Ranking NBA players isn’t a new idea, but we put a different spin on it. All rankings are subjective, but typical rankings are also arbitrary — they view players in a vacuum.
To get our top 50, we decided to have ten different writers each attempt to draft the best starting five for the 2019-20 season only, forcing people to decide which players they would actually want on their teams. It also gets a group consensus and helps give context to the “star on a bad team” vs. “scalable role player” debate.
Anyone expected to play the entire 2019-20 was eligible to be drafted, including incoming rookies. Injured players (most notably, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Victor Oladipo, Jusuf Nurkic, and John Wall) were not eligible to be drafted. The draft took place a few days before the real life NBA Draft.
Of course, there’s one obvious drawback to creating a top 50 by drafting — each pick becomes dependent on previous picks as teams look to build a starting five that fits well together. So no, this isn’t a perfect way to create a top 50 (no such thing exists), but it’s at least a unique look at the league’s top talent.
Ten Liberty Ballers writers took part in our five-round, ten-team snake draft, including (and in draft order) Adam Aaronson, Steve Lipman, Dan Volpone, Adio Royster, Andrew Favakeh, Justin Carter, Brian Murphy, Emily Anderson, Jackson Frank, and Sean Kennedy.
Here’s a look at the results of the draft:
1 (Adam): Steph Curry
2 (Steve): Kawhi Leonard
3 (Dan): Giannis Antetokounmpo
4 (Adio): Anthony Davis
5 (Andrew): Joel Embiid
6 (Justin): James Harden
7 (Brian): LeBron James
8 (Emily): Paul George
9 (Jackson): Nikola Jokic
10 (Sean): Karl-Anthony Towns
11 (Sean): Damian Lillard
12 (Jackson): Kyrie Irving
13 (Emily): Rudy Gobert
14 (Brian): Kemba Walker
15 (Justin): Russell Westbrook
16 (Andrew): Zion Williamson
17 (Adio): Bradley Beal
18 (Dan): Jimmy Butler
19 (Steve): Ben Simmons
20 (Adam): Draymond Green
21 (Adam): Jrue Holiday
22 (Steve): Blake Griffin
23 (Dan): Pascal Siakam
24 (Adio): Luka Doncic
25 (Andrew): Devin Booker
26 (Justin): Al Horford
27 (Brian): Khris Middleton
28 (Emily): Mike Conley
29 (Jackson): Robert Covington
30 (Sean): Tobias Harris
31 (Sean): Jayson Tatum
32 (Jackson): Jaren Jackson Jr.
33 (Emily): C.J. McCollum
34 (Brian): Myles Turner
35 (Justin): LaMarcus Aldridge
36 (Andrew): Trae Young
37 (Adio): De’Aaron Fox
38 (Dan): Nikola Vucevic
39 (Steve): Buddy Hield
40 (Adam): Otto Porter Jr.
41 (Adam): Brook Lopez
42 (Steve): Kristaps Porzingis
43 (Dan): Kyle Lowry
44 (Adio): Steven Adams
45 (Andrew): Lauri Markkanen
46 (Justin): P.J. Tucker
47 (Brian): Chris Paul
48 (Emily): Kyle Kuzma
49 (Jackson): Donovan Mitchell
50 (Sean): Malcolm Brogdon
Now each writer will explain why they drafted who they did and make the case why they have the best team.
Adam Aaronson (Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Jrue Holiday, Otto Porter Jr., Brook Lopez):
When I found out I had the first pick, I did some thinking, but could not convince myself to take anybody other than the best player in basketball over the last few years: Stephen Curry. The sheer gravity that Curry’s presence alone provides for his team is game-changing, before even considering the statistical value of his all-time great shooting. He is a walking top-five offense no matter who he is surrounded by.
Once I was settled on Steph, I nervously hoped that his synergistic partner in Golden State’s offense and the best defensive player in the NBA, Draymond Green, was available at my next pick. Luckily, he was. This gives me the most dangerous offensive player in decades and the league’s most versatile defensive player… who happen to have elite-level chemistry.
With Steph and Draymond secured, my two hopes were to find a reliable secondary creator / ball-handler, as well as a versatile defensive guard who could guard ones and twos depending on the matchup. Luckily, I found both of those with my next pick. Jrue Holiday is a perfect fit as a third wheel alongside Steph and Draymond — while he doesn’t provide the elite spot-up shooting like Klay Thompson does, he can take on the toughest perimeter assignment on defense every night, and provides a dynamic to the offense that Klay doesn’t with his scoring ability.
I must confess that I hoped for Robert Covington to slip to me at 40, but Porter Jr. is a great consolation prize. He gives the team’s three high-level creators and a fantastic spot-up shooter to make life even tougher for defenses, and with his size and athleticism, adds to the team’s overall defensive versatility.
At 41, I debated whether to take the best possible floor spacer or the best possible rim protector here, and ultimately decided on the former, with Brook Lopez being that player. His role will simply be to stand at the 3-point line, stretch out the defense and be ready to launch 3s. While not a great defender, he’s far from terrible, and given the players in front of him, it shouldn’t be an issue at all.
I was genuinely thrilled to end up with this starting unit, because I simply don’t see any holes. There are three high-level defenders, including the best defender in basketball; and there are three high-level shooters, including the best shooter in basketball. I obtained a duo that has tortured opponents for years and surrounded them with the perfect mix of creation, size, defense and shooting.
Steve Lipman (Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin, Buddy Hield, Kristaps Porzingis):
I would have taken Kawhi Leonard with the first pick. As we just saw in this postseason, when healthy, Kawhi is absolutely in the conversation for being the best player in the NBA. On the biggest stages, Leonard can score from all three levels, defend the best player on the opposing team better than anyone else, and close games as a primary ISO option. What Kawhi does is also easily translatable onto any team, so he was a no-brainer. Despite the fact that I will never forgive him for ending the Sixers’ season the way he did, he had to be the choice.
In Ben Simmons, I saw a player who could form a havoc-wreaking defensive tandem with Kawhi. The two can switch 1-4 better than almost anyone else in the league. Ben’s virtuoso passing would also prove vital for finding Kawhi on open opportunities. The knock on Ben, of course, is that he can’t shoot (have you heard?). So from here, I had to prioritize good shooters so that my fictional team didn’t run into too many spacing issues. Ben does provide great versatility defensively, however. So going forward, I could take the BPA for the most part, trusting that Ben and Kawhi can defend most any position.
At 22, I took Blake Griffin. Another forward, I know, but Blake was simply too good a player to pass up this point. Some other options I considered (Kyle Lowry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Paul) either did not present as good value as Blake, or overlapped with Ben in a way I felt unnecessary. In Blake, my team (the 76ers) adds a one-on-one post scoring machine, good rebounder, and much improved 3-point shooter. As the Sixers saw firsthand last season, Griffin can heat up in a hurry and carry an offense. Also, over this long season, we should be able to mitigate the injury risk by not overloading his offensive burden and leave him to strictly guard 4s and undersized 5s.
If Ben Simmons is going to be our nominal point guard, we need a knockdown shooter next to him. Enter Buddy Hield. He’s a dead-eye shooter that slots in perfectly to shoot off the catch next to the primary initiators in tow. They’re doubling Blake or Kawhi? Find Hield open for 3 or cutting to the hoop. Hield’s biggest deficiency is certainly his defense, but on a team with Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons, the team should be able to hide Buddy on the weakest wing on the other team.
With my final pick, I took Kristaps Porzingis. This was purely a value play. We do know not exactly when Porzingis will be back from his torn ACL or exactly how good he’ll look once he’s back. But the injury was long enough ago that unlike Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, Kristaps was fair game. If healthy for the majority of the season, Kristaps should far outplay his draft position. He’s a versatile offensive player with a silky jumpshot, and a consistent rim protector my team needed. Defending a Kawhi-Kristaps pick-and-pop is a thankless task.
In summation: my team is fantastic. I have playmakers, shooters, versatile defenders, injury risks- everything. As a one-year proposition, we’re ready to win the chip. Show ya luv.
Dan Volpone (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Nikola Vucevic, Kyle Lowry):
I was really surprised Giannis was still on the board at three. The league MVP will still be just 24 years old at the start of next season, and his shot can only get better. He’s also pretty easy to build around, as he can play any position, and I wasn’t planning on taking any more non-shooters.
When it was time for my next pick, Butler was pretty easily the best player available, so this was kind of a no-brainer. In the third round, I was between Blake Griffin and Pascal Siakam, but Steve grabbed Griffin the pick before me, so I was comfortable going with Siakam. The NBA champion can shoot from the outside, defend all over, and score at the rim. He’s still only 25, and has improved every season, so it’s not hard to see him expanding his game to include making shots that aren’t from the corner.
Next, I went with Nikola Vucevic. He scores and defends well in the paint, and he’s a really good rebounder. He also shot 36.4 percent from 3 last season, so while he and Siakam can both get their points in the paint, they also have the shooting ability to spread the floor when Giannis gets inside. And at 43,I took Kyle Lowry, who was somehow still available despite being an NBA champion who is good at everything.
I feel great about how my team shaped up. On offense, each player is capable of scoring from the outside and the inside. While there isn’t a single dead-eye 3-point shooter on the team, my non-Giannis players all shoot it well enough that none of them can be purposely left alone, which frees Giannis to function as the elite slasher and facilitator he is.
On defense, every player guards his position well and has the athletic ability to handle occasional switches. With Giannis, Siakam, and Vucevic inside, this team won’t be giving up anything easy at the rim. And even when Giannis isn’t guarding the ball, his ability to get deflections and blocks from all over the floor should terrify opposing offenses.
Adio Royster (Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Luka Doncic, De’Aaron Fox, Steven Adams):
There were options with the fourth pick after Curry, Kawhi, and Giannis all went in the top three. Going with Joel Embiid wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Jokić was on my list as well, but come on, I had to take Anthony Davis with my first-round pick. Embiid was the very next pick followed by Harden (who I wasn’t too big on) and 17th season in the league Lebron James. If this were 2005-2015, Lebron is my pick (if he’s there at all). In 2019, nah, dawg. Give me Anthony Davis. He’s the best big man in the NBA. (Apologies to the fan base, but he is.) Davis is a career 24/10 guy at age 26, and if Frank Vogel has any sense, the Lakers’ offense will run more through Davis than it will Lebron. (Don’t at me.)
Filling out the roster with my second and third round picks, I went with Bradley Beal and Luka Dončić. Beal is coming off his best season ever with the Washington ex-Bullets (25.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, .581 TS%, 35% 3PT). His 3-point percentage took a dip, but he was still in the 88th percentile for spot-up jumpers according to Synergy Sports.
Dončić had a fantastic rookie season, winning the Rookie of the Year award. The virtual unknown aside from YouTube videos and grainy (possibly illegal) European basketball streams is the real deal (21.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 6.0 apg). His shooting numbers will get better as the talent around him gets better. If he’s still on the team after his sexual misconduct allegations, Kristaps Porzingis will make Dončić better next year.
I was SO HAPPY De’Aaron Fox fell to me at 37. I was deathly afraid Andrew would take him the pick before me, but he went Trae Young. Thank you, Andrew, because I am crazy high on De’Aaron Fox. After a decent rookie season, Fox started 81 games this year and averaged 17 and 7. Fox’s bug-a-boo coming out of Kentucky was his shooting from distance, but Fox has become damn good from 3 (37.1 percent). I love his athleticism. I love his defense. I love his improved shooting ability. Fox has a chance to be my favorite non-Sixer player in 2019-20.
To finish, I could’ve gone with Lauri Markkanen at 44, but I went with Adams. Is Adams a sexy pick? No. Is he boring? Maybe, but he was a solid defender last season (2.1 DBPM), and he might be the best offensive rebounder in the NBA (4.9 last season, 5.1 the year before). He’s probably the toughest guy in the league because I don’t think any one player has taken more shots to the groinal region than Steven Adams. That should count for something.
Andrew Favakeh (Joel Embiid, Zion Williamson, Devin Booker, Trae Young, Lauri Markkanen):
Joel Embiid was a top-five player this season. He was on my (theoretical) all-NBA first team. He was, at one point, my pick to win defensive player of the season. He was the best player on a team that had a legitimate crack at the NBA finals had a lucky shot not clanked in. Now, this isn’t to say James Harden isn’t top-five, nor LeBron, nor Jokic. I’m not going to attack those aforementioned players: I think anyone of them could easily be top-five next season. But I believe Embiid, if he makes slight improvements, is a lock to be in the running for the MVP race. As for my thought process: pick Embiid, figure out the rest later.
To preface the explanation of my next pick: I can’t say I’m sure Zion Williamson will be the 16th-best player next season. In fact, he probably won’t be. He’s a rookie; it’s more likely he falls in the 25-30 range. But here’s the thing: he’s a sure thing. He’s really good at basketball. His dunks are akin to the thunderous power of Zeus and even that undersells so much more nuance he brings to the table. Dribbling, passing, defense, etc. Even more important, the Pelicans, in my opinion, are a sure thing. Brandon Ingram is good and vastly underrated by the masses. Zion supposedly thinks he’s a “25-30 point scorer.” Jrue Holiday, who is known around these parts, and Lonzo Ball form a scary sight to behold defensively. At the end of the day, this team, I predict, will land somewhere between 45 and 50 wins. I’m not sure how hot that take is. Fit-wise, I don’t love the Zion-Embiid pairing, but Zion’s vast skills and his fit within the new-look Pelicans trumped the field.
After drafting Embiid and Zion, I had to pick a shooter. Just had to. It’s why the Ben Simmons-Embiid pairing is troublesome: a lack of spacing. Simmons in the dunker’s spot. Embiid in the post. It works more often than not because both are top-20 players (according to this draft at least), but it’s not... ideal. What is ideal, however, was Devin Booker. A knockdown shooter? Check. Really good passer? Check. The best player on the board? I think so. Sure, there were some names; Khris Middleton, Mike Conley, Tobias Harris, Jaren Jackson Jr. (!), but Booker, well, he can shoot...and do a lot of other things too.
With Booker already in the backcourt, I can understand potential gripes with defensive issues. But Trae Young had a wonderful rookie season and with his ability to handle the ball will take the load off Booker at times. Him and Embiid could form an exciting lob duo, rooted in the Hawks’ common double-drag action, which would empower Embiid as a ball-screener (something him and Ben Simmons have not formed).
I think Zion can play any position. That’s why I chose Lauri Markkanen, whom I believed to be the best option available, with my last pick. The next reason? I think there’s some potential for Markkanen to play the three. He started taking defenders off-the-bounce and even flashed an ability to run the pick-and-roll as a ball-handler. In the frontcourt, Embiid negates his deficiencies as a defender. Any problems he has on the perimeter, too, Zion only helps. Above all, he hits 3s and spaces the floor for Zion and Embiid.
Justin Carter (James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Al Horford, Lamarcus Aldridge, P.J. Tucker):
For my draft, my number one priority with the sixth pick was to just pick the best person available at that time, which happened to be James Harden. Harden — who has been a top-two MVP finisher in four of the last five seasons — somehow fell out of the top five in a fake draft about who the NBA’s best players are, which...ok, y’all!
My second pick was Russell Westbrook, for no other reason than pairing the two in the backcourt again seemed funny. If I was building a real team, would have probably gone Jimmy here, but how could I not team these guys back up?
After that, it was Al Horford, because I’ve always wanted to pair him with Harden. The Rockets basically just use Clint Capela as a rim runner offensively, but I want to see Harden with a center who can shoot the ball. Horford is also impactful on the defensive end, but offensively, this version of Horford really becomes a catch-and-shoot stretch five and opens the floor up for some good drivers.
Fourth, I picked LaMarcus Aldridge, who...yeah, I guess basically becomes my interior dude offensively. Can I have this pick back? I like Aldridge, but not really with this team I have built.
My last pick was P.J. Tucker. I guess he plays the three in this accidentally too big lineup, but if we pretend I also have a bench to work with, having Tucker to slide around the lineup will be #fun.
Brian Murphy (LeBron James, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Myles Turner, Chris Paul):
With my first pick landing at seventh overall, my strategy going into the draft was very Hinkie-esque, as I wanted to just choose the best players available and worry about fit later, and in Round 1, I think I accomplished that landing LeBron James, a player who I still value in a one-season scenario more than quite a few of the players picked above him. The problem with the LeBron pick is that we just saw a season of The King and players who didn’t fit well with him and it didn’t go very well, so I had to switch up the big board a bit. Kemba Walker may not be quite the player that Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler are, but he’s a bit of a better fit and we’ve seen LeBron succeed with a high-usage point guard alongside him.
The Khris Middleton and Myles Turner picks in Rounds 3 and 4 were fairly easy, surrounding LeBron and Kemba with some trustworthy shooters who are used to playing with high-usage ball handlers, while also getting a couple of guys who will, ya know, defend. With my last night, I went with another aging superstar who I think the book is being written on too early: Chris Paul. After shockingly rubbing another teammate the wrong way, CP3 has been in the news of late and many are writing him off as washed. While he might not be able to beat his man off the dribble, he’s still one of the smartest players in the NBA, and on this team he would be able to hound opposing guards defensive, while also playing the floor general role that suited him so well for his entire career.
Emily Anderson (Paul George, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, C.J. McCollum, Kyle Kuzma);
With my first pick, I went with best available player: Paul George. At the time, I was between George, Jokic, and Lillard. I went with George because I wanted someone who could take over a game, and who had the potential to have an MVP (and DPOY) caliber season.
The rules were to make the best team possible, and Rudy Gobert is one of the best centers in the game. In 2018-19, he was appointed to the third team All-NBA, first team all-defense, and led the league in defensive plus/minus and EFG%. Yes, he tends to flounder in the playoffs, but you can’t make the playoffs if you don’t have a good regular season.
I wanted a veteran floor general to run this team. Last season, Mike Conley had an assist percentage of 32.7%. With shooters on the floor, I wanted someone who could distribute the ball well. That’s not to say that Conley can’t shoot in his own right. Last season, he scored 21.1 points a game, shot 36.4 percent from 3-point range and only committed 1.3 turnovers per game (as a Sixers fan who has been scarred by turnovers from a point guard, this is crucial).
Not going to lie, C.J. McCollum was a little bit of a heart pick. I have personal ties to Lehigh, and think his story of coming out of a small basketball school to being one of “the guys” in Portland is awesome. That’s not the only reason I picked him, however. I really wanted a shooter, who can have a great night and really go off, but whose real value is in his consistency. McCollum didn’t have a career year in 2018-19, but he is a player who can consistently contribute 15-plus points a night.
Kyle Kuzma is my wildcard player. The inexperienced, young spark plug. I wanted someone who could have a breakout year, whose full potential isn’t realized yet. Of the young players available, Kuz felt like our guy.
With an MVP candidate and two DPOY candidates from 2018-19, I think my team is a force to be reckoned with. Paul George is one of the best players in the league, point blank. We have an experienced point guard in Conley, who can create for his teammates and make shots himself. He plays with a tenacity and a will to win that is an X-factor on this team. Our center, Rudy Gobert, is a back to back DPOY who led the league in dunks last year. McCollum and Kuzma are strong players who can make shots and complement the “Big 3” of Gobert, Conley, and George. I like our chances.
Jackson Frank (Nikola Jokic, Kyrie Irving, Robert Covington, Jaren Jackson Jr., Donovan Mitchell):
With my first pick, I was deciding between Lillard and Jokic. While I’m wholeheartedly a longstanding fan of Dame, I wanted the offensive centerpiece who had a smaller chance of being contained in the playoffs. We’ve seen traps and hedges limit Lillard’s productivity in ball-screen action whereas Jokic is only constrained by his passiveness. Plus, he’s yet to hit his prime, so there’s a chance he’s even better next season.
By my second pick, Dame and Curry were both off the board. I want an offensive superstar in the backcourt to pair with Jokic, one that could operate off the ball. Kyrie is exactly that. He can swipe handoffs, run off screens, direct pick-and-rolls and get his own shot in isolation. He’s a great fit next to Jokic and they combine to form a deadly one-two punch.
From there, I was already working with two limited defenders as my centerpieces. I needed a guy who could play a low-usage offensive role — AKA hit spot-up 3s — and be there to cover for any defensive breakdowns from Jokic and Kyrie. Enter Covington, one of the smartest and most instinctual off-ball defenders/playmakers in the NBA. He’s a great fit on the wing and will be there to make any necessary rotations defensively.
I wanted to keep leaning into that defensive transition, so I snagged Jaren, who has huge breakout potential on both sides of the ball next season. He’s a great rim protector, can switch onto guards and flashes a budding offensive game with some go-to scoring upside in the post and plus outside shooting. He’ll serve as the primary rim protector because Jokic falls short in that regard. Now, my team has two offensive superstars and two defensive minded front-court guys who can hit spot-up 3s. Great fit.
Perhaps due to the infamous 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race, Mitchell fell all the way to me in the fifth round. He adds secondary perimeter creation, is a very capable on-ball defender when engaged — I’d wager a smaller offensive workload will help — and can knock down 3s at a moderate clip. He has warts, but he’d be the third option offensively and could look to unleash his athleticism defensively. Definitely worth the pick.
Sean Kennedy (Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard, Tobias Harris, Jayson Tatum, Malcolm Brogdon):
Acknowledging the disadvantage of picking 10th in a league where the top-end talent has an outsized impact on the game, I feel confident in stacking my team’s offense against anyone. The worst any of my players shot from 3 last season was Damian Lillard’s 36.9 percent, and that’s only because he lofted up 8 attempts per game, many of which came from well beyond the arc. I can’t imagine what defenses would do against a Lillard-Towns pick-and-roll, with KAT able to pop out and knock down 3s at a 40 percent clip himself, and Dame having playoff-series-winning-shots-from-the-logo type range. With Harris, Tatum, and Brogdon all spacing the floor, and all solid secondary playmakers in their own right, this group would generate historic levels of offense.
Defensively, my team would have more difficulty, where four of the five guys are average-at-best. The need for a plus-wing defender (as well as his willingness to maintain a lower usage offensively) was why I selected Brogdon with my final pick, over more high-profile scorers still left available. Still, no one in the lineup is a true sieve, and Harris and Tatum provide good size and switchability at the forward positions. I think the swing element of my team going from super-fun, go-go offensive group, to championship-level roster, would be Towns’ willingness to commit on the defensive end and provide adequate rim protection. Entering his age-24 season, I’m optimistic about his continued growth in that area, as well as my team’s title prospects.
The image below gives a look at all ten rosters.
Let us know who did the best job drafting by voting in this poll.
Who drafted the best starting five?
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Also let us know in the comments your thoughts on how the draft went. Who went too high and too low? Who wasn’t drafted that should have been, and who was drafted that shouldn’t have been?