Who Should Actually Be Untouchable on Every NBA Roster?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 28, 2021

Who Should Actually Be Untouchable on Every NBA Roster?

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    In any negotiation, including NBA trade talks, it's often a good idea to start the conversation by saying you couldn't possibly part with the suitor's target. Not in a million years. Not for the moon. Not for an oil tanker full of Chris Paul's Secret Stuff.

    Usually, that's just posturing. It's a ploy to get the inquiring party to up its offer.

    Sometimes, though, it's not gamesmanship. Sometimes, a player is so critical to his team's success—now, in the future or both—that parting with him is genuinely unfathomable.

    Not every team has such a "you can have him when you pry him out of my cold, dead hands" commodity. In those situations, we'll come as close as we can, settling on the last guy a team would ever want to move.

    The offseason approaches, and trade chatter is intensifying. These are the NBA's untouchables.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Spotrac.

Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Stephen Curry comparisons always put Trae Young in a tough spot. There aren't many higher bars to clear than the one set by the guy who won a unanimous MVP and almost single-handedly revamped a sport's offensive norms.

    Young, though, has lived up to a key part of that tough Curry comp: He's one of the rare players, like Steph, whose presence on the floor basically assures his team will have terrific offensive production.

    Deep shooting range, elite in-between craft and a keener passing eye than Curry ever possessed make Young a singular point-generating force. On off nights, or against defenses that refuse to let him hoist from the perimeter, Young can reliably work his way to the foul line and spoon-feed teammates for easy looks.

    There's no way to truly contain him.

    Young, just 22, has guided the Atlanta Hawks to their second conference finals appearance in franchise history. His presence on the floor has coincided with massive spikes in his team's offensive rating in every year of his career, and he's the first player in nearly half a century to average at least 24.0 points and 8.0 assists over his first three seasons.

    Add to that the attitude and confidence he's poured into the Hawks, creating a distinct identity, and there's no plausible scenario in which Atlanta would ever move Young.

Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum

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    Jaylen Brown's fifth-year growth earned him his first All-Star nod and put him on nearly equal footing with teammate Jayson Tatum.

    Nearly equal.

    Tatum remains Boston's more valuable player—an oversized wing who can generate his own shots against any defender. Though he's just 23, Tatum has proved himself capable of succeeding against postseason defenses designed to deny him the looks he wants. He's already seen two conference finals and has averaged at least 24.0 points per game in his last four playoff series.

    Tatum is also a quality individual defender whose length makes him particularly useful as a roaming disruptor.

    There are precious few under-25 players you'd rather have than Tatum, and no one in that group has a more extensive postseason resume at such a young age. He's a first-option, two-way wing with almost no holes in his game—basically the type of guy every team picking at the top of the lottery prays it can find.

    The Boston Celtics have already made one major move ahead of a potentially tumultuous offseason. Whatever else they do, rest assured it will not involve trading Tatum. 

Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    I mean, did you see the Eastern Conference semifinals?

    Though Kevin Durant's Brooklyn Nets fell short in a hotly contested seven-game series, you would have been hard pressed to leave that viewing experience thinking anyone but KD was the best player in the world.

    Despite intense defensive attention, little help and, often, no rest at all, Durant averaged 35.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists against the Milwaukee Bucks. His 49-point triple-double in Game 5 was the best postseason performance of his career and deserves serious consideration as the greatest individual playoff game of all time.

    In Game 7, he scored another 48 points and was half a shoe size away from winning the series all by himself.

    Oh, and Durant is also a nine-time All-NBA team member with an MVP award, two Finals MVPs, four scoring titles and two rings. He's the only player in NBA history to average at least 27.0 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 61.0 percent. For my money, Durant is the best pure scorer to ever play, and all recent evidence suggests he's at the top of his game.

Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    This is a good illustration of how untouchability is relative.

    LaMelo Ball, the 2020-21 rookie of the year, isn't on the same level as Young, Tatum or Durant in the league's superstar hierarchy. But his youth and centrality to the Charlotte Hornets' hopes of building a winner make him just as off-limits as any of those more established names.

    A brilliantly intuitive passer with unteachable instinct and creativity, Ball may or may not carry the Hornets to major success. It's too early to be sure he'll progress enough as a scorer and defender to become a truly elite difference-maker. What's certain is that he'll make Charlotte edge-of-your-seat watchable for as long as he's running the show.

    Averages of 15.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds in an age-19 season are nothing to sneeze at. That they came with a player boasting such a dynamic, entertaining style only adds to Ball's value.

Chicago Bulls: Patrick Williams

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    Patrick Williams’ career is still in its infancy, but his combination of youth and potential for success in a critical role makes him the pick for the Chicago Bulls.

    One of just three players to log at least 1,900 minutes and post a true shooting percentage north of 56.0 percent in an age-19 season, Williams got an uncommon amount of experience as a rookie. The other two players in this cherry-picked group are Jayson Tatum and Dwight Howard, and they're different enough to serve as a reminder we can’t really glean anything specific about Williams’ future yet.

    But both Tatum and Howard became stars and the focal points of very good teams. It’s fair to conclude that any 19-year-old allowed to play as much as Williams did has real promise.

    Zach LaVine is Chicago’s best player, but he’ll hit free agency after 2021-22 if he doesn’t sign an extension this summer. Though a league exec told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps at the trade deadline that both LaVine and Williams were untouchable, you’d have to think that of the two, LaVine’s contract status now makes him more likely to be moved than Williams.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland

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    Phil Long/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Cavaliers call to mind that old axiom about quarterback controversies: If you’ve got a lot of good candidates for the job, it means you don’t actually have any great ones. In this context, Cleveland has plenty of young players taken high in the draft to consider for the “untouchable” tag, but no obvious standout.

    Collin Sexton led the team in scoring in each of the last two years, but he’s a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, which isn’t ideal defensively. His tendency to pound the dribble also hasn’t endeared him to teammates, which won’t help keep him off the trade block if push comes to shove.

    Isaac Okoro and restricted free agent Jarrett Allen project as fine rotation pieces, but both would be available for the right price.

    That leaves Darius Garland, an imperfect option to be sure. He, like Sexton, is small for his position. But Garland shot 39.5 percent from three in his second season and dramatically improved his assist rate while cutting his turnovers. Forecasting stardom for him is iffy, but he’s the winner here by default.

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic

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    The Dallas Mavericks' recent destabilization, marked by the departures of longtime executive Donnie Nelson and head coach Rick Carlisle, might make it seem like drastic change is possible across the board. But really, we all know this upheaval has a very specific limit.

    It will not extend to Luka Doncic.

    The 2018-19 Rookie of the Year was an All-NBA first-teamer in each of the last two seasons. Doncic, unquestionably the best under-25 player in the league, captained the most efficient offense in history during the 2019-20 season (until this year's league-wide scoring eruption saw an incredible seven teams exceed that mark), and it felt like a disappointment when the 22-year-old superstar only finished sixth in 2020-21 MVP voting. He was fourth in 2019-20.

    Doncic's court vision and feel are as advanced as anyone's in the league, and he's already a master of getting to his spots. Change-of-pace, quick bursts, deliberate back-downs, step-back jumpers, post moves, ridiculous handles, a bottomless bag of finishing options—Doncic has everything.

    He absolutely has to be the favorite for most MVPs won over the next decade. The only way he's ever leaving Dallas is if it's entirely his decision. The organization will never willingly pull that trade trigger.

Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Nikola Jokic just set or matched career highs with 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game, rightfully concluding the 2020-21 season with an MVP award. Russell Westbrook is the only other player in the last 60 years to post those three-category averages over a full season, and Jokic's 64.7 true shooting percentage absolutely smokes the 55.4 mark Russ managed in 2016-17.

    It's fair to note that the Denver Nuggets may always struggle to build a true contender with a defense anchored by Jokic, who isn't much of a deterrent at the rim and lacks the quickness to hold up on the perimeter. But that just means Jokic isn't perfect—not that he's someone Denver would ever consider trading.

    Jokic's unselfish style and ingrained desire to set up his teammates means the Nuggets could tinker with the roster in any number of ways. No matter what they construct around Jokic, the Serbian center will maximize the talent on hand. All members of Jokic's supporting cast have to do to succeed is cut and keep hands at the ready to receive passes their defenders never see coming.

    Durable, consistent in creating high-end offense and capable of making everyone around him better, Jokic is among the league's most plug-and-play cornerstones. He'd excel everywhere, which is why he's going nowhere.

Detroit Pistons: The No. 1 Pick

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    What, were you expecting Killian Hayes? Jerami Grant, perhaps?

    With apologies to those two, the Detroit Pistons would move either of them for a fraction of the return they’d demand for the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft.

    We’ve got quite a bit of time between now and when the first selection officially comes off the board, but a great deal would have to change for someone other than Cade Cunningham to be the top pick. An intuitive lead guard with a wing’s frame, Cunningham would be poised to excel in the NBA on the strength of his facilitating game alone. That he also has the skills of a top-option scorer and the instincts to play above-average defense only further cements his status atop his draft class. No one else in the lottery matches his potential to elevate a franchise.

    Anything’s possible; the Celtics traded out of first position when Markelle Fultz seemed like a similar sure thing in 2017, and it was clearly the right call. For now, though, the Pistons’ grip on their right to select Cunningham should be vicelike.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry

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    It says a lot when a franchise has no reservations about giving a 33-year-old player a four-year, $215.4 million contract extension. Considering what Stephen Curry means to the Golden State Warriors, that's a bargain.

    The two-time MVP and three-time champ turned in what might have been his most impressive season in 2020-21. Despite no reliable offensive help, Curry averaged a career-high 32.0 points per game, led the league in made threes for the sixth time and provided the largest boost to his team's offensive rating of any player (with at least 700 minutes) in the league.

    Curry was the sole focus of every opponent's defensive game plan this past season, and he shone as brightly as ever, draining impossible shots against in-his-jersey contests and wiggling his way to the rim with a handle far too tight for a guy who's also the greatest shooter in league history.

    As a culture-setter, Curry is unsurpassed. A relentless worker and A-plus citizen, Steph makes it impossible for teammates to slack or fall out of line off the floor. His example within and beyond the lines is a powerful organizing principle.

    If you told the Warriors they could trade Curry for another superstar or keep him on the condition they play the entire 2021-22 season with only four players on the court, they'd at least have to think about it.

Houston Rockets: Christian Wood

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    Like the Pistons a bit earlier, the Houston Rockets don't have a player on their current roster more valuable than the No. 2 pick they landed in the June 22 lottery. But we already went to that "the pick is untouchable" well once, so we'll nominate Christian Wood as the least touchable of Houston's entirely available roster.

    Wood is still just 25 and is coming off a season in which he averaged 21.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, fully validating the late-season surge he made as a starter for the Pistons in 2019-20. At an average of $14 million per season over the next two years, Wood's salary is team-friendly—especially if he continues the growth he showed during his first campaign in Houston. Most notably, the skilled 6'10" big man upped his three-point attempt rate to 7.4 per 100 possessions, a career high.

    Call the Rockets about John Wall or Eric Gordon, and they'll happily listen. Those two are expensive and on the downside of their career trajectories, out of place on a rebuilder. You could probably even get Houston to part with their younger pieces, like Jae'Sean Tate and Kevin Porter Jr., with the right package of draft picks and promising talent.

    Wood, though, is right at the beginning of his prime and is the only member of the team that projects as both a quality starter and a value contract. That sets him apart.

Indiana Pacers: Domantas Sabonis

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    This one's impossible. All the Indiana Pacers have on the roster are quality NBA players at reasonable contracts.

    Caris LeVert, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon are all on the books for the 2021-22 season in a narrow salary band between $17.5 and $21.7 million. T.J. Warren comes with injury worries after missing all but four games following foot surgery last year, but he's the biggest steal of all at $12.5 million.

    Indy could either keep all those players at their current reasonable rates or field trade offers from around the league. These contracts are all easy to move, even if deals seem unlikely in the wake of Rick Carlisle's hire as head coach. He probably wouldn't have signed on if a teardown was imminent.

    In the end, Sabonis is the only All-Star in this properly-paid crew, which probably makes him the Pacer who'd command the most in a hypothetical trade. That's far from being untouchable, but Sabonis is as close as we can get with this team.

Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Kawhi Leonard hasn't played more than 60 games in a season since 2016-17. Though that number might be a bit misleading due to the shortened calendars in each of the last two years, the five-time All-NBA wing has an undeniably concerning injury history. He's been on some form of load management since being diagnosed with right quadriceps tendinopathy in 2017, and the knee sprain (complete with a report the ACL is involved) currently sidelining him in the 2021 playoffs doesn't augur well for his durability going forward.

    Offsetting those concerns is the fact that Leonard, when healthy, has only continued to improve.

    His 62.2 true shooting percentage this past season was a career best, and he's set new high-water marks in assists per game during each of the last two years. His mid-range marksmanship is unsurpassed, and though Leonard isn't the "all day, every day" shutdown stopper he once was, he can still cause havoc when necessary.

    Health concerns aside, Leonard is still on the very short list of the league's elite two-way wings. That he chose to join the Los Angeles Clippers and drew in other top-end talent around him only diminishes the chances of his departure.

Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    LeBron James has never been traded, and it's safe to assume he never will be.

    That's partly because James has excelled at retaining agency over his career, ensuring he's always the one with the most leverage at the negotiating table. He never subjects himself to the whims of whatever organization for which he's chosen to play.

    But it's mostly because he's been the best player in the league—at least insofar as he affects his team's chances to win a title—for the vast majority of his 18-year career. If he's on a halfway decent roster and in good health, his team is a surefire contender. When the same guy shows up in eight straight Finals and nine in a 10-year span, correlation fails as the likely explanation.

    James causes contention. You don't trade that away.

    At 36, LeBron is near the end. Anthony Davis might soon overtake him as the Los Angeles Lakers' most untouchable star...but not yet.

Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Ja Morant has to improve his three-point shooting and leverage his athleticism into more impactful defense, but those are the only nits to pick when it comes to the Memphis Grizzlies point guard.

    Fresh off averaging 30.2 points and 8.2 assists per game in the first playoff series of his career, Morant has already shown his skills hold up in the intensified postseason environment. Though his Grizzlies bowed out of the first round in five games against the Utah Jazz, Morant was able to get wherever he wanted on the floor and make the correct pass-shoot decision in traffic.

    With the ability to ignite his team and the crowd through highlight-reel feats of athleticism, an undeniable competitive edge and ahead-of-schedule leadership chops, Morant profiles as a true head-of-the-snake point guard. He has an inside track to becoming the greatest Grizzlies player in franchise history.

    Small-market Memphis will never sign a player like Morant, and it doesn't have the assets to trade for someone with his combination of present value and future upside. He's a no-doubt keeper.

Miami Heat: Bam Adebayo

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    The Miami Heat are a win-now outfit built around 31-year-old Jimmy Butler, which would seem to make him their most off-limits asset. A culture-setter coming off a season that earned him his fourth All-NBA nod and fifth career placement on an All-Defensive team, Butler averaged 21.5 points per game in 2020-21 while setting new career highs in assists, rebounds and steals per game.

    He led the league in that last category.

    Bam Adebayo is eight years Butler's junior, though, and the Heat signed him to a max extension at the first opportunity. Maybe Butler is marginally more important to the organization's immediate designs on winning, but Adebayo is basically the prototype of the modern center. He, unlike so many elite conventional 5s, is ideally suited to withstand the scheming and spacing of the postseason.

    The Heat can build around him for a decade, assured his ability to switch across five positions and improving jumper will keep him on the floor against any opposing lineup. It doesn't hurt that Adebayo is already among the best passing bigs in the game; his 5.4 assists per contest this past season attest to that.

    Butler is currently the Heat's best and most productive player. But 2021-22 will be his age-32 season. With his three-point shot missing in action and the likelihood of physical decline encroaching, Butler has to give way to Adebayo in the untouchability department.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo is the ultra-rare small-market homegrown talent who developed into the lynchpin of a contender. The two-time MVP is the absolute best-case blueprint for organizations that can't sign or trade their way to the top of the league—which, really, is almost every organization.

    The rest of the NBA salivated at the possibility Antetokounmpo would decline a supermax extension this past offseason, and you can bet the Bucks lost sleep nightly until he inked the deal that'll keep him in Milwaukee through 2026.

    We saw the Bucks sacrifice three future first-rounders and two more pick swaps to grab Jrue Holiday, a decision made entirely to convince Antetokounmpo he should re-up with the franchise. It worked, and Antetokounmpo is locked in for another half-decade.

    The only way he'll depart Milwaukee is if he demands a trade. With the Bucks reaching the conference finals for just the second time in Antetokounpo's tenure and looking capable of winning it all, it's difficult to come up with a scenario in which Giannis would go that route.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns

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    It was tempting to go with Anthony Edwards here. Those rookie-scale deals are exceptionally valuable. Even if 2020's No. 1 pick comes with questions about scoring efficiency and defense, Edwards did nothing in his rookie season to diminish his chances of achieving first-option stardom.

    The thing is, if Edwards peaks as the kind of offensive leader who single-handedly ensures his team will score at elite levels, all he will have done is match what Karl-Anthony Towns has already achieved.

    Towns is a three-level problem at the center position, capable of destroying conventional bigs from the perimeter and stretching opponents of all sizes thin with his devastating pick-and-pop ability. He's dangerous attacking closeouts, capable in the post and broadly transformative to his team's attack.

    Towns' presence on the floor has improved the Wolves' offensive rating by at least five points per 100 possessions in every year of his career. In each of the last two seasons, his impact has been worth over 11.0 points per 100 possessions on offense. Since he joined the league, Towns has been among the game's biggest offensive difference-makers.

    There are 18 players who've averaged at least 22.0 points and 11.0 rebounds during the first six years of their careers. Towns distinguishes himself in that group with 629 made threes over that span, more than the other 17 players combined.

    Edwards might someday become special, but Towns already is.

New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson

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    The New Orleans Pelicans had an untouchable player before, only to see another team reach out and grab him. Granted, Anthony Davis was a party to his own liberation back in 2019, essentially packing it in until the Pels moved him to the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Zion Williamson could be the next New Orleans star to work his way out the door.

    Unless and until frustration evolves into "get me outta here" discontent, Williamson is obviously the Pelicans' most prized player. Unlocked partway through the year as a primary ball-handler, Williamson's unstoppable downhill drives resulted in 20.3 points in the paint per game. That's the highest average since Shaquille O'Neal's MVP season in 1999-00.

    The difference between Shaq and Williamson is critical: Zion can get to the lane on his own, while O'Neal needed a post-entry pass. The extra opportunities created by Williamson's self-generated scoring in the lane are hard to overstate. O'Neal had to set up shop more deliberately, making it easier to scheme against him.

    Williamson can attack from anywhere.

    The No. 1 pick in 2019 averaged 27.0 points per game and shot an absurd 61.1 percent from the field in his second season. Williamson may leave New Orleans one day, but the Pels will never want him gone.

New York Knicks: RJ Barrett

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    Julius Randle was a deserving winner of the league's Most Improved Player award this past season, during which he was the engine for a New York Knicks offense that performed just well enough to make its excellent work on defense hold up.

    Without Randle making a leap as a jump-shooter and facilitator, the Knicks would never have secured home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Credit where it's due.

    That said, RJ Barrett is a half-decade younger than Randle and finished his second NBA season with averages of 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists. Most importantly, the 21-year-old lefty overcame a horrid shooting slump in the early part of the year to finish with a 40.1 percent hit rate on threes. Barrett is far from a finished product, and he still favors pull-up mid-rangers to a damaging degree. But he met head coach Tom Thibodeau's taxing defensive demands, developed as a scorer and shows no signs of changing his hard-won reputation as a mentally tough, tireless worker.

    His upside makes him, not Randle, the guy New York would resist moving most.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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    No one on the Oklahoma City Thunder's ever-churning roster should get totally comfortable, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the player least likely to be disappointed if he buys instead of rents in OKC.

    The pearl of the Paul George trade in 2019, Gilgeous-Alexander was a useful supporting piece next to Chris Paul during the 2019-20 season. He proved he could produce higher-volume scoring at slightly more efficient rates than he managed as a rookie. It was a solid step forward.

    The 2020-21 season featured a full-fledged leap.

    SGA led the league in drives per game and drastically upped his true shooting percentage from 56.8 to 62.3 percent. The latter figure was elite, tied for eighth in the league among players who attempted at least 15.0 shots per game. He ended his third season with stellar averages of 23.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds.

    Dangerous on the ball or off it (41.8 percent on 4.9 three-point attempts per game), Gilgeous-Alexander figures to pair well with whatever player type the Thunder can haul in to join him as a foundational piece.

Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac

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    The Orlando Magic are entering the first full year of a long-overdue rebuild, and they're doing it with one of the most underwhelming collections of talent in the league. Scan the roster, and you'll quickly understand why the Magic are starting over.

    Forget star-caliber talent or young players oozing potential; Orlando doesn't even have any surefire quality starters.

    Several players might someday earn that modest distinction. Cole Anthony, Gary Harris, Chuma Okeke, RJ Hampton, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and Markelle Fultz have either flirted with reaching that level in the past or have the potential to get there eventually. But none of them would ever be mistaken for an organizational centerpiece.

    Jonathan Isaac, though? He at least seemed capable of being a game-changing defender at one time.

    The exceptionally mobile big man showed elite shot-blocking timing and five-position switchability when injury-free, but he missed the entirety of 2020-21 with a knee injury and logged 34 games or fewer in two of his previous three "healthy" seasons. 

    At 23, Isaac has time to justify his default status as Orlando's most untouchable player. Here's hoping his body cooperates.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid

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    It wasn't so long ago that this section would have featured a genuine debate. Some would have caped for Ben Simmons, while others would have nominated Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers' most prized piece.

    Embiid has been a game-changing destroyer of souls when healthy and fit, but his injury history and repeated failures to stay in top form through a full season made him a relatively risky long-term bet. There's a reason the Philadelphia 76ers gave themselves health-related outs on the max deal they handed Embiid in 2017.

    Simmons got a full five-year max with no such caveats.

    Though far from a model of durability, Embiid has been an All-Star in every season since inking that extension. This past year, he was arguably the best player in the league on a per-minute basis. Had he logged a handful of extra games, he may well have won the MVP that went to Nikola Jokic.

    Simmons, meanwhile, flamed out spectacularly in the playoffs and is now widely expected to be dealt. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Simmons' reps and the Sixers have already discussed how to effect a parting of ways.

    So much for debate.

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker

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    An All-Star the last two seasons, Devin Booker has matured into one of the NBA’s most valuable commodities: a first-option wing whose complete game is mostly immune to the schemes of playoff opponents.

    Booker’s first postseason has eliminated any questions about his readiness for the highest-leverage situations. His individual numbers have always been stellar, with a career scoring average of 23.0 points per game on better-than-average true shooting. Now, though, we know he can captain an offense on his own, hold up defensively and stare down the brightest opposing stars without blinking.

    It’s not like the Phoenix Suns are short on candidates here. Deandre Ayton is thriving in the playoffs, Chris Paul has been good enough to potentially opt out of the $44.2 million his player option would pay him for 2021-22, and Mikal Bridges is already a quintessential three-and-D stud in just his third season.

    Phoenix would part with all of those guys before letting Booker go.

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard

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    Damian Lillard is a tough guy to categorize for this exercise. He’s obviously his team’s best player and well on the way to being the most iconic Portland Trail Blazer in franchise history—if he’s not already there.

    Yet the same production and loyalty that have earned him that status may be the most active factors pushing him out the door. If he wants to move on, the organization owes it to him to make that happen.

    The Blazers parted ways with Terry Stotts, the only NBA head coach for whom Lillard has ever played, after failing to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years. You could forgive Lillard for wanting a change of scenery, and he absolutely has the clout to make that happen.

    Until the six-time All-Star actually exercises his leverage by asking for a trade, Portland isn’t going to deal him.

Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox

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    The Sacramento Kings haven’t been worthy of national attention for the better part of 20 years, which is probably why so few people are aware of the incremental steps De’Aaron Fox is taking toward stardom.

    The 23-year-old point guard averaged 25.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in relative obscurity this past year. While those numbers stand up on their own, it’s really the progress that led to them that warrants the most notice. Fox, despite playing without any star-level teammates and muddling through four seasons with one of the league’s most notoriously dysfunctional franchises, has clearly never stopped working.

    His scoring average and points per shot attempt have climbed every year, while his turnover rate has trended down just as steadily. Though Fox entered the league and was immediately one of its fastest transition attackers, he deserves credit for developing the elite foul-drawing craft that makes him so difficult to stop in half-court sets. Players don’t accidentally learn how to sucker opponents into fouling; Fox put in the time.

    It’d be nice if he could use his speed and quick reactions to greater effect on D, but the lefty guard carries such a heavy load offensively that it might be unrealistic to ask for shutdown work on the other end. Plus, Sacramento isn’t exactly nurturing a defense-first culture, having ranked dead last in defensive efficiency this past year and no better than 19th in Fox’s four seasons.

    Fox is the best thing the Kings have going, and it’s not particularly close.

San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Dejounte Murray's long-range shooting limitations make him something other than a conventional point guard. Opponents can duck underneath screens or sag off, content to let him fire from the midrange or try to work his way into traffic nearer the bucket.

    For that reason, he may never be the type of run-the-show option teams tend to like at that position.

    Murray, though, finds other ways to contribute real value. He was one of only three players—along with Draymond Green and Robert Covington—to accumulate at least 400 rebounds and 100 steals last season. He's among the game's rangiest backcourt defenders, is better than most at his position on two-point jumpers and, as his inclusion with the much larger Green and Covington indicates, might be the best rebounding guard in the league.

    Derrick White was a consideration, but he's two years older than Murray. Keldon Johnson has youth on his side, but he hasn't proved enough. Murray could be had in a trade, but he'd command the biggest return.

Toronto Raptors: OG Anunoby

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Pascal Siakam has that 2019-20 All-NBA nod going for him, and it’d be tough to argue any Toronto Raptors player (currently under contract; so Kyle Lowry’s out) has been more productive over the last several seasons. Even in a difficult 2020-21 during which his three-point shot disappeared, Siakam still averaged 21.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists while getting to the foul line more frequently than ever.

    Though Siakam is best known for making leaps—from fringe rotation option to quality starter to an All-Star and Most Improved award-winner—it’s not fair to expect that trajectory to continue. His 2020-21 suggests that, at age 27, he’s topped out.

    At the risk of getting too cute here, the most untouchable Raptors player is OG Anunoby.

    Perhaps the most intimidating point-of-attack defender in the league, Anunoby can suffocate point guards and capably defend most centers down low. Offensively, he's developing an on-ball game and is now at 37.5 percent from deep for his career after drilling 39.8 percent of his 6.1 triples per game this past season.

    Kawhi Leonard, to whom Anunoby is often compared, made his first All-Star game in his age-24 season. Anunoby is on track to match that feat next year, and the chance for him to follow the Leonard blueprint beyond that achievement is enough to make him Toronto’s crown jewel.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    If the Utah Jazz want to keep racking up dominant regular seasons, Rudy Gobert is the player most capable of leading that effort. The presence of the three-time DPOY assures top-notch defense every night, and that’s good enough on its own to pile up wins against most opponents.

    Alternatively, if the Jazz would like to make their consistently excellent regular seasons hold up in the playoffs, Donovan Mitchell is the one to keep off the trade table.

    Utah isn’t going to move either of its maxed-out (and max-worthy) stars. It can and should focus instead on finding ways to keep Gobert from getting exploited by downsized, spaced-out opponents. The Los Angeles Clippers capitalized on Gobert’s instincts to protect the bucket, eliminating the Jazz in the West semifinals with a barrage of drive-and-kick threes. Some of the onus for Utah’s failures rests on a corps of perimeter defenders who couldn’t stay in front of their assignments, but Gobert’s inability to cover enough ground was, ultimately, fatal.

    Mitchell is a high-scoring threat on the wing who can punish opponents off the ball and get to his spots with ease when he has the rock. In the modern game—at least as it’s played in the postseason—that type of player is just more valuable than even the most accomplished and decorated conventional bigs.

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    It doesn’t matter that Bradley Beal trade speculation has blanketed the internet for over a year. Also inconsequential: the fact that the star shooting guard with a scoring average north of 30.0 points per game in each of the last two seasons is entering the final year of his contract.

    Unless and until either the Washington Wizards or Beal abandon their mutual loyalty, all that speculation will remain smoke without fire.

    Just to remind of both parties’ current stances, here’s Fred Katz of The Athletic: “First, as the Wizards have insisted for years, they still don’t want to trade Beal. …. Sure, Beal could ask out, but he hasn’t and there’s no indication he plans on doing so.”

    Russell Westbrook’s contract is toxic, and Washington is woefully short on other in-demand players, but everyone on the roster is more likely to move than Beal right now.

    Things change quickly in the NBA, but Beal’s unavailability has been a constant.