The Portland Trail Blazers have at least two regular season roster spots to fill before the 2023-24 season. Those two players will probably emerge from an eventual Damian Lillard trade, if and when that deal eventuates.
The current roster, including two two-way contracts in Ibou Badji and John Butler Jr., aren’t winning many games, regardless of who’s added before October’s opening night.
But while the Blazers have stealthily fast-tracked the early stages of their rebuild, drafting Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe, the NBA Playoffs shouldn’t be an immediate priority.
Earlier this week, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo discussed a hypothetical exercise, mocking up an expansion draft scenario for two new franchises.
Before carrying out the draft they listed about a dozen teams and the eight players each would protect before the expansion draft took place.
While they didn’t really touch on Portland’s current predicament, I think the discussion serves as an interesting exercise to speculate how General Manager Joe Cronin would approach said situation.
Rules of expansion drafts
The last expansion draft took place in 2004 with the introduction of the Charlotte Bobcats. Back then, each team protected up to eight players. If a franchise had fewer than eight players on its roster, it was still required to leave at least one player unprotected.
The Bobcats were required to select a minimum of 14 players and could select only one player from any one NBA team.
We’re using similar rules today with one pretty big caveat. Past expansion drafts have taken place before the NBA Draft and NBA free agency. Given we’re in mid-August, these two team building processes are, for all intents and purposes, done.
As a result, if the Blazers want to protect their 2023 rookies and newly signed free agents, they will need to be included as part of the eight.
Pretty simple. Even if he doesn’t want to play in Portland, you need him to yield the best possible trade return.
Unless a crazy trade package involving Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid arises, Henderson will be a Blazer and you protect him with sword and shield.
Like Henderson, Sharpe is a bright young talent who either plays a key role in the team’s next competitive wave or he’s traded for All-NBA level talent.
A locked-in starter, Simons has an opportunity this season to raise his trade stock to ensure he’s as valuable to the other 29 teams as he currently is to the Blazers.
The Blazers wouldn’t have signed Grant to a five-year, $160 million contract last month just to let him go for nothing. He’s an above-average starting level talent in Portland or a trade chip come January and February.
Like Grant, if the Blazers weren’t high on Thybulle, they wouldn’t have matched the three-year offer sheet, the 26-year-old signed with the Dallas Mavericks in July. The Australian representative is still young and has perennial All Defensive Team written all over him and should be a valued asset for this franchise.
The Blazers hope Murray is as impactful as his twin brother Keegan was with the Sacramento Kings last season. Murray is a first-round pick in a widely agreed upon deep draft. He’s a genuine two-way prospect at the Blazers‘ two (thin) forward positions.
I labored over this last spot. It was Walker or Rayan Rupert. Both recent second round picks with room and potential to grow into a real NBA role. I ended up going with Walker purely for the fact that he’s a little further along in his development.
Two weeks ago I wrote of Walker’s opportunity to stake his claim as a genuine NBA rotation player at a real position of need for the team. He has clear ability to operate on both sides of the ball, boasting dogged determination, finesse and smarts that should contribute to winning basketball over the next few hours.
This was hard. The 19-year-old would instantly be a defensive force on this team. Unfortunately his offensive potential is just that, potential. He needs time for that skill to be developed and realized with the Rip City Remix this season.
The Frenchman could very well end up being a better player than Walker. But the uncertainty combined with the fact that he plays a similar position to a number of his Blazers teammates mentioned above.
I am and will always be a Little fan.
If we were to carry out this same exercise 12 months from now with Little playing more than 75 games, solidifying himself as a key rotation player, things might be different.
Unfortunately, the former Tarheel has never played more than 54 games in a season, due to a myriad of injuries of ranging severity.
While there were some reports of trade interest in Little earlier this offseason, his lack of durability probably wouldn’t have yielded a high-enough return, even with his team-friendly deal.
Nurkic is an obvious player to leave open. His contract is cumbersome, his game is temperamental and he doesn’t fit with what this team needs moving forward.
Reports suggest the Blazers have been open to moving Nurkic’s remaining three years and $54 million. Clearly, they are yet to find a deal that improves this team. I wouldn’t be shocked if a deal hadn’t eventuated due to prospective trade partners wanting a little more for taking Nurkic’s potentially negative-value deal.
Exposing him to an expansion draft is probably a win-win for both parties. The Blazers get off his deal and Nurkic goes to an expansion team as a veteran serviceable stop-gap center.
In this scenario, Cronin would obviously have to find more than one center to balance out the roster. But this shouldn’t be an issue with multiple young, talent-filled big man still looking for a home.
Unfortunately, the phantom first round pick in the Robert Covington/Norman Powell trade with the Los Angeles Clippers, hasn’t panned out as we’d all hoped. Johnson needs a third franchise to take a chance on the ability he clearly has but has been unable to show consistently.
This was largely an easy exercise with Walker and Rupert the only real tough decision. The deciding factor was whether you want your young prospect rare or medium-rare. I chose the name that has cooked a little longer but there’d be no surprises if the Blazers went the other way.
Of the four players exposed. I’d imagine Little, and maybe Nurkic, would be the players likely to be looked at by two expansion teams as they have proven NBA-level talent to help a new franchise get off the ground.