Isaiah Hartenstein

Celtics forward Gordon Hayward
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Mock NBA expansion draft: Picking the Seattle SuperSonics and Flint Tropics

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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:

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:

Mock NBA expansion draft

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.

I was forced at this point in the draft to take Quinn Cook or Rajon Rondo, and I will take Cook, who could play in my rotation in Seattle, and if not he has just $1 million guaranteed.

 

Depth chart

  • 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

Draft picks

  • 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.

 

Depth chart

  • 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

Draft picks

  • Own: Nos. 5 and 36 in 2020
  • Extra: Pistons’ first-rounder

Free agents

  • 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.

Mock NBA expansion draft: Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs

Mock NBA expansion draft
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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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, Pacific Division, Northwest Division and Southeast Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Southwest:

Dallas Mavericks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: Seven of Dallas’ protections were easy calls. They’re all players locked up long-term. That left deciding between Tim Hardaway Jr, who has been a starter for the Mavericks but has a player option, and several other useful players.

Ultimately, the Mavs can’t afford to lose Hardaway, who has rediscovered his solid offensive play from his Hawks years. That leaves Justin Jackson and three big men in Dwight Powell (coming off a torn Achilles’) and Boban Marjanovic and Willie-Cauley-Stein (both backups for Dallas). The most likely to be selected player is probably Jackson, but that’s a risk Dallas has to take.

Houston Rockets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: No decision points for the Rockets. Houston is protecting the entirety of their eight-man rotation.

Chris Clemons could make for an interesting expansion pick because his scoring ability at guard. Isaiah Hartenstein has shown some flashes in the G-League as well.

Memphis Grizzlies

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: Just how hard the Grizzlies’ protection decision were is a testament to how well their rebuild has gone. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton were all locks. Justise Winslow was just acquired at the trade deadline as the centerpiece of a deal. Tyus Jones is the ideal backup point guard behind Morant, so he stays as well. That left Jonas Valanciunas vs Kyle Anderson for the final protected spot. Valanciunas’ presence allows Jackson to play power forward, so the big man gets the final spot.

Memphis is gambling that Anderson’s slow-mo style of play and $9.5 million salary isn’t what an expansion team is looking for. Jontay Porter is another risk, but he’s got a lengthy injury history of his own. The Grizzlies will hope one of the other three is selected and might be willing to offer a small incentive to make it happen.

New Orleans Pelicans

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: New Orleans’ protections are cut and dry. Every player protected, minus Brandon Ingram, is signed for at least one more season. This includes several players on rookie scale contracts. Ingram will most assuredly be re-signed this summer, so that decision was easy as well.

The only gamble among the unprotected players is Nicolo Melli. He’s become a rotation player for the Pelicans, but he’s not as valuable as the younger players. The other three players are mostly out of the New Orleans’ rotation and not anyone the team will worry about if they are selected.

San Antonio Spurs

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: The Spurs are banking on keeping DeMar DeRozan this summer. He either opts in or re-signs in San Antonio. LaMarcus Aldridge is an easy decision as well. Dejounte Murray will start his extension this coming season. Everyone else is on their rookie scale contract, minus Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl is a restricted free agent that the Spurs hope to retain this offseason.

San Antonio is gambling that the big salaries of Rudy Gay and Patty Mills will keep them from being selected. That exposes Trey Lyles, who has a relatively small guarantee, and young big man Chimezie Metu. The Spurs would like to keep both, but not at the expense of losing a rookie scale player.

Report: Rockets trading Jordan Bell to Grizzlies for Bruno Caboclo

Grizzlies forward Bruno Caboclo vs. Rockets
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The Rockets really have no interest in playing a center, huh?

Houston just traded starting center Clint Capela to the Hawks. In that four-way deal, the Rockets also got Jordan Bell, who can play center.

But Houston is re-routing Bell to the Grizzlies for Bruno Caboclo.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Both Bell and Caboclo are on expiring minimum contracts.

Houston has a fascination with Caboclo. There’s still time for the Rockets to add a center, including someone bought out. But for now, it’s the P.J. Tucker show with Thabo Sefolosha, Isaiah Hartenstein and Tyson Chandler in relief.

Bell doesn’t fit as well in Memphis with the Grizzlies also acquiring Gorgui Dieng. But I’d generally rather have Bell than Caboclo. Bell’s minimum salary is also slightly lower than Caboclo’s.

And in case you’re wonder, Houston can afford the salary difference while remaining under the luxury-tax line. What a strange coincidence.

Report: Rockets, Timberwolves, Hawks, Nuggets make four-team trade

Rockets center Clint Capela (traded to Hawks) and Timberwolves forward Robert Covington (traded to Rockets)
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The Warriors pulled out of trade talks with the Rockets, Timberwolves and Hawks. So, Houston, Minnesota and Atlanta are completing a four-team trade with the Nuggets instead.

The terms, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle and Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Rockets

Timberwolves

Hawks

  • Give: Evan Turner, 2020 Nets first-round pick (lottery protected)
  • Get: Clint Capela, Nene

Nuggets

  • Give: Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt
  • Get: Shabazz Napier, Noah Vonleh, Keita Bates-Diop, Gerald Green, 2020 Rockets first-round pick

How it looks, via TradeNBA:

Robert Covington should fit excellently in Houston. He’s an elite team defender who’ll provide a major upgrade at forward. His spot-up 3-point shooting will complement James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and those stars will minimize Covington having to go outside his comfort zone as a playmaker. Covington is also relatively cheap (more on that later) and locked in two more seasons after this.

Jordan Bell should also fit well with the Rockets, who lost their starting center in this deal. As a finisher at the rim and mobile defender, Bell can replicate some of what Clint Capela provided. However, at 6-foot-8, Bell is small for the position.

Houston can also use P.J. Tucker, Isaiah Hartenstein and Tyson Chandler at center. Expect the Rockets to target someone capable of matching up with traditionally sized centers. Houston could make another trade or comb the buyout market.

Despite their earlier proclamations, the Rockets got under the luxury-tax line with this trade. The tax won’t be assessed until the final day of the regular season, so don’t write anything in pen just yet. But ducking the tax definitely appears to be a key aspect of this trade.

Nene (contract rendered a burden by NBA) and Gerald Green (season-ending injury) hold negative value. Unloading their salaries was part of the Rockets’ motivation to make this deal. As someone on a one-year contract who would’ve had Bird Rights afterward, Green could have blocked the trade. But the Houston native seems to be on good terms with the Rockets. I wouldn’t be surprised if he signs with them next summer.

So, yes, Houston upgrades on the floor with Covington and Bell. But Capela and a first-round pick surely would’ve yielded even better return if those assets weren’t partially used to dump Nene and Green.

In Capela, the Hawks get a good center who’s relatively young (25) and cost-controlled (due $51,310,344 over the next three seasons). The price – Brooklyn’s lottery-protected first-round pick and eating Nene’s contract – was relatively low. (Evan Turner’s expiring contract was a neutral-value conduit).

But I’m not sure why Atlanta made the trade now. The Hawks’ season is a lost cause. They had the cap space to pursue centers in free agency or trade next summer. They might also be positioned to draft James Wiseman, who already turned pro out of Memphis. They could have waited until the offseason, when they’ll have a clear picture of center possibilities.

Maybe Atlanta just likes Capela that much. Maybe another quality player will ease Trae Young‘s frustration.

This also raises questions about John Collins‘ future with the Hawks. Maybe they’ll keep him at power forward, but his rim running overlaps with Capela’s skill set. It’s not a clean fit.

The Timberwolves get a few solid, though no great, assets. Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez are heading toward restricted free agency this summer. Minnesota will get a chance to test both then leverage their matching rights in the offseason. (For perspective, Beasley reportedly rejected a three-year, $30 million contract extension.) Beasley and Hernangomez both showed promise in Denver, but neither got quite enough opportunity on a deep Nuggets team. That should change on the Timberwolves, who are desperate for outside shooters.

Denver loses a rotation player in Beasley without necessarily adding one – at least when everyone is healthy. Noah Vonleh can play center behind Nikola Jokic with Mason Plumlee sidelined. Shabazz Napier is also capable, but the Nuggets already have Jamal Murray and underrated Monte Morris at point guard. Perhaps, Denver will use more two-point guard lineups. Keita Bates-Diop (No. 48 pick in 2018 draft) looks more NBA-ready than Jarred Vanderbilt (No. 41 pick in 2018 draft), but neither has shown much.

The Nuggets get value for two players – Beasley and Hernangomez – who might have been too expensive to re-sign this summer. At least for a team resistant to paying the luxury tax.

But Denver is good enough to prioritize winning this season, and this trade was a step back. I wouldn’t assume the Nuggets are finished. That Houston first-rounder could be ammo in another deal before Thursday’s trade deadline.

Report: Rockets trying to dodge luxury tax before trade deadline

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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After the Rockets got eliminated last season, owner Tilman Fertitta put on a big show about his commitment to winning.

Of course, a huge reason Houston lost to the Warriors: spending cuts.

Fertitta insisted the luxury tax had nothing to do with the team’s 2018 offseason – a summer of moves that make sense only when assessed through a luxury-tax lens. When the Rockets completed an elaborate series of transactions – surrendering assets to trim payroll rather than upgrade players – to get under the luxury-tax line at last year’s trade deadline, Fertitta said he was surprised by the outcome and called it a fluke. Houston even put out word general manager Daryl Morey had the greenlight to pay the luxury tax this season.

In reality…

Jabari Young of CNBC:

According to league sources who spoke to CNBC, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta is seeking to shed additional salary off the team’s nearly $140 million payroll hoping to avoid a luxury tax.

The Rockets shouldn’t have too hard of a time dodging the luxury tax. Morey is good at this by now.

Houston will almost certainly trade Nene, whose contract the NBA rendered an impediment. Clint Capela is on the block. Full-season minimum-salary players like Gerald Green, Thabo Sefolosha, Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein could be traded then replaced by players on partial-season minimum salary contracts.

But if trading players to lower payroll, the Rockets will burn assets before Thursday’s deadline that could have instead been used to upgrade the roster. This in a year James Harden and Russell Westbrook are still All-Stars.

If that’s Fertitta’s priority, he earned the right when buying the team. A large majority of owners won’t pay the luxury tax this season. The Rockets have been especially harmed by lost revenue from China in the aftermath of Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong protesters (who are trying to maintain and expand their freedoms).

But when Fertitta also bloviates so much about prioritizing winning, dodging the luxury tax during his team’s championship window makes him look like a blowhard.