The Third Annual Franchise Player Re-Draft, Pt. I

Welcome to the 2019 Franchise Player Re-Draft! For the third straight year, The Restricted Area podcast hosts Simon Cherin-Gordon and Justin Savaso are wiping clean every NBA roster, acting as GM of all 30 teams and choosing one player with whom to start each franchise.

It may not seem like it, but I promise you this is the only exercise of its kind on the internet. This is not Bill Simmons’ Trade Value Rankings, Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux’s Top 10 Prospects in the NBA, ESPN’s NBArank or a YouTube video you dig up of someone’s 2K19 fantasy draft (though if you want to ignore what I’m about to say and compare those lists to ours, you can do so here, here, here and here).

Unlike Simmons’ list, real-life contracts are not a factor here. We are not comparing players based solely on future (Duncan and Leroux) or present value (ESPN), but a combination of the two. In a sense, a 2K19 fantasy draft might be the most comparable exercise, but please, please, PLEASE do not compare our draft to the video I linked above.

Here’s the idea: Imagine every NBA player is put into a pool, and all 30 teams get to select one with whom to start their franchise. They get to keep that player for the remainder of their careers.

Things we consider:

  • Age
  • Proven ability
  • Future growth
  • Ceiling/floor
  • Severity of decline (will it be quick or graceful?)
  • Durability
  • Roster fit/scalability (Easy or hard to build around?)
  • Intangibles

Things we ignore:

  • Real-life contracts
  • Theoretical contracts (contracts/cap not a factor in any way)
  • Marketability
  • Theoretical pairings or draft strategy (“I’m taking Player X, and then targeting Players Y and Z in later rounds”). Assume that once you pick this player, the team is out of your hands.
  • Trade value

By removing all external context, we give ourselves a chance to view these guys as basketball players in the purest way possible. We allow ourselves to explore questions that are generally fraught with contract discrepancies, team context or age barriers.

In Part I, we will run through our first 10 selections. For the second time in three years, a coin-toss has determined that Justin is going first. Who is this guy, Tom Brady?

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Justin Savaso): A full calendar year has passed since the last re-draft and nothing has changed here at the top. Giannis has done nothing to relinquish the №1 overall spot besides proving Jason Kidd isn’t a very good coach. A new system and a stretch-five in Brook Lopez has the Greek Freak averaging a career high 5.9 assists. His passing vision and dominance finishing at the rim make his continued shooting woes a non issue — at least in the regular season. At age 24, he looks to be a legit MVP candidate on a team that will be contending to win the East. At this point in his career, he’s simply the perfect combination of present value mixed with youth and upside.

(Simon Cherin-Gordon): Last year, Giannis was a clear-cut №1 on my board. And while he has in some respects increased his value since then — leading a team on pace to win 61 games and dominating the interior like no player since prime Shaq — his lack of growth as a jumpshooter becomes more disturbing with each passing year. I agree about his present value and youth, and believe that he has best-player-on-a-title-team upside even without a jumper. But that deficiency does limit his GM’s team-building options, as he almost has to be surrounded with four shooters. This makes finding defense and secondary creation more difficult.

2. Karl-Anthony Towns (SCG):…Which leads to the guy who was №1 on my board this year. KAT is by no means a perfect prospect in his own right. His recent run of quality defense is far from proof of a permanent transformation, and his propensity to float in out of games manifested itself in troubling ways during his first postseason go-round. Neither weakness, however, is nearly as dire as Giannis’ lack of a jumper, and Towns’ unprecedented offensive versatility, scalability, age (23) and sparkling health record (he’s played in every Wolves game since he was drafted) make him the sport’s easiest young player to build around.

3. Anthony Davis (JS): Interesting you had Towns first on your board. I had Giannis as my clear cut No. 1 and didn’t have Towns cracking my top 7. First discrepancy of the redraft comes early!

One of the most compelling reasons for doing these redrafts is to look at how a player’s value changes from year to year. Last year Towns was taken with the eleventh pick, and I’m not sure the defensive flashes he has shown justifies jumping 10 spots in the rankings. It certainly was a disappointing playoff series last year against the Rockets, in which he averaged only 12 shots per game. For reference, Anthony Davis at age 21, averaged 22 shots per game in his first playoff appearance.

Speaking of the man, I had Davis second on my board and was happy to grab him with the third pick. Over the past calendar year, Davis has finished third in MVP voting, led the Boogie-less Pelicans to the second round of the playoffs, and has avoided any substantial injuries **feverishly knocks wood**. While playmaking will never be his greatest strength, he continues to make strides as he is averaging 4.4 assists this year. At age 25, AD already is a dominant two-way player that any franchise could build around for years to come.

(SCG): All good and fair points. I believe that AD is currently a better player by a not-insignificant margin, and has proven far more on the postseason stage. My reason for KAT going higher is the blend of longevity and ceiling he possesses. AD will be 26 this year, has a history of injuries (albeit relatively minor ones), and for all the skill he possesses, is still heavily reliant on athleticism. I’d be less weary of this coalescence if not for my feeling that he still is not quite in the top-top tier of NBA players. Will KAT ever be better than Davis currently is? Not likely, but I like the fact that he won’t be Davis’ current age for 2.5 years, that he may be five or six years from his peak given his style of play, and that he is all but guaranteed to provide more offensive value well into his 30s than Davis. Those things would matter less if I saw AD as a LeBron/Durant/Curry level player, but I’m still not there with him.

(JS): Towns certainly has Davis beat when it comes to health and youth. There is real value to having the cornerstone of your franchise playing 82 games versus 72.

However, I continue to have too many questions about Towns to take him over the proven Davis. While he is a very skilled big man, can you run a top notch offense through him? He has the skills to be a solid defensive big; will he ever be able to put that together on a nightly basis? Personally, I just feel more comfortable taking the already dominant two way player in Davis, who is just now entering his prime.

4. Kevin Durant (SCG): There’s not much to say that hasn’t been said in our last two redrafts about KD. He’s a top-3 NBA player, the most versatile scorer in the history of the game, and despite his age (30) is probably going to be better than prime Dirk Nowitzki for the next half decade. I’m still of the belief that Stephen Curry is the better player, but the margin is small, and all but guaranteed to shift within the next year or two. Curry’s multiple injuries since our last re-draft made this decision rather painless.

(JS): While Warrior fans continue to debate KD-Steph, Suns fans have to decide between Kelly Oubre and Josh Jackson. Ouch.

5. Kawhi Leonard (JS): When a player is 27 years old, you normally expect to see a little more growth before he reaches his ceiling as an NBA player. When Toronto decided to trade for Kawhi Leonard, this was never the goal. Rather, if Kawhi could simply get back to being the player he was in San Antonio, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri would be thrilled. That player is a defensive beast who is capable of carrying a huge offensive load at high efficiency. That is exactly who the Raptors have gotten this year.

Over the past summer, we got to see what a disgruntled superstar in his prime was worth. The answer? DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a heavily protected first round pick. While there were some injury concerns at the time, I was skeptical of the trade when it happened. Now, it seems like an absurdly low return in value. I have no qualms about building my franchise around a former Finals MVP, who is still only 27 years old.

(SCG): Ujiri is more Mike Trout than Aaron Judge — the home-run potential of the Leonard trade is not accompanied by the possibility of a strikeout. Should Leonard walk in free agency, this one season will still be worth more than three or four more with DeMar would have been. Should the Raptors win the 2019 NBA Finals or re-sign Leonard, then it’s one of the great trades of all-time.

That range of outcomes — from very good to unfathomably great — should tell you all you need to know about Leonard. He’s the youngest top-tier player in the NBA, and might be a top-25 all-time guy by the end of his career.

6. Stephen Curry (SCG): There’s an argument that the last three picks — KD, Kawhi and Steph — should really have been the top three. All are historically great players in their prime without any real valid concerns over their playoff resumes. Guys like Giannis and AD are a tier below, and aren’t so young that the talent gap can just be brushed off. Sure, Curry was not the player he is today at 24 or 25, but his late-20s rise was unprecedented. Now, at 30, he’s arguably a better player than he was the year he led the Warriors to 73 wins and won unanimous MVP. I ended up with Giannis and KAT above all three and AD below all three (the difference being age and durability), and my brain — the tool I use to complete this draft — is telling me that this was the right call. That’s a good thing, because my gut, if I were to give it executive power, would have an extremely hard time taking any of those young guys over this group of proven legends.

(JS): Interesting. This makes me think of hypothetical versus real-world decision making. We can preach patience all we want in drafting young cornerstones such as Giannis, Towns, and AD. However, what if GM’s really to sit down and decide between promising youth versus current superstars? None of these aforementioned superstars have shown any real signs of decline and your team becomes an instant playoff threat, no matter how you fill the roster.

Before I completely question my draft strategy, I believe we guaranteed ourselves hypothetical job security in this redraft. That has to be accounted for when considering what we would do versus an actual GM.

7. Joel Embiid (JS): I find Embiid to be one of the most intriguing players in the league. In today’s NBA, coaches are ridiculed for playing traditional centers extended minutes. This is with good reason; the Warriors death lineup has shown us what basketball ecstasy looks like. The prized jewel of The Process has made us think twice about this. Embiid has used a combination of footwork, vision, and pure force to become one of the most difficult matchups in the league.

In a cramped Philly offense, he has managed to be efficient on an eye-popping 33.1% usage rate. Now imagine a roster build around Embiid’s skillset that featured even more space for the big man to operate in. Although this may be the anti small-ball pick, I see no reason why you can’t build a modern offense around a guy who is, at 24, already one of the most gifted centers of the past decade.

(SCG): I had Embiid in this same spot on my board for all the reasons you mentioned, which is both a compliment and a criticism of his game. He is clearly dominant enough down low to build a traditional inside-out offense around, and he can anchor a defense (which you probably did not mention because it’s a given).

That said, I have similar concerns here as I did with AD and Giannis. Embiid is still not QUITE good enough to be the best player on a title team, and while he is improving every year, he isn’t growing in the areas that are currently holding him back from that top tier of NBA superstars. As with Giannis, his lack of an effective 3-point shot means you have to surround him with shooters, and his reliance on athleticism and injury history make me weary of the notion that he’s on a definite upward trajectory.

(JS): Trust me, building a title contending team around a back-to-the-basket center set off about 10 alarm bells in my head.

Will Embiid ever be as good as Lebron, KD, or Steph? No. However, the best player on a title team could look quite different three years from now than it has over the past decade. Embiid’s success with such weird roster fits around him proves he can thrive in any situation. I’m betting that Embiid surrounded by spacing would allow his game to flourish even further, vaulting him into the top tier of superstars with or without a jump shot.

8. Luka Doncic (SCG): The good: Doncic is 19 years old, the centerpiece of a semi-decent NBA offense (Dallas is №19 in the league with a 108.3 O-Rtg), an incredibly advanced shot creator and playmaker, and has the confidence and IQ of a veteran. Also, he’s 19.

The bad: Most young stars continue to get better as they take in the nuances of the game, learn counters, develop high-degree-of-difficulty scoring moves and gain confidence, aggression and respect. Think about Steph Curry’s growth as a passer and finisher, James Harden’s addition of off-the-bounce 3-point shooting or AD adding a post game. Other than his literal bodyweight, there isn’t much fat to trim from Doncic’s game for him to become a massively better player than he is right now.

(JS): Look, as you mentioned he is only 19 years old. I think any argument that he is near the peak of his game right now is a bit silly. How many people do you know that have peaked at 19 in anything, basketball or non-basketball related? In 2009, some considered Curry a low-upside pick thinking he will always be limited by a lack of athleticism. I wonder if we are falling victim to a similar mentality with Luka Doncic. I had him in a very similar spot on my board and am remorseful I wasn’t able to grab him.

(SCG): I was going to answer your question about people I know who have peaked at 19 by saying “Michael Carter-Williams?” before remembering that he was a 22-year-old rookie, that he was never actually good, and that I do not in fact know him. Hmmm…Markelle Fultz peaked at 18, does that count?

Of course, you’re right about Doncic. He’s going to get better. The question for me is whether that improvement will be incremental (think Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin and Damian Lillard) or exponential (Curry, Harden, Giannis). I worry it’s more towards the former, although a range of outcomes defined as “anything between Kyrie and Steph” is a strange thing to worry about.

9. Jayson Tatum (JS): In last year’s redraft, I debated between Tatum and Mitchell. Both players experienced a successful playoff debut, doing little to answer the question. Through the midpoint of the 2018–19 season, we have seen Tatum emerge as the best player thus far from the 2017 NBA draft. His perceived sophomore slump looks to be behind him, as his scoring average is up 2.5 points from his rookie year with only a slight drop in efficiency.

As a Tatum enthusiast, I will concede that we haven’t seen anything close to substantial evidence to support him being a No. 1 on a title team. While he certainly was impressive as a go-to scorer in Boston’s playoff run, he has made little to no progress in his ability to create for others. Why I like Tatum as a top-10 pick is because even if he falls short of what I perceive to be his ceiling, I’m still getting a guy with an incredibly valuable skill set. He has defensive worth as a wing, can already knock down 3s at a high rate, and is explosive getting to the rim. At the very least, I feel like I’m getting a similar version of Paul George for the next 12 years.

10. Nikola Jokic (SCG): I agree with every single thing you said about Tatum, both positive and negative. He’s a plus defender and rebounder at his position, can space the floor and create his own offense. George is a great comp, with a little more of Tatum’s value coming on the offensive side.

That said, the inability to be the focal point of an elite offense you alluded to is why I had Nikola Jokic a couple spots higher on my board. I do have concerns about the Joker anchoring a championship defense, but the evidence is mounting year after year that he’s not detrimental on that end. Denver has the league’s №10 ranked unit this year, and Jokic’s ability to force turnovers and control the glass is a big part of the reason why.

Meanwhile, I have zero doubt about him being the offensive fulcrum of a contender. Forget Jokic being the best passing big man of all-time — he might be the best passer in the NBA today. He’s Ben Simmons with a jumpshot. Chris Paul with a postgame. Insert weird comp that doesn’t tell you much but also kind of tells you everything here. Outside of the game’s hyper-efficient, high volume engines (Curry, Harden, LeBron), there is not a more valuable offensive player in the world than Jokic. The fact that he’s not yet 24, has no injury history and a game that should age like good Serbian Rakia makes it tempting to take him even higher.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and CleaningTheGlass.com (subscription required).

Look out for Part II (picks 11–20), coming up later this week! Follow Simon on Twitter @Simoncgo.