Which Players Would Every NBA Team Protect in an Expansion Draft?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMay 10, 2020

Which Players Would Every NBA Team Protect in an Expansion Draft?

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    NBA fans in Seattle would love to get the SuperSonics back. Other cities, including Las Vegas, Louisville and Kansas City, are ready when a team wants to relocate or for the league to expand.

    It's unclear when either will happen. Relocation is simple enough. That's how Seattle lost the Sonics to Oklahoma City in the first place. Expansion is complex, especially given the coronavirus pandemic.

    But even Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged in 2017 in an interview with Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum via The Players' Tribune: "It's inevitable. At some point, we'll start looking at growth of franchises. That's always been the case in this league, and Seattle will no doubt be on a short list of cities we'll look at."

    Silver has continued to downplay that expansion is near, but with the league facing significant financial hurdles during the shutdown, perhaps now would be the right time for an influx of expansion money.

    So, what exactly would that entail?

How NBA Expansion Works

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    For starters, a new franchise would have a buy-in fee that could be near $2.1 billion, which would be split among the 30 franchises. If the NBA added a pair, that's $4.2 billion, which might translate to $126 million each (assuming the league keeps 10 percent). That is money that goes directly to the existing teams but not the players themselves. The union would benefit from the added jobs, up to 15 per team plus a pair of two-way contracts.

    That may not be a cure-all, but Silver has continued to say everything is on the table as the league looks to navigate this unprecedented time. Expansion falls under the umbrella of "everything."

    Next, the 30 teams would need to prepare for an expansion draft. What are the rules?

    As detailed by Larry Coon's FAQ, an expansion draft would occur prior to that year's NBA draft:

    - Teams can protect up to eight players (including restricted free agents).

    - Teams must expose at least one player who cannot become a free agent that summer (either by option or early termination).

    - Pending unrestricted free agents are not eligible.

    - A pending restricted free agent becomes unrestricted if selected and cannot re-sign with their original team.

    - No team can lose more than one player in an expansion draft.

    - If a team's player is selected, they receive a trade exception in return if they're over the salary cap.

    - Teams can "compensate expansion teams (usually with draft picks) in exchange for selecting or not selecting particular players."

    With all that in mind, which players would each team protect in an expansion draft?

    Some shortcuts: RFA = restricted free agent, PO = player option, TO = team option, ETO = early termination option.

    Also, the rules aren't explicit on two-way players. Nearly all will be entering free agency this summer. For the purpose of this exercise, they have been omitted.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Protected: Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, De'Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, Dewayne Dedmon, Bruno Fernando

    Unprotected: DeAndre' Bembry (RFA), Damian Jones (RFA), Skal Labissiere (RFA), Brandon Goodwin

    Ineligible: Jeff Teague, Treveon Graham, Vince Carter

    The Atlanta Hawks wouldn't have to think long on protecting players such as Young and Collins. They acquired Capela and Dedmon before the trade deadline to bolster the frontcourt. Since expansion teams are disincentivized from selecting restricted free agents, the Hawks would be safe to leave Bembry, Jones and Labissiere unprotected. They'd need to leave one player under contract available, which would force a decision between Fernandez and Goodwin.

Boston Celtics

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    Protected: Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, Brad Wanamaker (RFA), Grant Williams, Robert Williams III

    Unprotected: Vincent Poirier, Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards, Javonte Green

    Ineligible: Gordon Hayward (PO), Enes Kanter (PO), Semi Ojeleye (TO)

    The Boston Celtics would be in a difficult position going into an expansion draft with almost the entire roster eligible. Both Hayward and Kanter are on player options, so they'd be unavailable unless they chose to opt in before the expansion draft. Boston could opt in to Ojeleye's contract to place him on the protected list, but he'd otherwise be unavailable. The Celtics would be able to protect only eight players, starting with their core players Walker, Tatum, Brown and Smart. Wanamaker will be restricted, but he's a regular rotation player worth protecting. 

Brooklyn Nets

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    Protected: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, DeAndre Jordan, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, Rodions Kurucs

    Unprotected: Nicolas Claxton, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Dzanan Musa

    Ineligible: Joe Harris, Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple (TO), Theo Pinson (TO)

    The Brooklyn Nets would start by protecting their primary rotation players. Jordan is a close friend to Durant, so his value may go beyond his contracted salary and on-court contributions. Allen plays the same position and will be extension-eligible this summer, but if the Nets wanted to move on, they might get value back in a trade. The decision would come down to whether Kurucs, Claxton, Luwawu-Cabarrot or Musa is most worth protecting.

Charlotte Hornets

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    Protected: Terry Rozier, Devonte' Graham, Malik Monk, P.J. Washington, Miles Bridges, Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels, Caleb Martin

    Unprotected: Cody Zeller, Dwayne Bacon (RFA)

    Ineligible: Nicolas Batum (PO), Bismack Biyombo, Willy Hernangomez

    The Charlotte Hornets should expect Batum to opt in—but not until he's clear of the expansion draft. The team has only 13 players under contract with three who would be ineligible. Zeller is a solid player, but if the Hornets were looking to clear cap space, they can choose to keep all but one of their younger players. If they prefer Zeller, they can replace him with McDaniels or either Martin twin.

Chicago Bulls

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    Protected: Zach LaVine, Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison, Ryan Arcidiacono

    Unprotected: Cristiano Felicio, Luke Kornet, Daniel Gafford, Kris Dunn (RFA), Denzel Valentine (RFA), Shaquille Harrison (RFA)

    Ineligible: Otto Porter Jr. (PO)

    The Chicago Bulls have remade their front office with Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. The duo didn't acquire any of the team's players, so its loyalties would initially be unclear. Assuming they'd want to keep the team's primary rotation players and young core, the Bulls would have one slot available to protect Arcidiacono, Kornet or Gafford. The rest will be restricted outside of Felicio, who has yet to live up to his contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Protected: Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr., Dante Exum, Dylan Windler, Alfonzo McKinnie, Kevin Porter Jr.

    Unprotected: Kevin Love

    Ineligible: Andre Drummond (PO), Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, Ante Zizic, Sheldon Mac

    The Cleveland Cavaliers could use the opportunity to get out of the $91.5 million they still owe Kevin Love. The team has only nine eligible players, so the one unprotected slot would probably come down to Love or McKinnie. If it chose Love and he was selected, Cleveland would receive a valuable $28.9 million trade exception.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Protected: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Delon Wright, Maxi Kleber, Seth Curry, Dorian Finney-Smith, Jalen Brunson, Justin Jackson

    Unprotected: Dwight Powell, Boban Marjanovic

    Ineligible: Tim Hardaway Jr. (PO), Willie Cauley-Stein (PO), Courtney Lee, J.J. Barea, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

    It'd be a tough call for the Dallas Mavericks, who would probably like to protect 10 players. Powell is coming off an Achilles injury. An expansion team isn't likely to take on his $11.1 million per year for the next three seasons. That leaves Marjanovic, a fan favorite but a player for whom coach Rick Carlisle has struggled to find a regular role in the rotation.

Denver Nuggets

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    Protected: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Will Barton, Monte Morris, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig (RFA), Vlatko Cancar

    Unprotected: Keita Bates-Diop

    Ineligible: Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Jerami Grant (PO), Noah Vonleh, Troy Daniels

    The Denver Nuggets could protect only eight of nine players, leaving one exposed. Since Craig isn't under contract for next season, he can't be the only available player. That would limit Denver to a choice between two younger players in Cancar and Bates-Diop—unless it has buyer's remorse on Harris' two remaining years and $39.6 million.

Detroit Pistons

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    Protected: Derrick Rose, Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas, Thon Maker (RFA)

    Unprotected: Blake Griffin

    Ineligible: Tony Snell (PO), Svi Mykhailiuk (TO), Brandon Knight, John Henson, Langston Galloway, Jordan McRae, Christian Wood

    The Detroit Pistons don't even have eight players to protect, and while they could make Brown or Thomas available, this could be the chance to get out of Griffin's final two years at $75.8 million. The team would gain a $34.4 million trade exception, but that might be short-lived if the Pistons drop under the salary cap this summer; the exception would expire. Griffin is still an extremely talented player, but his knees are suspect.

Golden State Warriors

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    Protected: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall, Damion Lee

    Unprotected: Alen Smailagic, Marquese Chriss, Ky Bowman, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Mychal Mulder

    Ineligible: Dragan Bender

    The Golden State Warriors would have some easy decisions to make (Curry, Thompson, Green) but then some difficult ones, as they can't protect each of their young, developing players. Six of eight will need to be exposed in the expansion draft. Perhaps Bowman or Chriss or another would be prioritized over Poole, Paschall or Lee.

Houston Rockets

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    Protected: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, Danuel House Jr., Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore, Chris Clemons

    Unprotected: Isaiah Hartenstein

    Ineligible: Austin Rivers (PO), Bruno Caboclo, Tyson Chandler, Thabo Sefolosha, DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Green

    The Houston Rockets would have to put just one name on the unprotected list. Given the team's reluctance to play a center, Hartenstein could be the call. Houston could use the opportunity to get out of Gordon's extension, but he's still a valuable part of the core when healthy.

Indiana Pacers

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    Protected: Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, TJ Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Goga Bitadze, Aaron Holiday

    Unprotected: Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, TJ Leaf, Edmond Sumner, Alize Johnson (RFA)

    Ineligible: JaKarr Sampson

    That Indiana Pacers have only one unrestricted free agent with too many players to protect. Would they prefer holding on to younger players Bitadze, Holiday and Sumner, or would they prioritize more experienced veterans McDermott and McConnell?

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Protected: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac, Landry Shamet, Mfiondu Kabengele, Terance Mann

    Unprotected: Rodney McGruder

    Ineligible: Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Morris Sr., JaMychal Green (PO), Patrick Patterson, Reggie Jackson, Joakim Noah

    The Los Angeles Clippers would be the most straightforward team in an expansion draft. McGruder is the ninth man on an eight-man list. The veteran guard is shooting just 27.8 percent from three-point range through 50 appearances this season.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Protected: LeBron James, Danny Green, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Talen Horton-Tucker

    Unprotected: Quinn Cook

    Ineligible: Anthony Davis (PO), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (PO), Avery Bradley (PO), Rajon Rondo (PO), JaVale McGee (PO), Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley, Dion Waiters

    The Los Angeles Lakers have five players who can opt out. They need to expose someone, so it'd be either rookie Horton-Tucker, who has shown flashes in the G League, or Cook, who hasn't been a consistent part of coach Frank Vogel's rotation.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Protected: Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Justise Winslow, Jonas Valanciunas, Dillon Brooks, Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen

    Unprotected: Kyle Anderson, Gorgui Dieng, De'Anthony Melton (RFA), Marko Guduric

    Ineligible: Josh Jackson, Jontay Porter (TO)

    The first seven players for the Memphis Grizzlies are obvious. The eighth is a quandary. Would they try to get contracts off their books with Anderson and Dieng? Would they gamble that an expansion team wouldn't take a risk on a restricted free agent such as Melton? Would the potential of Guduric be a priority over Allen?

Miami Heat

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    Protected: Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Andre Iguodala, Kendrick Nunn, Chris Silva

    Unprotected: KZ Okpala

    Ineligible: Kelly Olynyk (PO), Goran Dragic, Solomon Hill, Meyers Leonard, Jae Crowder, Udonis Haslem, Derrick Jones Jr.

    The Miami Heat have to expose only one player, which would come down to a decision between Silva and Okpala.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Protected: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, George Hill, Donte DiVincenzo, Thanasis Antetokounmpo

    Unprotected: Ersan Ilyasova, D.J. Wilson, Sterling Brown (RFA)

    Ineligible: Robin Lopez (PO), Wesley Matthews (PO), Pat Connaughton, Kyle Korver, Marvin Williams

    The Milwaukee Bucks could probably leave Thanasis Antetokounmpo exposed based on his impact on the court, but his brother is the team's superstar. Ilyasova is expendable, and Brown will be an expendable restricted free agent. That would leave the decision between Wilson and perhaps upsetting Giannis.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Protected: D'Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jarrett Culver, Malik Beasley (RFA), Josh Okogie, Jake Layman, Juancho Hernangomez (RFA), Naz Reid

    Unprotected: Jacob Evans, Omari Spellman, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaylen Nowell

    Ineligible: James Johnson (PO), Evan Turner

    The Minnesota Timberwolves would have several players at the bottom of the roster who don't play regular minutes to expose. Pending restricted free agents Beasley and Hernangomez would be worth protecting. The team could swap out Reid for any of the others, but he logged more minutes than the rest.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Protected: Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram (RFA), Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, JJ Redick, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker

    Unprotected: Nicolo Melli, Darius Miller, Frank Jackson (RFA), Kenrich Williams (RFA)

    Ineligible: Derrick Favors, E'Twaun Moore, Jahlil Okafor

    The New Orleans Pelicans would face a difficult choice in that they have a clear core of players and a couple of high-ranked prospects in Hayes and Alexander-Walker. That would leave Melli on the outside, which would be disappointing given how well he complemented the team once Williamson got healthy. Miller is recovering from an Achilles tear, and both Jackson and Williams would be expendable as restricted free agents.

New York Knicks

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    Protected: RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Mitchell Robinson, Elfrid Payton, Kevin Knox II, Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina

    Unprotected: Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, Allonzo Trier (RFA), Damyean Dotson (RFA), Ignas Brazdeikis

    Ineligible: Bobby Portis (TO), Maurice Harkless

    New York Knicks president Leon Rose would have a difficult set of choices to make in an expansion draft. How invested is he in young point guards Smith and Ntilikina? Can the Knicks get more value in a trade, or should they let them go to keep veterans Bullock and Ellington? Can he make room for Dotson?

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Protected: Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Terrance Ferguson, Darius Bazley

    Unprotected: Isaiah Roby

    Ineligible: Danilo Gallinari, Andre Roberson, Nerlens Noel, Mike Muscala (PO), Hamidou Diallo (TO), Deonte Burton (TO), Abdel Nader (TO)

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have several players set to hit free agency or on options. They can protect every eligible player but one, which leaves Roby. The Thunder could use expansion to get out of Paul's final two years and $85.6 million. If they weren't a playoff team this season, he might have gotten serious consideration, but he's been tremendous for the Thunder.

Orlando Magic

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    Protected: Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Bamba, Wes Iwundu (RFA)

    Unprotected: Khem Birch, Gary Clark (RFA)

    Ineligible: Evan Fournier (PO), DJ Augustin, Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis III (PO), Melvin Frazier Jr. (TO)

    Birch and Clark would be victims of the numbers, especially Birch. The Orlando Magic can't expose only Iwundu and Clark since they are required to leave one guaranteed player unprotected. That means Birch, and then it'd be a decision between the two restricted free agents.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Protected: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton

    Unprotected: Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, Norvel Pelle

    Ineligible: Raul Neto, Kyle O'Quinn, Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks

    The Philadelphia 76ers wouldn't look to get rid of a big contract with Horford or Harris via expansion. Or maybe they would, but they'd probably protect their expensive core and some of the more productive younger players: Thybulle, Korkmaz and Milton. That would leave Scott, Smith and Pelle exposed.

Phoenix Suns

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    Protected: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio, Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric (RFA), Elie Okobo

    Unprotected: Jalen Lecque, Ty Jerome, Jevon Carter (RFA)

    Ineligible: Aron Baynes, Cheick Diallo (TO), Frank Kaminsky (TO)

    The Phoenix Suns could gamble that an expansion team wouldn't take a flier on Saric, who would become unrestricted if selected. So, they can leave him available and protect one of their younger players in Lecque, Jerome or Carter.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Protected: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Trevor Ariza, Zach Collins, Jusuf Nurkic, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr., Wenyen Gabriel (RFA)

    Unprotected: Nassir Little

    Ineligible: Hassan Whiteside, Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside, Caleb Swanigan, Rodney Hood (PO), Mario Hezonja (PO)

    The Portland Trail Blazers wouldn't have a lot to choose from. The most expendable player is Gabriel, but he can't be the only one exposed as a restricted free agent. Unless they're looking to let go of one of their core pieces, the choice would be between Little (No. 25 pick in 2019) and Trent (No. 37 in 2018). Trent has played 20 minutes per game in 53 appearances this season. Little has played 48 games with 11.9 minutes per contest.

Sacramento Kings

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    Protected: De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Bogdan Bogdanovic (RFA), Marvin Bagley III, Richaun Holmes, Nemanja Bjelica, Justin James

    Unprotected: Cory Joseph

    Ineligible: Kent Bazemore, Jabari Parker (PO), Alex Len, Yogi Ferrell, Harry Giles III

    This would be an easy decision for the Sacramento Kings. Cory Joseph has an overpriced contract for a backup point guard.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Protected: LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Trey Lyles, Jakob Poeltl (RFA), Lonnie Walker IV, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White

    Unprotected: Luka Samanic, Chimezie Metu, Keldon Johnson

    Ineligible: DeMar DeRozan (PO), Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes

    The San Antonio Spurs could choose to risk Poeltl as a restricted free agent to protect Samanic, Metu or Johnson, but he's more valuable as a capable backup big man.

Toronto Raptors

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    Protected: Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Chris Boucher (RFA), Patrick McCaw, OG Anunoby, Matt Thomas, Terence Davis

    Unprotected: Dewan Hernandez, Malcolm Miller (RFA)

    Ineligible: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Stanley Johnson (PO), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

    The Toronto Raptors need to expose one of their rookies in Hernandez, Thomas or Davis. They can offer more than one if they prioritize Miller as a restricted free agent.

Utah Jazz

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    Protected: Mike Conley (ETO), Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O'Neale, Tony Bradley, Georges Niang

    Unprotected: Ed Davis, Nigel Williams-Goss, Miye Oni, Juwan Morgan, Rayjon Tucker

    Ineligible: Jordan Clarkson, Emmanuel Mudiay

    The Utah Jazz can expose Conley. An early termination option, unlike a player option, comes with the assumption the player is going to continue on to the next season. He could be selected and then choose to opt in to free agency. Expect the Jazz to keep him in this theoretical scenario. That would leave Davis as the exposed veteran along with several of the team's young players.

Washington Wizards

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    Protected: Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, Moritz Wagner, Thomas Bryant, Ish Smith, Jerome Robinson, Troy Brown Jr., Isaac Bonga

    Unprotected: John Wall, Admiral Schofield, Anzejs Pasecniks

    Ineligible: Ian Mahinmi, Davis Bertans, Shabazz Napier, Gary Payton II

    If the Washington Wizards believe Wall will play next year at a high level, maybe they'd protect him. He's still owed $132.9 million over the next three seasons, which is probably more than an expansion team would be willing to pay for a player who has been hurt the past couple of years. That's why Wall should be exposed, to help the Wizards hold on to young players Robinson, Brown and Bonga (or Pasecniks and Schofield).


    Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.