Top 7 NBA Teams Still Looking for a Franchise Star to Build Around
To win an NBA title you need at least one franchise player—one superstar. Certainly it’s better to have two, but one is essential.
While a franchise player is difficult to define, statistics are a good place to start.
Since 1978, only three teams have won a title without a player who finished in the top 10 in Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Of those teams, two were the 1989 and 1990 Detroit Pistons, who were led by Isiah Thomas—unquestionably a franchise player.
In essence, a franchise player is someone who you feel can carry a championship team—in the present or future. At any given time there are no more than 10 of them in the league, and that’s being generous.
Some teams have a player who they can build around but are still adding the necessary pieces. Others have the pieces but not the franchise player to build around. Then others, such as the Charlotte Bobcats, are so young that it’s hard to tell whether they have both or neither.
There are seven playoff-caliber teams without a franchise player. These teams should, if the opportunity arises, consider revamping the roster to incorporate a new franchise player. They are ranked here according to their present strength.
For each team I’ll identify why their current stars are not franchise players and the best trade chips to acquire one. The trade chips are players you could build a package around, not players who could yield a return of a franchise player by themselves.
The Toronto Raptors are going to be a significantly better team in 2012-13. In fact, this core of players may be the best Raptors team in franchise history by 2014-15.
To be fair, that boast is not nearly as spectacular as it sounds. The franchise record is only 47 wins. This core has the potential to bring Canada’s first-ever 50-game winner, ergo the best in franchise history.
Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors’ top draft choice from 2011, adds a new dimension to the team and a presence in the center. Andrea Bargnani, while a talented seven-footer, is not much of an inside player.
According to basketball-reference.com, only 59 of his 209 field goals last season came at the rim, and he wasn’t particularly effective from that range either. His .619 field-goal percentage from under three feet was below the league average of .626.
He does stretch the court, though. From three to nine feet, 10 to 15 feet and 16 to 22 feet, his shooting percentages are all above the league average.
Adding Valanciunas will make a nice complement to Bargnani, providing an inside game to Bargnani’s outside game.
Kyle Lowry gives the Raptors a good point guard who can both score and facilitate. Terrence Ross gives them a shooter in the backcourt. Moving DeMar DeRozan to small forward will be an upgrade over James Johnson.
The Raptors will be a good all-around team, but none of those players are franchise players.
Valanciunas is too slight to impose his will, Bargnani’s inside game is insufficient as previously mentioned, DeRozan lacks defense and doesn’t shoot well enough, Ross doesn’t have the handle he needs to penetrate and Lowry simply doesn’t have the speed needed to compete with the league’s elite point guards.
In short, the Raptors have a lot of good building pieces but lack the cornerstone.
The Milwaukee Bucks have two team members some might consider franchise players, but neither really qualifies. If you combine the defensive efforts of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, you would have a negative number.
Based on data provided by basketballvalue.com, the Bucks were a better offensive team when Ellis and Jennings were on the court together, without question. Milwaukee scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions while they were on the court together, compared to 103.5 when neither was on.
To put that in perspective, that’s the difference between the 22nd-ranked Dallas Mavericks and the fifth-ranked Chicago Bulls.
However, on the other side of the court, the Bucks yielded only 104 points per 100 possessions while they were off the court, compared to 108.9 points while they were on. That’s the difference between the 12th-ranked Magic and the 26th-ranked Cavaliers.
That’s a net difference of -0.5 when neither is on the court compared to a difference of -1.7 when both are on the court.
In other words, combined, Jennings and Ellis make the team worse. That does not spell franchise player.
The Utah Jazz are flush with really super-duper darn good borderline-All-Star big men but don’t have a legitimate franchise player among them.
Derrick Favors is widely thought of as a player likely to have a breakout year in 2012-13. Sekou Smith of NBA.com lists him as one of five breakout players this year.
Favors came back in the Deron Williams trade, as did Enes Kanter via the draft, but neither is quite up to the standard of franchise player. They may have All-Star potential, but not MVP potential.
Gordon Hayward is also threatening to be a borderline star, as he finished the regular season in 2012 averaging 14.1 points in 32.9 minutes per game after that All-Star break.
The Jazz are merrily set in the frontcourt. The backcourt? Not so much.
If the Jazz could get a franchise player at either guard position, they would immediately be one of the best teams in the league.
Ironic, isn’t it?
The Memphis Grizzlies have plenty of “very good” players, but they lack the player who can carry the franchise label.
Among players with at least 500 minutes played, the Grizzlies did not have a single player in the top 50 in Player Efficiency Rating. Marc Gasol, the team’s leader, ranks 55th.
While PER has its flaws, it doesn’t have enough to explain that away.
Some have tried to present Rudy Gay as someone who could be a franchise player, but there’s just not enough justification to that. He only averaged 19.0 points per game last season, and what he does best is score. His PER was only 16.2.
Some will say the reason for that is the balance on the Grizzlies offense. However, even if you account for his 25.1 percent usage percentage, there were 39 players in the league who had a lower usage rate and a higher PER, according to basketballreference.com.
Yes, there can be quibbles here and there about PER, but again, not that many. Certainly there aren’t enough flaws to boost him from 40th to the top 10.
Apart from that, one of the flaws in PER actually favors Rudy Gay in that it values inefficient scorers who don’t play defense. Gay had a .521 true shooting percentage last year.
He should get some credit for his defensive play, though, as the Grizzlies were better defensively by 10 points per game when he was on the court, and his 13.5 opponent’s PER is above average.
He’s good—just not a top-10 player in the league.
What the Memphis Grizzlies have is very close to the Chicago Bulls sans Derrick Rose. Virtually no one gives the Bulls a chance to win a title without Rose.
As stated in the opening slide, having an elite franchise player on your team is essential to winning a championship. What’s not stated is that in addition to a “Batman,” a “Robin” is nearly as important.
Since the merger, over half of all NBA champions have had at least two players in the top 15 in PER, and over 70 percent of the time they’ve had two players in the top 25.
Virtually every time it’s been a frontcourt player paired with a backcourt player: Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, for example.
There have been exceptions, such as the Celtics of the ’80s, but Larry Bird fulfilled the role of the backcourt player with his deep shooting and tremendous passing.
Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were frontcourt and backcourt players, but the roles were somewhat flipped.
The point here is that the Hawks have a very capable Batman in Al Horford, but he’s not quite up to the standard of Robin. Josh Smith is a more than adequate third option, but not a No. 1 by any stretch.
One of the great exaggerations of last season is how much “better” Smith played and his improved shot selection. His true shooting percentage actually plunged from .540 to .499.
Yes, his scoring went up 2.3 points per game, but it took him 3.2 more shots to get there. His free-throw percentage took an abysmal plunge from an acceptable 72 percent to an unacceptable 63.5 percent.
My guess is the reason he was missing from the stripe is his arms were tired from the excessively long two-pointers he was chucking up.
The Hawks made a brilliant, if not miraculous, trade when they found a taker for Joe Johnson’s spectacularly horrid contract, but they still need an elite backcourt player on the roster. That wasn’t Johnson, and it’s not Jeff Teague, Devin Harris or Anthony Morrow.
The Denver Nuggets are an intriguing team to involve in the whole “franchise player” discussion, because you can make a very good argument that they parlayed their franchise player into becoming a better team. It also brings the necessity of having a franchise player into debate.
Part of the issue here, though, is whether Carmelo Anthony is really a true franchise player.
He’s never finished in the top 10 in PER or Win Shares. He’s never been on an All-Defensive team, and he’s never been slighted from being on one either. Statistically, he’s not a top-10 player.
If one concludes that being on the First or Second All-NBA Team means a player is a top-10 player, then Anthony has only been named to the second team once. Only once has he ever been in the top 10 in MVP shares.
So, whether you’re looking at it objectively, by stats, or subjectively, by voting, he isn’t a top-10 player.
Anthony was never really a “nugget” in the first place; he was fool’s gold. Still, Denver managed to get New York to buy him at real-gold price.
Now it has a greatly bolstered roster with a lot of talent. Adding Andre Iguodala makes it even deeper and more talented.
What it doesn’t do is give Denver the franchise player it needs. With Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers topped with the superstar talent they have, it’s hard to imagine Denver getting past the second round without one.
The Boston Celtics might be the only team in the NBA right now that can pull a Detroit Pistons and win a title without a true franchise player.
They can do this because they have a couple of players in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce who once were sufficient enough to carry a franchise. They also have a player in Rajon Rondo who is not a franchise player but has a tremendous ability to generate shots for his teammates.
Rondo also has a kind of Chauncey Billups-type flair to him, where he can turn things up another notch and play at a franchise level when he needs to.
Rondo, however, is not a franchise player—he is simply not a good enough scorer. He’s close, but not close enough.
Many people have been pushing this notion that somehow “scoring point guards” are bad, arguing that you can’t win a title with a “shoot-first point guard” and that a “score-first point guard” hasn’t won since Isiah Thomas’ Pistons.
Here’s the problem with that argument: “Pass-first” point guards fare even worse. Steve Nash never won a title. Jason Kidd finally won one, but only as a somewhat peripheral player on the team. At the time he won, he had a career low in both points and assists.
John Stockton never won a title. Kevin Johnson never won a title. Mark Jackson, Andre Miller and Rod Strickland combine for a grand total of zero titles.
When you look at the career leaders in assists, only those who are also great scorers, such as Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, led their teams to titles.
Of course, every team that wins a title has a point guard, and the ’08 Celtics had one. So did the ’09 Lakers with Derek Fisher. That doesn’t mean that Fisher “won” a ring in the colloquial sense of having led his team to that win.
Rondo really can’t shoot. Hoopdata breaks down the court into five ranges: at the rim (which is less than three feet), three to nine feet, 10 to 15 feet, 16 to 22 feet and over 23 feet (three-point range). Rondo is about 10 points shy of the league average in all areas except the 16-to-22-foot range, where he is 0.8 percent over the league average.
In other words, he’s a really, really bad shooter.
Not only that, but his overall field-goal percentage has gone down sharply over the last two seasons, from .508 in 2010 to .475 in 2011 to .448 in 2012. This is in spite of maintaining roughly the same usage percentage. This suggests that as he has taken on more of an offensive role, he has drawn more defensive attention.
He gets streaky, and everyone praises him as a triple-double machine. Rondo only broke 10 points in scoring 29 times in 53 tries this year. That’s 10 times fewer than he broke double figures in assists.
Because of that, it’s very hard to see him being the catalyst of an offense that doesn’t have “sidekicks” like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (who are not getting any younger).
Rondo is an elite passer, but elite passers who don’t score don’t win titles unless they have someone to pass to. Rondo is the perfect point guard for the Celtics right now, but he’s not a franchise player, and the Celtics will struggle when they lean on Rondo to create more offense.
The Celtics had three franchise players five years ago. Now they’re down to none.