Indulge me for a moment: Pretend we live in an alternate universe where the NBA slate has been wiped clean and you've been presented with the opportunity to start a franchise from scratch.
Questions abound, but there's one that trumps all others: With every player on the board, whom will you select to be the face of your franchise?
That's the question we've attempted to answer here, taking several key factors into account.
The most important criteria included age, upside, injury history and the feasibility that a player could act as the face of a franchise. For those reasons, you'll notice names like Kobe Bryant (age), Derrick Rose (injury history) and Dwight Howard (can he really be the face of your franchise?) were all omitted from this list.
In addition, it's important to point out that preferential treatment was given to players who have demonstrated elite two-way capabilities.
With those ground rules established, let's take a look at the best franchise building blocks the Association has to offer.
Carmelo Anthony, SF, New York Knicks
The first player left off of the final list, Carmelo Anthony narrowly missed the cut based on his age (29, soon to be 30) and lack of upside at this point in his career.
Anthony is indisputably one of the Association's best pure scorers (No. 2 overall behind Kevin Durant), but he's not exactly the two-way threat a team is looking to build around at this stage in his career.
Just like last season, Anthony's defensive rating sits at 108 and is threatening to plummet to a career-low 109 should the New York Knicks continue to own one of the league's 10 least-efficient defenses.
Omitting Anthony was difficult, but there was ultimately a younger scorer whose case was slightly stronger.
LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland Trail Blazers
In the midst of a career year, one that's seen him average better than 24 points and 11 rebounds a night, a strong case can be made for LaMarcus Aldridge's candidacy as the foundation of a championship-caliber club.
To put into perspective just how terrific the three-time All-Star has been, the Portland Trail Blazers' public relations Twitter account recently noted that Aldridge has already compiled eight 25-point, 15-rebound games in 2013-14. Before this season, Aldridge had never recorded more than one such game over an 82-game stretch.
An undeniably unique offensive talent who's made a living from the oft-forgotten mid-range (shooting 42.5 percent between 16 and 24 feet), Aldridge was edged out by a trio of younger, more versatile power forwards.
2013-14 Statistics: 23.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks, 21.2 PER
James Harden isn't quite the pure scorer that Carmelo Anthony is, but he beat out the 29-year-old due to a five-year age difference.
Although Harden's not capable of killing opponents from every spot on the floor with a quick and deadly jump shot, he's got his own, efficient way of getting things done.
As his shot chart indicates, Harden's offensive distribution consists largely of threes and drives to the hoop, which account for 38.34 and 30.16 percent of his shots, respectively.
In addition, Harden's cunning ability to get to the free-throw line (8.7 attempts per game) has resulted in a true shooting percentage (.599) that ranks among the league's top 15, grouped with players like Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh.
Granted, Harden's defensive efforts could use a significant face lift, as demonstrated by his personal defensive rating of 107, which is one point off of his career-worst mark of 108 set during the 2010-11 season.
However, Harden's offensive talents are so unique that he's one of the few players who can get the benefit of the doubt as it pertains to his status as the focal point of a franchise.
2013-14 Statistics: 12.9 points, 12.8 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.9 blocks, 22.0 PER
Andre Drummond's inclusion is admittedly all about upside, but that's a big piece of the equation when evaluating future franchise centerpieces.
In the end, upside's what gave the 20-year-old the edge over Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge, and in this case, it feels safe to say that Drummond could eventually be one of the league's most dominant big men should he develop a more classic back-to-the-basket game.
And you better believe the fact that Drummond constantly making an impact despite not owning a refined offensive game speaks volumes about his future capabilities, as he's rebounded at near-league-best levels in his second season.
Not only does Drummond rank No. 3 overall in nightly rebounding behind DeAndre Jordan and Kevin Love, but he's far and away the NBA's premier offensive rebounder, hauling in 5.2 a night. In fact, Drummond is out-rebounding the competition so heavily on the offensive glass that he's the only player who's grabbed enough offensive boards to rank as a qualified category member, per ESPN.
To fully comprehend Drummond's abilities at this stage in his career, you don't have to look much further than his performance against the Miami Heat on Feb. 3. Despite playing just 24 minutes due to foul trouble, Drummond managed to grab a game-high 12 rebounds (six offensive), block two shots and record two steals, which gave him a team-best defensive rating of 93 for the night.
He also has a curiosity for the game that should serve him well, according to Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks (via Grantland's Jonathan Abrams):
He’s always asking questions, Cheeks said. Even before practice, he’ll come in and see me and we’ll talk about certain things that he can do to get better at. I think he has some knowledge in terms of where he wants to get to in terms of his ability. Most guys like that can reach another level — he has that ability.
For a guy whose usage sits at a meager 16.4 percent (No. 9 on the Detroit Pistons), Drummond's found myriad ways to make his presence felt, which is astounding considering his apparent offensive limitations.
2013-14 Statistics: 20.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.5 blocks, 20.2 PER
In an instant, John Wall has evolved into a superstar and is beginning to resemble the No. 1 overall talent the Washington Wizards dreamed they were always getting in the 2010 NBA draft.
And as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale recently outlined in great detail, Wall is living up to the max-contract billing that was bestowed upon him before the 2013-14 season:
But his upside easily trounces any improvements he still needs to make. The Wizards' offense is nearly 13 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor, per NBA.com (subscription required), and the team is part of the Eastern Conference's playoff conversation because of him.
In addition, Favale notes that Wall's stats have him grouped with some impressive company, specifically as it pertains to dishing out the rock:
Only three point guards are averaging at least 19 points and eight assists per game this season—Wall, Paul and Stephen Curry. And of all guards logging at least 30 minutes a night, Wall ranks fourth in assist percentage (39.6), behind only Paul, Curry and Kendall Marshall, and ahead of star facilitators like Deron Williams, Jrue Holiday and Ty Lawson.
If nothing else, it's a testament to Wall's rapid development that he's transformed himself into one of the game's most difficult nightly matchups at point guard.
However, further work still needs to be done on his jump shot (shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 20.8 percent in the non-restricted area portion of the paint, per NBA.com) in order for Wall to fully resemble the dual-threat point guard that's coveted in today's Association.
2013-14 Statistics: 23.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks, 23.4 PER
Blake Griffin's game certainly isn't perfect, but man is it frightening that a player with his limitless potential is still only 24 years old.
During a 2013-14 season that's served as an offensive renaissance for Griffin, the Los Angeles Clippers forward has crept into LaMarcus Aldridge territory, flashing an offensive game that stretches well beyond the post.
Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal has the details on the improved shooting:
Not only is he hitting more shots from beyond the arc—eight three-pointers made is more than in the past two seasons combined—but he's knocking down attempts from all over the court. In fact, he's even developing a new hot spot from the left elbow rather than doing the majority of his jump-shooting work along the baseline.
And the passing:
Throughout the entire NBA, only 21 players record more touches per contest than Griffin, and it's because so much of the offense runs through him. In fact, it's gotten to the point that plays rarely unfold without the power forward receiving the rock on the left elbow. Even if he doesn't go to work with a scoring mentality, his ensuing pass kick-starts the offense.
And that's one of the reasons that the All-Star starter is right up near the lead in secondary assists, at least among non-guards. Marc Gasol is the only qualified big man who records more hockey assists than Griffin's 0.9, and the LAC power forward stands out even more when we isolate the number of passes he throws each outing.
With Chris Paul sidelined due to a right shoulder separation, Griffin has blossomed into a legitimate No. 1 scoring option, one whom the Clippers have utilized to near-perfection. A 43-point outburst against the Miami Heat on Thursday serves as compelling visual evidence.
Now shooting mid-range jumpers without hesitation and driving to the basket with a quick first step, Griffin's offensive game has matured tremendously in just a few short months.
Building around a forward is admittedly less attractive than constructing a roster around a flashy point guard, but Griffin's one of the few frontcourt gems that can support a franchise.
2013-14 Statistics: 24.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 23.6 PER
Deciding between John Wall and Stephen Curry was a difficult task, but it's nearly impossible to pass up the latter's unprecedented dominance from beyond the three-point line.
Wall undoubtedly possesses more potential as a defender at this point in their respective careers, but it's certainly interesting to examine their individual performances this season and see that Curry has actually been fractionally better defensively, allowing 0.8 points per possession compared to Wall's 0.81, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Curry and Wall are also running neck-and-neck when discussing steals per game, which leads us to a rather lopsided offensive comparison.
The Golden State Warriors' front man has posted a true shooting percentage of 59.3 and an effective field-goal percentage of 54.9, far superior numbers to Wall's marks of 51.9 and 45.8, respectively.
From a more basic standpoint, Curry is unsurprisingly superior as well, shooting 40.6 percent from beyond the arc while Wall's hovering at a career-best mark of 32.8. And really, that's what you need to know. Curry's mark is a career worst and still ranks among the league's top 25.
With a sweet shooting stroke that can swing any game at a moment's notice, Curry's one of the few point guards a front office can entrust to carry their franchise well into the future.
2013-14 Statistics: 25.6 points, 13.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 27.4 PER
In need of a surefire, floor-stretching, do-it-all forward who can put your team on his shoulders night after night? If so, look no further than Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love.
Those numbers you see above are no joke. Not only is Love tied for first among all power forwards in terms of nightly assists, but he's on track to post a line with averages of 25 points and 13 rebounds while shooting better than 37 percent from the field. According to Basketball Reference, those benchmarks have only been met one time previously in league history, and it was by Love during the 2011-12 season.
For comparison's sake, the only other forwards to come close to posting similar numbers, according to Basketball Reference, are Karl Malone and Larry Bird, but neither was able to top the 13-rebound threshold, one that Love has surpassed in each of the past three seasons.
But while Love's knack for knocking down threes at a high clip has come to define his game, he's also a capable finisher around the basket, as evidenced by his fairly consistent shot chart.
With one of the league's most diversified offensive portfolios (don't forget the outlet passes!), Love is arguably the most well-rounded big man one could build around.
2013-14 Statistics: 21.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.1 blocks, 21.6 PER
Explosive potential is what you're getting if you choose to build around Russell Westbrook, which is undoubtedly a good thing in this case.
Even though Westbrook's tactical decisions often infuriate spectators who wish he would play a more controlled, selfless style of ball, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard is an athletic specimen whose offensive diversity can be put to good use.
This season, Westbrook has been one of the league's better pull-up jump shooters, scoring eight points per game via such shots, which ranks No. 4 overall (minimum 30 minutes per game) behind Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving, according to the NBA's SportVU player tracking data.
And while it's easy to knock the frequency with which Westbrook takes pull-up jumpers (9.1 per game), he's actually shooting above the league average, knocking down 44.4 percent of his looks between 16 and 24 feet, per NBA.com.
On the defensive end, Westbrook trumps Curry, particularly as it pertains to defending spot-up shooters. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Westbrook is allowing a meager 0.63 points per possession in spot-up situations (No. 5 overall), while Curry has been dreadful, surrendering a shade over a point per possession, which has them ranked more than 200 spots apart.
Compound all of those positive attributes with Westbrook's ability to get to the rim whenever he pleases thanks to a muscular frame and the quickest burst in the game, and you've got a gem on your hands.
2013-14 Statistics: 19.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 27.5 PER
In a point guard-centric league, you'll be hard-pressed to find a floor general as reliable and tenacious as the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul.
With an extreme hunger for winning, Paul has crafted himself into the game's premier blue-chip point guard, one who excels despite his selfless, team-first approach.
Not only does Paul lead the league with 11.2 assists per game, but he's been his usual, proficient self in the pick-and-roll, racking up 0.93 points per possession (No. 14 overall) as the ball-handler in such situations, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
On the defensive end, Paul ranks No. 2 overall in both steals per game and steal percentage behind Ricky Rubio while his offensive rating of 123.5 ranks third behind Kevin Durant and Robin Lopez.
The true measure of Paul's elite standing, though, is reflected in his mark of .279 win shares per 48 minutes, which is second to only Kevin Durant and percentage points higher than LeBron James.
2013-14 Statistics: 20.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 3.3 blocks, 26.7 PER
The miniature run on point guards ends with the appearance of Anthony Davis, the youngest player to qualify for this exclusive list.
But unlike so many of his contemporaries, Davis has made a name for himself with defense first and offense second, which is crazy because The Brow is averaging 20.5 points per game, good enough for No. 15 overall. That number even has Davis ranked slightly ahead of players like John Wall, Dwight Howard, Rudy Gay and Arron Afflalo.
Even better: Fewer than two full seasons into his career, Davis is already the league's most feared shot-blocker (3.3 per game). In addition, NBA.com points out that Davis recently became the first player since Patrick Ewing in 1990 to record at least 20 points and six blocks in three straight games.
And much like LeBron James, Davis has the quickness, length and athleticism to guard multiple positions, which would explain why opponents are shooting worse than 40 percent in nearly every play type when defended by the All-Star snub, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Pick Davis as the centerpiece of your franchise and you can guarantee the returns won't be disappointing.
2013-14 Statistics: 22.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.1 PER
Two-way dominance is the common thread between the playing styles of Anthony Davis and Paul George, but the latter barely edged out the former thanks to his more polished resume.
Defense was George's calling card prior to erupting throughout the 2012-13 season, but his offensive game has improved so much that he's a no-brainer inclusion when discussing the game's elite wings.
According to the NBA's SportVU player tracking data, George has been beyond proficient in catch-and-shoot situations this year, scoring 6.6 points via such play types (No. 9 overall) and owns a three-point catch-and-shoot field-goal percentage of 44.1, which has him grouped among perimeter marksmen like Klay Thompson, Kevin Martin and Stephen Curry.
George's offensive dexterity doesn't stop there, though, as advanced numbers further his case as one of the league's premier building blocks.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), George is scoring well over a point per possession in spot-up situations and coming off screens, ranking 16th and 11th, respectively in the two offensive play types that account for a combined 28.5 percent of his offensive production.
With a top-three defensive rating to boot, George is undeniably one of the most unique talents the league has to offer.
2013-14 Statistics: 31.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, 31.0 PER
Before you freak out, let me explain the logic behind my thinking here.
Kevin Durant is in the midst of one of the most spectacular individual stretches the game has ever seen, and that's undeniably terrific. He's also the most dominant offensive player in the game today. Factor in that he's four years younger than LeBron James and this should be a no-brainer, right?
I don't want to fall victim to recency bias and anoint Durant the better franchise building block just yet, although the choice is admittedly a matter of preference at this stage in their careers. After all, that is why I made an exception and listed Durant and James as 1B and 1A, respectively.
Maintaining perspective is important here, and it's hard to argue that James has settled into his throne as the game's preeminent two-way player over the past five years.
That said, the Slim Reaper is definitely lurking behind James in an attempt to shed his least-favorite label as the league's second-best player.
Durant's been terrific on both ends of the floor—particularly on defense— and there are some staggering numbers to back that claim up: According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Durant ranks No. 4 overall in terms of points per possession allowed to pick-and-roll ball-handlers and No. 12 when defending against isolations, allowing 0.52 and 0.54 points per possession, respectively.
Durant has grown as a defender by leaps and bounds, even compared to his tremendous 2012-13 season, one during which he held opponents to 0.73 and 0.66 points per possession in the pick-and-roll and isolations, respectively.
Also consider that Durant has overtaken James for the league lead in player efficiency rating—a title James has owned for the last six seasons—and has recorded an obscene offensive rating of 124, and he could easily headline this list next year.
2013-14 Statistics: 26.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 29.1 PER
While Kevin Durant's been lighting up the Association with some historically significant numbers, LeBron James has been doing the same, albeit with much less chatter surrounding his potential achievements.
James is currently averaging 26.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 57.7 percent from the field. In the history of the NBA, no player has ever posted comparable averages while shooting so efficiently, according to Basketball Reference.
In fact, only four players have ever averaged those same figures on 50 percent-or-less shooting. Those legendary names, according to Basketball Reference? Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson and, you guessed it, James.
Not only that, but LeBron ranks among the league's top five in field-goal percentage, the one wing player who can boast that achievement. In fact, the only other perimeter-oriented player to rank among the top 15 is James' teammate, Dwyane Wade.
James is also the only non-point guard to rank among the league's top 15 when it comes to assists per game and the only non-guard to grade out as one of the top 20 players in assist percentage (32.5).
All that, and this is supposedly a "down" year for LeBron.
And although it's well-established that Durant is the better mid-range and long-range shooter, James has been terrifyingly strong around the basket and in the paint this season.
After shooting 49.4 percent in the paint and 75.97 percent in the restricted area last season, James has somehow topped those figures and is converting on 51.2 percent of his attempts in the paint and 78.7 percent from the restricted area, per NBA.com.
For comparison's sake, those numbers are superior to Durant's percentages of 39.5 and 74.2 from the paint and restricted area, respectively.
But that's not all. According to MiamiHeat.com's Couper Moorhead, James is on pace to set the single-season record for field-goal percentage in the restricted area, which would top the previous mark owned by Shaquille O'Neal.
There's also the small matter of James guarding all five positions, which he's openly admitted should make him the favorite to capture the league's Defensive Player of the Year hardware, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst: “That’s why I should be Defensive Player of the Year,” James said. “No one has ever done this before.”
Given that he's also gunning for a third consecutive title smack dab in the prime of his career, turning down a chance to make LeBron the face of your franchise is simply irresistible.