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Who would the Blazers protect in an Expansion Draft?

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The NHL recently conducted an expansion draft for their new team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights. If the NBA added another team, which eight players would the Trail Blazers protect?

Portland Trail Blazers v Seattle Sonics Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights unveiled their roster last week. Many of their players were acquired from other teams in an expansion draft. With fans in Seattle clamoring for a new NBA franchise, it’s not hard to imagine the NBA running its own expansion draft in the near future.

With that in mind, let’s consider how the Portland Trail Blazers would handle an imaginary expansion draft this summer. Which players on the current 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. Usually an expansion draft would occur before the regular draft, so we’ll assume Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan are also protected under this rule.
  • 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. 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?

Untouchable

Damian Lillard

CJ McCollum

Jusuf Nurkic

The Blazers are built around these three and they will be protected under any circumstances. No further conversation needed.

“Easy” Choices

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

Noah Vonleh: Vonleh may have been on the bubble six months ago, but his strong showing alongside Nurkic in the latter half of the season 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 one of the few veterans on the team with significant upside potential, which means the Blazers will want to keep him around. Verdict: Protected

Maurice Harkless is on a long-term contract that pays him appropriately, more or less, and he played effectively last season. The Blazers do have several players at both forward positions, but Harkless’ contract increases his value. Verdict: Protected

Un-protectable

Meyers Leonard: Leonard’s 3-point shooting, passing, and sneaky-good defensive rebounding help the Blazers on both ends of the court...theoretically. Unfortunately he has failed to “put it all together” and has struggled to positively impact games. The Blazers are probably hoping someone takes his three-year, $31 million contract off their hands. Verdict: Not Protected

Shabazz Napier and Tim Quarterman: Napier looked competent in limited minutes last season, but struggled to break into the rotation. Quarterman barely played. Ultimately these two are highly replaceable third-string point guards. Neither should be protected. Verdict: Not Protected

Festus Ezeli: The Blazers will almost certainly cut him on June 30 before his contract for the 2017-18 season becomes fully guaranteed. No chance he’s protected. Verdict: Not protected

Contract-Based Choices

Allen Crabbe: Several rebuilding teams coveted Crabbe in restricted free agency last summer and President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey ultimately decided he was worth the a $70+ million price tag. Unfortunately, Crabbe failed to diversify his offensive game and played poorly on defense all season. This may be a controversial decision, but with Nurkic and Vonleh both up for extensions next year, the Blazers should leave Crabbe unprotected and hope that the expansion team takes his salary off their hands. Losing Crabbe in an expansion draft would have the added bonus of giving the Blazers a massive trade exception and help them move Crabbe without triggering his 15 percent trade bonus. Verdict: Not Protected

Evan Turner: The Blazers have reportedly made trading Turner a high priority this offseason. Turner does not have the same shooting range of Crabbe and is also older, making it difficult to justify protecting him. Verdict: Not Protected

Final Two Spots

Ed Davis: Davis played poorly last season and his contract is expiring, but his cheap deal means the Blazers will likely want to keep him around as an insurance policy in the event of frontcourt injuries, or if Collins struggles early on. He’s also tradeable if Olshey wishes to get under the luxury tax before next June. Verdict: Protected

Pat Connaughton and Jake Layman: Now things are getting weird. I’ve selected seven players so far but Connaughton and Layman are the only two left. Normally, it’d be best to go back and choose a proven contributor to get that final protected spot. But because of contract implications, I’d choose to protect Layman instead and hope his potential pans out. Verdict: Protect Layman, not Connaughton.

Conclusion

I would protect the following:

  1. Lillard
  2. McCollum
  3. Vonleh
  4. Nurkic
  5. Davis
  6. Aminu
  7. Harkless
  8. Layman

This would leave Crabbe, Turner, and Leonard available to the imaginary expansion team. With luck, one of those three would be chosen providing the Blazers with tax relief and a massive trade exception, thus making it easier to re-sign Vonleh and Nurkic and increasing trade flexibility.


Readers - tell us what you think in the comments. Which eight players would you protect?


Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA