A few weeks before Green Bay defeated Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV, Fox analyst Troy Aikman made a declaration that somehow stands as both shocking and obvious: If every single professional football player were available and he had the first pick in a real-life draft, he would roll with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Aikman’s rationale was made based on three factors about Rodgers: (1) a proven ability to compete and thrive on the professional level, (2) space for improvement with a limitless ceiling, (3) and age.
It was met with a mixed reaction of sacrilege and revelation.
For nearly a decade, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were the most widely accepted number-one picks in such a theoretical draft. To most NFL followers, a conservative sport that overwhelmingly values tradition, including anybody else in the discussion was blasphemy.
Yet what Aikman said made sense.
He noticed a young, bright star about to catapult himself into another stratosphere and ventured ever so slightly against the grain to make a logical answer. His hypothetical choice was a bold one.
After the 2011 NBA Finals, and the unprecedented collapse of a player who was recently accepted by everyone in the universe to be the sport’s greatest player, how would Aikman’s proclamation translate to the NBA?
Let’s say a new CBA is agreed upon and calls for a complete overhaul. On September 1, each player is thrown into a league-wide draft with the order conducted at random. In this fictional future, Curt Flood never existed and free agency has yet to form. You pick a player and he is yours until death or retirement — whichever comes first.
In what order would the players go?
Is LeBron James still the first pick? Are Kobe and Amar’e selected in the first round? Does John Wall come off the board before Dirk Nowitzki? Would Chris Wallace drop down on his knees and take Zach Randolph without blinking?
In the aftermath of LeBron’s mental defrost, this vague, otherwise pointless question has become rather interesting. Being 26-years-old and undoubtedly the most athletic, talented and complete player in the game — and still improving — LeBron was the obvious answer. To many he still is. But if the ultimate objective each June is to become that lucky one team out of 30 to win the hardware, handpicking a player who will lead you through a sunny meadow with unparalleled dominance only to cower when the grass thickens turns this once-easy selection into quite the predicament.
Below are my top five.
None of the players on this list are better overall basketball players than LeBron James. For that matter, Derrick Rose isn’t any more adept at running a team than Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin may never rival Pau Gasol’s touch around the basket. But their value, mostly thanks to youth and lofty ceilings, make selecting them over The King less far-fetched as it once was.
5. Russell Westbrook
When he needs to make a quick decision, say, in transition with numbers, Russell Westbrook morphs into a stallion with blinders. In half-court sets he tends to search for seams that simply don’t exist, stubbornly forcing his square body through a round hole.
But what if we look at Westbrook through a different lens? What if we decrease the comparisons to Steve Nash and replace them with Dwyane Wade’s ability to attack the rim, score at will, and get to the free-throw line enough to keep conspiracy theorists up at night?
Comparing Westbrook’s third season (age 22) with Wade’s second (age 23) is telling.
Westbrook: 21.9, 8.2, 4.6 with 1.9 steals per game.
Wade: 24.1, 6.8, 5.2 with 1.6 steals per game.
Their PER and Usage Rate are within two percentage points, and Wade attempted 9.9 free-throws per game to Westbrook’s 8. Wade took 17.1 shots per night. Westbrook? 17. If a changed environment were to alter Westbrook’s role on his basketball team, the results could be more conducive to the style he was born to play.
4. Dwight Howard
Maybe he’s unfairly being compared to the league’s seven-foot ghosts. Maybe it’s that he has no rival. Or maybe the game’s drifted too far away from the big man as a noteworthy puzzle piece. Whatever the reason, Howard might be the most difficult of the five to build a championship-caliber team around.
He has carved out a niche as basketball’s most imposing defender. He’s the best in the league at altering shots and a top three rebounder, but there’s so many things on the other end he still needs to improve — and time’s running out. The 2009 Finals appearance wasn’t a signal of Howard staking a claim so much as it was Kevin Garnett’s faulty knee rewarding him with a free pass. All that being said, he’s twice as talented as the next best at his position. He’s also 25.
3. Blake Griffin
It’s tempting to put Griffin at the top spot. He’s the youngest player on the list, a more athletic Karl Malone, and for the next eight to 10 years should finish top five in scoring, free throw attempts, and rebounds. Off the court, Griffin seems to be a charismatic person; the most relatable 6’10” gravity defying freak of nature who’s ever lived. On the court he mutates into a monstrous brute. (Multiple reports from a slew of anonymous sources say a handful of players are refusing to see Super 8 this summer, due to its summoning of disturbing Blake Griffin related flashbacks.)
Random Fact: In less than 15 minutes of action, he recorded five assists in his first All-Star game. It took Charles Barkley five All-Star weekends to get five assists total.
2. Derrick Rose
He’s a 22-year-old MVP. Cut it, dry it, place it in the freezer.
And just wait until he starts making 40% of his threes.
1. Kevin Durant
Durant already has two playoff series (2010 vs. the Lakers and 2011 vs. the Mavericks) under his belt that, when we look back in a few years, could be the character-shaping events that transformed him from a talented, once-in-a-decade scorer to a grizzled, 25-year-old assassin. The curtain was turned back a few inches after the Dallas series, and what was revealed should scare everyone in the league. Durant’s mental fortitude aligns well with his atypical body, and the result is destined to be historical dominance.