference standings.

And it’s not just Lillard: Portland had only nine players available for the game.

CJ McCollum took over as point guard and finished with 27 points and 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside added 19 points and 12 rebounds.

The Pelicans were among four teams, along with the Blazers, fighting for those last playoff berths with just a third of the season left. Coach Alvin Gentry said he’s treating the last 27 games like a college season.

“We want to play to get into a tournament. We want a high seed. Those are the things that we’ve talked about. Obviously, we have to play good basketball,” Gentry said.

The Pelicans also won the previous three meetings this season with Portland. Earlier this month in New Orleans, Williamson had 31 points and nine rebounds in a 138-117 victory over the Blazers.

Williamson, who played just one season at Duke before going pro, went into the game against the Blazers averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.

His streak of games with 20-plus points is the longest among NBA rookies this season. And he was the first player since Michael Jordan to have 20 or more in eight of his first 10 NBA games.

Lonzo Ball’s 3-pointer put the Pelicans up 29-17 in the opening quarter. But the Blazers closed within 40-38 early in the second on Whiteside’s dunk. It was as close as Portland could get, and Williamson’s dunk gave New Orleans a 54-46 lead.

Williamson’s layup pushed the Pelicans’ advantage to 65-50 and New Orleans led 73-63 going into halftime. He led all players with 19 points.

Consecutive jumpers from Carmelo Anthony and Whiteside’s dunk pulled Portland within 80-75 in the third quarter. The Pelicans pulled away with a 12-0 run to head to the fourth with 102-83 lead.

Portland closed the gap a bit in the fourth when back-to-back 3-pointers from Trevor Ariza and McCollum got the Blazers within 114-105. Jrue Holiday‘s 3 and Ball’s layup extended New Orleans’ lead again and fans at the Moda Center headed for the exits.

Holiday finished with 20 points and nine assists.

Watch Zion Williamson score season high 31, lead Pelicans past Trail Blazers

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NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson scored a season-high 31 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans used a dominant second half to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers 138-117 on Tuesday night.

Playing 28 minutes in just his ninth NBA game, Williamson used his 6-foot-6, 285-pound frame, quick feet and explosive vertical to have his way with every defender Portland tried against him. Williamson was either too strong, too fast, or both. He mixed spinning dribbles and sudden baseline drives into his usual arsenal of soaring transition dunks and tenacious putbacks.

JJ Redick scored 20 and Josh Hart had 17 points for New Orleans, which trailed by as many as 16 in the first quarter before taking command en route to a third straight victory. Jrue Holiday contributed 16 points and 10 assists, while Lonzo Ball added 10 points and 10 assists.

Portland star Damian Lillard scored 20 points – less than half of his 42-point average over his previous 10 games. But his playing time was limited in the fourth quarter when the Pelicans, who led by as many as 26, had put the game out of reach.

CJ McCollum had 18 points for the Trail Blazers, and Carmelo Anthony also finished with 18, but just four after halftime. Hassan Whiteside had 17 points and 14 rebounds.

After Williamson’s early dunk and free throws helped New Orleans surge to a 12-7 lead, Portland suddenly turned the tide with a 24-3 run that began with a pair of turnaround jumpers by Anthony, who later added a cutting dunk. McCollum hit a pair of 3s, Whiteside scored on a floater and a hook shot, and Lillard added a driving layup while being fouled.

That stretch put the Pelicans in a 31-15 hole, out of which they gradually climbed for the duration of the half.

Williamson, who scored 17 in the first half, helped fuel the comeback, throwing down Holiday’s alley-oop lob with two hands to cut Portland’s lead to 60-54. Hart and Jackson each hit 3s late in the period, Holiday added a slashing transition layup through a crowd of converging defenders and Williamson’s free throw cut Portland’s lead to 65-63 at halftime.

New Orleans then pushed in front in the third, when Hart scored 12 points on shots ranging from a pull-up in the lane, to a breakaway dunk after his steal, to a left-wing 3.

New Orleans scored 41 points in the period alone, leading by as many as 21 when Redick hit his second 3 of the quarter to make it 104-83.