Seattle’s pursuit of an NBA franchise has been in the news lately. With Chris Hansen’s purchase of additional land for a prospective new arena, and insider information suggesting that the league is open to Seattle expansion if the new facility does materialize, the return of the Sonics has begun to feel like a real possibility for the first time in years.
On the surface, a new team in Seattle would seem to be a good thing for the Portland Trail Blazers, but another NBA team might actually be an extreme nuisance for the Blazers as it would trigger an expansion draft.
President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has gone to great lengths to create a roster deep with young talent on mostly reasonable contracts. An expansion draft would likely cost Olshey one of his players and undermine the depth the team has built.
With that in mind, let’s consider how the Blazers would handle an imaginary expansion draft. Which players on the roster would they choose to protect?
Primer on Expansion Draft Rules
For details on the expansion draft process, check out this link. To summarize the basics:
- Each existing NBA team protects eight players
- The expansion team gets to select one unprotected player from 14 teams
- Each team can only lose one player
- Unrestricted free agents are considered unaffiliated and thus do not need to be protected
- Unsigned draft picks cannot be selected so teams don't need to waste protection on talent stashed overseas
- Teams get no immediate compensation for their lost player, but do get a trade exception equivalent to the drafted player’s salary
Historically, expansion franchises have chosen young players on cheap salaries - exactly the type of player that makes up the bulk of Portland’s roster. This creates a strategy game for incumbent teams; they can leave talented but older and/or expensive players unprotected in order to protect their prospects.
Who would the Blazers protect?
The big question - who would the Blazers protect in an expansion draft?
The Blazers are built around these two and they will be protected under any circumstances. No further conversation needed.
Napier has looked competent during the pre-season, Connaughton has shown flashes of potential in limited minutes, and the Blazers have hopes for Layman, but none of these players is an essential part of the roster.
The hard choices
Now things get tough. The Blazers have nine additional rotation players, but only six protected spots remaining. They have no grizzled veterans who would be too low on upside to interest a new team, and nobody on a truly unwieldly contract who would scare away a drafting GM.
Here’s a best guess of how the protections would play out:
Al-Farouq Aminu: Aminu plays a vital role for the Blazers’ defense and has been passable on offense. His contract is steeply discounted and he has fit in well with the team. Verdict: Protected
Allen Crabbe: Several rebuilding teams coveted Crabbe in restricted free agency this summer and Olshey ultimately decided he was worth the high price tag. Even at his current salary, Crabbe’s shooting and upward career trajectory would attract a drafting GM. He’s also a part of the Blazers immediate and long-term plans. Verdict: Protected
Ed Davis: Davis is on a great contract, but it only runs for one more year after this season. He’s the type of role player every team needs, but his defense and rebounding are replaceable, and the upside of Leonard and Vonleh likely make Davis an odd man out. Verdict: Not protected
Festus Ezeli: If Ezeli can stay healthy he will be exactly what Portland needs at center. Unfortunately, his contract and the ambiguity around his return to the court have made it seem that health will always be an issue for Ezeli. The Blazers would leave him unprotected knowing that Seattle would probably also be scared off by his injuries. Verdict: Not protected
Noah Vonleh: Vonleh may have been on the bubble a month ago, but his strong showing in preseason has jump-started the Vonleh hype train again. He’s exactly the type of high-upside, rookie-contract player Seattle would want. He’s also the only player the Blazers have with theoretical untapped All-Star potential. Verdict: Protected
After those decisions, one player from the Harkless/Leonard/Plumlee/Turner foursome must be left unprotected. Quite frankly, there is no obvious answer.
Moe Harkless: Harkless is on a relative cheap long-term contract and was part of the team’s most effective lineup last season. But he’s also the most replaceable at small forward with Crabbe waiting in the wings.
Meyers Leonard: Leonard’s 3-point shooting, passing, and sneaky-good defensive rebounding help the Blazers on both ends of the court. He has detractors because of his uneven play, and there are concerns that he will never “put it all together.” His long-term contract is appealing.
Mason Plumlee: Losing their starting center would likely cause the Blazers problems this season, but if Olshey is worried about re-signing Plumlee he may be inclined to leave him unprotected.
Evan Turner: Turner’s contract is the highest and the $17-million trade exception might be useful in a consolidation trade, but he also plays an essential role as the third ball handler.
Personally, I would go with Harkless and hope that Crabbe makes a leap this season defensively, but there are solid arguments to leaving any of these four players unprotected. It may even make sense to sub Davis onto the protected list, and leave two of these players unprotected.
I would protect the following:
This would leave Ezeli, Davis, and Harkless available to the imaginary Seattle team. Ezeli would be avoided, but either Harkless or Davis would certainly be gone in this scenario.
The takeaway message from this exercise is that an expansion draft would be brutal for the Blazers, no matter who is chosen. One of their strengths this year, especially during the regular season, will be depth. The team is built to withstand injury, and be able to match up against almost any team in the league. Losing one player for nothing would undermine the planned flexibility of the roster construction. Even after the obvious choices are made, Olshey would have to think long and hard about which eight players to protect.
Readers - tell us what you think in the comments. Which eight players would you protect?
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @DeeringTornado