What do Pat Riley, Dell Curry, Muggsy Bogues, and Zaza Pachulia all have in common?
It’s kind of a motley crew, but all four players were selected in NBA expansion drafts. Riley was drafted in the 1970 draft, Curry and Bogues went second and sixth, respectively, in the 1988 draft, and Pachulia was drafted by the Bobcats in 2004. In other words, these players (among many others) were not one of the eight their original teams chose to protect, and upon being left unprotected, they were forced to join brand-new NBA franchises.
While the league hasn’t begun the formal process of exploring expansion franchises, we know it’s eventually coming, as Adam Silver confirmed last summer. Seattle and Las Vegas headline the list of cities that could potentially land their own teams, and while we’re likely a few years away from that officially happening, let’s play a quick game of “if the expansion draft was held before next year’s draft, which eight players would the Celtics save?”
A brief history of NBA expansion drafts
First, for those unfamiliar — there have been 11 expansion drafts throughout NBA history, all in the wake of new teams being added to the association. Most recently, the Charlotte Hornets (now the New Orleans Pelicans) and Heat were added in 1988, the Timberwolves and Magic in 1989, Raptors and Grizzlies in 1995, and Charlotte Bobcats (now the Charlotte Hornets) in 2004. Each time, as a new team was added, an expansion draft was held, and these new NBA franchises had the opportunity to select from a pool of unprotected players in order to build up a “competitive” NBA roster from scratch. (Spoiler alert: these teams typically weren’t all that competitive in the immediate aftermath).
Expansion drafts exist across all major North American professional sports leagues, one of the most recent taking place when the Seattle Kraken joined the NHL in 2021. It’s been over twenty years since the NBA, NFL, or MLB held an expansion draft.
In June of 2022, Commissioner Adam Silver shared that the league will “invariably expand” and named Seattle as “at the top of the list” for that expansion. Las Vegas, home of the NBA Summer League, is another rumored potential destination for a future NBA team. San Diego, Louisville, Vancouver, Montreal, Kansas City, Mexico City, and St. Louis are among the other cities the league could consider.
Rules of the game
The premise of this exercise is relatively simple; in the expansion draft, each of the thirty existing NBA franchises can protect up to eight players (that includes all players under contract, as well as restricted free agents). If a team has less than eight players under contract, it still must leave at least one player unprotected. Unrestricted free agents can neither be protected nor selected in the expansion draft. If a restricted free agent is left unprotected and selected, they become unrestricted, so they’re probably not the wisest draft pick for the expansion draft.
The draft is held prior to that year’s NBA Draft. Notably, each team can only lose one player in the expansion draft; so, once a player from a franchise has been selected, all other players are safe. Teams are allowed to compensate expansion teams in exchange for selecting (or not selecting) a particular player. That could look like, “hey, Las Vegas, if you draft Tobias Harris, we’ll give you a 2029 second round pick, and that way the rest of our unprotected players are safe.” (Sorry, Philadelphia — you’ll probably have to offer up more than that).
Expansion teams are bound to a lower salary cap for their first two years of existence, limited to 80% of the cap in their first year and 90% in their second. They can draft beyond the salary cap, but once the draft is over, any players they’ve drafted and kept will count toward their cap. Teams are able to waive players ahead of the first day of the season, and while they still have to pay their drafted players, those waived won’t count toward the team salary.
For our purposes, this matters because our hypothetical Celtics may choose to leave a player unprotected because they don’t think their contract would be appealing to a new NBA franchise. Cheap, young players with a high upside are most likely the kinds of contracts new teams will be looking to acquire via an expansion draft.
Now that the rules have been laid out — who do we save? I opted to rank these in order, from the first guy the team would protect to the eight. While the Cs get to protect eight players, in a hypothetical scenario, if the rule was seven instead, you could look at the first seven players on this list to get my picks (and so on).
1. Jayson Tatum
The first pick here is a no-brainer. The franchise player who is coming off, by most accounts, his best career year is the first person the Celtics would protect in the face of an NBA expansion. Tatum averaged the most points per game in a single season in Celtics history — finishing with 30.1 ppg — while also grabbing a team-high 8.8 rebounds.
Watch out, though. St. Louis is in the mix for cities that could gain an NBA team, and while Las Vegas and Seattle seem to be more likely contenders, Tatum has made clear he’d be in favor of his hometown of St. Louis getting its own franchise. Needless to say, there will be no discussion of Tatum being left on the board in the case of a St. Louis expansion draft. That won’t end any speculation, however, that Tatum wouldn’t want to eventually play for his hometown team.
2. Jaylen Brown
If protecting Tatum is the first sure-fire thing, Brown is a close second. Brown averaged a career-high 26.6 points per game last season on a career-high 49.1% shooting.
Brown and Tatum make up one of the most tantalizing duos in the NBA, and the Celtics, who just locked down Brown long-term with the richest contract in NBA history, will waste no time before protecting him.
3. Derrick White
This was a tough one, but I chose to save Derrick White with our third player protection. White is coming off of an excellent regular season and postseason run that the Celtics will want to protect, which was headlined by an All-Defensive Second Team selection and a historic putback game-winner in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The 29-year-old guard is in the prime of his career and will step into the starting point guard role next year, as confirmed by head coach Joe Mazzulla last month. Provided he doesn’t sign an extension this fall, he’ll have one year left on his contract at the time of the hypothetical expansion draft next spring, and provided he has another solid season next year, he’ll be a top priority for the organization to lock down for the future.
Some might say Porzingis should be ranked above White, and if he stays healthy next year, he probably should be. That being said, I chose to go with White due to his reliability and availability, and because I’m confident he’ll have an even better offensive season next year with increased opportunities. White posted several impressive defensive stats last season; he blocked 76 (1st among guards), contested 335 2-point shots (1st among guards), and had a 107.2 defensive rating (tied for second among guards).
4. Kristaps Porzingis
Porzingis, recently acquired in the trade that sent Marcus Smart to the Grizzlies, is the next player the Celtics will protect. Porzingis signed a two-year extension that will kick in next offseason, and is coming off a career-best year. While that’s a good thing, there’s also the question of whether he’ll be able to maintain that production in a much more competitive environment. Last year, he averaged 23.2 points per game on 49.8% shooting, while converting on 38.5% of his three-pointers. He’s a good long-term Al Horford replacement, and an indisputable offensive upgrade, but I have White ranked over him for his durability, among others.
5. Rob Williams
When healthy, Rob remains one of the league’s best rim protectors, and while we didn’t see him at full-strength for much of last season, the hope is that a healthy offseason will allow him to elevate his game next year.
I’m taking Rob with the fifth protection, both for his defensive prowess and his undeniable upside. He’s exactly the kind of player that will be grabbed in an expansion draft — and he’s on a team-friendly, four-year, $54 million contract that extends through the 2025-26 season.
6. Al Horford
It pains me to put Al this low on the list, but I guess that’s a testament to the depth of this Celtics roster. Al will be nearly 38 at the time of this draft, and while he’s shown he is still one of the league’s premier post defenders, Father Time is undefeated. We saw his offensive numbers take a massive hit this postseason.
That being said, Horford still had the league’s second-best three-point percentage during the regular season, converting on 44.6% of 5.2 attempts per game. He’d also be a great veteran presence for any new team to build around.
7. Malcolm Brogdon
It feels like it’s been ages since Malcolm Brogdon completed his Sixth Man of the Year season, and it seems that pundits and fans alike have forgotten what an excellent season he had. Brogdon averaged 14.9 points per game on 48.4% shooting last year, and while finishing around the room remained a weakness, overall, he was highly efficient.
There are a couple of question marks surrounding the seven-year veteran at the moment, including a partially torn arm tendon injured in the Eastern Conference Finals that ESPN Insider Brian Windhorst described as “significant.”
“Brogdon has a health issue, a health issue that as I understand, is so significant, that not only can the Celtics not do this trade, there's probably no Malcolm Brogdon trade that they can do in the short term.”— NBACentral (@TheDunkCentral) June 22, 2023
- Brian Windhorst
(Via @GetUpESPN / h/t B/R) pic.twitter.com/z57QXV7lrD
Additionally, given that he was almost shipped out to the Clippers as part of the original Porzingis trade package, there’s a “healing process” that the team will have to go through to mend their relationship with Brogdon. That being said, Brogdon remains an excellent, experienced player that the Celtics will likely hold onto in the event of an expansion draft.
8. Jordan Walsh
This was by far the most difficult choice, and the only one that really mattered, given the fact order doesn’t actually come into play. Jordan Walsh, Payton Pritchard, and Sam Hauser were all solid contenders for the last protection on the list, but Walsh edged them out here, and for a couple of reasons.
First, Pritchard was eliminated because he’ll be a restricted free agent next year, which, if you refer to the rules above, you’ll remember means he’d become unrestricted if selected by an expansion team. So, he’s not a very alluring pick — the Celtics can probably keep him even if he were to become unprotected. Pritchard also struggled to see the court this past year, and even requested a trade, and while he’s a great offensive talent, his defensive liability could be too much to overcome.
Between Hauser and Walsh, it came down to the fact that, simply put, I’m high on Jordan Walsh. Walsh is 6’7 with a 7’3 wingspan, and was described by his head coach at Arkansas as a “violent defender.” Walsh averaged 16.0 points and 4.2 rebounds across the Celtics’ five Summer League contests, notably hitting 40.7 percent of his 27 three-point attempts. (Yes, I know the long history of players who have excelled in summer league but flopped during the real thing). While the nineteen-year-old is a raw talent, he’s a guy who does all the little things, and I could see him carving out a meaningful role in the league.
“Defensively, what Jordan Walsh does is he can guard a guy, individually, and take a premier scorer out of a game,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman told NBC Sports Boston after the draft. “That’s what he did at the college level, where we could assign him to a top player on the other team and then not have to give any help. So, he’s a great lockdown defender, individually, and then off the ball.”
Not protecting Hauser was a difficult choice, and I do think he would get selected in an expansion draft. He is a 42% career three-point shooter, and is a surprisingly decent defensive player too. Opposing offenses target Hauser in isolation on 21% of possessions, the highest percentage among qualifying players, and in turn, he has the 5th best defensive rating on the team.
Nevertheless, I do think Walsh has a higher upside than Hauser, and the 19-year-old’s ceiling is enough to secure the 8th, and final protection, in the 2025 Expansion Draft.
Luckily, Hauser and the rest of the squad can breathe a sigh of relief — it’ll be at least another couple of years before a new franchise joins the league.
Disagree with my picks? Sound off below!