What If… You Were Building An NBA Team From Scratch? Ranking The Current Top-25 Players To Choose From

Who are the best current NBA players to build a franchise with? We answer this classic 'what if' question.

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Who are the top-25 current NBA players that you’d want on your favorite team? This is something I asked myself the other day while watching ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption, where the great Michael Wilbon talked about the importance (and lack of respect) that Klay Thompson gets. Is Thompson a top-20 player? Is he top-10?

That got me thinking… what if you were building an NBA team from scratch right now, how would you rank the players you’d want most?

Since we’re all craving some solid sports debate and are looking for any reason to talk basketball, I went ahead ranked the top-25 current NBA players that would be most desired when starting a franchise. For reference, here’s my criteria:

  • I used a 5-year window, meaning players were ranked based on their ability to win multiple titles during that timeframe. Let’s be honest, no top-25 current NBA players are staying with one franchise for longer than that anyway.
  • Players were ranked based off of their previous success without a ton of help from a second star. If they’ve proven they can lead a team, they ranked higher on the list.
  • Rankings are based off of the current status of players. That means injuries are absolutely taken into account.
  • Age was obviously taken into consideration. Sure, a future Hall of Famer who’s 32 years old could win a couple titles in the next five years, but wouldn’t you rather have a 23-year-old who has more upside and less tread on his proverbial tires?

Now, without further adieu, on to the rankings!

Tier 5: The Second-Round Assassins

These are the guys who can carry a team to the second-round of the playoffs all on their own, but may just be lacking the overall experience, skill or some other intangible to go further without significant talent around them.

25. D’Angelo Russell

Say what you want to about the former No. 2 overall pick, but the fact of the matter is he’s still just 24 years old, has averaged a respectable 17.5 points per game in his career to this point — including 21.8 ppg over the past two seasons, which led to an All-Star selection — and helped guide the Brooklyn Nets to a surprise postseason berth in 2019. Ignore the fact that he’s already played for four teams in his five seasons.

24. Ben Simmons

Sure, Ben Simmons has a ton, and I mean a ton, of upside, but the dude is literally scared to shoot the ball from anywhere outside of 12 feet. While the former No. 1 overall pick can take over a game and has the capability to average a triple-double for an entire season, when you think about the top-25 current NBA players you’d want to build a team around, you think of players with that clutch gene who can bury a dagger from 25-feet, not somebody looking to pass to a teammate instead.

23. Zion Williamson

Heading into his rookie campaign, there hasn’t been an NBA player with as much hype as Zion Williamson since LeBron James came into the league in 2003. While Williamson has put up historic numbers in the limited time he’s been on the court since returning from a knee injury, it’s still way to early to tell if he’s the real deal or not. Sure, he’s still just 19 years old and could develop into a top-5 player in the league, but are you sure he’d even get a franchise you’re building from scratch to the NBA Finals in the next five years? Probably not.

22. Devin Booker or Trae Young

If you like points, both Devin Booker and Trae Young are your guys, because they’ve got no hesitation to pull up from anywhere on the floor to get theirs. Unfortunately, while both guards are All-Stars and exciting to watch, there’s absolutely no proof yet that they can become championship ready anytime soon, or capable of leading a franchise to more than 20+ wins in a season. Booker and Young are talented AF, but they’re far from reliable when it comes to building a team around.

21. Kyrie Irving

“But Kyrie Irving has a title!”

“Uh, Irving hit one of the most clutch shots in NBA Finals’ history.”

“Dude is a six-time All-Star, how can you not at least have him in your top-15?”

All valid arguments, but name a team that actually excelled with Kyrie being the undisputed leader of it? He flopped in Cleveland without the help of LeBron James (albeit he was young). He wore out his welcome in Boston because the team was actually better without him than with him. And he’s been injured with the Brooklyn Nets since signing with them last offseason, and there’s no telling how the 28-year-old’s body will hold up over the next 4-5 seasons.

Point blank: Irving’s abrasive mood swings and me-first mindset make for an awful recipe to build a team around.

Tier 4: The Fringe Superstars

The up and comers who have already proven to be All-Stars in the league, and who could blossom into a potential superstar that carries a team on his back to a deep playoff run in the next 2-3 years.

20. Domantas Sabonis

After earning his first All-Star Game appearance this season, it’s clear Domantas Sabonis has elevated himself into that soon-to-be superstar level. Still just 23 years old, the former first-round pick has improved in each of the past three seasons, upping his scoring and rebounding in each year. He might not be a guy who will carry a team to a title at this very moment, but who’s to say he won’t be in a few years?

19. Bam Adebayo

The Miami Heat are overachieving this season and could possibly make some noise in the postseason should the NBA resume; and one of the major reasons why is because of Bam Adebayo. While the big man was talented coming out of Kentucky in the 2018 NBA Draft — and taken No. 14 overall — nobody could’ve foreseen his development coming this fast, with Adebayo proving he’s one of the best young talents in the league.

After earning an All-Star Game invite this season, the 22-year-old has seen his role continue to evolve, and is now the face of the entire Heat organization. He can score and defend, but isn’t a guy who needs the ball in his hands — which makes him a perfect kind of player to build around should you be building an NBA team from scratch.

18. Brandon Ingram

Forget everything you thought you knew about Brandon Ingram, because, following his trade from the L.A. Lakers to the New Orleans Pelicans last offseason, the former No. 2 overall pick has proven he’s absolutely one of the top-25 current NBA players — and continuing to ascend.

After a couple of frustrating seasons in LaLa Land, Ingram has gone from potential bust to potential superstar, upping his scoring average from 18.3 in 2019 to 24.3 in 2020, while also earning an All-Star Game invite. Rangy and athletic with the ability to score from anywhere on the floor, any team building from scratch would be more than thrilled to have the 22-year-old leading it in the next half-decade.

17. Karl-Anthony Towns

The former No. 1 overall pick has already shown flashes of greatness, with Karl-Anthony Towns more than capable of getting his own numbers — he’s averaging an incredible 26.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, placing him 6th in the league in PER. But the 24-year-old loses points because he has yet to prove that he can elevate his entire team into a playoff contender.

Don’t get me wrong, KAT is one of the best big men in the league — and is in a difficult Western Conference, where playoff seeds are hard to come by — but if you want to be taken seriously as a championship leader, you need to at least make some noise in the postseason first.

16. Pascal Siakam

Playing north of the border, Toronto Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam doesn’t seem to get the kind of love from fans that you’d expect for a player of his caliber. But, hey, just because nobody talks about him doesn’t mean he’s not a legit star in the making.

Having already won a title with the Raptors last season, the 25-year-old Siakam is on the cusp of becoming a top-15 player in the league — and, with the right parts around him, has proven to be the leader of the new chapter of Raps basketball. Athletic and talented on both sides of the ball, this guy is only going to keep getting better.

Tier 3: The Bona Fide Superstars

They’ve been there and done that, these are superstars who have seen it all during the NBA already. All-Star appearances. Deep playoff runs. Championships. This tier has the talent to compete for a couple of titles in the next 4-5 years.

15. Kevin Durant

A year ago, Kevin Durant was widely considered the second-best player in the league. Next thing you know, he tears his Achilles, moves from the Golden State Warriors to the Brooklyn Nets, and, boom, now there’s a ton of uncertainty about his NBA future.

Still just 31 years old, Durant has way too many question marks to be considered a guy any team would want to build around right now. Based off his resume to this point — two NBA titles, a league MVP and the reputation as one of the most lethal offensive players ever — he gets the benefit of the doubt in these rankings. But what type of player will he be once he returns? Nobody knows, which is why he tumbled from a top-3 player to a fringe top-15.

14. Paul George

It’s hard to designate Paul George as “the guy” since we’ve seen him play that role before without championship success. Still, just 30 years old, the six-time All-Star is crazy good on the offensive end of the floor, and takes pride in locking down the opposing team’s best player defensively — which is a rare trait in superstars these days.

George might have already peaked as a player, and is what he is at this point, but the talent is obviously there, so who wouldn’t want to build a team around him and see what happens in the next 4-5 years?

13. Nikola Jokić

If you want to talk about a bad man, then Nikola Jokić is your dude.

While the seven-footer might lack the athleticism that many of the other top-25 current NBA players have, there’s no denying the fact he more than makes up for it with his basketball IQ and overall talent, with the “Joker” having vision similar to a point guard’s.

A two-time All-Star who’s just 24 years old, Jokić’s averaging 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game this season, and is third in the league with 12 triple doubles thus far. Guys, he’s a center doing all of this, and he’s a dude who has the potential to be a multiple champion in the next few years if he stays on his current trajectory.

12. Klay Thompson

I don’t care that he’s injured right now and has played the role of Robin (or less) on previous championship teams with the Warriors, because Klay Thompson is an absolute superstar who doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Seriously, how many guys can drop 37 in a quarter and still not be looked at as the best player on his own team? Not many.

At 30 years old, Thompson’s working his way back from a torn ACL, but guys bounce back from that with ease these days, so I wouldn’t have any hesitation taking him and riding him to deep playoff runs for the foreseeable future. He plays from the perimeter, too, so his body isn’t taking the beating it would be if in the post. Plus, he’s been an A+ defender most of his career, and, if that stays intact, Thompson being at No. 12 on this list is almost a disservice.

11. Donovan Mitchell

Since Donovan Mitchell plays for the Utah Jazz, he doesn’t get as much love as some of the other young fellas in the league when it comes to recognition. But, make no mistake, the 23-year-old is lethal AF, and has the same kind of chip on his shoulder that some of the all-time greats have.

Having increased his scoring, assists and rebounds in each of his first three years since coming into the league in 2017, this dude hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he can become. Any team building from scratch would happily take Spider Mitchell and let him go to work for the next five years — which very well could lead to a title or two.

Tier 2: Chasing Trophies

They’ve been around the block, have competed for or won NBA titles already, and are still dangerous (and talented) enough to put a team on his shoulders to make another championship run in the next 2-3 years before their window closes.

10. LeBron James

Oh, LeBron James is already 35 years old? Oh, he’s on his last legs because of all the deep playoff runs he’s been on? Oh, it’s just a matter of time before we see him fall off and decline? I call bullshit, and would more than willing start a franchise with the three-time champ right now above any of the aforementioned players.

While James may not be able to guide a team to multiple titles in the next half-decade, would anyone be surprised if he’s at least playing in the NBA Finals in each of the next five year? Given his resume to this point and the drive he plays with come playoff time, the answer should be no. Just give me a chance and one of the top-3 players of all-time.

9. James Harden

The former league MVP doesn’t seem to get the respect that he deserves given his talent. While James Harden is best-known for being a lethal scorer who can average 40 for months at a time, he impacts the game in a ton of different ways, as evidence by the fact he’s currently leading the league in VORP (Value over Replacement Player) and is second in PER (Player Efficiency Rating).

What Harden lacks in effort defensively, he more than makes up with his scoring and passing, and, at 30 years old, still has plenty of solid basketball left to lead a franchise.

8. Damian Lillard

Anytime it’s “Dame Time,” you know something magical’s about to happen.

One of the most clutch players in the league right now, Damian Lillard has played with a crater on his shoulder to become one of the most deadly offensive weapons on a basketball court. And because he’s proven he can lead a team to a deep playoff run — even when they’re not nearly as talented as their opposition — it’s easy to put Lillard so high on this list.

He’s still only 29 years old, too, so it’s not as if he’s entering the twilight of his career until about 4-5 years from now — which, remember, is the window of criteria for these rankings.

7. Steph Curry

I really don’t give a damn that Steph Curry’s currently nursing an injury. Or that he’s 32 years old. Or that he’s got a lot of mileage on his legs thanks to five-straight trips to the NBA Finals. If you’ve already forgotten, Curry is the most lethal shooter in NBA history, and, because he makes a living firing from deep, his body isn’t quite as banged up as some of the dudes getting points near the bucket.

He may not be my first option of a player to build a team around, but it’s legit moronic not to still have this guy near the top-5 — regardless of all the factors mentioned above.

6. Anthony Davis

Although he’s been in the league since 2012, Anthony Davis is still only 26 years old, meaning he’s really just supposed to be entering his prime. That’s scary when considering the guy has averaged 24 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.4 blocks per game to this point in his career — and, if he stays healthy, can only continue to ascend.

He’s battled some nagging injuries over the years, but was playing at a championship level this season in his first year with the Lakers, so, hopefully, those are well in the past. Davis is a freak athlete, and impacts the game on both sides of the floor.

Tier 1: The Championship Ready

They want the ball in the 4th quarter during crunch time. They’re young, hungry, talented, already accomplished and could become the face of the league for the next decade or so. These are the guys who, regardless of supporting cast, are the unicorns that every team would want to build around.

5. Jayson Tatum

Want to know what’s actually crazy to think about? Jayson Tatum is a mere 21 years old, yet has already gone toe-to-toe with LeBron James in one Eastern Conference Finals, and has experienced some growing pains as being “the guy” in another postseason appearance — and he should technically just be a junior in college.

After earning his first All-Star Game appearance this season, Tatum’s averaging 23.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game; and he’s still barely the legal drinking age. This kid is sneaky athletic, and can score from anywhere he wants to — so don’t be surprised if he wins a title or two in the next five years.

4. Joel Embiid

Is Joel Embiid really the best big man in the game? He is just 25 years old. He has averaged 24.1 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in his four-year career. And he’s proven to be able to handle the pressure of being the main guy on a 76ers roster who has had plenty of big names on it over the past couple years.

So why does Embiid fall in the top-5 on this list? It’s not just because of his uber talent, but because he’s proven he’s more than just a big man who plays with his back to the basket, and is someone who, at seven-feet tall, can space the floor and knock down 20-plus-foot jumpers. An all-around nightmare to deal with, he’s essentially what you get if you combine Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.

3. Luka Doncic

20 years old. That’s the age of Luka Doncic right now; which is scary to think about given all that he’s already accomplished in his first 1.5 years in the NBA.

The former No. 3 overall pick combines old school fundamentals with new age flair, and represents the ideal point guard for the modern NBA. His step back is nearly as deadly as James Harden’s, and it’s easy to see why Luka’s Mavericks team has improved so much from his first season to his second — because the dude made a gigantic leap in becoming an absolute superstar.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

There’s a reason why Giannis Antetokounmpo’s nickname is “The Greek Freak” — and it’s not because he’s a little sexual on social media from time to time.

Still just 25 years old, the reigning league MVP can do it all: score, pass, rebound and defend the opposing team’s best player. So why does Giannis sit at No. 2 on the list of the top-25 current NBA players I’d build a team around? Simple, because he has yet to prove he can take the leap beyond superstardom to champion. That doesn’t diminish what he’s accomplished to this point, though, which is why he’s going to be a force for the next half-decade.

1. Kawhi Leonard

He’s 28 years old, has already won two NBA titles in three Finals’ appearances, and is on an L.A. Clippers team which, prior to the league suspending its season, was one of the top-3 favorites to win a championship this season. Add in the fact that he’s clutch AF, has recently carried a team to a title (last year’s Raptors) and monitors his regular season minutes to keep himself fresh for the postseason, and there’s no doubt Kawhi Leonard is the player most people would want to build an NBA team around right now. It’s seriously not out of the realm of possibility for him to win three more titles in the next five years.

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