Ranking the Top 10 NBA Stars to Build a Franchise Around Entering 2013-14
If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player in the NBA, who would it be?
That question was posed to all 30 NBA general managers in the annual GM survey at NBA.com, and the answers were familiar ones. LeBron James received 89.7 percent of the votes, and Kevin Durant received 6.9 percent. One bold soul gave Kyrie Irving a nod.
For the sake of this exercise, we'll assume all players would sign their next contract with the team that selected them. Factoring in age, salary and injury history, who would be the best players to build a franchise around?
10. Kevin Love, F/C, Minnesota Timberwolves
Can you build a great defense with Kevin Love in the frontcourt? The Memphis Grizzlies have done it despite Zach Randolph's issues on defense, and the Chicago Bulls have covered up Carlos Boozer sufficiently.
With that in mind, it certainly seems possible that Love could be a part of a stingy defense, but it would require an awful lot of help.
To his credit, Love is elite in quite a few other areas of the game. Still, rim protection and pick-and-roll defense should probably take precedent over rebounding, even if Love is probably the best in the game at cleaning the glass.
Aside from his defensive deficiencies, Love is pretty much the perfect big man. He can space the floor with range out to the three-point line, he can operate out of the high post and low post, he's the best outlet passer in basketball and he's nearly impossible to keep off the offensive boards.
Love is just a little more high-maintenance than other stars defensively because of the position he plays and his need to be protected by his partner up front. Historically, above-average defensive teams have had an easier time making the playoffs and advancing further than above-average offensive teams, so starting with Love would be going against the grain a bit in that regard.
Add in that Love has missed 107 games over his five years in the NBA, and it's hard to shake the feeling that there may be safer options to build around. He's a phenomenal player, but the one-sided nature of his game limits the options you can have on the floor elsewhere.
9. Derrick Rose, G, Chicago Bulls
While I expect Derrick Rose to make this ranking look a little silly in the near future, his full recovery from ACL surgery isn't guaranteed.
Rose has looked great in preseason action, but we won't know for sure how his approach and athleticism have been impacted until we see him play over the course of a full season when the games really matter.
Perhaps all the time off improved Rose's shaky shooting from beyond the arc, and maybe he really is stronger than ever before. That's all certainly possible.
Still, if we look at Rose before his injury, there were some pretty big holes in his game. Rose's career true shooting percentage is "only" 53 percent, he's never been a great on-ball defender and he doesn't force a ton of turnovers. He's not the rebounder you'd expect either, despite his athleticism and size.
All that said, Rose is virtually unstoppable in the open court, and his ability to weave through traffic mid-air is unparalleled in the league.
On a "mega-max" deal with lingering injury concerns, though, there are a few safer, cheaper options who can provide similar production.
8. Russell Westbrook, G, Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook over Derrick Rose, huh? This may not be popular, but the difference came down to defense and durability.
Westbrook is an overrated defender in general, but he's capable of supplying better on-ball pressure and playing passing lanes more effectively than Rose is. Westbrook can be a menace when he's engaged on that end, even if it doesn't happen nearly as much as it should.
Perhaps more importantly, before his knee injury in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets, Russell Westbrook had never missed a game. Not a single one. That sort of dependability is a big deal, and speaking from unfortunate personal experience, a meniscus tear is a lot easier to bounce back from than an ACL tear.
Is that really enough to give Westbrook the edge? It's close. Rose has a better shot selection and is less careless with the ball, but Westbrook is the better rebounder and foul-drawer of the two. With both players on the same salary, this is essentially a pick 'em.
Westbrook will win you games and lose you games with his alpha-dog mentality, but you can build around an elite scorer and improving distributor who at times can be as unstoppable as anyone in the league.
7. Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors
This isn't hyperbole: Stephen Curry might end up being the best shooter of all time.
To date, the only two players to have a career average true shooting percentage over 58 percent, a three-point field goal percentage over 44 percent and a career field-goal percentage over 46 percent are Steve Kerr and Stephen Curry.
What makes that even more impressive is that Curry is a high-volume perimeter shooter and his team's top scorer. He doesn't have the benefit of being a spot-up guy who is only out there to shoot open shots. He has to create for himself.
Like a few other guards on this list, there are injury concerns that hold Curry back. Curry's chronic ankle injuries caused him to miss significant time during the 2011-12 season, but to be fair, Curry did play 77 games a year on average in his other three seasons.
The other facets of Curry's game are probably overshadowed a bit by his shooting as well. He's a clever passer who can find the open man when he gets in the lane, and he's a pretty good defender and rebounder for his slight frame. He's not a one-trick pony.
As we're beginning to learn, building your team around three-point shooting is a pretty good strategy, and Curry is the best in the business in that category.
Toss in Curry's absurdly cheap contract for his production level (about $11 million per on average over the next four years), and he's by far the cheapest building block on this list. You just have to hope the ankles hold up.
6. Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies
Outside of LeBron James, there probably isn't a better two-way player in the game than Marc Gasol.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has a few things working in his favor that don't necessarily show up through statistics.
First and foremost, there's literally no type of player Gasol can't play with. Because of his versatility to play in either post, make pinpoint passes and shoot with range, you can stick a stretch 4 next to Gasol or a bruiser on the block, and he'll be equally effective.
Defensively, it's the same deal. Gasol is mobile enough to defend screens on the perimeter but still plenty big enough to soak up space in the paint.
Basically, Gasol can anchor a team on both ends, which is something only a few players can claim. Building from the inside-out with size is always a good idea, and getting a player with no injury history in the prime of his career at 28 years old makes a lot of sense as well.
Gasol may not be the glamorous choice, but he takes nothing off the table, and he'll make everyone around him significantly better. Isn't that what you want from your franchise building block?
5. Kyrie Irving, G, Cleveland Cavaliers
This is a bet on potential.
Irving is already a premier scorer and shooter at just 21 years old, but right now his impact on the game isn't complete. Irving is a little too turnover-prone, and he's a dreadful defender who doesn't make an impact unless the ball is in his hands.
But again, he's just 21 years old. Irving is entering his third season with a career 21.4 PER, a number that surpasses Rose and Westbrook. Irving possesses ball-handling abilities rivaled perhaps only by Chris Paul, and he's proven to be extremely efficient, especially when you consider the teammates around him.
Most of the issues with Irving seem correctable, as he doesn't lack for natural ability or any skill. Defensively it's more about effort than anything else, and better distributing should come hand in hand with cleaner driving lanes and better teammates spreading the floor.
Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention Irving's injury woes thus far. Irving has missed 38 combined games over his first two seasons, although you can likely chalk up some of those up to bad luck and maybe even a little creative tanking on Cleveland's behalf.
The big difference between Irving and anyone else on this list, however, is his rookie scale deal. Irving has two seasons of salary below $7 million per year left, and after that he'll almost certainly be under a team's control on a max deal for another five years. If we were hypothetically starting from scratch around the league, that might separate Irving from anyone not named LeBron or Durant.
That said, you'd still probably like to see Irving stay healthy for an entire season first. At one point Eric Gordon looked like the league's next best shooting guard, and we know how that has turned it out. Irving is worth the risk, but he still takes a backseat to a few more established stars.
4. James Harden, G, Houston Rockets
The big factor James Harden has working in his favor? Positional scarcity.
While the league is full of talented point guards, there are only a few young shooting guards you could comfortably build a franchise around. Harden is the best of the bunch, primarily because he's an entire offense jam-packed into one player.
You want to run pick-and-roll-heavy sets? Harden is one of the league's best scorers and passers in that setting. Want to play out of the post? Harden's frame and love for contact make him deadly from the free-throw line extended area. Want to run? Play slash-and-kick basketball? Space the floor? Harden can be the star in every system.
His scoring efficiency may have taken a dip last season, but he's shown in the past that his game built around free throws and three-pointers can lead to brilliant results.
The only thing really holding Harden back is his defensive play. Although he has the size and athleticism to make an impact on that end, he often chooses to rest up so he can better shoulder the load offensively.
Still, at 24 with no significant injuries to date, Harden's ability to completely carry any type of offense shouldn't be discarded. He's a fantastic building block.
3. Chris Paul, G, Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul is still the league's best point guard, and it's hard to say that anyone controls the game better than he does.
Paul's greatness comes on the heels of his frightening efficiency. Paul never takes a bad shot, but he also rarely makes mistakes or misses an opening. His career PER of 25.5 blows every other point guard out of the water, and he's undoubtedly one of the best defenders at the position as well, leading the league in steals five times over his career.
Paul's prior knee issues and age may lead others toward a younger point guard, and the lack of accomplishments for his teams over the years may provide some pause as well.
That being said, it's hard to argue that Paul's talent has ever been maximized. He's played with quite a few below-average players over his career, and his timing has always seemed to coincide with the San Antonio Spurs' best years.
Regardless, Paul is already one of the greatest point guards to ever play, and he has plenty of elite seasons left in the tank. This pick would be safe and smart, just how Paul likes to run his teams.
2. Kevin Durant, F, Oklahoma City Thunder
Should Kevin Durant be at the top of the list? He's younger than LeBron James, he's a better shooter and he seems to make drastic improvements every single year.
Durant has definitely come a long way from being a one-dimensional scorer, but he's still not the all-around player James is, and it's probably not as close as people like to think.
James has led the league in PER for the last six seasons, and he's been a top-five perimeter defender during that time as well. Durant is a better defender than he gets credit for, especially in passing lanes, but James is in a different category there.
James is a significantly better distributor as well, and he's not as far behind in the shooting department as you might think, as his true shooting percentage of 64 percent was just a hair behind Durant at 64.7 last season.
There could come a time where Durant is the best player in the league, but it's not going to be while James is at the peak of his powers. With James showing no signs of slowing down at age 28, he's the right choice to start a franchise with. Durant, meanwhile, is the clear-cut second pick, and one heck of a consolation prize.
1. LeBron James, F, Miami Heat
LeBron James is the only player on this list who has won a championship, and he could very well continue to be the only one for quite some time.
James just keeps getting better and better, and he has everything you could ask for. He's durable, he's elite on both ends and he can play and defend multiple positions. The blueprint for how to win titles is already established as well, which is a nice bonus.
James is the easy choice to start a franchise with, and there's a reason nearly every general manager tabbed him as the top player. Kevin Durant will continue to put the pressure on, but it's hard to imagine James losing his top spot anytime soon.
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