Each NBA Team's Franchise Centerpiece Entering 2014-15 Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 18, 2014

Each NBA Team's Franchise Centerpiece Entering 2014-15 Season

0 of 30

    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    It's not always easy to figure out which player stands out from the crowd in discussions about an NBA team's centerpiece. 

    Some selections are obvious. 

    Anthony Davis is quite clearly the building block for the New Orleans Pelicans, while Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry fill the role for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors, respectively. If you were looking for a spoiler alert, my apologies, but you really shouldn't need one for those three teams. 

    Other choices, though, are significantly more difficult. 

    Is it Ty Lawson or Kenneth Faried for the Denver Nuggets? James Harden or Dwight Howard on the Houston Rockets? Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker for the Milwaukee Bucks? 

    Regardless of the ease or difficulty of the process, the featured players are the ones who their franchise should be building around. They're the established or up-and-coming talents who serve as the fulcrums for their teams, even if they aren't necessarily the best players. In many cases, they are the top talents on the roster. 

    Just not always. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com.

Atlanta Hawks: Al Horford

1 of 30

    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Age at start of 2014-15: 28

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.5 blocks

    The Atlanta Hawks are relying heavily on the success of Jeff Teague, who's supposed to emulate Tony Parker in the system run by the Atlanta Hawks' transplant from the San Antonio Spurs—Mike Budenholzer. The bevy of three-point shooters is quite important as well. 

    However, Al Horford remains the centerpiece, as he's the player the team has to continue building around, thanks to his versatile talent and ability to serve as a hub on either end of the court. For proof, look no further than the team's success with and without him during the 2013-14 season. 

    When Horford went down with a torn pectoral on Dec. 26, during a memorable double-overtime victory against the Charlotte Bobcats, the Hawks were 16-13. They looked poised to earn the No. 3 seed in an undeniably weak Eastern Conference. 

    They finished the regular season at 38-44, sneaking into the playoffs before making some noise against the Indiana Pacers.

    A 16-13 record is significantly better than 22-31. 

Boston Celtics: Rajon Rondo

2 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 28

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 11.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Until the Boston Celtics give us reason to think otherwise, Rajon Rondo remains the biggest and best building block in Beantown. 

    Drafting Marcus Smart may be a sign the franchise is ready to move on from the Rondo era and turn things over to a younger player at point guard. Re-signing Avery Bradley to a big contract was yet another indication, but Rondo remains on the roster and—for once—the trade rumors have actually gone quiet. 

    So long as he's a part of the organization, everything runs through him. It doesn't matter how many other guards the C's have committed to, because the ball will stick in his hands until he decides that he wants to record an assist, and his defense will remain right up near the top of the Association. 

    Especially without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in Boston, Rondo is still the face of the franchise and the player who must be built around, at least until Smart proves himself capable of catching the baton. 

Brooklyn Nets: Deron Williams

3 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 30

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks

    It's hard to pick a reasonable representative for the Brooklyn Nets. 

    Joe Johnson? He made the All-Star team, but he's very much a complementary player at this stage of his career. Brook Lopez? Not until he proves that his feet aren't going to hold him back forever. Mason Plumlee? Definitely not established enough, nor is the level of his upside known. 

    I guess it has to be Deron Williams

    Even though he's been playing at less than 100 percent for a long time now, he still has All-Star upside when he's at full strength. Plus, he's only 30 years old and saddled with a massive contract that the Nets almost have to build around. 

    Is it any wonder the organization still feels as though he can be elite? Here's Bill King on SiriusXM Radio's Starting Lineup, as relayed by NetsDaily.com

    As soon as the season was over, he took advantage of things. He met with doctors, they made the recommendation. He took care of it and mentally and physically, he's hit it and I think he's ready to go. He's out to prove that he is still one of the elite point guards in the league. And I think that's going to benefit us as well...

    Lionel remembers that Deron Williams because he coached against him when he was in Utah. So he's ready for the challenge to get him back to that level.

    Even if D-Will is now the choice through attrition, the Nets management apparently feels strongly about his chances of regaining his elite status. 

    Let's not forget that he and Chris Paul were in a constant competition for the "best point guard" title only a few seasons ago. 

Charlotte Hornets: Al Jefferson

4 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 29

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Everything is happening around Al Jefferson

    Steve Clifford installed a fantastic defensive system that would minimize his status as a point-preventing liability, and it worked wonders during the head coach's first year in charge. Now, he's trying to surround Big Al with shooters—P.J. Hairston and Gary Neal, for example—so that the court is stretched out for him. 

    All the while, the offense revolves around getting Jefferson the ball on his left block—and yes, it really is "his"—with enough room for him to go to work with his back to the basket. 

    Jefferson was a featured player while he starred for the Utah Jazz, but he wasn't treated as a franchise centerpiece, at least not to the extent he's currently experiencing with the Charlotte Hornets. Never before has he been the unquestioned leader of the offense while having a defensive system built around him so that he can continue to maximize his talents. 

    No wonder he put up such stellar numbers in 2013-14, even if he often flew completely below the radar. 

Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose

5 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 26

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Well, this is pretty obvious. 

    The Chicago Bulls have plenty of talent on the roster, including last year's Defensive Player of the Year—Joakim Noah. However, even while Derrick Rose has recovered from one injury after another, he's remained the team's focal point. 

    Hell, when he went down last season after returning from his torn ACL, the management even tried to employ a bit of a tanking strategy, shipping off Luol Deng for Andrew Bynum, who was subsequently waived, and giving no indication the team was going to remain competitive in Rose's absence. 

    Even though it's impossible to be certain about Rose's level of play, he's remained the centerpiece in the Windy City, both on the court and in the hearts of the fans who love wearing red and cheering on their Bulls. 

    Noah may have done a wonderful job holding down the fort in Rose's stead, but he was still only a placeholder. 

Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James

6 of 30

    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Age at start of 2014-15: 29

    Position: SF/PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.3 blocks

    It's been a while since the Cleveland Cavaliers were in this position. 

    For most every team in the NBA, Kyrie Irving would be a centerpiece. He's a dynamic talent at point guard who will soon be operating on a max contract, and he's one of the most promising offensive players in the Association. 

    Such is the case for Kevin Love as well. The former Minnesota Timberwolves power forward—who will officially become a part of the Cavs later this month—is a top-10 player and a sure-fire centerpiece, provided the management can do what Minnesota couldn't and actually surround him with complementary talent. 

    But neither player can touch LeBron James. 

    The superstar is returning home to Northeast Ohio, and in doing so, he grants Cleveland access to the best player in the game. Everything now revolves around LeBron, and for good reason, as he's a seasoned winner now. 

    It's pretty amazing that a team with two talents like Irving and Love can have a no-doubter centerpiece that isn't one of those two players.

    Then again, LeBron is pretty amazing. 

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki

7 of 30

    D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

    Age at start of 2014-15: 36

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.6 blocks

    When Dirk Nowitzki retires—and yes, it will happen eventually—the Dallas Mavericks will be forced to find a new building block. But for now, one year after he averaged 21.7 points per game while falling juuuuuust shy of the 50/40/90 club, that remains Dirk's role within the organization. 

    Think about the composition of the team. 

    Mark Cuban and the rest of the Dallas front office made finding a solid rim-protecting big one of the offseason priorities, and they achieved the goal by landing Tyson Chandler. Why? Because Dirk needs the defensive load lightened. 

    Also, the need for an offensive point guard is lessened because the ball is going to spend so much time in his hands, just waiting for him to loft it up with the patented flamingo fadeaway. 

    Nowitzki may be 36 years old, but he's still the man at the center of everything positive in Dallas. 

Denver Nuggets: Kenneth Faried

8 of 30

    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 24

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.9 blocks

    This was a tough decision. 

    Ty Lawson has a great case to be called the franchise centerpiece, but Kenneth Faried just has more upside at this stage of his career, especially after spending the summer working with Team USA. Regardless of whether he makes the final roster, he'll still benefit greatly from his daily activities with some of the best players in the world. 

    Plus, Faried started to break out after the All-Star break last season, buying into Brian Shaw's systems and absolutely thriving as he focused on his strengths more than ever before. Not only was he a dominant rebounder, but he began making big contributions to the offense, breaking past the 20-point barrier with shocking frequency. 

    "The Manimal" is not the best player on the roster. Frankly, he may not even be No. 2 now that Arron Afflalo is joining Lawson in the backcourt. 

    But it seems more likely than ever before that the organization builds around him going forward. 

Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond

9 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 21

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.6 blocks

    Who did you think this was going to be? 

    Josh Smith, who has made far too many negative headlines for his inexplicable desire to function as a jump-shooting perimeter player? Greg Monroe, who may be signing a qualifying offer before hitting the open market in 2015? Brandon Jennings, who has yet to live up to a large percentage of the hype he created during his rookie season and the pre-NBA stage of his career? 

    Andre Drummond is the easy choice. 

    The 21-year-old is an improving defender with a growing offensive game, and he's already the second-best rebounder in basketball. Only DeAndre Jordan was better last year, and that could quickly change as Drummond continues adapting to the NBA. 

    The Detroit Pistons took a risk drafting him a few years back, as his stock was sliding and he was surrounded by red flags, but that decision is already paying large dividends.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry

10 of 30

    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 26

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks

    Even though Klay Thompson was deemed untouchable during the Kevin Love sweepstakes, this spot still belongs to Stephen Curry. 

    The sharpshooting point guard established himself as a bona fide top-10 talent during the 2013-14 campaign, and there's a serious case to be made for switching that "10" to "five." He was that good offensively, drilling plenty of three-pointers while functioning as one of the best assist men in the game. Plus, he's an intelligent rebounder who's becoming slightly better on the defensive end. 

    Failing to build around a talent like this would be a massive mistake.

    Curry is a unique player, in that he shoots three-pointers at an elite rate while creating the looks for himself, and that allows the Golden State Warriors to exercise a whole new offensive element on a nightly basis.

    Barring a return of the injury-prone ankles that plagued him early in his NBA career, Curry will occupy this spot for a long, long time. 

Houston Rockets: James Harden

11 of 30

    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 25

    Position: SG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks

    James Harden or Dwight Howard? 

    Right now, the two go hand in hand. They're the clear-cut leaders of the Houston Rockets, and that's not going to change for a while. Both are locked into lengthy deals, and both will be performing at high levels for a long time. 

    However, Harden is the choice because of his age, as well as his remaining upside. 

    While Harden isn't suddenly going to explode and become an MVP shoo-in, the 2-guard could figure out how to play stellar defense and make himself into the clear-cut No. 1 player at his position. He's already a remarkable offensive talent, and only those defensive chops—or lack thereof—are holding him back from unfettered superstardom. 

    At this point, it's easier and smarter for general manager Daryl Morey to bet on the 25-year-old Harden over the 28-year-old Howard, especially since Howard—who went prep to pro—has more wear on his tires than most players his age. 

Indiana Pacers: Roy Hibbert?

12 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 27

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.4 steals, 2.2 blocks

    This spot would clearly belong to Paul George if he were healthy, but that's obviously not the case after the compound leg fracture he suffered while playing in a scrimmage with Team USA. After all, we're looking at the centerpieces in 2014-15, and he won't be back on the court until the 2015-16 season kicks off. 

    In his stead, there's no obvious candidate. 

    David West is still the heart and soul of this team, but is he really the centerpiece? Given his age, his lack of upside and his potential status as a trade candidate if the Indiana Pacers get off to a slow start, absolutely not. 

    The "honor" has to go to Roy Hibbert, which shouldn't seem as silly as it might right off the bat. After all, the 7-footer from Georgetown is still a game-changing defensive presence, and Frank Vogel has built the point-preventing unit around him. Given the priority the Pacers place on the less-glamorous end, that makes him a pretty easy choice. 

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin

13 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 25

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks

    From Jan. 4 through Feb. 7, Blake Griffin averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game while shooting 55.4 percent from the field. 

    And that was all the Los Angeles Clippers needed to see. 

    During that month-long stretch, Chris Paul was missing time with a separated shoulder that he suffered while driving into the paint against the Mavericks. But instead of fading away and proving he was a product of the superstar point guard's greatness, Griffin did the opposite: He got better and functioned as the true leader of his team. 

    No longer was he a supporting player, especially because he remained excellent when CP3 was introduced back into the lineup. Instead of falling back and deferring to the floor general, Griffin continued functioning as a hub on the offensive end, constantly improving under Doc Rivers. 

    He's only 25 years old, he's a clear-cut superstar and he's now capable of playing like a top-five player in the Association. Paul may be the best player on the roster—for another year or so, if he even lasts that long—but Griffin has supplanted him as the primary building block. 

Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant

14 of 30

    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 36

    Position: SG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks

    This won't change until Kobe Bryant retires. 

    So long as he's on the roster, all decisions have to be made with him in mind. If he's not going to enjoy playing with a certain teammate, that teammate probably won't stick around for long. If he doesn't click with a coach, you can go ahead and start waving goodbye. 

    The Mamba has as much power within the Los Angeles Lakers organization as the highest members of the front office. It's something he's earned over the years, and he isn't going to relinquish it until he's laced up his sneakers one final time. 

    Plus, there are no other strong candidates for the title we're discussing here. Julius Randle may eventually establish himself as a future star, but he's an unproven rookie who has never been viewed as a prospect with an inordinate amount of upside. 

    Kobe it is. 

Memphis Grizzlies: Marc Gasol

15 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 29

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.3 blocks

    The Memphis Grizzlies won their final game before Marc Gasol hurt his knee against the San Antonio Spurs only nine minutes into that contest. By doing so, they emerged from the season's first dozen games with a 7-5 record. 

    When Gasol returned from his malady, the Grizz were only 17-19, meaning they'd gone 10-14 without him (including the game he only played in for those nine minutes). 

    Nonetheless, Memphis managed to make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference, ending the regular season with an impressive 50-32 record. Yes, that means the team compiled a 33-13 record once he returned to the lineup, and that just about says it all. 

    Gasol is a game-changing defensive presence, one who won Defensive Player of the Year during his last healthy campaign. But in addition to that, he's a huge contributor on offense, even if he doesn't tend to rack up big numbers. He finds a way to impact the proceedings in positive fashion, though the points and assists don't always follow. 

    While Mike Conley and Zach Randolph deserve mentions, Gasol is still the player to build around. 

Miami Heat: Chris Bosh

16 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 30

    Position: PF/C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks

    Without LeBron James calling South Beach home, there are only three semi-realistic options. 

    One is Luol Deng, who's new in town and might not reach the level he once played at with the Chicago Bulls. The heavy minutes he received under Tom Thibodeau's supervision have added plenty of mileage, and he's best as a complementary player, not an offensive leader. 

    And that leaves Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh

    Though the former is the face of the franchise, he's no longer the superstar he once was. His knees are always going to be problematic, requiring rest days galore, and there's no telling how he'll fare without the protection previously afforded him by LeBron's presence. 

    It's Bosh who is now the player to build around, as Pat Riley must find players who mesh nicely with him above all else. If he wasn't viewed in this light, then why would the Heat have given him a max contract while Wade received a two-year, $31.1 million deal?

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo

17 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 19

    Position: I have no idea.

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Sorry, Jabari Parker. You have to earn this one. 

    Giannis Antetokounmpo may have put up rather pedestrian stats during his rookie season, but that's significant in and of itself. The "Greek Freak" wasn't even supposed to play right off the bat, but he actually managed to work his way into the starting five during his first season with the Milwaukee Bucks. 

    Now, he looks like a rising star.

    Antetokounmpo was a sight to behold at the Las Vegas Summer League, showcasing plenty of offensive improvement to go along with his increasingly tall frame. And though he's probably a natural shooting guard or small forward, the Bucks plan on using him at the point while occasionally having him protect the rim on defense. 

    Before you read the next sentence, keep in mind that I'm strongly in favor of expanding the traditional five positions to nine, including combo guards, swingmen, combo forwards and combo bigs. I still have no idea what to call this 19-year-old. 

    He's an entirely unique commodity, and the potential is just bubbling over. 

Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins

18 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 19

    Position: SF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks

    As soon as Andrew Wiggins is officially a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, he'll assume his place as the franchise centerpiece. 

    After all, the team can't build everything around Ricky Rubio until he develops a working jumper, and Nikola Pekovic is soon to be challenged for minutes by Gorgui Dieng. The mantle falls to the potentially transcendent prospect from Kansas, one blessed with ridiculous levels of athletic talent. 

    Wiggins should be allowed to bloom in Minnesota. Though his career might have been aided by the tutelage he could've received with LeBron James alongside him, he'll be able to function as a No. 1 scorer right away now that he's with the 'Wolves. Plus, he already seems like a lock to be a high-quality defender as soon as he steps onto an NBA court. 

    There's a reason Wiggins was the No. 1 pick in a loaded 2014 draft class.

    Actually, there are many, though it remains to be seen whether flower-patterned suits are one of them. 

New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

19 of 30

    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Age at start of 2014-15: 21

    Position: PF/C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.8 blocks

    Here's an easy one. 

    Anthony Davis is primed to break out even further during the 2014-15 season, and he was already one of the NBA's true elites during his sophomore go-round. I'd say the sky is his limit, but that's selling him short by a rather significant margin. 

    Twenty-one-year-old players aren't supposed to average 20 and 10 while leading the league in blocks and playing efficient basketball, and Davis did the majority of that work when he still couldn't enjoy Bourbon Street as much as some others. 

    "Depending on how you feel about Davis' potential, his time as a league MVP is a matter of 'when' and not 'if.' Some overzealous fans are ready to anoint Davis as the third-best player in the NBA right now," wrote Bleacher Report's Dave Leonardis

    Feel free to call me overzealous. 

    Seriously, would the New Orleans Pelicans trade him for a single player in the league if everyone was made available? They might spring for LeBron or Kevin Durant, but even that's not a guarantee. 

New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony

20 of 30

    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    Age at start of 2014-15: 30

    Position: SF/PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 27.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.7 blocks

    The New York Knicks made it pretty clear they still view Carmelo Anthony as the franchise centerpiece when they inked him to a max contract this offseason. That was the first huge decision of Phil Jackson's front-office career, and it wasn't one he was going to make lightly. 

    Melo might not have received as much recognition as he deserved last season—seriously, him finishing 15th in the MVP voting was a bunch of malarkey if we view the award with a literal interpretation—but he still put up a rather impressive year. His rebounding and scoring were superb, and he actually made an effort in both the distributing and defensive facets of the game. 

    Even though the Knicks figure to run the Triangle offense in 2014-15, everything still centers around Melo.

    And it will for a while longer. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant

21 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 26

    Position: SF/PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks

    Russell Westbrook would be a centerpiece for many teams. So too would Serge Ibaka

    But Kevin Durant takes the cake here, especially now that he's coming off winning his first MVP. And yes, I feel comfortable saying "first" even when that's a tacit endorsement of him holding up that Maurice Podoloff trophy at least one more time in his still-young career. 

    Is he better than LeBron James?

    It depends on how you value their respective games, as well as how much weight the 2013-14 season carries in your mind. However, the fact that's even a legitimate debate is impressive enough, regardless of which side you support. 

    And now, it's time to move on, because discussing which player functions as the centerpiece for the Oklahoma City Thunder is about as controversial as figuring out which Jurassic Park movie is best. 

Orlando Magic: Victor Oladipo

22 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 22

    Position: PG/SG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon are both interesting choices here, and there are cases to be made for either one. However, Victor Oladipo reigns supreme in the competition, as he already has a season under his belt and was clearly getting better as the year progressed. 

    Before the All-Star break, 'Dipo averaged 13.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, shooting 41 percent from the field. But after the midseason classic, he put up 13.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists during the average contest. 

    Seems like a decline, right?

    Well, not when these efficiency numbers are brought into the picture, per Basketball-Reference.com


    Just as always seems to be the case, it's about so much more than pure per-game numbers. 

Philadelphia 76ers: Nerlens Noel

23 of 30

    Jack Arent/Getty Images

    Age at start of 2014-15: 20

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: N/A

    This is a hard choice, particularly because Michael Carter-Williams is coming off a season in which he won Rookie of the Year. Then again, that ROY shouldn't mean too much, as Philly.com's Bob Ford explains quite well: 

    Carter-Williams did lead all rookies in scoring, rebounds, and assists, which sounds great, but those numbers were inflated by the Sixers' pace of play - the highest number of possessions per game of all NBA teams in the last four seasons - by his being on the court for 33 minutes per game, and by the team's mind-boggling lack of other options.

    The two questions about Carter-Williams' offensive game as he became a professional were his ability to shoot and his ability to take care of the ball. There was also the unknown matter of his ability to defend one-on-one, because he came out of a Syracuse system that plays zone as if it were a religion.

    Well, Carter-Williams shot very poorly and didn't take care of the ball. His defense is harder to quantify because he was on the court with such a collection of losers, but he wasn't any great shakes there, either, going under screens instead of fighting over them against good shooters and struggling to stay on the ball against his man.

    MCW could be a great player one day, but he's not even close to that level right now. Plus, the Philadelphia 76ers have already allowed him to spend some time in trade rumors, as Ford notes. 

    No, it's Nerlens Noel who serves as the centerpiece, fresh off his dominant summer league performance. He may have sat out a full season to let his torn ACL heal as much as possible, but he's ready to go now and should be a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year during a much more competitive season. 

    Then again, Noel could easily be supplanted by Joel Embiid once he's healthy, and Dario Saric could prove to be a revelation once he eventually joins the organization. There's no telling with a roster this young and this full of untapped potential. 

Phoenix Suns: Goran Dragic

24 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 28

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Point guards are to the Phoenix Suns what water is to life in the desert. 

    Under Jeff Hornacek's supervision, the floor generals are incredibly important. There are often two on the floor at a single time, and they're almost solely responsible for the creation of offense, even if they're also expected to excel on the defensive end of the court. 

    So as long as Hornacek is on the sideline, a point guard has to be the centerpiece.

    And who better for the job than Goran Dragic, who played like an All-Star during his breakout season, serving as a one-man fast break, an incredible offensive catalyst in the half-court sets and a player who could still hold his own on the other end? 

    Isaiah Thomas is an incredibly underrated 1-guard, but he may be used as a sixth man if Eric Bledsoe ends up returning to the team after a prolonged period in restricted free agency. And if he does come back, he could very well become the centerpiece, so long as he proves he can stay healthy first. 

    Dragic is the man right now, but that could easily change before too long, especially with free agency looming for the 28-year-old in the not-too-distant future. 

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard

25 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 24

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks

    LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are both All-Stars who could very well serve as the centerpiece for the Portland Trail Blazers, but Dame pushes just ahead because of his untapped potential. 

    It's hard to imagine Aldridge getting much better than he was during the 2013-14 campaign. The 29-year-old thrived as a scorer with that deadly mid-range jumper, had the best rebounding season of his career and was solid enough defensively that Rip City could leave him alone and focus on shutting down the perimeter. 

    Is he really going to keep getting better?

    Probably not, though stagnation would be a huge positive for the Blazers. 

    Lillard, on the other hand, is going to be 24 years old when the 2014-15 season kicks off, and he can still get so much better. His passing skills should continue to improve, as should his defensive chops as he continues adjusting to serving as a leader for an NBA team. 

    Both players are fairly equal right now, but Lillard's upside makes him the choice. 

Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins

26 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 24

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks

    Who else is it going to be? 

    Ben McLemore is coming off a disappointing rookie season, and though he can obviously get much better, it's going to be an uphill climb after the poor start. Nik Stauskas will be competing with him for minutes, and while he's a promising rookie, he's by no means a sure thing and comes without the once-in-a-generation tag. 

    Darren Collison and Ray McCallum don't qualify as franchise building blocks, even if they're both quality players. Rudy Gay is an incredible talent, but it's hard to see an organization making a big commitment to him given his spotted history before arriving in Sac-Town.

    Without any other real options, DeMarcus Cousins is the easy choice, even if his above-the-shoulders game has often put the Sacramento Kings into tricky positions. 

San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

27 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 23

    Position: SF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Tim Duncan could very well fall into the same category as Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki, remaining a franchise centerpiece until he's doing something other than playing basketball for a living. Tony Parker is a reasonable choice as well, though he wasn't quite as effective as normal in 2013-14 and is only getting older. 

    But what differentiates the Spurs from the Lakers and Mavs is that they have someone waiting in the wings. That someone would be Kawhi Leonard, fresh off winning Finals MVP against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. 

    Given the increasingly aged feel of the San Antonio core, this should be the season that Leonard begins his takeover, much like Duncan did long ago when David Robinson was the established superstar on the team. The transfer of power has to occur at some point, and there's never been a better time than when Leonard is coming off winning one of the biggest honors possible in professional basketball. 

    There's no disrespect meant to Duncan or Parker, both of whom should be All-Star-caliber players in 2014-15; there's just a lot of respect to Leonard. 

    "I didn't have any time to do anything with it," Leonard told Mark Ziegler of UTSanDiego.com about his experience with the Larry O'Brien Trophy. "My workout schedule is crazy." 

    Does that actually surprise anyone?

Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry

28 of 30

    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 28

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks

    This may have been the single hardest choice of all, even with Jonas Valanciunas serving as nothing more than a runner-up who wasn't particularly close to earning the nomination. 

    DeMar DeRozan was a breakout star for the Toronto Raptors in 2013-14, scoring 22.7 points per game and developing a perimeter jumper that would occasionally connect, even if it wasn't exactly the most consistent tool in his arsenal. He's still only 25 years old and could easily keep building upon his first All-Star appearance moving forward. 

    However, the Raptors are clearly committed to building around Kyle Lowry. 

    The point guard never came close to getting away during the offseason, re-signing for a reasonable four-year deal that will allow him to keep serving as the unquestioned leader. He played through injuries and pain throughout the year, shedding his prior reputation all the while. 

    Now, it's his time to serve as the building block. 

Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward

29 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 24

    Position: SG/SF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Four years and $63 million. 

    Enough said, right? 

    On a roster filled with young, unproven players, Gordon Hayward stands out as the most established. Yes, even more so than Derrick Favors, who is clearly still on the rise.

    The Utah Jazz had no choice but to match the max offer sheet that Hayward signed with the Charlotte Hornets this offseason, and match it they did. Now, they're essentially pigeonholed into building things around him, even if he doesn't have the highest upside on the roster.

    That honor would belong to Favors or Dante Exum, depending on how you feel about the raw Australian guard. But neither is viewed as an upper-tier contributor at this very moment, which Hayward can be when he's surrounded by quality offensive options.

    Eventually, the Butler product will be supplanted by one of the young up-and-comers, but not yet. Especially not on the heels of that max contract he received this offseason. 

Washington Wizards: John Wall

30 of 30

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age at start of 2014-15: 24

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks

    John Wall was snubbed out of an All-Star starting nod, even though he was clearly having a more impressive season than Kyrie Irving. While he'd make the roster as a reserve, that's beside the point. Then he was cut from Team USA this summer, due primarily to the wealth of talented American point guards. 

    He's not going to be snubbed here, which I'm sure will make up for the other letdowns. 

    Bradley Beal is a promising talent, but Wall is the established star who could very well ascend to the top of the point guard leaderboard. He's that good, especially now that he's figuring out how to play impressive defense on each and every possession. 

    Unless Kevin Durant comes to D.C. a few years down the road, Washington belongs to Wall throughout the foreseeable future.