The only way to legitimately have a shot at winning the NBA championship nowadays is to possess a top franchise cornerstone.
The NBA is filled with players who are either All-Stars or borderline All-Stars. Young or old, this is the most talented crop of players in the league since the 1980s. But there are only a few superstars in the NBA—guys who propel their teams from average to great.
Some teams are lucky enough to have two franchise players (and, in some cases, three). But even on the teams where they have two or three elite guys, each only has one cornerstone player, one go-to guy, one player who's on front of their team's big board.
Here's the requirements to making the list:
1. The player has to be relatively young and in his prime. Sorry, Kobe Bryant, but your best days are over.
2. The player has to be the best player on his own team. Russell Westbrook and Wade are both great players, but neither is the best on their respected teams.
3. How well does this player perform in the spotlight? When playing with or against other elite players, does he rise to the top?
4. Does this player make a difference in the win column, or does he only put up good stats on a bad team?
Follow Branden FitzPatrick on Twitter @divingmevlin
Kevin Love, the best power forward in the NBA, got his chance to prove just how good he is in the 2012 Olympics.
He answered the call.
Early in the summer, Love struggled to get playing time for Team USA. But as the competition got tougher, Love found himself playing more minutes. In the gold-medal game against Spain, Love was on the floor at the end when it mattered most. He earned coach Mike Krzyzewski's trust and ended up being Team USA's most valuable big man.
Thanks to some savvy moves by general manager David Kahn (no, seriously), the Minnesota Timberwolves have positioned themselves to compete for a spot in the postseason for the first time since the Kevin Garnett era.
Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger, Greg Stiemsma, Alexey Shved and Andrei Kirilenko were solid pickups. Assuming Ricky Rubio is able to return to 100 percent, the Timberwolves are a legit team with Love leading the way.
You can expect Love to be good for a long time because he doesn't rely on his athletic ability to excel. He's a below-average athlete, but he has great fundamentals. Love is a dominant rebounder, and his ability to shoot from all over the court pulls defenders out of their comfort zone.
So far in his career, Love has been able to improve leaps and bounds from season to season. After working hard for Team USA all summer, there's no reason to expect that streak to not continue.
Deron Williams may have had the roster spot on Team USA, but it's hard to argue that he's a better point guard than Rajon Rondo.
Rondo withdrew from Team USA before the 2010 World Championships. After watching him against the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA playoffs, it's shocking he wasn't on the Team USA roster.
Despite being known as a hothead, Rondo is the definition of what a point guard is supposed to be. Behind only Chris Paul, Rondo is as elite as it gets for a true point guard. He facilitates the offense, gives his teammates the ball in their favorite spots, defends and rebounds.
Not only is Rondo a one-man fast break, but he's a triple-double machine. He is the first player to record two Game 7 triple-doubles in NBA history. The most impressive aspect of Rondo's triple doubles is how effortless he looks doing it.
It's crazy to think how Rondo was trade bait at one point last season. After watching what he did again in the playoffs, there's no way the Celtics are trading him anytime soon. He makes everyone on the team better.
The Celtics' roster last season was weak in relation to recent seasons, yet they still pushed the Heat to seven games, something the Thunder didn't come close to doing.
Rondo doesn't get the respect he deserves, but he could probably care less. All he should care about is leading the Celtics this upcoming season. He is now a franchise player and without a doubt one of the top five point guards in the NBA.
Another player who gets unfairly criticized is Carmelo Anthony.
As so many superstars seem to do these days, Anthony famously wanted to be traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks. In the process, he harmed his reputation with the fans. In the end, the Nuggets made out great, while the Knicks are still yet to be determined.
You could say it worked out. The Nuggets got a young package of players, and with the recent addition of Andre Iguodala, it's possible Denver could be better than they ever were with Anthony on the roster. The Knicks got what they wanted: a marquee player who happens to be the second-best offensive player in the NBA behind Kevin Durant.
Anthony has a habit of becoming a ball stopper, but he's definitely a player that can lead you to a championship.
Every team Anthony has been on has made it to the postseason. Kobe Bryant can't say that, and neither can LeBron.
Unfortunately for Anthony, he was on the wrong side of the Jeremy Lin story. The "Who should get the last shot: Lin or Anthony" story was a typical, heat-of-the-moment overreaction. Anthony is the third-best small forward in the game, behind Durant and James, and both of those guys happen to be two of the best we've seen in the last 15 years.
If you watched Team USA, then you saw just how good Anthony is. He can score from all over the court with ease.
Don't get caught up in the moment. Anthony is a great basketball player. With a coach who utilizes him correctly, hopefully he can return to the level he was at in Denver.
Chris Paul holds the crown of best point guard in the NBA.
No one runs a basketball team better than Paul. He makes everyone on the floor better, knows every one of his teammates' strengths and weaknesses and always finds ways to get the most out of each of them. His court awareness is legendary.
You could make an argument that nobody in the world is better at doing his job than Paul. In the gold-medal game against Spain, Paul was the hottest player on the court in the fourth quarter.
The only reason Paul isn't higher on this list is because of his knee (he can no longer go all out for a complete game). He picks his spots, gets his teammates involved and takes over in the fourth quarter. He's still great, but is on the downside of his prime.
The Los Angeles Clippers will have a stressful summer next year. Will Paul re-sign, or will he join a new squad? Like James, Paul moving teams could become a deciding factor in which team plays for an NBA championship.
This pick goes with a grain of salt, because it's assuming Derrick Rose can return to full strength.
Injuries were an issue for Rose last season, even before he tore his ACL in the first round of the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. An ACL tear is as serious an injury as you can get. There's a possibility Rose will never recapture the explosiveness that helped him win the MVP two years ago.
Luckily for Rose, he has time on his side. He's only 23 years old (likely 24 when he returns to the court), and the ACL tear is more of a speed bump than a career-changing injury. If Adrian Peterson, who tore his ACL, MCL and both the medial and lateral meniscus in his left knee, can return in nine months, then it's not crazy to expect Rose to be ready for the Chicago Bulls by midseason.
Rose is the youngest player in NBA history to receive the MVP award. He's not the best point guard in the league (in terms of doing the job by the script), but he is a game changer and playmaker on the same level as Durant, James and Dwight Howard.
The point guard position is at an all-time high. Leading the way is Rose, who, along with Westbrook, has changed the way the position is played (for better or worse). Rose is the first franchise player for the Bulls since Michael Jordan decided to hang up his sneakers.
Even if Rose can only return to 90 percent of what he was, the Bulls will still have a top player in the NBA for years to come.
Move over, Kobe Bryant; Dwight Howard is the new cornerstone player of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Sure, Howard hasn't re-signed with the Lakers, and, at this moment, he is set to become a free agent next summer. But if living in Los Angeles, the second-largest market in the U.S., and playing with Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Bryant can't convince Howard, then who knows what will. At the moment, Howard is in Los Angeles, and that's all that matters.
It's fun to compare Howard and Andrew Bynum, but there's one major difference between the two. Howard, a six-time All-Star, has been an elite player since his third year in the league. Bynum, a one-time All-Star, has never been the best player on any team in the NBA, and he has shown a few signs of inconsistency despite being in the NBA for only one season less than Howard.
Bynum may be the second-best center in the NBA, but Howard is still a huge improvement for the Lakers.
Howard is also one of only three players who will guarantee their team a spot in the playoffs. No matter who you put around Howard, he will lead that team to the playoffs. You can make a case that he's not as good as he should be, but even with his flaws, Howard is still a one-man defensive force who makes opponents change the way they play.
Physically, there's no one in the league quite like Howard. Ever since he made his first All-Star team, D12 has led his team to a playoff spot. You cannot put a price on that kind of worth.
The only thing that will prevent Howard from continuing his dominance is his back.
In a time where dominant centers are basically extinct, Howard is truly on a level of his own. The competition at center may not be what it once was, but don't blame Howard for that. He's still the best center in the NBA and a great equalizer to teams like the Thunder and the Heat, who try to run everybody out of the gym.
He may be the best basketball player on the planet, but that doesn't make him the best franchise cornerstone in the NBA.
There's no denying LeBron James' greatness. In the past year, James won the regular-season MVP, the NBA championship, the Finals MVP and an Olympic gold medal.
You can go on all day about James' ability and how special of a player he is. The reasons why James is not No. 1 on this list? James is 27. That's not old, but there's a dominant player who plays the same position in the Western Conference who will be only 24 once the upcoming season starts.
This is a case of nitpicking, because James is the most dominant individual player since Jordan. But moving forward, this next guy would be a better pick to build a franchise around.
The only player you can make an argument for as a better cornerstone than James is Kevin Durant.
Let's make this clear—Durant is currently not a better basketball player than James. He may be a better offensive player, but that's about it.
But in terms of being a franchise centerpiece, then yes, Durant is the choice. When the upcoming season begins, Durant will only be 24. Considering how close he's already come to leading his team to an NBA championship, the sky seems to be the limit for Durantula.
Along with his young core of extremely talented teammates, Durant and his Thunder are a serious threat to become the next great dynasty in the NBA.
Think about this: The Lakers acquired Howard AND Steve Nash in the offseason, and that doesn't even make them the sure favorites in the Western Conference. The Thunder were a year ahead of schedule, blew through the West, then got punched in the jaw by the Heat in the NBA Finals.
Losing was good for the Thunder. You need to experience pain before you can make the extra leap as a team. Just ask the Jordan-led Bulls, the early-2000s Lakers and the Heat of two seasons ago
As fans, how lucky are we to have two apex, future Hall of Fame players playing at the same time? Paul, Howard, Anthony and Rose are all great, but there's something different about James and Durant.
If this column were written two years ago, James would be the No. 1 choice. But since Durant is younger and will have more opportunities to win a title heading forward, you have to go with him as the No. 1 franchise player in the NBA.
Follow Branden FitzPatrick on Twitter @divingmevlin