If you could start a franchise with any player in the league right now, who would you pick?
Giannis had just finished his NBA Finals domination when the question got brought up. Even so, my knee jerk reaction was to say Luka Doncic. But then I put a little more thought into the scenario.
If I was doing a fantasy drafted NBA 2K style, what would my draft board look like? Age, contract, health, and injuries all played factors while I was compiling my list. Even one I put all that thought into it, the final tier still came down to Giannis and Luka with only one earning the top spot.
But before we get to the top of my draft board, let’s start with who I’d pick if I was picking at the end of the first round and move our way up from there. The age listed is how old the player will be at the end of next season.
Any player with a * after their contract means the player is still on their rookie contract and the team they are on will have the right to match any offers they sign after their contract is up.
Tier 7 – The Cogs
30. Mikal Bridges, 25 years old, 1 year / $5 million guaranteed*
29. OG Anunoby, 24 years old, 3 years / $53 million guaranteed
If I’m drafting at the tail end of the first round at this point both the established stars and the young up and coming ones have more than likely already been taken. If I can’t get a guy I consider a franchise cornerstone then I’m looking to add the next most important pieces on a successful team.
Lockdown level perimeter defenders with size who not only can knock down the three point shot but are developing their own offensive games that are on reasonable contracts are like gold in today’s NBA as seen by the likes of Bridges, Johnson, and Crowder for the Suns and Holiday, Connaughton, and DiVincenzo for the Bucks on NBA Finals rosters.
Jrue Holiday’s age just kept him from this list but with Bridges and OG both having much more time left and much easier contracts to swallow gave them the edge. I expect for Bridges to sign for slightly more than Anunoby once he is able to sign his extension off of his rookie deal and being a year younger gives him the edge. Either one though is an anchor for you team for the next 8 years though on a championship contender.
Tier 6 – The Last of the Franchise Guys
28. Kyrie Irving, 30 years old, 1 year / $35 million
27. Bradley Beal, 28 years old, 1 year / $34 million
26. Jaylen Brown, 25 years old, 3 years / $85 million
25. Zach LaVine, 27 years old, 1 year / $19 million
All four all-star guards command a hefty price tag with LaVine’s upcoming extension leaping him into the max salary range. Brown actually comes in the cheapest of the bunch though with being the youngest that’s generally expected. And it’s his age that separates him from Irving and Beal with LaVine’s athleticism being the factor that had me hesitate to move Brown even further up the list.
Kyrie is the most talented player of the group but he is also the oldest as well as the one with the worst injury history. When you’re nitpicking between all-stars it’s the little things that make a difference.
And LaVine’s ability not only to score at all three levels but to also play so high above the rim that defenses are forced to account for it helps separate him from this tight knit group of proven players who are on the cusp of superstardom. But the allure of getting that superstar on a rookie contract was enough to slot these guys just behind the stars of the rookie class.
Tier 5 – The Next Generation
24. Jalen Green, 20 years old, 4 years / $?? million*
23. Evan Mobley, 20 years old, 4 years / $?? million*
22. Cade Cunningham, 20 years old, 4 years / $?? million*
With the way prospects are training and with how well analytics have helped make players more efficient, rookies are coming in and being able to contribute at a star level much sooner than before.
In the four drafts before this one we’ve had stars such as Tatum, Mitchell, Bam, Luka, Trae, SGA, Zion, Ja, LaMelo, and Edwards all come in and contribute at star levels immediately and these three rookies all appear to be on that level.
With these three players the represent three of the most important archetypes of a successful NBA superstar. Cade is the wing sized point guard who can create using his height and can elevate his teammates. Mobley is the two way big who can guard guards and block shots on defense while hopefully developing into a three level scorer. And Jalen Green is an athletic monster who can score on three levels already and uses that gravity to create for his teammates. It really is pick your style and hope they can develop into players as good as these guys.
Tier 4 – The Up and Comers
21. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 23 years old, 1 year / $5 million*
20. Karl Anthony Towns, 26 years old, 3 years / $101 million
19. Ja Morant, 21 years old, $22 million*
18. Anthony Edwards, 20 years old, 3 years / $34 million*
17. LaMelo Ball, 20 years old, 3 years / $28 million*
16. Zion Williamson, 21 years old, 2 years / $24 million*
This group are those rookie contracts that have proven they are franchise guys at the NBA level already with the exception of Karl Anthony Towns. Towns is the exception to most rules, being the best shooting big man in the league in my opinion from beyond the arc as well as second at playmaking only to reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. With the team finally coming together around him with Anthony Edwards being the teammate he’s needed in Minnesota.
Shai slots in right behind KAT because when it comes down to it, I personally value size over guard play and he’s also getting ready to hit his extension. That theme rings true with the next 4 players in this tier as it’s three guards with the lone big ranking in the highest spot in Zion. Morant showed his explosiveness and ability to lead a team this year while rookies Ball and Edwards both exceeded expectations and showed the potential to be the best players on title contenders.
But the gem of this group is Zion. Dominant around the rim already without great spacing; the sky’s the limit for such a young player who is already dominating in the restricted area. He’s also shown enough talent and shooting touch to think he’s far from a finished product on the offensive end and any team would be lucky to have him to build around.
Tier 4 – The Robin Role
15. Kawhi Leonard, 30 years old, 1 year / $36 million
14. Dame Lillard, 31 years old, 3 years / $127 million
13. James Harden, 32 years old, 1 year / $44 million
12. Devin Booker, 25 years old, 3 years / $101 million
11. Donovan Mitchell, 25 years old, 4 years / $128 million
And we quickly go from the stars of the teams that are on the fringe of contending to some of the leaders of some of the league’s best teams this year. With Kawhi’s injury making him likely out for the year I thought slotting him here was about right with the rest of the players settling into that #2 or at least on a title contender as probably their ideal role though they all have the high end potential to lead a team that could play in the NBA finals.
What really separates them is age and my preference for Harden’s defense and Mitchell’s playmaking ability to boost them over their peers in this tier. Regardless of which one of these players I ended up with in a draft though I’d feel very comfortable having the focal point of my offensive engine.
Tier 3 – The Doorstep
10. Joel Embiid, 28 years old, 2 years / $65 million
9. Anthony Davis, 29 years old, 3 years / $114 million
8. Trae Young, 23 years old, 1 year / $8 million
7. Jayson Tatum, 24 years old, 4 years / $126 million
Like the tier name suggests, these are the guys that get you on the doorstep of a title. Each one of these players is on the cusp of their teams being considered legitimate championship contenders. Embiid’s injury history, Davis’s need for someone to run the offense, Trae’s defense, and Tatum’s playmaking are all obvious shortcomings at the moment.
But those shortcomings just mean that the team’s built around them need to help hide those flaws or to run systems that help those players correct some negative habits. Even for Embiid, when the Pacers were said to be interested in Simmons I was hoping to see Turner find his way to Philadelphia to play beside/back-up Embiid and let Embiid become a part time regular season player.
As for Trae and Tatum, it again comes down to me preferring size and the defense to the playmaking. Young’s ability to run the pick and roll and make the right decision is Harden-like in Harden’s Houston days but seeing Tatum single handedly take a game from the Nets this offseason is a reminder of just how much gravity he pulls. Just not quite as much gravity as these next few guys.
Tier 2 – The Foundations
6. LeBron James, 37 years old, 2 years / $85 million
5. Nikola Jokic, 27 years old, 2 years / $65 million
4. Steph Curry, 34 years old, 2 years / $88 million
3. Kevin Durant, 33 years old, 1 year / $42 million
The top tier of offensive creation in a league that thrives on just that, these four players automatically give you a chance to compete for a championship just by having them on your team. Each player having won the MVP award before shows the respect they are shown in the league.
Jokic is the outlier but I believe what he is doing for playmaking from bigs is similar to what Steph did in terms of stretching defenses further out past the three point line. He is the next wave of an offense all his own and something in 5 years will be more common with the skills of younger bigs learning and catching up as the game continues to evolve.
Durant tops the list because of his size to go along with the gravity his scoring provides but that gravity is what has Steph ranked so highly. Defenses are forced to bend to the will of their shooting ability and taking advantage of that is what puts teams over the top come playoff time. Durant tops my overall list in terms of best basketball players, but his age, injury history, and contract situation have him just outside the last tier of this brain exercise.
Tier 1 – The No-Brainers
2. Luka Doncic, 23 years old, 1 year / $10 million*
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, 27 years old, 4 years / $176 million
The cream of the crop. A year ago the NBA world was excited/terrified at the very real prospect of these two teaming up in Dallas and dominating the league for the next decade. Instead we’ve got Giannis hoisting the Finals MVP trophy and taking shots at players that league and team up. How quickly things change.
At the beginning of the article I mentioned that my knee jerk reaction was to put Luka at the top of this list. At only 23 years old at the end of next season, Luka should be playing at an elite level for the next 10 years. His offensive vision, playmaking, and scoring ability is enough that the Mavericks offenses have put up some of the most impressive offensive metrics in the history of the league and he is the player that makes all that possible.
Giannis isn’t quite that dominant on the offensive end and he’s 4 years older. But he’s also a defensive player of the year caliber player who can anchor a team’s backend with his help defense. And while no Luka on offense (and who is?) Giannis showed this Finals that the game is starting to slow down for him on that end and his playmaking has made huge leaps.
With the attention he draws from opposing defenses being able to capitalize on that by hitting teammates with good passes they can get good looks which is only going to make that offense more potent.
Combine that with the defense and the fact Giannis has proven his loyalty so there’s no worries of him leaving in free agency make him my top guy to start a franchise with.