The NBA could one day in the not-too-distant future expand its ranks. The league is financially healthy, in some of the smallest Big Four markets of any sport, and rising in popularity all over the world. Even Adam Silver is on the record discussing the possibility. Expansion is a matter of when, not if.
For that reason, SB Nation has decided to take the temperature of the NBA’s existing 30 teams’ fanbases and see what our teams would do in this expansion scenario. The premise is simple: choose eight players with NBA contracts to protect. Everyone else is vulnerable to selection by the Zombie Sonics or Virginia Beach Seamen.
For the Rockets, I made the choice to keep the seven most critical pieces of the Rockets’ rotation, plus their best long-term prospect: James Harden, Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Nene and Zhou Qi.
Harden, Paul, Capela and Gordon are all obvious choices. They are the four best players on the team, the four most critical to its success and the four whose contracts are the most reasonable. With eight guys to keep, the newly signed P.J. Tucker, under team control until the end of the decade, and Trevor Ariza, the consummate professional and locker room glue, are also shoo-ins.
From there, it gets a little tricky. Here are the players to choose from: Ryan Anderson, Nene, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Zhou, Chinanu Onuaku, Troy Williams, Tarik Black and Bobby Brown.
Black, Brown and Onuaku are easy candidates to not protect. Black might get selected, but Nanu and Brown would probably not make an expansion team. I felt a little queasy putting Brown on there, because he is destined to retire a Rocket, right alongside the Beard.
Troy Williams was a little tougher. He’s on a great deal with a guaranteed contract this year and two fully non-guaranteed years. I’m high on his long-term potential, even if there doesn’t appear to be a path to regular minutes for him this season. Standing in front of him for minutes is Mbah a Moute, who might also be a candidate for selection, but would be redundant on an eight-man roster behind Ariza, Gordon and Tucker.
That leaves three players: Anderson, Nene and Zhou Qi.
Ryan Anderson might be the most important to the Rockets of that trio — although in the playoffs Nene dwarfed his production and value, and the Rockets fell apart when he got hurt — but his presence on the team this offseason has caused some consternation; if he weren’t in Houston, Carmelo Anthony already might be.
Nene is not the player he once was, but last year he was in close to the best shape of his career, and in working with the Rockets training staff, looked every bit the per-minute beast he was in his prime. His hands, passing ability, screen-setting and defense were invaluable, as was his veteran presence. If he’s not on the team next year, the Rockets would either lean on Capela far harder than they ever have, or play Black until the trade deadline, an undesirable situation.
Zhou Qi has one of the longest wingspans in the NBA, has a clear potential as a three-point shooter and is already a defensive, disruptive force. He’s under team control for four years(!) and I can’t wait to watch him blossom in the G-League this year. If he were not protected, he’d be an obvious candidate for an expansion draft. If Zhou were on the Sixers, he’d be buzzed about a lot more.
So I chose Ryno to leave unprotected. The Zombie Sonics could pick just one of these players: Ryno, Williams, Black, Brown, Onuaku and Mbah a Moute. My money would be on Williams, and the Rockets’ power forward would stay in Houston, ego bruised but in place. Odds are, none of these players are taken. Maybe they do select Ryno, in which case the next day, Daryl Morey pulls the trigger on a ‘Melo trade. Win-win!