Who are the best players in the NBA?
Does the league have enough talent to expand to two more markets?
How does positional scarcity explain why some players are in more demand than others?
What if quality, albeit fringe, NBA players didn’t have to go abroad for a payday?
These are the questions that got me thinking…
Who are the players that would make up the 2019-20 NBA season if the league employed all of the world’s best, augmenting existing talent with free agents, college players and international professionals?
While the NBA remains the primary destination for the world’s best basketball players, there are numerous professionals who have chosen to remain overseas and others who have taken their talents to the EuroLeague (and China). Look at the top 10 EuroLeague salaries, and you’ll see why some are choosing a featured role, and more money, over a non-guaranteed and/or minimum salary contract offer. The best international players would fill out a deeper, theoretical NBA.
The movement of talent this summer was one-sided. By my count, NBA teams added seven players who played last season in the EuroLeague (Nigel Williams-Goss, Marko Guduric, Stanton Kidd, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Nicolo Melli, Goga Bitadze and Vincent Poirier). Maybe, Facundo Campazzo will parlay a stellar FIBA World Cup performance into a leap to the NBA, and make it eight. EuroLeague teams, by contrast, added at least 34 impact players from either the NBA (Nikola Mirotic, Greg Monroe), lower international divisions (Vanja Marinkovic, Mathias Lessort) and the NCAA (Ethan Happ).
The quality of competition in the world’s second-best league is rising. This can be good for the NBA, which benefits by having multiple, strong feeder systems: the NCAA (for physically-developing talent), the G-League (for young players to get court time and work on weaknesses) and international leagues (for overlooked and late-developing players to improve in high-level settings). There’s a future where aging players compete in international leagues with fewer games and shorter seasons to stay in shape, grow the game abroad, and then join NBA teams in the spring for the playoffs (Andrew Bogut and Australia’s National Basketball League offers a template).
But back to the question posted in the headline. Teams are built with players in a set of defined roles. My framework adheres to that structure. In order to remix the NBA for the upcoming season, I chose to include 30 players for 17 common roles:
- starting point guard, starting shooting guard, starting small forward, starting power forward and starting center
- bench by archetype: ballhandler, perimeter scorer, wing shooter, wing defender, stretch big and post big
- a designated veteran: someone to guide the team, on the path to coaching or the front office, with an understanding that they may not play many minutes
- three 23-and-under developing players at guard, on the wing and in the post
- two 28-and-under, two-way players, at any position
This foundation avoids the absurdity of ranking player-by-player. I am not attempting to argue whether Damian Lillard is better than Rudy Gobert, nor am I attempting to separate fringe player No. 487 from No. 488. That would be insane, albeit a certain click-driver during a quiet part of the NBA calendar.
Other rules shaping the NBA 2K20 roster remix:
- Contracts were not considered
- Retired players were not included
- Darren Collison, Dwyane Wade and Shaun Livingston can still ball
- Not all players are ranked in the roles they play with their current team
- Two college players are included, at the moment
- While it’s generally it’s too early to speculate what 2020 NBA Draft prospects could be reasonably predicted to produce as a starter or backup in the 2019-20 NBA season, I’ve included two potential No. 1 overall selections.
- No international draft prospects are included, at the moment
- As soon as the EuroLeague season begins, Theo Maledon or Deni Avdija may be added
- International players were only included among starters, backups and designated veterans
- Free agents were only included among starters, backups, designated veterans and developing players
- Designated veterans played less than 2,000 minutes last season, most played less than 1,500 minutes
- Some players not on two-way contracts were slotted as two-way players, if eligible, by the measure of the NBA years of service
- Players entering their fifth season of service or later, per NBA rules, were not considered for a two-way contract
- Players 28 and older were not considered for a two-way contract, per my rules
My rankings are a rough projection of what is probable in the upcoming season; not a projection across multiple years. If your goal was to win a championship this season, this is my best guess of how you’d prioritize each position. And yet, some rookies (Ja Morant, Jarrett Culver, R.J. Barrett, DeAndre Hunter) have been given the benefit of the doubt and listed as starters based on the confluence of skill and opportunity this season. Fifteen rookies have been included among starters and reserves (including 7 older rookies with international experience).
Statistics from the 2018-19 season (per game, advanced, offensive rating per 100 possessions and defensive rating per 100 possessions — sourced from Basketball-Reference) and my feel for a player shaped the rankings. Below average and above average ranges were identified for statistical categories in order to separate players in particular roles. An analysis of G League statistics helped separate players in the developing and two-way categories. Some players shifted from starters to reserves. Others moved from one bench role to another, skills shining when viewed from another perspective. For example, what would happen if we considered Michael Carter-Williams a wing defender rather than a ballhandler?
Before we get to the rankings, I want to acknowledge the players it would be unfair to rank: 15 injured players expected to be out for an extended period of time, or whose immediate health remains a question mark. This list of six starters, four reserves, one designated veteran and four developing players would otherwise crack these rankings:
- John Wall — ruptured left Achilles tendon, last game 12/8/2018, “no defined timeline to return”
- Klay Thompson — torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, last game 6/13/2019, may return in February or March
- Victor Oladipo — ruptured quad tendon in his right knee, last game 1/23/2019, return unknown, possibly in December or January
- Kevin Durant — ruptured right Achilles tendon, last game 6/10/2019, expected to miss the season
- Jusuf Nurkić — broken left tibia and fibula, last game 3/25/2019, may return sometime around February
- DeMarcus Cousins — torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, last game 6/13/2019, expected to miss the season
- Denzel Valentine — ankle instability, last game 4/1/2018, return unclear
- Dante Exum — partially torn patellar tendon in his right knee, last game 3/14/2019, no timeline to return
- Darius Miller — ruptured right Achilles tendon, last game 3/28/2019, out indefinitely
- Andre Roberson — ruptured left patellar tendon followed by a small avulsion fracture in his left knee, last game 1/27/2018, expects to participate in training camp
- J.J. Barea — ruptured right Achilles tendon, last game 1/11/2019, expects to participate in training camp
- Markelle Fultz — neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome, last game 11/19/2018, no public timeline on his return
- Chuma Okeke — torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, last game 3/29/2019, may return in the spring
- Charles Matthews — torn anterior cruciate ligament, last game 3/28/2019, may return late spring
- Jontay Porter — torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, last game 3/16/2018, “not expected to be cleared to play until late 2019 or early 2020”
One last note: I will update my rankings as teams adjust rosters through the preseason. But, basically, this is my best guess of the 510 best players in the world.
I am not a scout; I’m not a statistician. I admit that I am not a writer with a background in film analysis. This is for fun, and has allowed me to gain a better appreciation for the players who make up the NBA.
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The light green boxes highlight rookies and the light orange boxes highlight additions not currently on NBA rosters.
STARTING POINT GUARD AND BACKUP BALLHANDLER
Real-life backups providing starter value: Spencer Dinwiddie, Monte Morris, Fred VanVleet
Probable real-life starters not providing starter value: Reggie Jackson, Goran Dragić, Jeff Teague, Terry Rozier, Collin Sexton, Elfrid Payton
The starters fit in five tiers: (1) the elite top 10; (2) five above-average veteran starters; (3) three up-and-coming future All-Stars; (4) four productive, young veterans still improving; and (5) the bottom eight, with obvious weaknesses (either shooting, size or defense).
Overall, there’s no lack of quality starting point guards, which may depress the real-world value of potential trade candidates in Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and Dragić.
There’s enough talent for a third of the league to deploy a high-quality backup point guard. The rest of the backup ballhandlers, all 28 years old or younger, can be described as young lead guards with starter potential, single-position defenders who can run an offense and inefficient score-first point guards.
There will be pressure on these players to keep their spots in the league as we see the next generation of point guards come into the NBA, as highlighted in this recent piece by SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell. In my composite prospect ranking for the 2020 NBA Draft, based on 10 big boards and mock drafts, 15 of the top 60 players can be considered lead ballhandlers.
And it can’t be ruled out that Darius Garland, Carsen Edwards, Ty Jerome and Justin Robinson turn in productive rookie seasons. Or that Matthew Dellavedova’s new jump shot revives his career.
Point guard observations and questions:
- Should Atlanta use the room exception to sign Campazzo to play behind Trae Young?
- Boston does not have a veteran reserve point guard behind Kemba Walker. This puts Edwards in a great position to immediately carve out a role on a playoff team.
- Kris Dunn seems like the odd man out in Chicago. The fourth-year guard is a competent defender with a terrible offensive rating. Will anyone trade for him?
- It’s possible to be both underwhelmed by the starting point guard options in Detroit (Jackson, Rose) and generally optimistic about the four guard rotation (including Bruce Brown and Luke Kennard). The best player out of Tim Frazier, Khyri Thomas, Svi Mykhailiuk and Langston Galloway is a quality fifth guard as well.
- Sergio Llull may never come to Houston, and this makes me sad.
- Malcolm Brogdon will now lead the Indiana offense. The fourth-year guard had the lowest assist percentage (16.2%) last season among my 30 starters (also, 59th out of the 60 point guards). Is he a primary or secondary initiator?
- Derrick Walton, Jr. is earning that final open Clippers roster spot. Los Angeles does not have an open two-way roster spot. If he plays well in the preseason, and the Clippers don’t add him to the roster, another team will.
- What does the Lakers starting lineup look like and who’s the first guard off the bench?
- Should Miami start Dragić and Justise Winslow alongside Jimmy Butler? Will Dragić bounce back in a contract year? Was Winslow’s emergence as a primary initiator a fluke?
- Will Oklahoma City trade Paul before the season? If not, how will his presence affect the development of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — a well-regarded prospect that posted a below average assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.94 and below average assist percentage of 17.8% in his rookie season? Does Dennis Schröder have a role?
- Will Orlando play Markelle Fultz in the preseason?
- Vasilije Micić may be the second best point guard playing professionally outside of the NBA. Does Philadelphia intend to bring him over next summer, or do they use him as a trade piece to fill out a potential championship roster?
- Phoenix has a potentially competent point guard rotation. In the offseason, the Suns added a veteran creator/rangy defender (Ricky Rubio), a rookie with long-term, third-guard potential (Ty Jerome), a defensive specialist (Jevon Carter) and a raw, elite athlete (Jalen Lecque).
- Portland does not have a veteran reserve or a developmental guard on a two-way. This will put a lot of pressure on Anfernee Simons to produce in his second season. Kalin Lucas, Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole are stopgap options if he’s not ready.
- Does Charlotte or New York have the worst point guard situation this season? Almost.
- Charlotte may be the worst team in the league, without a top 20 starter across five positions. In the offseason, the Hornets traded an All-Star point guard for a backup that has never posed an assist percentage above 20% in five collegiate and professional seasons. Charlotte lacks a proven reserve behind Rozier. Who makes the team out of Devonte Graham, Joe Chealey and Josh Perkins?
- New York added scorers in the offseason and likely don’t have a franchise point guard on the roster. Payton can pass, rebound and defend adequately, but he’s shown no growth as shooter. Dennis Smith, Jr. is the younger player, but he’s the lesser passer and rebounder, turns the ball over too much (an assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks 59th out of the 60 point guards) and went from a bad shooter to a poor shooter. This could be the ideal team for Cole Anthony.
- Washington has the worst point guard rotation. Justin Robinson will be the starter by the All-Star break. Maybe Anthony ends up here next season.
STARTING SHOOTING GUARD AND STARTING SMALL FORWARD
Real-life backups providing starter value: Malik Beasley, Terrence Ross, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Royce O’Neale, Trevor Ariza, Taurean Prince
Probable real-life starters not providing starter value: Norman Powell, Andrew Wiggins, Cedi Osman, Wayne Ellington, Wesley Matthews, Rodney Hood, Troy Brown, Jr.
The best shooting guard is clear, as is the second-best (healthy) shooting guard. You could re-order the rest of the top 11, and I probably wouldn’t argue too strongly. Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield, Devin Booker, Caris LeVert and Zach LaVine are not done improving. The next five are strong-to-elite defenders at the position, Mr. Automatic, and then four excellent three-point shooters. (Updated: I moved Bogdan Bogdanovic into the top 20 since first publishing. While he may not be as strong of a shooter as the four players that follow him, he has shown the ability to do more than them with the ball in his hands.) The final nine starters include a mix of veterans and emerging players who can all hit the three-point shot at an average percentage.
No position has greater scarcity than starting small forward. The top 10 includes 3 potential MVPs, a clear No. 4 and No. 5 and five maybe-All-Stars. The next six players may seem like they rank too high until you look down the rest of the list. Among them, Jayson Tatum has the best chance to crack the top 10 by the end of the season. The final 13 starters include emerging players and low-ceiling veterans.
Against this backdrop, Harrison Barnes is not overpaid. And Jaylen Brown is going to get paid.
Starting shooting guard and starting small forward observations and questions:
- As long as they return-to-form, Klay Thompson and Victor Oladipo will crack the top 10 shooting guards. A healthy Kevin Durant is a top four small forward.
- Nicolas Batum is probably the best player in Charlotte. He should probably be the fourth- or fifth-best starter on a good team. Don’t look up his contract.
- Can Miles Bridges take a second-year leap and emerge as the best player for the Hornets?
- Who starts at shooting guard in Cleveland? Do they become Portland East with Collin Sexton-Darius Garland in the starting lineup?
- Denver has four starting shooting guards. The Nuggets are a likely buyer for any star that emerges on the trade market. Who starts at small forward?
- Tony Snell to Detroit was a low-key smart move.
- Until Thompson returns from injury, Golden State is going to struggle defending big wings.
- Should Danuel House, Jr. start for Houston?
- How did Indiana land TJ Warren for nothing?
- The defensive combination of Patrick Beverley, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard with either Rodney McGruder or Moe Harkless is absurd. How does anyone score on the Clippers in the playoffs?
- Wesley Matthews is the worst starter in Milwaukee. Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo or Sterling Brown needs to take his spot.
- Would Minnesota be better this season if they traded for Batum (with two years less on his contract) or kept Andrew Wiggins?
- Does a change of scenery help Brandon Ingram realize his potential?
- If Paul is traded, and Gilgeous-Alexander starts at point guard, does Oklahoma City have a starting shooting guard? Can Terrance Ferguson show some versatility?
- Will Danilo Gallinari start as a small-ball 4? How will he perform in a contract year on a new team?
- I remain stunned that Trevor Ariza averaged 34 minutes per game at age 33.
- Who on Portland defends big wings?
- San Antonio has solid veterans and developing players, but do they have a small forward?
- Can OG Anunoby stay healthy and seize the opportunity to start?
- Do the Grizzlies have the worst shooting guard situation this season?
- Who emerges among Marko Guduric, Dillon Brooks, Grayson Allen and Josh Jackson?
- Do the Wizards have the worst small forward situation this season?
- Troy Brown, Jr. had a low-key OK rookie season. There aren’t many other options.
BACKUP PERIMETER SCORER, BACKUP WING SHOOTER AND BACKUP WING DEFENDER
The top 15 players in these three roles provide fairly good value as reserves.
Many of the backup guard scorers are flawed players, lacking high-level shooting, replacement-level defense or consistent, year-to-year production. That said, it’s easy to see the value of a player that can get you buckets off the bench. The drop off probably starts at where I slotted two international scorers. Everyone below involves projection.
The backup wing shooters include a handful of imports and rookies. Shooting comes at a premium. Only the top half of the ranking has shot consistently for many years. If you find a good shooter, who doesn’t take much off on defense, he’s worth the investment and development time. This is why I believe in Hollis Thompson.
Many of the backup wing defenders could be considered prospects. Most of these players would clearly benefit by developing an average jump shot. It’s almost as hard finding good backup wing defenders as it is finding starting small forwards. And, clearly, the scarcity of good small forward starters has given a couple bench players starter value. By some measure, the bottom of the backup wing defender ranking may be the bottom of the overall player ranking.
Perimeter reserve observations and questions:
- Is Marcus Eriksson an NBA-level shooter, and will Atlanta attempt to sign him next offseason?
- Dwayne Bacon is only the Charlotte reserve offering legitimate backup perimeter value.
- Chicago may be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference this season. There’s a world where Shaquille Harrison, Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison make up a solid backup wing rotation.
- Who are the lead backups in Cleveland? Who plays behind Cedi Osman?
- Does Tim Hardaway, Jr. embrace a spark-plug scorer role in Dallas?
- Denver may be too deep. Will the lack of minutes limit the development of Vlatko Cancar and Michael Porter, Jr.?
- Detroit has too many guards and no backup defender with the length to match up against bigger wings.
- The Golden State bench is either underwhelming or unproven. Jacob Evans didn’t shine in either the NBA or the G League. Damion Lee was a late riser in my rankings..
- Houston has as many open roster spots as any contender. Any waived wing with potential should try to sign with the Rockets. Michael Frazier was an above average shooter in the G League, and could earn a roster spot. Is Iman Shumpert re-signing here?
- Why did the Lakers fail to add any long defenders behind Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma?
- The time for Bruno Caboclo is now. He may be the best perimeter reserve for Memphis this season.
- The majority of Milwaukee’s bench can defend adequately. Who takes a leap and offers a little shooting?
- The Minnesota wing rotation is worth watching. It seems like the Timberwolves will be going small with Robert Covington at power forward.
- New York is going to get uncomfortable. Who defends on the perimeter?
- The Philadelphia bench, generally unproven, has the potential to be deployed in interesting ways.
- Ask yourself: Who’s the third-best healthy player on Portland’s roster? Keep going. After Bazemore, what perimeter bench players do you feel confident about?
- Toronto signed a bunch of players looking for redemption. Who do you like behind Norman Powell and Anunoby? I’m rooting for Terence Davis.
- Utah made so many smart moves this offseason. The bench is deep.
- Robinson, Brown and Rui Hachimura could be starting next to Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant in Washington by All-Star break. Who are the first wings off the bench? Justin Anderson and Admiral Schofield are the best of the bunch. The Wizards could be churning the bottom of the roster as much as any team.
STARTING POWER FORWARD AND BACKUP STRETCH BIG
Real-life backups providing starter value: Thaddeus Young, Jerami Grant, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jae Crowder, Nemanja Bjelica, Rudy Gay, Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson
Probable real-life starters not providing starter value: Rodions Kurucs, Zach Collins, Rui Hachimura
There may be more starting power forwards than needed as some teams are projected to start two small forwards (Clippers, Timberwolves) or two centers (Pacers, 76ers).
Of all the starting positions, power forward is the spot I feel least confident about. I primarily deferred to veterans in the top 5, players I wouldn’t choose over the long-term, but players I think are more helpful in winning a playoff game this season.
At the top, we have an MVP and four veterans you’d want for the playoffs. Next, two NBA champions, followed by eight players 24-and-under who represent the future of the position. The bottom 15 consists of established veterans who offer defense and floor spacing, with the exception of Jonathan Isaac – a 21-year-old, third-year forward with the potential to be a top 15 player at his position.
My ranking includes 11 players 30 and older, more than any other starting position. Many of the young backup stretch bigs are expected to develop into productive starters in the near-future, including Collins, Harry Giles III, Brandon Clarke, PJ Washington and Hachimura.
The backup stretch big ranking is a reflection of the league’s emphasis on floor spacing over energy rebounding. The backup stretch bigs fit in 3 tiers: (1) nine players who may develop into starters and younger veterans who offer shooting and versatility; (2) 11 reliable veterans, including two former lottery picks that I believe could be productive if they were to return stateside; and (3) 10 bigs coming off poor seasons and others who lack a track record of production.
Power forward observations and questions:
- The power forward position is not dead.
- How will Gordon Hayward look in his second year back from injury?
- Does Brooklyn start Kurucs at power forward? Or do they start DeAndre Jordan with Jarrett Allen?
- How will Charlotte spread the minutes among Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and PJ Washington?
- Will Cleveland trade Kevin Love? Would they add a prospect at the position?
- How will Kristaps Porzingis look in his first year back from injury?
- Can Detroit make any noise in the playoffs? If they don’t, will the Pistons trade Blake Griffin?
- If the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis experiment doesn’t work, will there be a trade?
- Will the Lakers add post defense?
- Will Memphis flip Jae Crowder to a playoff contender?
- Will Minnesota get killed on the boards with Covington at power forward?
- How will New York find minutes for four power forwards?
- Oklahoma is thin up front. Who starts alongside Gallinari at the other forward spot?
- Orlando is a sleeper playoff team in the East. How much can Isaac and Aaron Gordon play together?
- What should we expect from Dario Šarić in a contract year?
- Is Zach Collins ready to be a starter?
STARTING CENTER AND BACKUP POST BIG
Real-life backups providing starter value: Montrezl Harrell, Willie Cauley-Stein, Larry Nance, Jr.
Probable real-life starters not providing starter value: Dwight Powell, Jakob Poeltl, JaVale McGee, Cody Zeller, Tristan Thompson, Wendell Carter, Jr.
There may be as many quality starting centers in their prime as ever; there’s simply a lack of star power, as compared to previous generations.
The starters fit in four tiers: (1) the elite top 5, worth building a team around; (2) five above-average centers ideally suited to being your third or fourth best player; (3) five quality starters who may not make an All-Star team; and (4) the bottom 15, mostly players you’d want as your fifth best starter (with the exception of Bam Adebayo and Deandre Ayton – waiting to see more from them).
The backup post bigs fit in five tiers: (1) eight centers posting average (or better) offensive and defensive ratings; (2) six veterans offering an average offensive rating and below average defensive rating; (3) three imports ideally suited to the third big role; (4) four young centers with starter upside; and (5) the bottom nine, mostly low-minute, replacement-level veterans.
Center observations and questions:
- How quickly will Bruno Fernando eat into Alex Len’s minutes?
- How does the four-center rotation shake out in Boston (not including Tacko Fall)?
- Will anyone trade for Tristan Thompson?
- Does Kenneth Faried return to Houston as a minutes-eater?
- Does Dwight Howard remain on the Lakers for the whole season? Does Los Angeles buyout DeMarcus Cousins or trade him for bench depth?
- When can Jusuf Nurkic return? And will Portland use Hassan Whiteside’s salary to acquire another star (read: Kevin Love)?
- What does the future of the San Antonio frontcourt look like?
- Will Toronto trade Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka?
23-AND-UNDER DEVELOPING GUARD, WING AND BIG
23-and-under developing players with an opportunity to be productive: Garland, Edwards, Davis, Jerome, Smith, Kevin Porter, Eric Paschall, Jaxson Hayes, Kevin Knox, Darius Bazley, Matisse Thybulle, Zhaire Smith, Gary Trent, Jr., Keldon Johnson
I leaned heavily toward rookies in the developing and two-way categories. While there are numerous potential future starters among the 23-and-under guards, 23-and-under wings and 23-and-under bigs, there likely won’t be many to provide starter or backup value this season.
DESIGNATED VETERANS AND THE PURGED
Every team needs at least one designated veteran that can offer leadership in the locker room. Should Carmelo Anthony be on this list?
Also, this is where I’ve included 19 players on guaranteed contracts dropped from the rebuilt NBA. I have chosen not to include non-guaranteed contracts and camp invites (Exhibit 10 deals).