While it’s a non-realistic dream to the large majority of sports fans, many still wonder what it’d be like to run a franchise. The idea of making decisions is a pretty fascinating one, whether or not we realize—or are willing to admit—how hard it is most of the time. This, however, doesn’t stop most of us from fantasizing about how good we’d be at handling the enormous pressure that comes with this responsibility. Fans are quick to share their opinions whenever a big trade, free-agent signing or draft pick is made, most of the time attempting to disagree with the GM’s move, if only to show that they’re smarter. The beauty—and ugliness—here is that the fans in this situation have very little at stake; most of the time the only thing on the line for them is nothing more than their reputation on the internet amongst people they’ve never met and will most likely never meet.
But does that make the idea of playing GM any less fun?
Imagine you were given the opportunity to make that fantasy a reality, but with a twist. Forget about making a big trade or signing a star free-agent. What if you were handed the keys to a franchise that was starting from scratch, with your first task being selecting one player as the face of your club? And, to make things more interesting, every player currently in the NBA is available. Lastly, to make this more challenging, pretend that the other 29 franchises are put in the same situation.
The idea here is, of course, a league-wide fantasy draft. Every NBA player is there to be had. Having a high pick in such a draft seems pretty easy, but at what point would it started getting a bit harder? Let’s try and find out.
To make this exercise as non-complicated as possible, the “rules” for this draft will be pretty simple, and are listed below:
- Only players currently playing in the NBA are eligible for the draft
- No players are under their current contracts; this way, we’re drafting strictly based on talent and nothing else
- The future should be taken into account, meaning you aren’t only playing for one season, but are rather starting a franchise, making age, potential, injury history, etc. all matter
Playing the role of all 30 GMs will be yours truly and Domenic. The initial plan was to alternate between picks, but since we agreed on the order of the top-4 players, we decided that we’ll start alternating from the 5th overall pick onwards (since that’s when our first disagreement occurred). However, that will only be the last part of this three-part “project,” so you’ll discover that a bit later.
So, without further ado, let’s get this thing started.
30. Derrick Rose (25-years-old)
Two years ago, most would be arguing that Rose should be no lower than the top three on this list. A year ago, many would have given Rose the benefit of the doubt, keeping him right around the top ten. A few months ago, some would have bet a tidy sum of money on Rose returning to form and leading the Bulls to the promised land. Today, Rose just made the cut, earning the benefit of the doubt over half a dozen flawed players.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Upon returning this season, Rose looked incredibly rusty in most every facet of his game. That should have been expected, given the fact that he hadn’t played competitive basketball for upwards of eighteen months – but it still seemed wrong, as if a just world would have seen Rose immediately rewarded for working his ass off on the road to recovery. Regardless, I wouldn’t have held it against him (at least not immediately), so my opinion of Rose remained unchanged, and I was drinking the Bulls Kool-Aid. And then disaster struck once more, and it seems quite likely that this season will come to a close with Rose having played 49 of the last 230 regular season games.
It seems incredibly unlikely that any player could lose nearly three years of his prime and return to anything close to form. Yes, Rose was a top ten player … three and four years ago, respectively. With reconstructed ligaments and cartilage, the fear of injury in the back of his mind, and a game that is predominantly based on athleticism, it would be foolish to expect much of anything from Rose at this point.
Then again, it would be foolish to give up on a player with so much talent, and such a well-regarded work ethic – particularly when that player is all of 25.
– Domenic L.
29. LaMarcus Aldridge (28-years-old)
A pretty interesting and consistent point of discussion this season has been the praise that Aldridge is receiving for the Blazers’ fantastic season despite his own very unremarkable efficiency. With the meteoric rise of advanced statistics in basketball, most fans who post on online message boards have at least a fairly good understanding of what makes an efficient player. So when they see Aldridge averaging 23.9 PPG while attempting 21 shots a game—which ultimately produces a 51.3 TS%—the natural, and probably expected, reaction is to question why a player who is playing so inefficiently is still considered the most important player on a 36-17 team.
Of course, the answer to Aldridge’s efficiency is a pretty simple one, but it’s also not something that will be reflected in his stats, or at least not directly. The reason his efficiency is so low is because of the offense that Portland runs. The Blazers know that by attracting the defensive attention that Aldridge attracts, he can open up space and provide a lot of freedom to the rest of the team, which is exactly what’s happened so far. But, instead of rambling on about the Blazers, I’ll just link to the excellent piece that Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland posted on it in case anyone wants to learn more about their offense.
Now, back to Aldridge. Even though his efficiency numbers won’t tell you this, he’s actually a deadly shooter. So far this season, he has attempted an absolutely absurd amount of mid-range jumpers. His 707 such shots are 227 more than the player next closest to him (Dirk Nowitzki). Let that sink in for a moment. The deadly part is that he’s also a very good shooter, as his FG% of 42.9 from mid-range places him 16th amongst players who have attempted at least 200 mid-range jumpers. When you take into account the sheer volume of how many of them he takes, and couple it with the positive impact that it has on the Blazers’ offense, it’s hard to not walk away impressed.
Aldridge is more than just a jump-shooter, though. He does a fine job in the paint, making 37.3% of his shots there (comparable to the league-average percentage), and shoots 64.7% at the rim, which is also around league-average. But, since he likes posting-up and generally playing with his back to the basket when he’s not busy doing a great job setting up pick-and-rolls/pops, he attracts defensive attention this way too, once again providing more opportunities for his teammates, thus making it clear that his actual impact on the team is greater than the numbers tell us it is.
In the age of deep, thought-provoking statistical analysis, Aldridge is a nice reminder that in a fluid team-sport like basketball stats don’t always tell the whole story. While they’re very helpful, generally context is needed in order to be sure about what the stats are truly saying. With Aldridge, you get a player who will sacrifice his own numbers for his team’s benefit, and, when needed, can always revert to carrying a team for long-enough stretches to make it significant enough to mention. He is what he is at this point of his career, so he’ll never become a superstar, but his impact on a team can be greater (in a positive manner) than his numbers suggest it is, so it’s important to remember that when evaluating the sort of player he is.
28. Joakim Noah (28-years-old)
Noah is one of those rare sorts that is both wildly overrated and perpetually underrated. Some argue that he is the best center in the game, affecting both ends of the court like no other true center around. Others argue that he is inefficient on offense, and merely a product of defensive machinations of Tom Thibodeau. The truth lies somewhere in between – though, it is likely closer to the former.
In terms of scoring and scoring alone, Noah’s efficiency has been trending in the wrong direction for three consecutive seasons (with his TS% dropping from 57.9 in 2010-11 to 52.2 this season). Over the past two seasons, Noah’s efficiency is right around what one might expect from a high-volume wing player – not a big man. And that is certainly a fair criticism, as someone who is ostensibly the best player on the team would ideally be more capable at efficiently scoring the ball. This sort of half-assed analysis paints a poor picture, however, as Noah is one of the most well rounded players in the game.
While Noah’s efficiency has slipped for three years running, his assist rate has skyrocketed, more than doubling over that same time (from 10.7% in 2010-2011 to 22.3% this year). Noah’s assist percentage leads all centers, checking in at four points ahead of Marc Gasol, who many regard as the best passing center in the game. If we lower the baseline to allow all forwards – which includes both small forwards and power forwards – Noah plummets all the way to … third, behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Is some of this the product of the offense running through Noah while Rose is on the sidelines? Absolutely. However, it is also a continuation of a trend that has been several years in the making, and should not be discounted for any reason.
And then there’s Noah’s defense. The Bulls anchor currently ranks fourth in the NBA in defensive win shares, and fifth in defensive rating. He’s an excellent rebounder (tenth in the league in rebounding percentage), and he’s averaging 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. He may not have the athleticism of Dwight Howard, the verticality of Roy Hibbert, or the sheer girth of Gasol – but Noah is nevertheless an elite defender, and is at least comparable to the best in the business.
The only thing that gives me pause with Noah is his injury history. He has been slowed down by various ailments over the years, including persistent foot issues, which have felled many big men over the years. Prior to this season, Noah had missed at least sixteen games in three of the last four years, as well as several games in the playoffs (and this ignores the dozens of games where he was limited). A franchise player should be durable, and Noah has not shown the ability to stay on the court, and that holds him back quite a bit.
– Domenic L.
27. Rajon Rondo (27-years-old)
Rondo has always been a polarizing player. Whether it’s personality issues or arguments about how good he actually is, there seem to be many differing opinions on a variety of topics concerning him. In an attempt to stay away from the off-the-court stuff, let’s focus on what he’s done on the court. Having the luxury of beginning his pro career alongside three future Hall of Famers was surely beneficiary for Rondo, but it did raise many questions about how good he’d be without such a great team around him. And, even though those concerns are at least somewhat fair, it’s important to not ignore what Rondo has done so far in his career.
One of the most obvious triple-double threats on any given night, Rondo is one heck of a box-score stuffer. He’s a great rebounder for his size (4.5 rebounds per game for his career, grabbing 8.3% of available rebounds), an excellent passer (8.3 assists per game for his career, which would place him 11th all-time in the category had he retired today), a double-digit scorer (averaging 11 PPG in his career) and a disruptive defensive player (1.9 steals per game for his career).
He does come with limitations though, and some of them have to be fixed now that the team around him is much weaker than it’s been in the past. The most glaring thing holding Rondo back from cementing himself as one of the truly top players in the league is scoring. A career TS% of 51.3 is, to put it lightly, not good enough. Contrary to popular belief, Rondo is actually a fine mid-range shooter; the problem with his overall efficiency comes from his inability to hit 3-pointers at a league-average level (at least) and his well-documented struggles at the free-throw line. In fact, the latter has become so significant that at times Rondo looks like he’s deliberately not taking the ball to the basket in fear of possibly getting fouled and having to shoot free-throws.
At the end of the day, he’ll be able to continue getting by as a below-average player efficiency-wise who will contribute very well in all other areas of the game; not everyone can be a superstar, and every player has flaws. With the right players around him, Rondo will without a doubt be able to significantly contribute and help a team succeed. And who knows, maybe once the keys are really in his hands, we’ll see a player who is a more efficient and overall better scorer, at which point he’ll jump right near the top of lists such as this one. It’s hard to envision it happening at this point in his career—given everything we’ve seen from him so far—but it’s also probably not impossible, either.
26. Goran Dragic (27-years-old)
On May 7, 2010, Dragic entered Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals with the Suns trailing the Spurs by 3, with a tick over two minutes left in the third quarter. Over the next fourteen minutes or so, he went 10 of 12 from the floor (including 5 of 5 from deep), scoring 26 points along the way. The Suns would win the game by 14, with Dragic scoring 23 of their 39 fourth quarter points. It remains one of the most dazzling scoring flurries that I witnessed in my adult life.
What does that have to do with today, and Dragic’s placement on this list? Nothing. And everything
It was that night that Dragic showcased the skill that had some enterprising Suns fans propping him up as the heir to Steve Nash. Dragic played as a one-man fastbreak that night, pushing the pace whenever he touched the ball, and doing everything in his power to keep the defense reeling. That ability came through in spurts over the next three years, as he struggled to find consistency while bouncing between Houston and Phoenix.
And that means that this placement is something of a leap of faith as a result of those inconsistencies.
This year, Dragic has been nothing short of brilliant. He is far and away the best player on a Suns team that has, for better or worse, defied all reasonable expectations, winning a dozen more games through February 12th than Vegas projected for the entirety of the season. Dragic is leading the team in points per game, assists per game, three point percentage, minutes per game, PER, and TS%. He has done so on a very young team that is learning a new system from a first time head coach, and he has improved across the board after Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury.
Dragic’s statistical resume is impressive outside of Phoenix, as well. He is currently fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, sixth in TS%, ninth in WS/48, and tenth in offensive rating. In short, he has been a fantastic offensive player as the focal point of a team that appears to have no business in the playoff hunt.
Could this all be smoke and mirrors? The product of a new coach, youthful exuberance, and opponents sleeping on an “easy win?” Sure. However, the memory of Dragic decimating the Spurs in 2010 remains burned into my brain, and I cannot help but feel that this is merely an immensely talented player putting it all together as he hits his prime.
– Domenic L.
25. Eric Bledsoe (24-years-old)
The 18th overall pick in the 2010 draft was finally “freed” when the Clippers traded him to the Suns prior to the start of this season, and to the surprise of very few, Bledsoe has been every bit as good as most thought he’d be on a team that allowed him to play more than 20 minutes per game. While always being regarded as one of the better perimeter defenders in the league, Bledsoe has been fantastic offensively, too, in Phoenix. His 18 PPG coupled with a 58.7 TS% are very impressive, and his 3-point shooting has stayed at a respectable level (35%) even with the increase in attempts per game from beyond the arc. He’s also proven to be a capable play-maker, averaging 5.8 assists per game and assisting 28.4% of his teammates’ baskets despite having to share a backcourt with Goran Dragic.
However, Bledsoe’s efficiency when driving to the hoop may be the most impressive improvement he’s made so far. He’s built like a tank, so the reputation of a strong finisher was always there, but this season he’s putting up career-highs both near the rim (67.3%) and in the paint (40.4%); if those numbers continue improving, and his jump-shooting remains at its current level, Bledsoe will be on his way to becoming one of the most versatile scoring point guards in the game. It’s possible to argue that already, but a larger sample-size is probably needed since it’s his first season seeing such large minutes and he’s only played in 24 games this year.
Which, of course, brings us to his injury. On January 10th it was reported that he underwent successful arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee. Though a timetable for his return was never officially announced, there were rumblings that we should see him back soon after the All-Star break. As of today, Bledsoe has been participating in practices, and it’s expected that he’ll return some time in the next couple of weeks or so.
If the production that we’ve seen from him before the injury continues and eventually improves, we’ll be looking at one of the best guards in the league for years to come. His strength is incredibly impressive for a player his size, and coupled with his natural defensive ability, he should be a great defensive player for the majority of his career. Then, when you add his already great offensive game, and take into account that it’s likely to continue improving, you quickly realize that Bledsoe is on his way to stardom.
24. Tony Parker (31-years-old)
Parker tends to be somewhat underrated, as he has had a decidedly unsexy career. Despite having five All-Star nods, three All-NBA selections, three championship rings, and a Finals MVP, Parker’s career lacks a truly defining season, or an easily distinguishable peak. Rather, Parker’s legacy will be defined by remarkable consistency, as he has spent a dozen or so years among the top handful of point guards in the league – and he shows no signs of slowing down.
Just how consistent has Parker been? Enough so that his name could be utilized as an adjective, along the lines of “Ruthian.” Over the last nine year, Parker’s PER has been between 19.8 and 23.4 and his WS/48 between .146 and .206 in all but his injury-riddled 2009-2010 season. In that same stretch he has averaged between 16.0 and 22.0 PPG (at an above-average rate for his position) and 5.5 and 7.7 APG (while protecting the ball at an above-average rate). None of these numbers scream franchise player, or even elite point guard … but there is a great deal of value in that sort of consistency, and most any coach would take a guaranteed 19 points and 6.5 assists per game from the point.
The biggest issue with Parker is his outside shot – he has never developed a reliable three-point stroke, and that limits his ultimate value to a team. His heady play, textbook floater, and ability to finish at the rim will likely keep him at the top of his game for the next several years, but losing a step could lead to him falling off a cliff overnight without an outside jumper to help him keep defenders honest. And at nearly 32 with just under 1100 games in the NBA (regular season and playoffs), it seems fair to say that Parker is who he is at this point – and the Spurs are damn grateful for that.
Then again, Jason Kidd developed a knockdown three-pointer at right around the same age … so I don’t think anyone would hold it against you if you kept on dreaming.
– Domenic L.
23. Russell Westbrook (25-years-old)
Westbrook went into this season with his knee still in “recovery mode,” though he missed only the opening two games despite reports suggesting he’d be out for a couple of weeks. With his assists and rebounding numbers being either right at or even above his career-averages, it seemed like the injury hasn’t slowed Westbrook down too much. Having said that, his efficiency took a slight dip from the previous three seasons, with his production at and near the rim being the main problem. Last season, Westbrook shot 58.9% at the rim and 32.4% in the paint, numbers that while are at best league-average, were still better than his results this season, which were 52.5% at the rim and 26.3% in the paint. It’s quite surprising that a player who’s as explosive, athletic and aggressive as Westbrook puts up such unimpressive percentages when attacking the basket, and it’s certainly a great example of when the eye-test can deceive us and play games with our memory.
Despite the dip in productivity on drives, Westbrook actually improved his mid-range shooting, knocking down an impressive 44.4% of his attempts, an above-average mark. Overall, though, his TS% is 51.8, the lowest it’s been since his second season in the league. While the decline isn’t too significant, it’s still noticeable and worth mentioning, especially when the player in question hasn’t really been an efficiency monster to begin with.
Westbrook’s season was interrupted on December 27th, when he was forced to have arthroscopic surgery on that troubling knee. He’s expected to make a full recovery and to return some time after the All-Star break, with most people not believing that the procedure should impact his long-term production. So while he may come back a bit rusty at first, Westbrook should eventually return to his old self, giving the Thunder the all-around point guard play they’ve enjoyed from him over the years. Even though his efficiency isn’t ideal, he’s a stat-sheet stuffer, contributing in more ways than one on most nights, and after doing it for as long as he has, he’s ensured that he’ll be one of the most productive point guards in the league for as long as his athleticism allows him.
22. Dirk Nowitzki (35-years-old)
Yes, Nowitzki is 35. And a seven-footer with that many miles on his body is probably living on borrowed time. And his defense is slipping. And he has become more reliant on his jumper. And he is a veritable statue at a position that has become dominated by younger, more athletic players. And it seems unlikely that anyone would want to build around any 35-year-old, regardless of how spritely he looks.
Someone should probably fill Nowitzki in on this.
As of this writing, Nowitzki is top-ten in the NBA in free throw percentage, PER, offensive win shares, and win shares. He’s 12th in points per game, 14th in TS%, and 19th in 3-point field goal percentage. He is a couple of big games away from rejoining the 50-40-90 club (49.2% FG, 41.2% 3PT, 91.0% FT), and he’s the best player on a team that has once more found itself with an entirely new roster.
Phrased differently, he’s still one of the very best players in the game.
The purpose of these rankings is to determine what player you would build around for the next several years. In most instances, Ran and myself went with a player that is either just entering his prime, or already there – Nowitzki is a tremendous outlier in that respect. This portion of the list, however, is dominated by players that are either flawed or in the nascent stage of their career, with most requiring a heavy dose of optimism. Even with his age and defensive woes lingering in the back of my mind, I cannot help but think that Nowitzki is one of the safest bets in the bottom-third or so of the list to play at a championship level for the next couple of seasons.
And given the choice between a franchise player on his last legs, or an up-and-comer with a shot at greatness, I’m not sure that there is a correct answer. But I do know that Nowitzki is capable of carrying a team to the top of the NBA, and flags fly forever.
– Domenic L.
21. Al Horford (27-years-old)
Horford is somewhat of a risky pick, considering that he’s out for the season with the same injury (a torn pectoral muscle) that led to him playing in only 11 regular season games in 2011-12. However, if not for the injury, he’d be higher on this list, so it’s a risk I’ll gladly take. Before going down this year, Horford was well on his way to another stellar campaign. He was averaging 18.6 PPG with a 58.8 TS%, making him arguably the best scoring center in the league. That scoring also came with elite versatility, as Horford was shooting 48.1% from mid-range, 45% inside the paint and 75.3% at the rim, all marks that are above league-average.
He’s also no slouch defensively. This season, he defended 7.1 shots per game at the rim and his opponents made 47.8% of those attempts, which is better than the likes of Tim Duncan, Andre Drummond, Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol. His 1.5 blocks per game had him tied for 14th in the league, and only nine other centers stole the ball more often than Horford’s 0.9 per game average. His only weakness on the defensive end of the court is rebounding, as he was grabbing a rather unimpressive 14.6% of available rebounds (though, it’s worth noting that for his career that number is at 16.3%, so it’s fair to assume that it’d get closer to that as the season went along).
Considering that Horford has already returned from this injury in the past and still continued playing at a very high level, I’m under the assumption that it won’t impact his overall play next season, or at least not significantly enough to warrant him being taken in a draft like this later than he would’ve been otherwise. He’s without a doubt one of the best two-way center in the sport, and with the right players around him, he can easily be the best player on a very good team even as he starts approaching his age-30 seasons.
Picks 20-11 can be found here