By Matthew Budkofsky
A very interesting discussion topic is: “If you were building a team, what player would you chose to build around?” The only way to make this a reality is by doing a fantasy draft in NBA 2K, but it is still fun to talk about. It is pretty undeniable that LeBron James is still the best player in the league, but when it comes to building a team, things like age, potential, and contract structure become almost as important as current ability. So let’s take a look:
#10 Chris Paul
At age 29, there is no doubt that CP3’s days as an elite point guard are numbered, but to date he is still an elite guard in the NBA. Paul has finished top 5 in assists every season since 2007, which is why I believe he is the best floor general in the league. He is a step above Rajon Rondo because he can also score 18 points a night and can light it up from anywhere on the floor. CP3 also gets it done on both ends of the floor. He has led the league in steals every season since 2011, but it doesn’t appear as though he will finish even within the top 5 this year. Paul has turned the Clippers into a competitor, as well as the best team in Los Angeles. For all of you Lakers fans that are bitter about how bad everything is going, you can thank David Stern for that. Paul was this close to being a Laker, and giving LA a few more years as a fierce competitor. Well, Paul did make LA a fierce competitor; he just did it for the Clippers instead. With Blake Griffin now injured, we will really see what Paul has left in the tank in the coming games.
#9 Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard is a Top-10, maybe Top-5 point guard in the NBA and he is only 24 years old. He is still on his rookie contract for 2 more years, and is set to become a free agent in 2016 — where the salary cap is going to shoot up, so he will make his money for sure. In 2011, the Trail Blazers finished 28-38 in a season that was cut short by the Lockout. They were on pace to win 35 games in a full 82 game season. In Lillard’s rookie season he averaged 19 ppg and 6.5 apg, but the Blazers only managed to win 33 games. Despite the lack of regular season success, it finally became apparent that the Blazers had drafted a stud after whiffing miserably on guys like Greg Oden and Sam Bowie. The year after his rookie season, the Blazers won 54 games and made the playoffs. Granted, Lillard has been fortunate enough to play alongside Lamarcus Aldridge, but I don’t think the Blazers would have had this kind of success without Lillard. Lillard has made some spectacular plays so far in his career (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgcs-JBG0b0) and, because he is so young, he has a lot left in the tank. If he sticks around, Blazers fans should have a lot to look forward to.
#8 John Wall
Sticking with the point guard theme, John Wall has really emerged as a premier point guard this season. Until this season, the former 1st overall pick has always averaged about 17 ppg and 8 apg and 1.5 spg. This season, Wall is averaging 17.5 ppg, 10 apg and 2 spg, while shooting a career best 46% from the field. He is the reason the Wizards are currently in 4th place in the Eastern Conference. The next best player on the Wizards roster is Bradley Beal, who is solid, but not anything close to an elite player. Wall has really carried the Wizards thus far and, if Kevin Durant decides to return home to Washington in the next few years, the Wizards have a legitimate chance to win it all. Unless Washington can get another top 20 player to play alongside Wall, I don’t see the Wizards making it very far, even though Wall is a stud and the East is weak. With all that being said I want Wall on my team, because of what he has been able to do without much help.
#7 Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin is another former #1 overall pick who has emerged as a stud. Griffin really took over the league last season when Chris Paul went down for about a month. During that period of time, Griffin averaged around 30 ppg. Griffin is only 25 years old and has continued to get better and better each season. Originally, Blake was only known as a highflyer who scored off dunks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41EFwuBqEUA), but now Griffin has increased his range and has really become a threat to score from anywhere on the court. Griffin is shooting 38% from 3 this season. Griffin’s game is interesting, because he is a freak athlete who can dunk over anyone, or shoot a 3, or put the ball on the floor to facilitate a fast break. The only issue I have with Griffin is that, each season, his rebounds per game and blocks per game have declined. Blake is only averaging 0.4 blocks per game this season. To put that in perspective, John Wall, Kemba Walker, and Jrue Holiday are all averaging more. Griffin has really allowed Deandre Jordan to do all of the dirty work down low, which is fine because the Clippers are still winning games. But, if I am starting a team and picking a big man, I want a guy that can go down low and be a force. At the same time though, it is hard to argue with career averages of 21 ppg, 10 rpg, 4 apg and even a steal per game.
#6 Russell Westbrook
I have always loved Russell Westbrook. I love how hard he plays, I love how tough he is, and I genuinely believe that Durant would not be so good without him — even if Westbrook occasionally dominates the ball. Westbrook did not average double digit scoring in college at UCLA, but now he is averaging the 3rd most points per game (26.1). Whenever Durant has been out with an injury, we have seen Westbrook go off. Recently however, even with Durant, Westbrook has been dropping 40+ while still providing double-digit rebounds and assists. Westbrook is under contract for the next 5 seasons, so he has a lot of time to go until hitting the market. What makes Westbrook so good to me, is his durability. Up until last season, Westbrook hadn’t missed a game since High School. High School. Over the past 2 seasons, we have seen Derrick Rose struggle to return from devastating knee injuries. Over these same years, Westbrook has been battling all kinds of injuries himself. The difference is, Westbrook doesn’t sit out on the 2nd game of a back-to-back. Russell will come straight from the hospital to check into a game, and he will play just as hard as he ever has before. I love it. He also casually leads the league in steals this year, which I don’t think gets talked about much. So yeah, maybe he takes too many shots, but besides him and Durant I don’t see many other people on the Thunder scoring. If I could have someone as fast and explosive as Westbrook to be the core of my team, I would take him in a second. He is only 26, so he could have 10+ years left of performing and he is someone I would invest in without hesitation.
#5 James Harden
At this point, it gets kind of difficult. James Harden is awesome. He does it all for the Rockets. Last season, his defensive struggles were well documented (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-J7XX0TGfsQ), but he has really stepped it up this season. Harden is averaging the 3rd most steals in the league this year. Harden is only 25 years old, and is under contract for the next 5 years. There is no doubt Harden can score; his 27.1 ppg are the most in the NBA thus far. The Rockets really don’t have a great point guard, which means Harden has to facilitate. And that he does. Harden’s 6.7 assists per game are 2nd to only LeBron James among non-point guards. Harden is one of the best playmakers in the league and, as he continues to grow as a player. the Thunder will be haunted by what could have been. Harden has his Rockets in a great position to do some damage this postseason, and at such a young age, the rest of the league should fear the beard for years to come.
#4 Steph Curry
Stephen Curry is one of the most lethal 3-point shooters in the NBA. He is the heart and soul of the Golden State Warriors and he is a major reason the Warriors are back on the map. Not only are the Warriors relevant again, but they are the best team in the entire league this season. Curry is just 26 years old and is signed through the next 2 seasons. Curry is a unique talent in the sense that he can score from anywhere on the floor, like absolutely anywhere (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMmGYnjFQcg). But Curry also passes the ball very well (8 apg) and even chips in on the defensive side of the floor with 2.1 steals per game. Curry is someone that I would love to build around, because he puts an incredible amount of pressure on defenses by creating for himself and his teammates. In my opinion, Curry is the best point guard in the league right now and he hasn’t even hit his prime, which is a scary thought for defenders.
#3 Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is a matchup nightmare for defenders. In every season KD has played so far, he has averaged at least 20 ppg. He led the NBA in scoring last season as part of his MVP campaign, but has dealt with an injury-plagued season thus far. Durant has only been on the floor for about half of the Thunder’s games. Durant is still undeniably a top 3 player in the world, and if you didn’t want to build your team around him you would be crazy (just ask the Blazers). Durant is just 26 years old, but has only 1 full season left on his contract, which means he is set to hit the open market in 2016. He will surely sign a max deal, the only question is where he will choose to play. Rumors have circulated that Durant wants to make a LeBron-esque return to his hometown of Washington DC and join the Wizards. Other teams like the Knicks and Lakers have already started to prepare to sign KD, and Oklahoma City has no chance of competing with those kinds of markets. Right now, if Durant is on your team you are ecstatic, but the possibility of him potentially walking after next season is frightening to executives. Still, whatever team signs him will immediately become a title contender, which is something that any GM wants.
#2 LeBron James
Before you lose your minds, I know LeBron is still the best player on the planet right now. But if I am building a team I am looking towards the future. LeBron is 30 years young, but he is an NBA 30, which is like being 45 in ordinary people time. LBJ has logged the most minutes played of any player, thanks largely to 4 straight trips to the Finals, and his Olympic play for Team USA. LeBron is also only signed for this season; after this season he has a player option which he could opt out of if he chooses, but if not he will become a free agent in 2016 — when the salary cap goes up and he can cash in. What LeBron can do for a franchise is incredible. I personally don’t really think David Blatt is doing much of anything for Cavs right now, and the success of the Cavs is largely due to LeBron being healthy again. James does everything on the court, he can guard the 1-4, he can score, he can rebound, he can distribute, and he is the one that calls plays for guys during games. Like Durant, James has never averaged less than 20 ppg, but LBJ also averages 7 rebounds and 7 assists on his career, as well at just under 2 steals and 1 block. LeBron makes everyone around him better, he is a fantastic leader, and is almost a sure thing to get to the finals every year, especially while he plays in the East. What we don’t know is how much longer James’ legs will allow him to do everything on the court. He has only appeared in less than 75 games once before this season, but is on pace to do that this year. Surely LeBron will go down as one of the best to ever play the game, but I don’t think he is the best option if you want to start a team right now.
#1 Anthony Davis
So who is the best person to start a team around? Anthony Davis. Davis is just 21 years old, and is also set to become a free agent in 2016. So what puts Davis ahead of LeBron? Davis has arguably played better than LeBron to this point in the season, and Davis hasn’t even come close to reaching his potential. The Brow is unlike any player we have seen before. This season, Davis has averaged 24.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.7 blocks per game, and 1.5 steals per game; all while shooting 55% from the field. He is top-25 in every one of these categories. Davis has added a mid range jumper to his arsenal, which makes him virtually impossible to guard. Because Davis was a point guard back in high school, he can handle the ball very well, shoot the ball very well, and finish around the rim with ease. It would not come as a surprise to me if we see him start to step back and start shooting 3’s in the near future. He can guard any position on the floor, and he blocks more shots that you can imagine. The sky’s the limit for Davis, who should continue to get better every season. Anthony still could have 15 dominant years left in the NBA, compared to LeBron’s 7. It also should not be long until we start hearing about Davis as an annual competitor for MVP. If I am starting a team, this is my guy.