Staff Roundtable: Which NBA Superstar Would You Build Around Right Now?
Today's NBA is as star-driven a league as the sports world has to offer. Need proof? Look no further than LeBron James' seven-year run (and counting) leading his team, whether it be the Miami Heat or the Cleveland Cavaliers, to the Finals.
But here's a question for you: If you were starting a team today, who would you choose as the face of your franchise?
Bleacher Report asked five NBA writers to choose their stars in a first-come, first-served draft. A few notable omissions to share right out of the gate: LeBron, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry all missed the cut. So did the likes of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Chris Paul.
All six of these superstars made the top 10 in our re-draft this past offseason, but there's a big difference between what we did then and what we're doing now. That project was focused on a one-year NBA 2K simulation, while this exercise looks at which stars are best suited to build around for the future.
With that in mind, who did make the cut?
You'll have to read on to find out. But you should expect a whole lot of youth, a whole lot of length and a whole lot of unicorns.
Honorable Mention: Kristaps Porzingis
No one on our panel picked Kristaps Porzingis as a top-five player worth building around—and, when looking at those selected instead of him, we cannot blame them (including me). But Porzingis is a viable candidate for this exercise.
Openly wondering whether he's leap-frogged Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons in the building-block department is trippy. High-end scorers who double as marquee facilitators can have a greater impact on the game.
Still, Porzingis is special. Not all bigs have infinite range. He does. And, at 7'3", he knows no "contested" shots. He can rise and fire over anyone in the NBA with relative comfort.
He's also a sneaky-competent gnat in space, with some of the NBA's best rim-protecting chops. More than 250 players have faced at least 15 total shots around the basket this season, and not one of them is holding opponents to a lower field-goal percentage.
Squint hard enough, and you can even see a clear path toward improvement. He won't score with career-best efficiency on league-high(ish) usage forever, but the New York Knicks aren't even playing him at the right position. And he's still on track to make an All-Star appearance.
Put him at center full time, and he becomes a starker offensive mismatch while spending more time in his defensive sweet spots—an even better version of someone already on track for top-10 status.
5. Joel Embiid
Go big or go home. Nobody out there can match Joel Embiid's two-way upside. We could be talking about one of the league's top scorers and rim protectors.
Despite playing just 28 college games and then sitting out two years, he still dominated as a rookie and is averaging 23 points as a sophomore, and that's without the three-ball working right now.
Give him another year. Along with the high-level post offense and finishing he brings, he's going to soon be a regular three-point threat.
It's outrageous to think how good he's been and how little he's played over the years. What's going to happen after a few seasons and once he's seeing over 30 minutes a game on a nightly basis?
Sure, there is some risk that comes with his foot. But the potential reward is worth the gamble. He's the ideal centerpiece to build around based on his scoring potential, offensive versatility and defensive upside.
Throw in his popularity and marketability. And he's just 23 years old. Embiid at 25 or 26 could be the face of the NBA.
4. Ben Simmons
Imagine Ben Simmons developing a working jumper that allows him to hit three-pointers at even a league-average clip. But before you do, cover up your keyboard, phone or tablet with something that will protect it from the inevitably excessive amount of drool you're about to produce.
Now, imagine he doesn't.
Even then, Simmons is a game-warping, scheme-altering player. His combination of height and quickness makes valid physical comparisons come few and far between, allowing him to function as one of the most unorthodox point guards we've ever seen.
His vision is off the charts. His knack for finishing plays in traffic is far more advanced than what we should expect from a 21-year-old rookie.
Even his defense has impressed, as he consistently displays his kleptomaniacal paws and fundamental understanding of proper positioning. Oh, who's that sitting atop the pile among 1-guards in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus? If you guessed a 6'10" southpaw from Fitzroy, Australia, you're a winner!
Simmons isn't the orthodox pick here, and it's a risky selection just a handful of games into what should be a lengthy career filled with innumerable accolades.
But just watch him run a few Magical transition attacks—yes, the capitalization is intentional—and impose his will in an impossibly wide variety of areas, and you'll understand why these feelings about the rookie's short- and long-term potential are so contagious.
3. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard, at 26 years old, is as old as you reasonably want to go for an exercise like this one. And that's fine. Give me the next seven to eight years of his career.
His defense is well-established. He's suffocating and can muster the strength to bang with bigs when the stakes call for it. But his offensive progression really sells this selection. He isn't just a deadeye spot-up shooter anymore; he's someone who can anchor a system.
That much became clear last year, when the San Antonio Spurs couldn't function without him on the floor. They went from scoring like the NBA's second-best offense when he played to performing like a bottom-five letdown in the time he spent on the bench.
This difference only became more pronounced during the playoffs. Imagine that: The Spurs needing a player more than he does them. We're seeing this even now, as they barely stave off bottom-10 offensive status with him on the shelf with a quad injury.
Tough pull-up jumpers, forceful drives to the rim, frequent trips to the foul line, lethal marksmanship off the catch—you name the shot, Leonard will hit it consistently or on command.
Playmaking is all that separates him from Kevin Durant on the more glamorous end, and his career-best 5.4 assists per 100 possessions last season suggest he's ready to make the deferential leap his slim-reaping counterpart enjoyed when he earned MVP honors in 2013-14.
So, yeah, give me Leonard—the rare top-five player who's also, at worst, a top-five long-term centerpiece.
2. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis was the first unicorn. He was a unicorn before that word even existed as part of the basketball lexicon.
He'a a 6'10" jump-shooting, shot-swatting, ball-handling, jab-stepping and drop-stepping talent. An off game looks like 25 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.
Yes, he's been in the league for six seasons and has yet to transform the Pelicans into title contenders. But just take a look at some of the flotsam he's been forced to lug around: Solomon Hill, Toney Douglas, Norris Cole.
There's only so much a player can do with that, unless you're LeBron James.
Davis is a once-in-a-generation talent and is still just 24. Only injuries and poor management hold him back. He beat the injury bug last season, playing 75 games. As for management, rebuilding a franchise around him would take care of that.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Who better to lead my franchise into the era of positionless basketball than Giannis Antetokounmpo, the man with the point guard's instincts and the scoring wing's game crammed together in the center's body?
Antetokounmpo is durable and uniquely versatile, allowing me to construct any kind of team I want because he can do everything and play anywhere. He's already a top-10 player at age 22 and has shown a shocking capacity for growth. A year after winning Most Improved Player, he's flashing new skills, leading the league in scoring and gunning for MVP.
There's no telling how much better he's going to get, and he might be good enough to lead a title team right now.
His defensive upside in a switch-heavy scheme is incalculable, making him a perfect cornerstone without even considering his offense. That's something you shouldn't be able to say about an elite scorer. It's unfair, an inequitable consolidation of talent.
Even if the three-point shot never materializes, Antetokounmpo is going to stake his claim to the next decade of NBA basketball.