Every Team's Most Untouchable Player Nearing NBA Trade Deadline

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2019

Every Team's Most Untouchable Player Nearing NBA Trade Deadline

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    As the NBA treks deeper into the unpredictable world of trade season, the word untouchable is about to get thrown around a ton.

    The problem is it's a fluid designation that might not technically apply to anyone. Make a theoretical trade offer loaded enough, and you can probably calculate a price for anyone.

    But there are plenty of players who become effectively untouchable. One could be a megastar who'd cost more than any team would ever pay. But there might also be someone who means more to his club than he'd bring back in return. Or there's the prized prospect of a rebuilder who may not pan out but could complete the project if he does.

    With clubs bearing down for the runup to the Feb. 7 trade deadline, we're identifying every team's most untouchable player—or at least the one who comes closest to that designation.   

Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young

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    Production-wise, the Atlanta Hawks' best player has been bouncy sophomore big man John Collins, who's flirting with a nightly 20-10 contribution. But Atlanta's entire rebuild is around Trae Young and his potential to be a defense-warping shooter who's a threat to launch from anywhere at any time.

    In other words, Atlanta won't have its view of Young distorted by his underwhelming 39.5/28.9/79.7 shooting slash. Remember, the Hawks traded Luka Doncic to get Young (plus a future first). Even if history proves they were fleeced, it still highlights their present assessment of the sharpshooting (sporadically, for now) lead guard.

    As ridiculous as Stephen Curry comparisons are for any player, they're absurd to tag to a 20-year-old who has almost zero scoring help around him. Young's ability to create for others is a massive part of his appeal. He's barely able to tap into that aspect of his game with guys like Collins, Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore serving as Atlanta's best non-Young point-producers.

    While time will eventually determine whether Young is capable of anchoring this reconstruction, the Hawks must put a functional roster around him before even beginning that judgement.

Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum

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    While everyone outside of maybe Terry Rozier and his immediate family might argue Kyrie Irving would be the hardest Celtic to replace, 20-year-old Jayson Tatum appears to be the surest building block moving forward.

    His debut campaign was among the most impressive the Association has ever seen. He not only became just the eighth teenage rookie to score 1,000 points, but he was also the first do so for a 50-win team. Carmelo Anthony was the only other one to suit up for a winning team, and his 43-win 2003-04 Denver Nuggets just made the cut. The six other freshman phenoms played for squads that averaged 25.1 wins.

    Tatum followed his breakout by reportedly becoming the San Antonio Spurs' "preferred target" in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, sources told SI.com's Jake Fischer, who added that most believed Boston was "more likely to propose a deal centered around Kyrie Irving."

    Tatum appears no easier to acquire now, with virtually all of his counting categories on the rise.

    "I just think he's a guy who's going to continue to grow and get better," Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters in December. "Every day you see something new that he picks up very quickly. We've talked a lot as a team about guys that can take a concept and apply it immediately. He does it as well as anybody I've been around."

Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert

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    The Nets might have trouble trading Caris LeVert even if they wanted to, as he remains without a timetable for his return from a gruesome foot dislocation. But that's a moot point since Brooklyn likely has no desire to move the versatile swingman.

    Prior to the injury, the 24-year-old had been orchestrating his breakout. His stat line is a trail of personal bests: 18.4 points, 47.5 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds, 18.5 player efficiency rating.

    With a strong two-way base and obvious room for continued growth, his combination of production and potential is enough to move him clear of D'Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs as the team's unofficial centerpiece.

    LeVert was reportedly made unavailable (along with Allen) in trade talks for Jimmy Butler, per The Athletic's Michael Scotto. While Allen is four years younger, LeVert's across-the-board game feels almost perfectly put together for the modern Association. At 6'7" with a 6'10" wingspan, he's an oversized distributor but also a featured scorer, multipositional defender, smooth finisher and ignitable outside shooter.

Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker

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    We could debate whether the Hornets should view Kemba Walker as untouchable, but what's the point? He's an elite talent who wants to call Buzz City home for as long as possible. When does that ever happen?

    Through that lens, it's hard to knock Charlotte for wanting to keep him around, even if a deadline deal might deliver a handful of helpful assets for an overdue overhaul.

    Walker may not be a first-tier megastar, but he's played in the last two All-Star Games and might deserve a starting nod in the 2019 version. Even at age 28, he continues to elevate his career ceiling. His 25.0 points per game are a career high, as is his 21.4 PER. He's one of only eight players who's averaging at least 25 points, five assists and four rebounds.

    Now that we've established the fact Walker is deserving of this label, it's also worth noting he's essentially without competition for that status. If he wasn't on the roster, the distinction would go to either Malik Monk, a 37.5 percent shooter through one-and-a-half seasons, or Miles Bridges, an explosive athlete who might top out as a high-level glue guy.

Chicago Bulls: Lauri Markkanen

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    The Bulls are choosing among three players for this spot: Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Zach LaVine, whom Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reports have been deemed the club's three keepers.

    LaVine might be the flashiest of the three, but he's also the oldest and potentially the easiest to replace. Maybe that calculus is changing a bit as he's pumping in a career-high 23.6 points per game, but shoot-first guards with defensive limitations are rarely in short supply. It's harder to find bigs with Carter's versatility, but his best-case scenario is probably that he supports a star player, rather than starring himself.

    Markkanen isn't a perfect player by any stretch, but his path to superstardom appears the most realistic. If he can harness his consistency—injuries have made that difficult—he has a chance to be special.

    "Markkanen is a 7-footer, is physical in the paint and can shoot like a 2-guard from the outside—checking all the boxes of an NBA unicorn," Cowley wrote.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Collin Sexton

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    It's possible—if not likely—the Cavaliers' most untouchable player is whichever one they grab near the top of the 2019 draft. Considering the massive scope of Cleveland's post-LeBron James rebuild, every player on the roster should (and probably does) have a trade price.

    But when ESPN's Brian Windhorst addressed this topic in July, he identified Collin Sexton as "the only untouchable," via ESPN Cleveland. Last summer's No. 8 pick has mostly performed as advertised—relentless off the dribble, limited as a shooter, still developing as a distributor.

    Would 14.6 points and 2.8 assists earn anyone untouchable status on the 29 other teams? Maybe not. But since the Cavs are crawling along at a 15.3-win pace, options are limited in northeast Ohio.

    Kevin Love's $120.4 million extension hasn't kicked in yet, but it already feels like it isn't aging well. Larry Nance Jr., who may quietly be the club's second-best player, just sprained his MCL and is neither a shooter nor a rim protector.

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic

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    If you know any Hawks fans, buy them a drink—or maybe five—the next time you see them. While it's rarely advisable to judge rookies after their first half-season, the Trae Young-Luka Doncic draft-night swap already looks like a heist on Dallas' end.

    His overseas achievements were unprecedented for a player his age (19 until Feb. 28). He arrived stateside as perhaps the most NBA-ready and most potential-rich prospect of the 2019 draft. His second NBA game includeddeep breath—26 points, six rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. His 41st saw him become the youngest player since LeBron James to drop 25 points and 10 assists (29 and 12, to be exact).

    Doncic, who's on pace to join Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the third rookie to average 20 points, six rebounds and five assists, combines flair and function to form a brilliant basketball arsenal that's nearly as efficient as it is entertaining. He's already a crunch-time killer, and if there's anything more impressive than his fast-forwarded transition, it's how natural he's made it look.

    "His swag—that's a part of who he is. Unmatched for a 19-year-old kid," Devin Harris told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "I've never seen anything like it."

Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic

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    There isn't a more unique franchise talent than Nikola Jokic. Subjective as that sounds, it feels objectively 100 percent accurate.

    He might need a running start to jump over a phone book. He's the Nuggets' best player—a 7'0" point center with soft shooting touch from anywhere—but occasionally a reluctant shooter. He stars under the spotlight, but he seemingly wants nothing to do with it and even questions if he deserves it.

    "Sometimes I don't think [Jokic] realizes how good he is. And how great a player he is," Nuggets head coach Mike Malone told reporters. "There were times last year where we'd talk about other big men in the NBA. He would say, 'I don't think I'm as good as this guy or that guy,' and I'd look at him like, 'Are you crazy?'"

    An aggressive Jokic is almost unstoppable. He has attempted at least 15 shots in each of his last seven games, and he's averaging 25.4 points on 52.2 percent shooting, 12.4 rebounds and 7.9 assists. Those are basically LeBron James' 2018-19 numbers, only with extra boards. Jokic, who inked a five-year, $148 million max extension this summer, should be in Denver for a long time.

Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin

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    As a 29-year-old with a shaky injury history and three-and-a-half seasons remaining on a five-year, $173 million deal, Blake Griffin could be seen more as a burden than a building block. But the Pistons knew his age, his medical history and his remaining wages when they gave up, among other things, the perpetually improving Tobias Harris and a lottery pick to get Griffin last January.

    Detroit has mostly disappointed since, but the struggles can't be pinned on Griffin. Perhaps energized by the change of scenery, he's pumping in a career-best 25.6 points per game and having his second-best year as a table-setter with 5.3 assists.

    "We couldn't expect more from Blake than what he's done," Pistons owner Tom Gores told reporters. "He has done incredible work, and everybody didn't know what he could do—but we couldn't expect more. Beyond his stats, he really has been a great leader. Do we want to build around him? Absolutely."

    The only player who could approach Griffin's value is two-time All-Star Andre Drummond. While he's younger and more durable, the 25-year-old's skill set hasn't expanded to the point of being able to anchor an organization. Considering this is his seventh NBA season, there's little reason to believe it ever will.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry

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    The stat sheet isn't sure Stephen Curry is still the Warriors' most important player. It's Kevin Durant—not Curry—who owns the club's highest offensive and net rating differentials, after all.

    But Curry is still the clear-cut choice as most untouchable for a couple reasons.

    For starters, his future is already settled. While Durant might be the biggest wild card in 2019 free agency, Curry won't hit the market until 2022. Durant seems determined to keep all of his options open. Curry, on the other hand, has vocalized hopes of retiring with the team.

    Styles plays a part in this discussion too. Durant might've bumped his playmaking to a new level and proved he can dominate defensive matchups when engaged, but Curry's in-the-gym shooting range remains the NBA's best gravitational force. When you're launching double-digit threes and splashing 40-plus percent—something only he does—you're pulling attention away from your teammates just by being on the floor.

    As Durant said last season, Curry "is the system" in Golden State. That system has delivered three titles in four years, so why would the Warriors consider changing it?

Houston Rockets: James Harden

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    You all remember MVP James Harden? You know, the bearded baller who followed the analytically based path of double-digit three-point attempts and double-digit free throws to a career-best (and NBA-leading) 30.4 points per game last season?

    Well, he's back—somehow even better, in fact.

    If the campaign closed today, he'd join Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan as the only players to average at least 34 points since 1980. Moreover, he'd arguably be the most efficient 34-point scorer ever, as his 62.2 true shooting percentage would be the highest recorded with that scoring average.

    There are unconfirmed reports that Harden is no longer a human, but simply a fire emoji. The production can only be described as silly. He has three 40-point triple-doubles his last six times out. Over his last 15 contests, he's averaging 40.5 points, 11.9 free throws, 9.5 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 6.1 triples and 1.9 steals while reviving the Chris Paul-less Rockets.

    "I don't know how you get any better than what he's playing," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni told the media. "Defensively, too. He comes up with steals, triple-doubles like it's nothing. So, yeah, he's playing at a different level."

Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo

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    Sustaining success was never going to be easy for Victor Oladipo. Last season, he collected 99 of the 101 first-place votes for Most Improved Player, which is a testament to how well he played but also a reflection of how much of an outlier the breakout was.

    He was, objectively speaking, perfectly average through four seasons with a 15.0 PER. But in season No. 5, he was suddenly elite. PER now saw him as a top-20 player; ESPN's real plus-minus placed him sixth overall. He made All-Defensive first team and All-NBA third team while shattering his previous bests with 23.1 points, 2.4 steals and a 57.7 true shooting percentage.

    Forget building on those numbers—simply repeating them was going to be a challenge. His scouting report had changed. Opposing defenses had made him the primary focus in their game plans. And if that wasn't tricky enough, he ended up losing nearly a month to knee soreness.

    We say all that to say this: A slight downturn in production hasn't altered his place as the Pacers' franchise talent. While Indy may well treat youngsters Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis as effectively untouchable, Oladipo is the only established star, and that status would be reflected in the price to pry him out of the Circle City.

Los Angeles Clippers: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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    The Clippers are a team in transition, and their roster shows it. Only five players have fully guaranteed contracts for next season, and after that, only a $1.5 million partial guarantee to Lou Williams and rookie-scale wages are left.

    Hey, if you want to chase the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, you must carefully manage your funds and be willing to make sacrifices.

    Even without knowing how the future will treat L.A., doesn't Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seem like he'll be a big part of it? The Clippers moved up to get him on draft night, moved him into the starting lineup in early November and have received encouraging two-way contributions since. He's still learning how to use his physical tools (6'6" with a 7'0" wingspan), but he could be a key supporting piece if the Clippers can land a star.

    His selection, though, is also a reflection of this roster's temporary nature. Tobias Harris has played like an untouchable talent at times, but how untouchable is any non-All-Star approaching unrestricted free agency? Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams are both on the wrong side of 30, and Montrezl Harrell has made 18 starts over three-plus seasons.

Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James

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    Does this really need explaining?

    LeBron James is the greatest player of his generation and arguably the best to ever lace them up. He has an unprecedented size-skill combo (he's a point guard in the body of a 6'8", 250-pound linebacker) and has shown zero indications of slowing down at age 34.

    Despite changing conferences, teams, systems, coaches and teammates this summer, he's been as individually brilliant as ever. No one else is matching his per-game marks of 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Maybe that's not surprising, as only five players have since 1975: Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron himself last season.

    The King, of course, can't take the NBA title on his own, and there isn't another player on this roster who would have to be kept out of a trade for a difference-making star. That doesn't mean Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma or Lonzo Ball should be cheap, but if the reward is rich enough, you'd have to assume the Lakers would take the risk of letting any of them go.

Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.

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    Sooner than later, the Grizzlies will face some uncomfortable questions with a majority of this roster, up to and including the futures of longtime franchise fixtures Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Somehow, the player who faces the fewest question marks is the club's youngestrookie Jaren Jackson Jr., a 19-year-old who's halfway through his first season and already atop the organization's pecking order.

    He pops everywhere a modern big man should. He does everything on defense, whether that's flexing his 7'4" wingspan around the rim or flashing his deft footwork along the perimeter. He's a capable shot-creator for himself and his teammates. He can finish plays off the dribble, above the rim or, as LeBron James learned, after stepping back to launch a late-game, victory-sealing triple.

    "We never had to sit everyone down and have a big speech about Jaren being the franchise's future," Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger told Ben Golliver of the Washington Post. "It's like, 'Duh.'"

    No matter which direction Memphis takes moving forward, Jackson will seamlessly fit. He's skilled enough to make substantial contributions for a win-now squad, but his sky-high ceiling means he'd also work as the centerpiece of a lengthy rebuild.

Miami Heat: Justise Winslow

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    The Heat are a mediocre team with a juggernaut's payroll. Outside of head coach Erik Spoelstra, there's no one Pat Riley would be unwilling to part with during one of his whale hunts.

    But for this exercise, the choice comes down to three players for Miami: Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo. Those are the only three who can qualify as prospects, and they've each given Miami reason to consider them as long-term keepers.

    Richardson is the most productive and also the player Miami eventually pulled off the table during trade talks for Jimmy Butler. He's the oldest, though, and his NBA niche still seems to be that of a high-level three-and-D type. Adebayo is the youngest, but also the least developed. There are flashes of explosive athleticism, defensive versatility and sneaky-good shot-creation, but he's more of a blank canvas than anything.

    Winslow, 2015's No. 10 pick, offers the best mix of pedigree, production and potential. He's delivering his best season (12.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists) and establishing himself as one of the league's most unique talents. The same player who started at center late in the 2016 playoffs is now Miami's substitute starting point guard. With his stats trending up, his position in the franchise hierarchy should do the same.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    We don't need to waste this space on asking whether Giannis Antetokounmpo is Milwaukee's most untouchable player. Even calling the Bucks about a theoretical deal for the Greek Freak might get you banned from Wisconsin for life.

    The more interesting debate is whether, as one of his teammates claims, Antetokounmpo might already be the Association's most dominant force.

    "I definitely think it's our belief inside this locker room, and a lot just around the league, that we have the best player in the league right here," Brook Lopez said, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "He does it in so many ways. He makes so many of his players better. He's all over the court constantly. It's so impressive to watch every night."

    Real plus-minus puts Antetokounmpo 10th overall. He fares better in PER, which places him behind only Anthony Davis and James Harden. No matter where Antetokounmpo ranks, he's obviously on a short list of elites. If he maintains his stat line of 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, he'll join Oscar Robertson as the only players to ever do so.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns

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    Minnesota's pecking order wasn't always easy to see when Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau were around. But on the new-look, rebuilding-adjacent Timberwolves, the organization is following the lead of 2015's top pick, Karl-Anthony Towns.

    "No player is more important to Minnesota's present or future than Towns, an All-NBA third-team selection last season at age 22 who subsequently signed a five-year extension worth an estimated $190 million that will kick in this summer," ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton wrote.

    While Towns has his warts—good luck finding a 23-year-old player who doesn't—his overall talent is tremendous. He's both a 7'0", 248-pound handful in the low post and a career 38.5 percent three-point shooter who averages more than one splash per night.

    His physical tools and sharpening skills are such that his peak is almost perpetually rising. While he may not hit that mark for a few more years, his recent flame-throwing stretch might be an indication. Over his last nine games, he's averaging an absurd 28.3 points, 16.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.1 blocks.

New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

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    Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry, surely acting out of the kindness of his own heart, made an unsolicited offer to handle this slide for us.

    Here's what he told reporters about a hypothetical Anthony Davis deal in October: "We wouldn't trade him for anyone. Even Beyonce. I think that makes him untouchable."

    Even as trade chatter has picked up externally with New Orleans so far unable to build on last season's success, Gentry's tenor is unchanged. "We're not trading him under any circumstance," Gentry said in late December. "You can move on from that one."

    The Pelicans, of course, aren't guaranteed a long future with Davis, who surely has a supermax offer awaiting him this summer. If he declined that deal, it would seemingly force the organization to talk trades, but New Orleans will keep him locked away like a priceless family heirloom until that happens. Considering his career PER trails only those of LeBron James and Michael Jordan, the trade resistance is more than warranted.

New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis

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    Unless Phil Jackson overthrows the current regime and regains control of the Knicks, Kristaps Porzingis should be the focal point of New York's present and future.

    Don't be fooled by his ACL tear or the buzz around rookie Kevin Knox; the only way the Knicks can fly anytime soon is on the wings of their 7'3" unicorn. Porzingis is basically a walking cheat code. How many other players are out here providing nightly contributions of two blocks and 1.5 threes? Noneever.

    His size alone is rare. But when it's also packaged with explosive athleticism, three-point range and ever-tightening handles? That's when Porzingis' potential shifts from All-Star into rarefied superstar/transformational talent/organizational centerpiece territory.

    Barring perhaps a ludicrous offer, the Knicks wouldn't move him under any circumstances. But he might be less likely a trade candidate now than ever, as he still hasn't returned from a February 2018 ACL tear and remains under team control as a restricted free agent after this season.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook

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    Paul George is a four-time All-NBA selection who appears to be taking another leap at age 28. He's scoring, rebounding and stealing more than ever, outperforming his career shooting rates from the field and three and keying OKC's ascension to No. 1 in defensive efficiency.

    It's possible George has surpassed Russell Westbrook in importance to the Thunder. At NBA.com, for instance, the latest MVP ladder places George sixth overall and never mentions Westbrook.

    But from a macro lens, isn't Westbrook the first thing that comes to mind when hearing about the Thunder?

    He has numbed us to statistical excellence; we went from expecting to never see a triple-double average to yawning as he posts his third straight. Plus, his relentless competitive drive embodies this small-market organization that has survived the defection of Kevin Durant and, due in large part to Westbrook, convinced George, a Southern California native, to choose the Sooner State over a return to Hollywood.

    "A lot of it was I liked our chemistry, I liked what he brings to the table, I liked his competitiveness and I loved him as a teammate, as a friend, as a brother, as a dude in the locker room," George told ESPN The Magazine's Royce Young. "He had a lot to do with me coming back here."

Orlando Magic: Mohamed Bamba

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    Trapped in season seven of the franchise's longest playoff drought, the Magic don't have a true untouchable. Their highest-paid player, Aaron Gordon, is fighting offensive limitations. Their two most highly touted prospects, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba, are both logging fewer than 25 minutes per game.

    All three are still in development, which helps Bamba's case as the toughest to trade. If nothing else, he's the biggest mystery of the bunch, as the youngest (20) and least experienced. Isaac doesn't have him beat by much in either regard and is seen by some as the more intriguing prospect, but Bamba's ceiling is fascinating.

    For starters, the Harlem native comes with a physical toolset the Association has never seen. His record-setting 7'10" wingspan is a moving barricade around the basket. Both his game and his body need maturing, and yet he's already averaging the sixth-most blocks per 36 minutes among players who've logged 200-plus (3.0).

    Granted, it takes more than a shot-blocking specialty to earn the untouchable label, but if Bamba approaches his peak, he'll be an impact two-way player. There's a best-case scenario where he's a top-shelf screener who can pop out to the three-point line or roll to the rim, an elite paint protector and a capable defensive switcher around the perimeter.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid

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    No member of Philly's big three comes free of concerns. Due to repeat injury woes, Joel Embiid has played just 134 games in four-plus NBA seasons. Ben Simmons is a floor shrinker as a modern point guard who doesn't even look at the basket from distance. Jimmy Butler is an old 29 (he was a Tom Thibodeau favorite) and an upcoming unrestricted free agent.

    Don't get us wrong—there's a metric ton of talent between them. But each has a big enough question mark to make you wonder if he'd be the sacrifice should the Sixers ever conclude the trio's wonky on-court fit necessitates a trade.

    While Embiid's injury history is the most problematic, his skills are also the easiest to interpret as difference-makers. He looks (and plays) like the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, only with the modern enhancement of a three-ball. Embiid's footwork in the post is balletic, and he continues to better utilize his gravitational pull on defenders by improving as a playmaker.

    Embiid appears on his way to being a championship-caliber centerpiece. He can dominate games in multiple ways like few others. While 15 players have had a 20-rebound game, 24 have scored 40-plus points and 26 have a five-block performance this season, only Embiid and Anthony Davis have done all of the above.

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker

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    Back in 2017, the Suns were one of many teams hoping to steal Kristaps Porzingis away from the Knicks. But even then, Phoenix was smart enough to make Devin Booker untouchable.

    At that point, he was a promising 20-year-old coming off an encouraging sophomore season. He was clearly gifted as a scorer and shooter, but it was unclear if he could blossom beyond those categories.

    Fast-forward a year-and-a-half later, and Booker is making an argument for All-Star recognition in the overloaded Western Conference. While doing double duty as the Suns' best scorer and distributor—how has this team not traded for a point guard yet?—he's one of just six players to average at least 24 points and six assists.

    "He's one of the best guards in the league," then-Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters in December. "... The way he shoots the ball, the way he's so effective off the dribble in pick-and-rolls and handoffs and that sort of thing. If he has any airspace, he's going to hurt you."

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard

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    Judging by the calendar, we're approaching the annual speculation of whether Portland will break apart the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt.

    Truth be told, the Trail Blazers may have never been further from considering it.

    They're playing even better basketball than last season, when they secured the West's No. 3 seed. Lillard is, as The Ringer's Bill Simmons recently put it, a "true franchise guy." McCollum is again among basketball's best Robin-style supporters. And the pair might even have a fully functional third wheel in the best version of Jusuf Nurkic we've seen.

    Hard as it is to imagine that either of these guards moves, Lillard's spot in the Pacific Northwest is likely the most certain. He's a tone-setter for this team, not to mention a scoring threat from any situation, a consistent shot-creator, a proven performer in the clutch and a dynamic finisher from close range. Potent as McCollum can be in point production, he's not special in any other area.

Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox

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    Two years ago, De'Aaron Fox was splitting touches with Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo at Kentucky. Last season, Fox kicked off his NBA career by backing up the solidly unspectacular George Hill and ended it by averaging fewer shots than Zach Randolph, now a 37-year-old who hasn't suited up all year.

    Considering the state of Sacramento, none of that would've precluded Fox from being the club's most untouchable player on the strength of upside alone. But the fact that he's converting that potential into high-level production is the reason he's a no-brainer choice even with 2018 No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III now on the roster.

    While Fox's playing time has remained in the same ballpark (31.5 minutes, up from 27.8), he has authored dramatic spikes in his points (17.9 from 11.6) and assists (7.2 from 4.4). Despite the extra volume, his efficiency is up (56.1 true shooting percentage compared to 47.8) and his giveaways are down (16.0 turnover percentage from 16.4).

    These aren't hollow numbers either. Sacramento improbably finds itself in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, and Fox has as much to do with as anyone. He has the team's highest usage percentage (25.0) and PER (19.1), and the Kings have fared 8.0 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.

San Antonio Spurs: DeMar DeRozan

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    While we don't know exactly what the Spurs were offered in return for Kawhi Leonard, we do know they opted for a package headlined by DeMar DeRozan.

    That alone probably gets the four-time All-Star untouchable protection, but it helps that he has likely either met or exceeded expectations in the Alamo City.

    Over the last five seasons, he'd averaged 23.4 points on 44.5 percent shooting. This year, he's basically matching the points (22.1) while connecting on a higher clip of his field-goal attempts (46.6 percent). His game is clearly expanding too, as he's comfortably posting career highs with 6.4 assists and 6.2 rebounds.

    He saved the latest sign of his growth—yet another success story from the Gregg Popovich School of Player Development—by dropping his first career triple-double on the Toronto Raptors, the only NBA team he'd known before this season.

    "I've seen how he's changed ... and now he's become more of a complete player," said Rudy Gay, who's played with DeRozan in San Antonio and Toronto. "He's doing everything for us."

Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard

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    At one point, perhaps there was a scenario in which Kawhi Leonard never clicked with the Raptors, pledged to leave at season's end and therefore could've been conceivably shopped around.

    But now? It seems unbelievable that could've ever been the case. Toronto's chances to win the East appear as strong as any, in large part because Leonard is already back to his elite level—if not better. Despite suiting up just nine times last season, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year hasn't skipped a beat. His minutes, points and rebounds have all soared to career highs.

    "That is such an anomaly," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told Bleacher Report. "I don't think the average fan knows how difficult that is to miss that much time and then step in and be every bit of who you were before—if not more."

    Sitting firmly in the championship chase, the Raptors seem unlikely to rock the boat with a trade involving any of their regulars. Their youngsters, in particular, should have a massive price tag in case Leonard leaves this summer and the franchise is forced into a rebuild. But Leonard might be a top-five talent in the league, and Toronto will surely treat him as such as long as he's there.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell

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    For better or worse, the Jazz belong to Donovan Mitchell.

    The transfer of ownership took place last season when the 13th overall pick claimed a spot on what history may remember as an all-time great All-Rookie first team. With such an extreme defensive slant to the roster, Utah is built in a way that anyone who flashes encouraging offensive stretches may get a chance to carry the team. (Remember when we all thought Rodney Hood was next in line? Exactly.)

    With Mitchell, though, there are more than fiery stretches. He had 27 outbursts of 25-plus points as a freshman last season; Carmelo Anthony (30) and Blake Griffin (28) are the only other 2000s rookies with more. By year's end, Mitchell was the Utah offense. In the playoffs, his 243 field-goal attempts doubled those of his closest teammate (Joe Ingles, 121).

    While this leaves Mitchell with perhaps too big a say in Utah's success—46.2 percent shooting in wins, 37.5 in losses—it also intertwines him with this team stronger than anyone else. Whereas Derrick Favors can mostly mimic Rudy Gobert (Utah's second-most untouchable player) when needed, there is no such understudy for Mitchell.

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

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    There are no untouchables in the District, where the Wizards may finally be ready to embrace an overdue demolition.

    By November, they'd put their entire roster on the trade block, sources told ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. In the time since, they've lost John Wall to a season-ending heel surgery, plus seen Dwight Howard (spinal surgery) and Markieff Morris (neck injury) sidelined for lengthy stretches.

    Bradley Beal, then, isn't untouchable, but he's likely the highest-priced player on hand. Sporting News' Sean Deveney hears Beal's going rate is two future firsts and two players.

    Beal offers plug-and-play potential for any win-now shopper. He's sort of a turbocharged three-and-D contributor, only one who gives you 24 points a night and serves as a secondary playmaker. He's also just 25 years old and locked into a relatively affordable deal through 2020-21, so even clubs that are a little further from contending might have interest.


    Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and accurate through games played Saturday. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.