By Chris Mannix
June 24, 2008

Picking a fantasy team is easy: Just search stat books for the player with the best numbers and scoop him up before somebody else grabs him.

Picking a franchise player? That's a little more difficult.

When determining who is and who isn't a cornerstone player, you have to look beyond the numbers. Would Jason Kidd improve a team more than, say, Andre Iguodala? In the short term, yes. But the 35-year-old Kidd might have only one or two quality years left, while Iguodala, 24, will be playing at an All-Star level well into the next decade.

And what about positions? Do you build around centers or point guards? Swingmen or power forwards?

Imagine if every player in the league were available and each team had a crack at drafting one, at his current age, in the order of the 2008 NBA draft (first-round picks that were traded have been returned to their original owner). Who would you take to start your team? Here is our first round.

(Disagree? Weigh in with your thoughts and picks here.)

1. Chicago Bulls: LeBron James, SF, 23 years old. Scary as it sounds, James might still be years away from reaching his prime. Imagine James with slight improvements in his defense and perimeter game.

2. Miami Heat: Dwight Howard, C, 22. Shot-blocking, physically intimidating, attack-the-rim centers are hard to come by. Actually, outside of Howard, they are nearly impossible. As he proved this past season in Orlando, Howard is capable of dominating even with undersized help.

3. Minnesota Timberwolves: Kobe Bryant, SG, 29. Does Bryant inspire or intimidate? Who cares as long he gets the job done, which Bryant does with staggering success.

4. Seattle SuperSonics: Chris Paul, PG, 23. Ask Phoenix or New Jersey what an elite point guard can do for you. The probing Paul is Steve Nash circa 2005 and has seven or eight prime years still in front of him.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: Yao Ming, C, 27. Size? Check. Skills? Double-check. Aggressive personality? Check, check, check. He has shrugged off his passive demeanor and become fiercely competitive, perhaps the lone attribute that had stood between Yao and greatness. Well, that and better health.

6. New York Knicks: Kevin Garnett, PF, 32. Yes, with KG as your cornerstone, you will have to find a fourth-quarter scorer. But that's about all you will need to find to complement this ultimate team player and defensive menace.

7. Los Angeles Clippers: Amaré Stoudemire, F/C, 25. Lingering questions about the health of his surgically repaired knees vanished after a 25.2-point, 9.1-rebound season in 2007-08. Dominating offense, questionable defense.

8. Milwaukee Bucks: Dwyane Wade, SG, 26. Wade's strengths -- explosive first step, attack-the-basket mentality and an improving jump shot -- speak for themselves, but questions about his long-term durability drop him a couple of notches on this list.

9. Charlotte Bobcats: Chris Bosh, PF, 24. The fluid Bosh could probably stand to put on a few pounds, but few big men can match his interior skills and feathery outside touch.

10. New Jersey Nets: Tim Duncan, F/C, 32. Only age keeps Duncan from going higher. Duncan operates out of the post like Bill Walton and is as fundamentally sound as they come. Unfortunately, the 11-year veteran has played nearly two full seasons in playoff games, meaning his decline should be only a few years away.

11. Indiana Pacers: Carmelo Anthony, SF, 24. A smooth jump shot, physical inside game and improving defense. The occasional lapse in maturity -- and some pretty good talent ahead of him -- keeps 'Melo out of the top 10.

12. Sacramento Kings: Dirk Nowitzki, PF, 30. Before the 2006 NBA Finals, Nowitzki probably would have been a top three pick. But Nowitzki's inability to develop a reliable post-up game has cost him a few spots. Still, the sweet-shooting 7-footer is a building-block player.

13. Portland Trail Blazers: Gilbert Arenas, PG, 26. Arenas will probably never be a pure point guard. But paired with a bigger ball handler in the backcourt -- saving Arenas from having to defend the point position -- Agent Zero could be an unstoppable offensive force. Assuming the knee is healthy, of course.

14. Golden State Warriors: Greg Oden, C, 20. OK, so Oden hasn't played a game yet. But a 7-foot, 250-pound center with superior defensive ability has to be considered a franchise player. Any offensive skills he develops -- and he will develop them -- are a bonus.

15. Atlanta Hawks: Tony Parker, PG, 26. With a deadly teardrop, an improving jump shot and a proven ability to lead a veteran team, Parker epitomizes a franchise point guard.

16. Philadelphia 76ers: Deron Williams, PG, 23. Big, strong, fast, good going to the basket and a lethal shooter. If Williams has any flaws, it's that at times he looks likes a shooting guard in a point guard's body.

17. Toronto Raptors: Paul Pierce, SF, 30. Pierce can get physical with smaller forwards and drive around bigger ones. A durable player (only one full season of fewer than 73 games), the 10-year veteran proved in the NBA Finals that his defense is underrated.

18. Washington Wizards: Andrew Bynum, C, 20. Bynum was blossoming in '07-08 (13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds) before his knee injury, and there is no reason to think that he won't continue to grow in his fourth year. With more development, Bynum could challenge Howard and Yao as the league's top centers in a few years.

19. Cleveland Cavaliers: Tracy McGrady, SG/SF, 29. Is McGrady a leader? No. Is he a franchise player? Debatable. But are there five better pure scorers in the game today? No way. And McGrady is a more complete player than many give him credit for.

20. Denver Nuggets: David West, PF, 27. West might be the most underrated 20-point scorer in the NBA. A dependable jump shooter, West will continue to grow as his inside game improves.

21. Dallas Mavericks: Carlos Boozer, PF, 26. Though slightly undersized (6-8) for his position, Boozer is a rebounding machine who can pick-and-pop as well as he can pick-and-roll.

22. Orlando Magic: Brandon Roy, SG, 23. Roy is Dwyane Wade Lite, all the way down to his curiously spelled middle name (Dawayne). Nicknamed "The Natural," Roy attacks the basket with reckless abandon and, at 6-6, can play both guard positions.

23. Utah Jazz: Manu Ginobili, SG, 30. How good is Ginobili? Just watch tape of the Spurs' sputtering offense while he limped through five games against the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Ginobili is clutch -- he led the Spurs in fourth-quarter scoring this past season -- and a three-point threat.

24. Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash, PG, 34. With a lot of miles on his tires, Nash is bound to break down eventually. But even a mediocre team will get better with Nash at the helm. Surround the two-time MVP with young players and their growth is accelerated exponentially.

25. Houston Rockets: Richard Hamilton, SG, 30. A tireless worker with a physical game that belies his slight frame, Hamilton is still improving. Exhibit A: He shot 44 percent from three-point range in '07-08, up from 34.1 percent the previous season and 36.4 percent as a rookie. A veteran of two NBA Finals and six conference finals, Hamilton also knows what it takes to win.

26. San Antonio Spurs: Josh Smith, PF/SF, 22. Smith is a bit of a head case -- just ask Mike Woodson -- but his talent is undeniable. Molded correctly, the rangy, 6-9 forward could develop Garnett-type defensive skills.

27. New Orleans Hornets: Pau Gasol, PF, 27. Gasol will never be a defensive stopper -- or even provide much resistance -- but his diverse offensive repertoire will keep him among the elite big men for the duration of his career.

28. Los Angeles Lakers: Kevin Durant, SF/SG, 19. Is Durant simply a scorer? At this point in his career, yes. Will he develop into more than that? I think so. While Durant will never dominate the glass like he did in college (11.1 per game his freshman year), he will average 6-7 boards once his body fills out. And when he learns to read defenses better, his assist totals could rise to the same level.

29. Detroit Pistons: Andre Iguodala, SF, 24. He can score (19.9 this past season), rebound (5.4) and dish (4.8). An inconsistent jump shot and a perceived reluctance to accept the role of franchise player are all that is holding him back.

30. Boston Celtics: Michael Redd, SG, 28. Redd may not be worthy of his max contract, but the NBA's top sharpshooter (a subjective opinion) is still a certifiable weapon. No one spaces the floor better.

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