Which player would you want to build a franchise around, starting today, for the remainder of their career?
That is the guiding question Justin Savaso and I applied to our 2017 Franchise Player Re-Draft, and it led to one of the most fun projects in Low Post Gazette’s short history. It was so fun, in fact, that we decided to bring it back, adding Ashwin Ramnath to the mix. Bringing a third perspective changed the draft progression and enhanced the discussions, while also adding some important new criteria.
- Is the player as good as prime Jeff Green?
- Could they check Bonzi Wells at his peak?
That’s copy and pasted from our draft doc. Like I said, Ashwin’s contributions were limitless.
Besides that, we stuck with the same criteria as last year.
Things we considered:
- Prime years remaining
- Level already achieved
- Quick or graceful decline candidate?
- Easy or hard to build around?
Things we ignored:
- Real-life contracts
- How much the player would theoretically cost
- Any specific draft strategy in later rounds (no “I’m taking Player X because I want to target Player Y in Round 2 and build around that duo”)
The end result was everyone coming up with a board that could be drafted and debated without a shifting argument. Please enjoy Part I below.
The Re-Draft (picks 1-10)
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Aswhin Ramnath)
The Greek Freak was a clear cut No. 1 on my board. He’s the premier young talent in the league. He’s durable, capable of defending 1-5 and he’s improved by freakish levels year-after-year of his career to justify his moniker. At just 23 years old he’s established himself as a certified superstar and pushed himself firmly into the MVP discussion.
Oh, and he’s doing all this without a credible jump shot. For balancing current performance and long term upside there is no other choice.
2. Kawhi Leonard (Simon Cherin-Gordon)
If not for his mysterious preseason injury, Leonard might have been No. 1 on my board. He’s the only player in the league at that perfect value sweetspot—a proven MVP-level commodity with most of his prime ahead of him (he’s 26). Everyone else has either already peaked, or not reached a best-player-on-a-title-team level yet. Giannis included.
Justin Savaso: It would have been fascinating to see a Kawhi/Giannis debate play out if Kawhi played the beginning of this season at the same MVP level he finished last season at. Do you take the younger Giannis who hasn’t made it past the first round? Or the sure thing in Leonard, a guy with a Finals MVP already under his belt? Given Leonard’s extended absence, I had these two players ranked in the same order but can’t help but thinking we got robbed of what would have been a near impossible decision.
3. Anthony Davis (JS)
In his first five seasons, Davis has played over 70 games just once. Even more worrisome is the sheer amount of various ailments that have led to his absences. When you look at other players chronically injured early in their career, such as a young Steph Curry, it was one specific injury holding him back (ankles). With Davis, it’s always something new and for that reason it’s hard to predict with any certainty he can string together multiple healthy seasons.
Why, then, did I take him No. 3? Simply put, Davis has the perfect combination of current talent, youth, and versatility, which are the three biggest factors I looked at when creating my draft board. At 24 years old, he is able to make my franchise relevant right away—I currently have him ranked as the 8th best player in the league—while still having the the ceiling to become a legitimate MVP candidate for years to come.
His playing style also allows him to fit in next to virtually any other player. Have a ball dominant guard? Put Davis next to him in the pick-and-roll. Have a guard who prefers spotting up? Use Davis as a screener and look for him to slip to the basket if teams start to overplay. His playmaking still leaves something to be desired, but I am betting that he still has another mini-leap in him.
SCG: I agree with everything you said—and am even less worried about the health than you. I think Steph’s incessant ankle problems threatened his career in a way AD’s random afflictions do not. His injuries seem more Chris Paul-like, a bunch of one-offs that may take away chunks of each season but don’t degrade his body to the point of decline or premature decline.
And yet, I had him significantly lower on my board. I even debated whether or not to put Davis ahead of Joel Embiid. We’ll get into Embiid later, but essentially, I believe in his ability to be the best player on a title team in a way I do not with AD. Can Davis become that guy? Yes, if he improves in the areas most crucial to doing so—creating for himself and for others. From what I’ve seen though, his strides have been extremely minor in these areas over the last few years. I’m not taking a guy with a slim chance at being the best player on a title team in the top 5.
AR: I have reservations about Davis’ ability to be a number 1 option, or for that matter, any player that doesn’t regularly create and initiate offense from the perimeter. What Davis does bring to the table is a unique compatibility alongside virtually any other player in the league as Justin pointed out.
He is one of the few bigs who can truly swing between both the 4 and 5 effectively on defense, something other “unicorns” don’t necessarily bring to the table. Over the last two years the Pelicans have morphed from varying degrees of defensive suckage with Davis off the floor to among the league’s best with him on it. This includes lineups alongside Cousins or with Davis anchoring the defense as a pivot himself.
That defensive versatility and impact is exceedingly rare and increasingly valuable with the way the league is trending. It provides a franchise incredible lineup versatility in constructing a roster around Davis and demonstrates that while he may not be capable of being your lead banana, he has the two way impact to be your best player.
4. LeBron James (AR)
Even at age 33, James remains the best player in the league. He’s capable of transforming virtually any supporting cast he’s handed into a 50-plus win team — if they’re trying — and a legitimate contender through sheer force of will. James is an unstoppable offensive orchestrator, equally adept at bulldozing his way to the rim or making crosscourt passes to dime up open shooters. He has also rediscovered the outside touch which had left him a few years back, making him truly indefensible in current form.
Defensively he’s no longer the force he was at his peak. James simply can’t dial up the energy required for that kind of two-way impact anymore. He remains a highly effective help side defender and can find that extra gear in crunch time, but it’s not ever present as it was in his younger days.
Every year we wait for his inevitable decline, and yet 15 years in we see few signs of him giving up his throne. James lacks the long term stability and upside of many other stars this high on the list, but he’s the best of them all on current standing. If winning titles are the most important achievement in the NBA, James is the player in the league that still does the most to push a team in that direction.
5. Stephen Curry (SCG)
I had Curry above James last year, and I still do. Will Curry ever reach James’ level as an individual postseason force? No, considering he is already at his peak. But he is still unambiguously good enough to be the best player on a title team, which can really only be said about he and James. Even those who argue Durant was the best player on last year’s Warriors still admit he needed Curry, whereas Curry nearly won back-to-back titles over James without a transcendent sidekick.
Curry has also played less than half as many minutes in his NBA career. Of course, to expect Steph to enjoy a similarly-extended prime would be ignoring how special and rare LeBron’s longevity is. Still, Curry is over three years younger. He has more prime years left than LeBron, and will age more gracefully due to his status as the greatest shooter ever and all that. For what it’s worth, post-prime LeBron could essentially be a poor man’s Karl Malone, but it’s hard to see the King accepting a reduced role. Curry, meanwhile, is already accepting that type of role in his prime. His current talent, well-aging skill set and his personality make him the perfect franchise player.
JS: One of the biggest questions I wrestled with in this redraft is what to make of Steph’s 2015-2016 MVP year. During that season, he flipped the league upside down averaging 30.1 PPG with an eFG of 63%, changed our perception of the 3-point shot forever, and set trends in the league that are being followed two years later. Last year, we saw his numbers dip back down to Earth as he allowed Durant to integrate himself into the Warriors offense.
The unique combination of that 2015-16 season, Durant’s acquisition, and Curry’s age makes it extremely difficult to project if we are witnessing the very beginning of a gradual Steph decline or him just playing within the Warriors star studded roster. He is getting to the line more than ever this season and his sub 40% 3-point shooting early on has disappeared after a dazzling January.
Historically speaking, players on average began to decline around their 8th season. Steph is anything but average though, and as strange as it may sound, drafting Steph might be one of the highest upside picks in the draft given what we know he is capable of.
6. James Harden (JS)
Harden was ranked No. 4 on my big board so I was thrilled to grab him with the No. 6 pick. Despite his recent injury, one of the most appealing aspects of drafting Harden is durability. Over the previous three full seasons, he missed a total of two games while averaging north of 36 minutes a night. Simply put, he is a workhorse that has the body and style of game to handle the grind of a 82-game season.
With an insane usage rate of 40% this season, the worry is that your offense will suffer as other surrounding players struggle to find their rhythm. This has not been the case throughout Harden’s career. Role players such as Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson have thrived off open catch and shoot 3s. Clint Capela should receive near max money this off-season and Chris Paul has fit in just fine. Very rarely does a player come along who can find the balance between putting up MVP worthy numbers while clearly making his teammates better. Even legends such as A.I. and Kobe struggled with this at times throughout their career. With Harden, there are no such doubts and I am more than happy to make him my franchise guy.
7. Kevin Durant (AR)
Getting Durant at No. 7 isn’t something I expected. If LeBron James wasn’t alive, Durant would own the title of best and most complete player in the world. There is very little he can’t do on a basketball court.
We always knew Durant could drop 40 in his sleep as a primary scoring option. His ability to create on the ball and to shoot at his size is a combination we’ve never seen before in the history of the NBA. He’s not just a ball-dominant scorer though. KD is one of the best off-ball players in the league, whether it be as a cutter, spot-up shooter or navigating off ball screens to wriggle free. He has the complete offensive repertoire.
However, his arrival in Golden State has allowed him to flash his incredible defensive ability that wasn’t always on display in Oklahoma City because of his more strenuous scoring load. In his 2nd season with the Warriors, Durant is 3rd in the league in total blocks. Aside from morphing into one of the league’s elite rim protectors, Durant is unique in his ability to be equally adept at switching onto guards and wings on the perimeter or battle in the post against bigs.
There is simply no question that Durant makes any team an instant contender now and, at 29 years old, for some years yet.
(SCG): This last point is one of two reasons I would have taken Durant over Harden. Both will age well, but one guy will age historically well. Forget losing half a step, Durant could lose two or three and still be a better-defensive version of prime Dirk Nowitzki.
Harden may not rely on athleticism like a Westbrook or Wall, but he still needs to be able to blow by people to be effective. He can’t just score over them like Durant. And if he’s this poor a defender at 28, I am terrified of what he’ll be at 32.
The other reason is that, while I would be more comfortable building a 60-win team around Harden, I’d be more comfortable riding my team into the postseason with Durant. When the whistles go away and defenses are at their best, Harden’s game suffers far more than KD’s.
JS: An argument built around Durant’s superior defensive skills is one I am certainly willing to concede. Harden’s defensive effort has reached embarrassingly low points at different points in his career in Houston.
With that being said, I had Harden above Durant for his ability to elevate his teammates game to another level. This is less of a knock on Durant’s game and more of a nod towards Harden’s brilliance as an orchestrator. To speak to your playoff point, while Harden hasn’t been the same ruthlessly efficient scorer in the postseason, his ability to create clean looks for himself and others will always be there. While Durant can drop 30 in a playoff game without dropping sweat, I question whose game has been taken to another level playing next to Durant. While Durant is the better pure scorer of the two, I see a Harden-led offense having a higher ceiling.
8. Ben Simmons (SCG)
Everyone seems to agree on what makes Simmons great—his passing, finishing, rebounding and defensive upside—and what makes him not great—his jump shooting and free-throw shooting. There are two areas of disagreement: 1) Can he develop a semi-decent shot, and 2) How good can he be if he does not? The first question does not interest me; any opinion is pure conjecture. The second is a lot easier to figure out. As the best playmaker—not most skilled passer, but the best in terms of actually being able to set people up—to enter the league in a generation, an elite rebounder at the 4 and a guy oozing with All-NBA defensive potential, Simmons has a Magic Johnson-esque ceiling. And that’s without any jumper to speak of.
AR: Pretty simple for me — at age 20 Simmons has already shown you the package of a franchise altering star. Quibble with the ranking if you want, but freak injuries aside it’s difficult to envision a scenario where Simmons doesn’t turn into a top-5 player at the minimum.
9. Kristaps Porzingis (JS)
Porzingis, similar to my earlier Davis pick, brings a high amount of versatility to my team. He can play either the 4 next to a traditional big man or serve as the 5, and does a number of different things on the offensive end of the floor. Unlike Davis, Kristaps shoots the ball at much higher clip behind the arc and has shown a more advanced back-to-the-basket game. Add in the fact he can protect the rim, and he is a near perfect fit as a big in the modern NBA.
Porzingis has one of the more interesting track records to begin his young career. He has started each of his three seasons in New York in a remarkably similar way: shooting the ball at a very high percentage through the first two months of the season, only to watch his numbers slip come early December. If Porzingis can be a career 40% 3-point shooter, he becomes a devastating offensive weapon who will see lanes to the basket open as defenses are forced to guard him tightly. If he is merely just a slightly above-average shooter, then I’m much lower on his ability to become a viable No. 1 option.
We are the point in the draft where there is some amount of uncertainty attached to each pick though. Given Porzingis’s ability to play multiple positions, defend the rim, and play in the pick-and-roll, he is a relatively safe selection.
SCG: I agree with everything you said about Porzingis, and it’s why I had him higher on my board than AD, who you took No. 3. While Davis certainly has the higher ceiling due to his defense, I think Porzingis is already a more advanced offensive weapon despite being two years younger. Davis has always been great at getting his points in the flow, which also makes him more efficient statistically and gives him the aura of an MVP-level player. But when you need a guy to take over in a postseason series, I’m not convinced AD is doing so successfully. KP has to grow to be that guy, but the foundation is clearly there. Given that he can still be a very good defender, I’ll take his relative limitations on that end in exchange for being one of the league’s most undeniable scorers, which I see as a likely outcome for the 22 year old.
AR (spitting hot fire): I don’t disagree about his offensive ceiling though I harbor more questions about him reaching it. He’s struggled after a hot first month, but this coincided with the Knicks losing Tim Hardaway Jr. to injury for some time. In a free flowing offense alongside more skilled and dynamic perimeter players, you’d expect Porzingis to benefit. Despite his own low personal assist numbers, his skill set lends itself to creating that dynamic.
What needs to be considered when looking at his fit long term is how shockingly bad of a rebounder he is despite standing 7’3”. Rebounding is a pretty boring topic to discuss, but it’s important. Since the start of the 16-17 season lineups with Porzingis at the 5 have posted a 70.4 DRB%, a mark which would be the worst in the league over the last 2 seasons.
That doesn’t mean that lineups constructed with him at the 5 are impossible, but it does suggest he needs to play alongside strong rebounding players. At the 4 this is less of a concern, but playing a traditional center next to him all the time limits the offensive versatility that makes him so tantalizing. Playing him at the 5 however means you almost need to have plus rebounding at every other position to avoid mitigating your offensive advantages and that is trickier than it sounds.
Like Simmons, the flashes we’ve seen of Porzingis’ top-5 player potential at age 22 are enough to bet on right now. As we’ll see from here on down there are no certainties anymore. Personal preference rules and Porzingis has shown enough to justify his place in the top-10.
JS: Along with rebounding concerns, Porzingis is also trending in the wrong direction in an area that makes me question how well his frame is suited for the NBA: Finishing around the rim. He is converting only 57% of attempts within 4 feet this year, a stat that ranks in the bottom 10th percentile for bigs. He certainly doesn’t benefit from many clean looks in the Knicks guard-starved offense, but given other concerns related to his physicality, I have a hard time dismissing this as a sole product of his team’s offense.
There are just too many question marks in these areas for me to think he could realistically play more than short stints at the 5. Davis, on the other hand, is able to leverage his larger frame and elite athleticism in a way that makes him a much more natural fit at the center position, with the caveat being an increase in injury risk. He has been an elite rebounder and finisher since coming into the league, two areas that are a near prerequisite for a great center. With an increase in positional versatility comes an increase in value, although time will only tell who has the better career.
10. Joel Embiid (AR)
The only concern about Embiid is his significant injury history. His game speaks for itself though. Aside from turning the ball over way too much there are almost no holes in his game, certainly far fewer than his fellow contemporary unicorn big men.
But the injuries are very real. If they weren’t he’d have ranked comfortably in my top 5 and probably top 3. At No. 10, he was absolutely worth the roll of the dice.