Top Choices to Build an NBA Franchise Around from Scratch
What if David Stern decided that the NBA wasn't enough fun right now, so he blew up the league fantasy-draft style?
LeBron James is no longer on the Miami Heat. LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love are still dominant power forwards, but they're not tied to the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves anymore. Kobe Bryant isn't even on the Los Angeles Lakers, blasphemous as that may be.
After finalizing his decision as a going-away present to the league he's led for so long, Stern hands you the keys to one of the 30 franchises and lets you take the first pick of the ensuing draft. But with one twist!
NBA players aren't the only ones who are eligible. If you so desire, you can even steal someone from college basketball or an international team. No questions asked.
That's right. You get to build your team around any player in the world.
But you're smart. You want to cover all of your bases, so even though you're pretty dead set on taking a certain player, you still decide to come up with a big board of the top 15 choices.
That's where I come in.
I don't want you to do any more work, so I've got you covered with the big board.
You can thank me later, because I'm thinking about everything.
I'm accounting for potentially detrimental personalities, which push guys like Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins down quite a bit. Injury history matters, which is why you won't even want to think about selecting someone like Derrick Rose now that he's coming off not one, but two major knee injuries.
And, of course, skill and age are both taken into account, as it's more beneficial to build around a younger player with upside than an older one who is already set in his ways.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference and are current as of Dec. 12.
15. LaMarcus Aldridge
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks, 23.1 PER
We're finally seeing LaMarcus Aldridge unleashed on the rest of the NBA, and it's a scary sight.
The Portland Trail Blazers big man is asserting himself as one of the legitimate candidates for a spot in any sane rankings of the top 10 players in basketball, and he's doing so on both ends of the court. Now that he's surrounded by talent, he's free to torture opponents with his mid-range jumpers, and his defensive abilities have allowed the Blazers to focus less on guarding the paint.
Everything has come together in 2013-14, and Aldridge deserves to be a bona fide MVP candidate for the work he's done leading Rip City to the top of the Western Conference.
But he's also 28 years old and hoping this is the season he finally makes it further than the first round of the playoffs. Aldridge is a great player to build around, but he's not one of those true superstars who can carry a team each and every night.
14. Kyrie Irving
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 17.5 PER
Kyrie Irving is going to be a special player one day, but this season is showing why we can't let his hype train get out of control yet.
While he's averaging 21.4 points per game, he hasn't made significant strides as a distributor and remains mired in the realm of inefficiency. He's turning the ball over 3.1 times per contest while shooting 40.7 percent from the field, which would be fine if he were hitting a bunch of three-pointers or spending a lot of time at the charity stripe.
Irving still hasn't led a team into the playoffs, but he's only 21 years old and could change that this year. There's plenty of time left for him to do so, and it would help him if he were coached by someone other than Mike Brown and surrounded by talent that could actually pitch in on the offensive end of the court.
The 2013-14 campaign has admittedly caused me to sour on Irving in the present, but his long-term upside is still right up there with the rest of the league's best point guards.
13. Carmelo Anthony
Team: New York Knicks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 25.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks, 23.5 PER
Can you win a championship by building around Carmelo Anthony?
I vote yes, but it's telling that the question is such a prevalent one these days. 'Melo hasn't been able to get the job done since he was back at Syracuse, and this year's New York Knicks squad has emerged as a rather disastrous bunch.
The blame shouldn't rest on Anthony's shoulders, though. What more do you realistically want him to do?
'Melo is averaging 25.6 points per game (the utter putridity of his teammates has forced him into taking more shots, resulting in inefficient shooting numbers), and he's crashing the boards more than ever before. On top of that, he's actually passing the ball.
Don't look at his 2.8 assists per contest. Instead, take a gander at the 6.8 assist opportunities he produces every time he steps onto the court, per NBA.com's SportVU data. If his teammates were actually making shots, we'd be looking at this superstar in a completely different light.
The only real reason to drop Anthony down in the rankings is his age. At 29 years old with a decade of experience under his belt, it's just tough to justify selecting him over the remaining dozen players, even if he's a dominant force right now.
12. Kevin Love
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 13.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 26.3 PER
You may be shocked to find Kevin Love all the way down at No. 12, but until he starts asserting himself on the defensive end, it's tough to move him any higher.
For all of Love's offensive excellence and dominance on the glass, it's still hard to build around one-way players.
Additionally, his penchant for attempting to grab offensive rebounds takes away from his willingness to get back in transition, and that hurts Minnesota rather significantly. According to TeamRankings.com, the 'Wolves are giving up 15.6 points per game in transition, which leaves them ahead of only the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.
Love has emerged as the best stretch 4 in the NBA, and depending on how you feel about LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki, there's a serious case to be made for calling him the game's best all-around power forward.
But there are still a couple of problems.
Love hasn't been able to lead a team into the postseason (an overblown issue, but an issue nonetheless), and he plays a position that isn't easy to build around. It's better to start a franchise with a point guard or center, and only special talents at the other positions usually manage to sneak past that requirement.
He qualifies as a special talent, but there are still too many weaknesses on the less glamorous end for him to move into the top 10.
11. Andrew Wiggins
Team: Kansas Jayhawks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 16.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 23.7 PER
He has to go somewhere.
The presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Andrew Wiggins has yet to distinguish himself from the rest of college basketball's top players. But while Jabari Parker and Julius Randle (whom you can find among the honorable mentions) are emerging as safer selections, Wiggins is still bubbling over with potential.
You can imagine scouts salivating every time he steps onto the floor.
Even when he puts up a quiet 16 points and six rebounds, failing to establish himself for long stretches of the game, there are always plays that leave you making jaw-to-floor contact. Maybe it's a defensive stop. Maybe it's a step-back jumper like the one he hit against Florida. Maybe it's a feat of athletic excellence.
But there's always something.
Wiggins is still the collegiate player with the highest upside, and there's a reason that NBA front offices are salivating over him even as he fails to make the NCAA his stomping grounds. Pure domination at Kansas was never expected, as development is necessary before he comes within shouting distance of his ridiculous ceiling.
10. James Harden
Team: Houston Rockets
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 22.0 PER
Can you win without defense?
You can if you surround the defensive liability with the right pieces, and that's the situation you're dealing with if you take James Harden as your franchise centerpiece. You'd be left trying to find a wing defender like Chandler Parsons and a dominant interior stopper like Dwight Howard.
You know, exactly like the Houston Rockets have done.
But Harden's offense makes it worth the gamble and ensuing headache. The bearded shooting guard is an unstoppable force with the ball in his hands, and it's absolutely terrifying to think how he might dismantle the NBA's defensive efforts when his shot starts falling from outside.
And it will.
Harden has made 36.4 percent of his three-point attempts during his career, and he's coming off a season in which he functioned as the No. 1 option while drilling 36.8 percent of his 6.2 attempts per game. He's making only 30.2 percent of them this season, and that's not going to last.
He'll eventually regress progress to the mean.
9. Stephen Curry
Team: Golden State Warriors
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 24.4 PER
Stephen Curry has been getting better on defense, but he's still too much of a liability to move up any higher than No. 9. There just isn't much defensive upside, as Curry is a relatively limited athlete who has to exert a significant chunk of his energy producing points.
But that offense is phenomenal.
Right now, there's only one player in the NBA who ranks in the top 10 for both points and assists per game. Based on context clues, you've probably correctly guessed that it's Curry.
And somehow, the distributing element of his game has been massively overlooked, primarily due to the sensational three-point shooting and scoring explosions we've come to expect from this 25-year-old floor general.
Curry has emerged as one of the best passers in basketball, and his one-handed feeds off the dribble are nearly unmatched. He continues to improve this facet of his game, and it's allowed him to become arguably the most dangerous offensive point guard the NBA has to offer.
8. John Wall
Team: Washington Wizards
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.5 blocks, 20.9 PER
John Wall has broken out.
The Washington Wizards point guard has been absolutely fantastic throughout the 2013-14 campaign, although his jumper still has yet to show up. Eventually, it would be nice to see Wall shoot higher that 41.3 percent from the field and actually start to make a decent number of three-pointers, but we clearly aren't there yet.
And that's the reason that Wall ranks higher than Stephen Curry even though the Golden State Warriors orchestrator is quite clearly the better option for the 2013-14 season.
Wall still has a lot of unfulfilled potential left in the tank.
If he's averaging 19.6 points and 9.1 assists per game right now, what is he going to do when defenders have to respect his jumper?
Maybe that's when 20/10 finally happens. And it will.
7. Russell Westbrook
- “You look at All-Star point guards like him, guys who can put the ball up and score. You don't look at them at the defensive end …(Russell)'s been an all-defensive player since he's got into the league. A lot of people don't recognize it."—Kevin Durant
- "Yes (he's an elite defender). Because of his size, his quickness, his athleticism, his toughness. He can cause a lot of problems at that position. He can pressure the ball. He's hard to go by. He creates steals. So yeah, I would put him in that category.”—Terry Stotts
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, 20.6 PER
Did you know a little bit of buzz is beginning to build in NBA circles about Russell Westbrook's defense?
The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater recently relayed two telling quotes from prominent members of the Association:
Westbrook has always received a lot of credit for his dynamic offensive game, but his defensive abilities tend to get overlooked. I wouldn't go so far as to call him "elite," but he's still a plus defender. And once he stops gambling in the wrong situations, then he can actually be elite.
But it's the two-way presence of this athletic stud that allows him to reign supreme over the other young guards you might be thinking about as franchise building blocks.
Plus, imagine what Westbrook could do if he were put in charge of an offense without having to defer to another great scorer like Kevin Durant. Is there any reason he couldn't do what Derrick Rose did with the Chicago Bulls?
Could he even be better?
6. Andre Drummond
Team: Detroit Pistons
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.1 points, 12.7 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.4 blocks, 23.0 PER
Just imagine you're an NBA general manager, and you've been in trade discussions with the Detroit Pistons. All of a sudden, Andre Drummond is put on the table.
You'd try to control yourself, and then you'd end up pulling a Leonardo DiCaprio.
Drummond is one of the most coveted assets in the NBA, especially now that he's emerged as a dominant center during just his second season at the professional level. This big man was supposed to be an incredibly raw prospect who would take years to become a quality player, but he's basically laughed at that developmental curve.
The Connecticut product is already a stellar defensive player, and he's become a dominant rebounder who puts up efficient offensive numbers. There's something to be said for averaging 13.1 points per game while shooting a league-best 62.4 percent from the field.
But the ceiling is still unknown.
What if he suddenly develops post moves to accompany his advanced footwork? What if he learns how to shoot jumpers? What if his free-throw motion clicks?
If any of those three scenarios unfold for Drummond, he could easily become the most dominant center in quite some time. Yes, better than Dwight Howard.
However, that's still a conditional statement. There's no guarantee that Drummond becomes an offensive powerhouse, and that keeps him just barely out of the top five.
5. Chris Paul
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 18.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 11.9 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 27.0 PER
Chris Paul may be 28 years old, but he's still capable of leading a franchise for many more years.
Ever since CP3 played only 45 games during the 2009-10 season for the New Orleans Hornets and sparked questions about the health of his knees, he's been surprisingly durable, missing an average of only 6.7 games per season over the last three years.
Sure, he's missed time, but who hasn't?
It's too soon to expect a major decline from CP3, and he's quite clearly the league's best point guard. No one else is even close, as he's putting up remarkable offensive numbers (especially distributing the ball) while continuing to look good on the defensive end. Though he hasn't been a dominant perimeter defender for the Los Angeles Clippers, he's still been one of the best defensive 1's in the NBA.
Paul isn't a glamorous pick to build a franchise around.
He's a diminutive point guard without much playoff success on his resume, although you can look at the numbers and see that he's played wonderful basketball in the postseason if you so desire. He also doesn't offer much upside, especially compared to the players sandwiching him in these rankings.
But he's still a great choice.
4. Anthony Davis
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 18.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 3.6 blocks, 28.3 PER
Breaking news: Anthony Davis is really, really, really (deep breath for more air), really, really, really good at basketball.
As a second-year player, he's leading the league in blocks per game and trails only Brook Lopez and LeBron James in PER.
In win shares per 48 minutes, only Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul George are ahead of him. I don't think I'm spoiling anything when I say that those four players are the other members of the top five in these rankings. It's not like you were expecting any of them to miss the top 15, and you haven't seen three of their names yet.
The biggest concern with The Unibrow is injury.
He's been scarily prone to missing time during each of his first two seasons in the NBA, and it's still too early to determine whether it's a trend or a fluke. Fans of basketball everywhere should be crossing their fingers and hoping for the latter, but the need to do so is one of the reasons there's a large gap between Davis and the remaining trio of franchise building blocks.
Still, he's putting up nearly unmatched numbers.
The only players in NBA history to average 18 points, 10 rebounds, one assist, one steal and three blocks per game are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Bob McAdoo, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Bill Walton.
Davis is surpassing all of those numbers in definitive fashion, and he's only 20 years old.
2B. Kevin Durant
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 28.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 blocks, 27.4 PER
Kevin Durant is so close to the next player in the rankings that it really comes down to personal preference.
Would you rather have pure offensive dominance or less scoring/passing and more defensive excellence? I'd prefer the latter, but I can't decisively say you're wrong if you disagree. Again, it's a preference thing.
Durant is still only 25 years old, so it shouldn't be even remotely surprising that he's still getting better. This year, he's really shown improvement in his ability to pass the ball.
The small forward made strides as a distributor last year, and he's continued to do the same in 2013-14. Those 4.9 assists per game are impressive enough for any non-point guard, much less the player who is simultaneously leading the league in scoring.
Durant is still the second-best player in basketball, but that doesn't guarantee him the 2A spot.
2A. Paul George
Team: Indiana Pacers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 24.5 PER
You can read my full take on the Paul George vs. Kevin Durant debate here, but allow me to reprint the most important sentence.
While Durant is an excellent choice to build around (especially if you're just trying to win this year, though I'd still go with George in that situation), I'll take the extra youth, two-way play and incredible defensive ability any day of the week.
That was written before Durant torched George and the Indiana Pacers in a head-to-head matchup, but my stance isn't changing. You may be sick of the hype surrounding the Indiana swingman, but it exists for a reason.
George is that good.
He's a game-changing defensive player, and he's still only in his fourth season.
The offensive breakout he began during the 2012-13 season came to a head during the postseason, culminating in a high-five from LeBron James, and it's continued in 2013-14. George has become a precocious superstar, taking—and making—tough shots when his team needs them.
While emerging as the best wing defender in the NBA, George is starting to show flashes of Tracy McGrady on offense. How's that for a nice combination?
Oh, and George is only 23 years old.
1. LeBron James
Team: Miami Heat
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks, 28.9 PER
Go ahead. Try to be trendy. Attempt to pick against LeBron James because he's already 28 years old and won't be the most dominant player in basketball forever.
I'll sit back and wait to tell you that's a foolish decision.
LeBron is by far the best player in basketball, and he's only getting better. Despite the decline of his per-game stats, the reigning MVP is showing off new aspects of his already excellent game. He's added a cross-court bullet pass to the arsenal, and he's shooting 58.4 percent from the field.
That's right, 58.4 percent.
Those are numbers that should belong to a player who stays right next to the rim all game, not a superstar who leads an offense from the perimeter. LeBron is hitting perimeter jumpers (though he's still struggling with his mid-range shot), dominating with his back to the basket and torturing defenses with his ability to get to the rim and finish the play.
No one in the NBA is close to matching his individual greatness right now, and that isn't going to change anytime soon. Maybe five years down the road, someone will pass him. Maybe.
But I'll take those five years of dominance and then let him play out the rest of his career as one of the very best players in the league, assuming he isn't still the best.