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Which Timberwolves Would Survive an NBA Expansion Draft?

After rumors of NBA expansion were shut down, we take a look at who the Timberwolves may have protected if there were an expansion draft.

Portland Trailblazers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Brian Drake/NBAE via Getty Images

On Tuesday night, a random tweet was sent into the Twitterverse stating that “multiple sources” had indicated that the NBA would be announcing expansion into Seattle and Las Vegas. Twitter did what Twitter does. It was retweeted hundreds and hundreds of times as third-party publications began making it their cover story to generate clicks in the dog days of the NBA offseason.

People had a field day with this. Thirsty fanbases were salivating at the possible return of professional men’s basketball coming (back) to their zip codes. Then came the debate of, “At least one team has to move East so who’s it going be?” Fans had their fun splicing up maps of the United States into wonky ovals. Most iterations had either the Minnesota Timberwolves or their pals, the Memphis Grizzlies, crossing over conferences.

The real fun began after that.

How’s this going to affect the competitive balance of the NBA?

What’s going to happen in an expansion draft?

Before that really caught fire, the expansion rumors were seemingly shut down. Well, at least the original tweet was deleted about eight short hours after it was initially posted. It appeared that once again, expansion wasn’t quite ready yet. If anything, it would make much more sense for the WNBA to expand first before we see the NBA follow suit.

However, as mentioned earlier, we’re in the dog days of the offseason - the final weeks before training camp and preseason kicks off. What else is there to discuss? It seems the major trade dominoes have all finally fallen. Schedules are released. Jerseys are unveiled. Rosters are set.

But what if the rosters weren’t set?

What if there was an expansion draft? Would Minnesota likely lose any players? If so, who would it be? To further explore this question, we should first hop into our time machine and visit some NBA history. There have been a total of 11 expansion drafts dating back to 1961 when the Chicago Packers, now known as the Washington Wizards, were formed. If you fast-forward to the “Modern Era” (Somewhere in the 1980’s), there have been four expansion drafts:

1988 Draft (Miami Heat & Charlotte Hornets): This was pre-Timberwolves so there’s not too much to breakdown here. Only two names were recognizable to me and those were Dell Curry and Muggsy Bogues, two of the most recognizable names in Hornets history. That’s either impressive or very sad, depending on how you view it.

Charlotte Hornets v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

1989 Draft (Minnesota Timberwolves & Orlando Magic): The dawn of the Timberwolves was.... not great. With the 11-players Minnesota drafted on June 15, 1989, only two players suited up for that full season. In fact, seven of them never even played a single game for the Wolves in the Metrodome, including their top pick and then NBA champion, Rick Mahorn, who rudely refused to report to Minneapolis*. Now I know why they called him a Bad Boy!
*They traded Mahorn for a future draft pick that ended up being Gerald “World Class” Glass. Cool name.

1995 Draft (Toronto Raptors & Vancouver Grizzlies): They didn’t call David Stern “Mr. International” for no reason. With the NBA’s exploration into the Canadian market, the Timberwolves were finally on the giving end of an expansion draft. Of the 27 players selected, the Wolves had to say goodbye to Cuban big man, Andrés Guibert, to the Toronto Raptors with the fifth pick. Guibert previously played just 22 games in his first two seasons in the league, but never ended up taking to the court again after being acquired by Toronto. You can also have some fun looking up and down that list where you will find some Wolves legends like Oliver Miller or Reggie Slater.

2004 Draft (Charlotte Bobcats): Robert “Bob” Johnson* and his astutely self-named Charlotte Bobcats have been the last team to join the NBA. At the time, the Timberwolves were fresh off a Western Conference Finals appearance, yet they didn’t lose a single player to Charlotte in the draft. I tried to dig up if NBA teams had to publicly disclose who they chose to protect, but Google did not have any answers for me.
*Johnson was the first majority Black owner of a major professional sports team in the US.

Bobcats Press Conference Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Hindsight is 20/20 so it’s easy to judge some of these teams on their relatively poor expansion draft performances, Minnesota included. Let’s take a look a peak at some of the rules that Charlotte management were given in 2004:

A. Player Selection

The Charlotte Bobcats Expansion Draft will take place on June 22 (if the NBA Finals extend to seven games, it will be June 23), prior to the 2004 NBA Draft on June 24.

The Bobcats will select a minimum of 14 players who are under contract or restricted free agents for the 2004-05 season.

The Bobcats may select no more than one player from each team.

The Bobcats can only select players that are left unprotected by an NBA team.

Each of the 29 NBA teams may protect a maximum of eight players on its roster who are under contract or are restricted free agents at the conclusion of the 2003-04 season.

Each of the 29 NBA teams will designate the players on its roster who are eligible for selection by the Bobcats.

Each of the 29 NBA teams must designate at least one player on its roster to be eligible for selection by the Bobcats, even if the team does not have eight players under contract or as restricted free agents for the 2004-05 season.

Any player under contract selected by the Bobcats will immediately be placed on the Bobcats roster.

Any eligible restricted free agent selected by the Bobcats shall immediately become an unrestricted free agent.

Unrestricted free agents are not eligible to be protected nor are they eligible to be selected by the Bobcats.

An expansion draft would typically take place around June, before both the regular draft and free agency, but for the sake of this hypothetical, let’s say the event will be happening in September 2022 for Seattle and Las Vegas. In both the 2004 (One team) and 1995 (Two teams) drafts, the remaining teams could protect just eight players from their active roster.

The Timberwolves currently have 11 guaranteed contracts, four partially guaranteed, two two-way contracts, and two training camp contracts. Let’s go ahead and draw a line down the middle and include our partially guaranteed/team option players in this experiment.

Wolves 2022-2023 Salary Cap

Player Guaranteed Player Partial Player Two-way Player Training Camp
Player Guaranteed Player Partial Player Two-way Player Training Camp
Rudy Gobert $38,172,414 Jaylen Nowell $1,930,681 AJ Lawson $508,891 CJ Elleby $1,836,090
Karl-Anthony Towns $33,833,400 Naz Reid $1,930,681 Eric Paschall $508,891 Luka Garza $1,637,966
D'Angelo Russell $31,377,750 Austin Rivers $2,905,851
Anthony Edwards $10,733,400 Nathan Knight $1,836,090
Kyle Anderson $8,780,488
Taurean Prince $7,295,000
Wendell Moore $2,306,520
Bryn Forbes $2,298,385
Jaden McDaniels $2,161,440
Jordan McLaughlin $2,160,000
Data via Spotrac

If Tim Connelly could only protect eight players while casting a designated player into the draft pool, who would they be?

The Protected Eight

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

There’s no need to beat around the bush. There are theoretically three to five “core” players that are integral to this team. In no specific order, those players are Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jaden McDaniels, Rudy Gobert, and D’Angelo Russell. Though D’Lo is the lone player of that list who is not currently on contract past this year, it would be unwise to leave him unprotected for no return. That leaves room for 3 from the following list:

  • Kyle Anderson
  • Taurean Prince
  • Wendell Moore
  • Bryn Forbes
  • Jordan McLaughlin
  • Jaylen Nowell
  • Naz Reid
  • Austin Rivers
  • Nathan Knight

With the starting lineup likely protected, one could approach this puzzle from the angle of building a strong bench. The first candidate is Kyle Anderson, who was just recently signed to a team-friendly two-year, $18 million deal. Not only is he on a valuable contract, but the human swiss army knife is just as valuable on the court. He can effectively play small-ball power forward, or bully-ball point-forward. His 1.2 VORP would have ranked sixth on last year’s Timberwolves roster, yet that would have remained a good distance ahead of the next player from the list...

Jaylen Nowell. Mr. Big Tymah himself had himself a breakout campaign last year. Though his per game counting stats may appear meager at first glance, his per minute and possession numbers tell the story of a flamethrower off the bench who was knocking down shots at career-high rates (.581 TS%; .551 eFG%). Effective bench units in the league usually have a walking bucket such as Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams, or even a shot creator like Manu Ginobili. The Wolves would find themselves unwell without protecting Nowell.

That leaves one more spot remaining. Do you go with one of the undrafted gems, Jordan McLaughlin or Naz Reid, that the Wolves spent the last couple seasons developing? How about Taurean Prince, the six-year veteran who’s the emotional leader off the bench, can provide solid 3&D value, and is also on a team-friendly two-year, $14.5 million deal? Still not sold? Maybe its wiser to invest in the young rookie that Connelly handpicked as a late first rounder who’s cost controlled for the next four years, Wendell Moore Jr.? Let me do you one better.

Joshua Robert Tyler Minott.

I’m talking about the six-foot eight-inch, rail thin, second round draft pick out of Memphis who turned heads in the Las Vegas Summer League. Though he’s listed at 205 pounds (Just four pounds more than Jaylen Nowell), he has incredible measurements such as a seven-foot wingspan and a 38.5-inch vertical jump. Minott was so impressive in his one week in Vegas that he was already offered and signed to a four-year, $6.8 million contract. This is the 45th pick of the 2022 draft we’re talking about.

2022 NBA Summer League - Brooklyn Nets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

The rationale behind protecting Minott goes beyond the raging mancrush that I am developing for him. Logistically, if you’re the general manager of a Seattle or Las Vegas expansion team, who would you be looking to draft? If they had a choice to draft one of the following, who do you think they’d choose?

  • McLaughlin or Reid, who are both well into their 20s, bench-level players, and cost controlled for one to two years.
  • Prince, who’s 28, has limited upside, and is cost controlled for two years.
  • Moore, 21, who had an up-and-down summer league showing, and is cost controlled for four years.
  • Minott, 20, who displayed tantalizing upside, is cost controlled for four years, and the cheapest of the lot.
  • One of Forbes, Rivers, or Knight (Sorry, Nate).

No offence, but if you take Josh out of the equation, then none of those remaining candidates look all that appealing if you’re starting a franchise from scratch. Though JMac, Naz, Prince, or Moore may go unprotected, it’s still highly likely they won’t be selected anyway. The fact that you could make various cases is a good sign though. This may not be the first time that you’ve heard this claim, but this iteration of the Wolves may be the deepest they’ve ever had.

That said, the answer is Minott that complicated.

Who’s Left Out in the Cold?

Now that the Wolves have protected their eight players, there still remains the task of voting one off the island. Well, not necessarily sending them packing, but putting them up for selection. As one of the rules stated earlier:

Each of the 29 NBA teams must designate at least one player on its roster to be eligible for selection by the Bobcats, even if the team does not have eight players under contract or as restricted free agents for the 2004-05 season.

On the flip side of the exercise above, I feel like it’s an easy choice. The roster reduces down to either of the recent summer 2022 signings, Bryn Forbes or Austin Rivers. Personally, I don’t think it takes much discussion before we value a sniper from perimeter over a feisty 30-year-old journeyman guard. It almost feels as though Austin was signed for something exactly like this. Sorry, Sub-Zero!

What do you think? Would you protect the same eight players? Would you save Rivers from being the sacrificial lamb? Should the Wolves move East? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments below!