A Theoretical Seattle Sonics Expansion Roster

While the rumblings of a possible Seattle expansion franchise have quieted since the 2021 NBA season kicked off, it is still out there in the ether that the NBA is considering adding two teams to the league to cover their COVID-related losses. While most stories concentrate on where and when those teams could pop up, I thought it was worth exploring the processes that would need to take place in order to make a new team NBA ready. The foremost of those would be the expansion draft, where new teams are allowed to raid active rosters to build the bulk of their player pool. The rules of such an event are a bit convoluted, as no team in the league is eager to give up one of their players for free. Fans of a potential Sonics franchise would wonder what players might be appearing on the court during an inaugural season, with an eye on what hipster jersey they might want to buy. This article will tackle what goes into an NBA expansion draft, who the Sonics could possibly select, as well as how they might fill the rest of their roster and staff.

Let’s start with the rules, as that will dictate who will be available for selection as well as give context on who the Sonics might choose. The last time this process took place was in 2004, when the NBA decided to expand back to Charlotte. While the process may change a bit on the margins, the rules should stay largely the same:

  1. The team must select a minimum of 14 players who are under contract or restricted free agents for the 2022-2023 season.
  2. No more than one player may be selected from each team.
  3. Only players left unprotected may be selected.
  4. Each of the 30 NBA franchises may protect a maximum of eight players on their active roster.
  5. If a team were to have less that eight eligible players, it still must select at least one eligible player for the expansion draft.
  6. Any restricted free agent selected will automatically become an unrestricted free agent.

The rules aren’t numerous, but they can be a bit to wrap one’s head around. I already did the research, and no team has less than eight eligible players who are under contract for the 2022 season. I can’t imagine any team in the NBA would actually choose to not protect a full eight players, as giving away rotation options when a team doesn’t have to is unheard of. A future Sonics team has to draft 14 players from what amounts to the deep bench of team rosters. This system was designed to prevent the already established teams from losing real players of value.

One more rule I did not include as it’s not a part of the process but would impact the results is that new franchises are forced to deal with a reduced salary cap. 66% of the total cap in their first season, 75% for the second and it goes to normal from there on out. I may choose not to draft a player because of their salary even if they could help a new team win immediately.

For strategy, I am going to take a hybrid view. It is impossible to create a “win-now” philosophy, a-la the NHL, but there are players available that would prevent Sonics 2.0 from being the worst team in basketball. At the same time, I am not only going to take those players, but I will also target players for this burgeoning franchise that are young and could grow into something more. In that way, I’d be giving the city of Seattle something to root for now and hopefully something to look forward too.

And so, let us begin.

Point Guard: Eric Bledsoe (Pelicans), Dennis Smith Jr. (Pistons), Tre Jones (Spurs)

In selecting our would-be starting point guard, the choice was pretty easy. Eric Bledsoe has been a good-to-above-average player in this league for a long time and was only available because New Orleans has so many high draft picks and young players on their roster. It also made sense because at 31 years old, he doesn’t match their timeline and has been posting career lows across the board (though his 39.2% mark from three is spicy). He’s under contract for a reasonable number for the next couple seasons and his mix of defense and veteran leadership would be a welcome to a young roster.

To say Dennis Smith Jr. has had a disappointing start to his young career would be an understatement. After an inefficient yet promising rookie season, injuries and the tragic loss of his stepmother have derailed his last couple years in the league. But the high-wire athleticism and nascent talent is still there, which is why he’d be a worthy gamble for our expansion Sonics.

Tre Jones is a clear role of the dice, as the former Blue Devil has played all of 39 total minutes in the NBA. But he was a steady hand during his time in college, leading some very talented Duke teams into March Madness. His lack of athleticism and scoring ability is why he fell to the second round of the draft, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he grew into a capable back-up point guard.

Shooting Guard: Furkan Korkmaz (76ers), Josh Okogie (Timberwolves), Cassius Stanley (Pacers)

Furkan Korkmaz is currently a reserve for the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers, but his one strong ability would be a huge bonus to this starting line-up. While he’s having a down season from behind the arc, he is a career 37.0% shooter from three and would be a great option to space the floor for the other projected starters.

Josh Okogie is the opposite of Korkmaz in that he would be purely a defensive addition to this roster. Even though he is one of the worst offensive players that gets regular minutes in the league, his defensive versatility has constantly kept him in the Timberwolves starting line-up. He’d be great as a reserve or as a spot starter against elite offensive players.

Cassius Stanley is again a pure value play. As the 33rd ranked player in high school, he was expected to come in and be a high impact player at Duke. He kind of pulled that off, putting up 12.6 points per game on decent percentages. Nabbing him in the expansion draft would come with the hope that he takes a jump in ability.

Small Forward: Troy Brown Jr (Wizards), CJ Elleby (Trail Blazers), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (Nets)

Small forward is the most barren position in the eligibility pool when it comes to proven talent. It is the most important position in basketball, and it comes as no surprise that teams would protect its best wings. It is why the Sonics will choose Troy Brown Jr as it’s presumptive starter. A talented defender, Brown Jr averaged 1.2 steals per game in 2020 (the only year he received heavy minutes in his young career). He also is a pretty decent passer and isn’t afraid to move the ball, but his shooting percentages leave something to be desired. 

CJ Elleby is the only rookie first round pick I deemed to be possibly eligible in this expansion draft. The Trail Blazers see themselves as contenders, so it would be logical they would protect their veteran rotation as well as their young corps that have already proven to be contributors. While many saw the Trail Blazer’s selection of Elleby as a reach, he was a proven scorer in college that chipped in 1.4 steals per game in his time at Washington State University. He’s yet to receive real minutes in the NBA, but the one time he was called up due to injuries he was able to score 15 points. The Seattle-native is more than worth the gamble.

Luwawu-Caborrot has spent most of his career seen as an idea rather than an actual player. He stands a long 6’7” with serious length, the ideal body type for a “3-and-D” player. Unfortunately, the “3” part of that equation has been missing, leaving him mostly to languish on the bench. At least that’s how it was, until last year’s NBA bubble where he started lighting it up behind the arc. It seems like it wasn’t just a fluke either, as TLC has been shooting 37.2% from behind the arc this season as a bench player for the Brooklyn Nets. He seems like the ideal player to have as depth. 

Power Forward: Danilo Gallinari (Hawks), Taurean Prince (Cavaliers), Bol Bol (Nuggets)

The Hawks were an interesting case, as they’ve drafted so many high prospects that their pricier veterans were the ones left eligible. Gallinari ended up being the one chosen out of a couple good options from their roster, as he is on a reasonable three-year contract and is coming off a season in which he averaged 18.7 points and 5.2 rebounds. He would be in competition with Bledsoe as the best player on this roster.

Taurean Prince hasn’t quite panned out after putting up 14.5 points per game as a second-year player in Atlanta. While his strong shooting numbers have kept him in the rotation for multiple teams, he most likely won’t be anything more than a floor spacer. His 36.8% career three-point shooting would be useful to space the floor for others on this roster.

Bol Bol may be recognizable because he may be the most memed player in the NBA. From his funny name to his gangly body to the fact he is 7-feet tall and dribbles like a point guard. He’s what Kevin Pelton would create if you stuck him in a lab and told him to engineer a modern NBA player. 7’2” with serious dribbling skills and a workable three-point shot, Bol looks like the floor-spacing shot blocker that every team dreams about. But that dream hasn’t become a reality to him, due to a rail thin body that allows him to easily get bullied in the paint and is prone to serious injuries. Still, if he were to properly fill out, he could be a seriously impactful player in the NBA. The Sonics would be smart to take a chance on Manute’s son.

Center: Robert Williams (Celtics), Xavier Tillman Sr. (Grizzlies)

Robert Williams, aka “Timelord”, is the ideal center to target for a new team. He’s young (23), long, protects the rim like a beast and is a superb rim-runner. He hasn’t seen a lot of time for a good Celtics team due to his struggles defending in space, but for a team that’s expected to struggle he’s a great prospect to give real minutes too.

Tillman is another of those rookies that is left available due to the sheer number of prospects the Grizzlies have on roster. The former Big 10 defensive player of the year, he thrived on the court on that side of the ball. Even though he’s found himself as a part of the rotation in Memphis, I imagine they would leave him available due to his low offensive ceiling.

Free Agents:

A new expansion team is limited by league mandate to have a ceiling of 2/3 of the salary cap of every other team in the league. Through our expansion draft, we have already consumed $65,415,690 of that $72,032,400 leaving very little for possible free agents and draft picks. I’ll be limiting this section to veteran signings that will most likely cost the league minimum.

Isaiah Thomas

This one would mostly be a sentimental signing, as Thomas hasn’t been on an active NBA roster in more than a year. But the sprightly 5’9” point guard is a Washington Huskie legend who was still able to average 12.2 points per game just a season ago. A multitude of injuries has sapped his athleticism to the point where he can’t get to the rim anymore, but he is still highly potent from range. The Tacoma native deserves a shot to resurrect his career in his hometown.

Jeff Green

One of two remaining players to don the green and yellow back during the original Sonics, Green seems like an ideal pickup. He spent his rookie season in Seattle after being drafted 5th overall and has developed a reputation as a tantalizing but ultimately disappointing player over the years. Recently, he’s been coming off the bench for high powered playoff teams, a role where his inconsistency isn’t as hampering but allows him on his strong nights to really make an impact. His versatility on the wing is useful for any team and a return to the franchise that played him as a rookie feels like a storybook ending. 

Gary Payton II

Nicknamed “the Mitten”, Payton seems destined to at least be given a chance in the city that made his father a legend. Even though his offense is non-existent, his abilities on the defensive side of the ball allowed him to hang around in the league. If he had any point guard skills or shooting ability, he’d already be on a roster. As it stands now though, he’s out there to be had.

NBA Draft:

The Charlotte Bobcats were handed the fourth overall pick instead of participating in the lottery for the 2004 NBA draft, but traded up two spots to draft Emeka Okafor. In 1995, the Vancouver Grizzlies selected sixth and the Toronto Raptors followed in the seventh spot. Another addendum of being granted an expansion franchise is not being allowed to take part in the lottery. It doesn’t seem there is much reason to where a team is slotted in, so for this exercise I am assuming our newly minted Seattle Supersonics will be given the 4th and 35th spots overall in the 2021 draft.

SI.com has Jalen Suggs as their fourth ranked prospect, which is quite fitting as the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs are within the same state as our Sonics. His actual draft position most likely will be different and based on team needs, but for this Suggs works just fine. At the 35th spot, shooting guard Bennedict Mathurin will be our theoretical 2nd round draft pick.

Head Coach:

As I was writing this article, I had predetermined in my mind that Nate McMillan, aka Mr. Sonic, was going to be our theoretical head coach. That was until the Atlanta Hawks just fired Lloyd Pierce and elected to choose McMillan to fill their vacancy. Even in this fantasy world I have created, I would be hard pressed to hire an active NBA head coach onto another team.

George Karl, Bill Russell and Jack Sikma are all still alive but have easily aged out of the league at this point. Current NBA coaches Terry Stotts, Dwane Casey and Rick Carlisle were one-time assistants of the old Sonics but are all pretty embedded with their current teams. For this reason, I’ll select Spurs assistant Becky Hammon as this inaugural team’s head coach. 

Selecting the first female head coach in history may seem odd for a new franchise, but Seattle would be a good spot to break that ceiling in. The city itself is highly liberal and is very used to rooting for women in the sport as the three-time champion Seattle Storm have been embraced by the city. Her qualifications are impeccable, as she has sat on the bench now for seven seasons, has a G-league championship to her name and is now performing spot duty for the iconic Gregg Popovich when he gets tossed out of games. If she was willing to take the position, I think it could be a very solid fit.

Final Roster:

Seattle Supersonics
Head Coach – Becky Hammon
Point GuardShooting GuardSmall ForwardPower ForwardCenter
Jalen SuggsFurkan KorkmazTroy Brown JrDanilo GallinariRobert Williams
Eric BledsoeJosh OkogieCJ EllebyJeff GreenXavier Tillman Sr
Isaiah ThomasGary Payton IITimothe Luwawu-CabarrotTaurean Prince

The G-League Tacoma “Little” Sonics team would have a roster that includes Tre Jones, Cassius Stanley, Bol Bol, and Bennedict Mathurin.

On the front of it, this exercise may seem pointless as Seattle has NOT been granted an expansion franchise, is NOT drafting players this year and will NOT be participating in the league during the 2021-2022 season. But this exercise is worthwhile as it should give a potential Sonics fan an idea of the type of roster that will be put together if those things should happen in the future. A top-5 draft pick, a couple of pretty good veterans and a whole lot of fringe prospects will most likely be what an initial roster would consist of. Due to how expansion draft rules are constructed, there won’t be a ton of value for the Sonics to grab. The nerfed salary cap means it would be next to impossible for Seattle to sign impact free agents if they even wanted to come here. Like the current bottom dwellers in the league, Seattle will most likely endure a very rough first couple of years while praying a draft pick turns into a superstar.

About Evan Peper 58 Articles
Seattle born and raised. I wear my fandom on my sleeve, as I bleed Seahawks blue and green and am Sounders’ Til I Die. To fill the basketball-shaped hole in my heart from when the Sonics were taken away from the city of Seattle, I have adopted the Portland Trail Blazers and rep Rip City. I aim to bring an analytical view on the sports world and hope to impart a deeper understanding of the game to my readers.