As the NBA playoffs go deeper, the league's stars seem to shine brighter. As the league enters the second round of its postseason slate, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are among the stars still alive in the playoffs and leading their teams.
In years past, there was little debate as to which star soared above the rest. LeBron has dominated the past decade, winning four MVPs, two NBA titles and reaching five consecutive Finals. But James is now 31 and there's a host of young talent nipping at his heels, including Curry, who appears poised to win his second straight MVP award this spring.
With that in mind, SI.com asked its NBA experts a question that suddenly seems worth asking: If you could build around one NBA player for the indefinite future, who would it be? Our answers are below.
If you could build around one NBA player, who would it be?
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Ben Golliver: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
This question all comes down to criteria. If you’re simply starting a team to win a championship this season, the answer is still LeBron James, who remains so influential that he turned Richard Jefferson into the world’s least expected highlight factory in Game 1 against the Hawks. If you’re starting a team for the next three years, the answer is Stephen Curry, who at 28 is primed to lord over the league with his record-setting shooting for the foreseeable future.
If we’re talking big picture, though, my answer is Kawhi Leonard. I want three things from my foundational piece: demonstrated excellence on both sides of the basketball, significant age-related upside, and as few red flag flags as possible. Leonard fits age-wise—at 24, he’s young but not too young (a la Karl-Anthony Towns)—and his drastic improvement as a shooter and playmaker during his five-year career suggests there’s much more to come. He’s the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and he’s shown zero let-up on that end as his offensive game has come around. He’s built himself into a true alpha scoring threat and there’s still individual potential to be scratched once Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili eventually decide to retire. Importantly, his offensive game is flexible and allows him to be part with all types of players, from ball-dominant play-making guards, to spot-up shooters, to traditional or stretch big men.
Leonard is a proven winner, he’s among the league leaders in impact statistics, and he has a no-nonsense, all-hoops personality, which makes him ideal to build around. The biggest red flag is his early-career injury issues, but he’s lasted through multiple deep postseason runs, so I’m not as concerned as some might be on that front. In sum, he’s the total package: a complete, dependable known quantity who should be dominating the NBA for the next 8-10 years as he progresses through his prime years.
Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors
The injuries are scary, right? Maybe he wouldn't be as good outside Golden State? How do we know Kawhi Leonard won't shut him down in the three weeks to make this answer look stupid? These are all good points. But I'm taking Steph Curry. I have four reasons.
1. He's the most popular athlete in America right now. My team is going to sell tickets. We're going to do movies, commercials, Riley Curry meet-and-greets. We're inventing social media platforms. We're taking this international. Exhibitions all over the world. Your team has Kawhi Leonard playing efficient basketball at both ends of the floor? Cool, my team has Steph Curry on a billboard in Mumbai.
2. Injuries are a concern, but there's a flipside to that coin. Sports science is eons ahead of where it was even 10 years ago. The medical advances give him a good chance of staying healthy (knock on wood), and if he can take care of his body, then what? We've already seen guys like Kobe and Dirk play forever. Curry plays a relatively low-impact game, his jumper's going to be deadly for life... Why can't this last another decade?
3. There's a decent chance that Curry could go down as one of the 10-15 best players of all time, and he's only in Year 2 of his prime. Don't overthink this.
4. Even if it gets complicated, the worst-case scenario is that he goes down as one of the most entertaining players of all time, best shooter ever, adored by basketball fans everywhere. Apologies to Karl-Anthony Towns and LeBron James, but that's too much to pass up. Let me go talk to some business associates in India.
Rob Mahoney: Stephen Curry, Warriors
Out of all the very reasonable possibilities, I opted for the one player who can single-handedly make an offense go with the threat of his shooting and has proven, beyond doubt, that he has that best-player-in-the-league magic. Any team with Curry on its roster unlocks its potential. Defenders are either terrified of his pull-up or should be. Screens can be set higher for Curry to test the structure of an opposing defense. Roll men and cutters find themselves in all kinds of open space as a result of his activity. Any teammate able to keep his wits about him and move the ball when appropriate can become a contributor to something brilliant. There are reasons to love the play and prospects of a variety of others, but to me none quite measures up to Curry’s sure thing.
Michael Rosenberg: Stephen Curry, Warriors
I seriously considered Anthony Davis, because he is 23 and Curry is 28, and even thought about Karl-AnthonyTowns, because he is 20 and should become a dominant player. There are probably at least a half-dozen "right" answers to this question—would anybody really argue against building a team around Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard? In the end, though, Curry is the best answer. He is the best player in the league—there is no projecting here. He is only 28. It is fair to wonder if his body will hold up, but I'd take my chances on him helping deliver a championship in the next five years.
Matt Dollinger: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
It's tempting to go with a flashier superstar (my gut tells me to take Russell Westbrook), but I'm going with the sturdiest build block in the NBA: Kawhi Leonard. Not only will Leonard shut down your pick, regardless of position, every night, but he's quickly turning into a No. 1 option himself, leading the Spurs in scoring for the second straight season and elevating his points per game average from 16.5 to 21.2. Building around Leonard is essentially like building your hand around a wild-card in poker: he can be anything you want him to be. Other stars like Stephen Curry and Karl-Anthony Towns fit into certain molds, but Leonard possesses the ability to shapeshift into whatever you need. He's arguably the best two-way player in the league and has a good chance to lose the "two-way" distinction in the next few years. He's 24 years old and already a Finals MVP—I'll take Kawhi.
DeAntae Prince: Kevin Durant, Thunder
Starting an NBA roster from scratch is a daunting task. When picking one player to step into that first slot, checking as many boxes as possible is the most logical approach. And it’s hard to think of a player who possesses more versatility than Durant. He stands at nearly 7-feet tall, handles the ball like a point guard, and owns one of the NBA’s sweetest shooting strokes.
Now, there are some picks like Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns who stand out as smart plays for the future, but we must remember that Durant is still only 27 years old. That he has eight winning seasons to lean on at such an age is a luxury not many players can claim. And, as these playoffs have shown, Durant is also a fierce competitor and protective teammate. Those intangibles are important when selecting one player to build around, and Durant’s 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5 assists this season shouldn’t hurt either.
Jeremy Woo: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
I’m starting my team knowing that I have a guy to stick on the other team’s guy every single night, and figuring out the rest later. His production is to a degree boosted by how well the Spurs use him, but all it takes is five minutes of watching Leonard to know exactly what you’re getting for the next decade. In case you forgot, he’s only 24 years old and still feeling out exactly how good he can be. He has a Finals MVP under his belt, a continually-blossoming offensive game, he’s the only perimeter player in the league whose defense can swing games by himself. He also might secretly be a robot. If he’s actually a robot and doesn’t quality for this honor, well... then I guess you can talk me into Towns.
Jake Fischer: Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
There was a point this season when Karl-Anthony Towns's franchise-player value leap-frogged that of Anthony Davis's. In late February, Towns completed perhaps his best performance of his likely Rookie of the Year season, dropping 30 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block in a victory in New Orleans after Davis sprained his right big toe during pregame warmups. Towns posted the sixth-highest PER for a 20-year-old in NBA history and the second highest of any 20-year-old rookie, trailing only Shaquille O'Neal. He can score with his back to the basket, blow past defenders, drain threes and make plays off the bounce like Draymond Green... all at 7-feet tall. He started and played all 82 games this season, a feat Davis has never accomplished. Stephen Curry is really Towns's only competition for this coveted spot. And despite his historic prowess, Curry's injury history is scary in its own right. I'll give the nod to the Timberpup.
Kenny Ducey: Anthony Davis, Pelicans
This was an easy answer a year ago, but now because of injuries not as many are rolling with Davis. Folks said the same thing about a certain Golden State point guard that dealt with injuries early in his career... and look how he turned out. Davis has immense talent on the defensive end, and is beginning to extend his range to the three-point line to complement a growing offensive skillset. With a little refinement, Davis can cement himself as one of the best in the league by age 26. His ceiling is some sort of unguardable mammoth, so you’ll take the risk of further injury. Gimme the Brow.