With the NBA's transactional silly season winding down and teams shifting focus to how they'll fill out the ends of their benches, it's a good time to remember that none of these low-level moves actually matter.
OK, that's an exaggeration. But all the attention paid to midlevel exceptions, second-round picks and fringe-rotation free-agent acquisitions makes it too easy to forget that every team is only as good as its alpha. The NBA is still all about cornerstones, and we're going to highlight and rank the very best ones.
Bleacher Report NBA staff writers Dan Favale and Grant Hughes will tackle the task, using fairly simple parameters: These are the players you'd pick to lead your team over the next five years. The aim is to win as many regular season and playoff games as possible, with championships as the ultimate goal.
Critically, we're looking at an entire five-year window. That makes age a factor here and explains why a handful of 30-somethings don't make the cut.
These are the stars most capable of anchoring a big-time winner over the next half-decade.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
For whatever reason, Booker continues to be ranked a cut below the league's foremost megastars. And that's...weird. Not only is he just 26 (turns 27 in October), but he boasts one of the Association's most complete scoring packages.
Booker has the acceleration to blast through to the basket, his mid-range game is the stuff of picture-perfect legend, and he's probably under-utilizing his off-the-dribble three. There is also a palpable "Kevin Durant but with more movement" scalability to his offensive fit away from the ball. Coupled with his advancement as a defender and passer, Booker is more than deserving of an honorable nod.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Curry is entering his age-35 season, which all but disqualifies him from the top five. At the same time, his offensive transcendence hasn't been ravaged, at all, by the passage of time.
There's a real chance he remains a top-five player for the lion's share of this half-decade window. You can't reasonably say the same for Durant or Kawhi Leonard or anyone else on the wrong side of 30.
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Edwards, 21, feels like the player most likely to crash the top-five-player discussion over the next half-decade (non-Victor Wembanyama division, of course). His domineering drives and finishes need no clarification, but his progression as an impact defender, engine-of-the-offense playmaker and operable spot-up shooter still fly under the (national) radar.
Off-the-dribble jumpers feel like his swing skill. (It could still be his ceiling as a defender.) He isn't the most efficient pull-up marksman, but he can generate a ton of separation and just drained over 38 percent of his step-back triples.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
No guard in the league outstrips the 25-year-old's interior scoring. The footwork, ball-handling, shifts in cadence and direction, angled finishing—they all make up an arsenal that's as eclectic as it is eccentric.
Incremental growth as a passer has followed SGA's evolution into one of the NBA's most prolific self-creators. And while Oklahoma City has insulated him against All-NBA defensive assignments, he is very much a two-way player. If he sustainably increases his volume from three, his place in this discussion will skyrocket.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Availability, games played, conditioning, yada, yada, yada. Whatever. Those concerns are enough to displace Zion from the final cut. But this is someone who was just the best player on what became, more than momentarily, one of the top two squads in the Western Conference.
There is no comparison on offense, historically or otherwise. Zion, still only 23, is like Orlando Magic-era Shaquille O'Neal cannibalized some of the best parts of Peak Charles Barkley and Blake Griffin. If you told me that he'd average 60 games played per season over the next half-decade, I'd immediately vault him into the top three.
5. Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio Spurs
If Victor Wembanyama is even 80 percent as good as the hype suggests, how could we possibly leave him out of the top five?
We get out over our skis with a prospect from virtually every draft class, envisioning multiple All-NBA nods for guys who've been legally driving for maybe two-and-a-half years. But Wembanyama isn't Paolo Banchero, Cade Cunningham, Anthony Edwards or Zion Williamson. He enters the NBA with the "generational" tag that even the most overzealous talent evaluators reserve only for the likes of LeBron James and Tim Duncan.
If Wembanyama doesn't belong here, everyone in the scouting industry is dead wrong.
At the very least, it seems safe to assume Wemby will be one of the two or three best defensive players in the NBA by 2024. His length, mobility and timing will produce league-leading block totals and shot deterrence, allowing the San Antonio Spurs to populate the roster with scoring threats because they know Wembanyama will erase so many mistakes.
Offensively, it may be a challenge for the Spurs to figure out how to best use a player type nobody's ever seen. But even that unknown speaks to Wembanyama's potential greatness. Typically, bigs anywhere close to his size are relegated to either strict roll-man duties or standstill spot-up shooting—if they're given any offensive responsibility at all. Wemby can excel in both of those conventional roles, but he's also basically a 7'5" small forward who can create his own shot in isolation anywhere on the floor.
This is our most speculative and, by definition, least informed pick. But it's been close to 20 years since anyone entered the league with Wemby's potential.
4. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
Luka Dončić will finish at the very top of this list for a bunch of people. And that's fair!
The 2023-24 campaign will be his age-24 season. He won't even be 30 by the end of this five-year outlook. And unlike Jayson Tatum, he's almost universally considered a top-five player.
No player is better right now at dissecting and manipulating defenses from the point of attack. Much like Nikola Jokić, Dončić is a top-three to -seven offense unto himself.
His step-back jumper is world-renowned and considered his trademark—and it is, in fact, devastating. But he long ago honed his scoring at every level. His touch from mid-range is impossible to thwart. He has the size, at 6'8", to get off jumpers on a dime without any space, and his floater is among the most lethal in existence.
Punishing mismatches down low has become second nature—he averaged 1.14 points per post-up possession last season (84th percentile)—and he doesn't receive nearly enough credit for his finishing over and through contact at the basket. The free-throw volume speaks for itself. Ditto for the ridiculously surgical passes he throws, both on the move and from standstills.
Defense remains an sticking point in any Dončić discussion. But he's big enough—and omnipresent enough on the glass—that he'll never be the largest liability. If there's a concern that holds him pack, it's his capacity to shape-shift.
Can he play off the ball more? Be used as a consistent screener? Get moving in from the corners?
Right now, mostly out of necessity but also by design, Dončić has played one, incredibly specific way. That potentially limits how you flesh out a roster around him. His extended partnership with Kyrie Irving will be a good litmus test for whether he's more inflexible offensive monopoly or scalable transcendence.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
As you'll soon see, the absolute top tier of our rankings feature in-prime players who have nothing left to prove. Jayson Tatum falls just short of the top two because he's got one last unchecked item on his superstar resumé.
Despite reaching four conference finals in his six seasons and earning two straight All-NBA First Team nods, Tatum doesn't yet have a championship.
Here's the thing, though: He's only 25.
So even if you're of the opinion that Tatum isn't quite dominant enough as a leading scorer to power a playoff offense through four rounds, and even if you're a little concerned about the way he can completely lose his three-point shot (see: 2-of-18 from deep in Games 5, 6 and 7 against Miami in the East Finals), you've got to acknowledge that this is a player only just now entering the best years of his career.
Tatum has finished in the top six in MVP voting two years running, owns a stunningly strong overall postseason track record highlighted by a 51-point eruption in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers last May and is almost certainly going to get better.
So while the players ranked ahead of him have achieved more in the past, Tatum's youth might make him the smartest bet to outpace the field going forward.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Next year will be Giannis Antetokounmpo's age-29 season. That, ostensibly, makes for a perfect half-decade window. But it's also not yet known how gracefully his game will withstand the rigors of time.
So much of what he does—the acceleration going downhill, strides in transition, explosion around the basket, indomitable defensive displays—is rooted in incomprehensible athleticism. That could give him a shorter megastar lifespan than select peers.
And yet, we're not particularly worried. The tail end of his this exercise runs through his age-33 season. That's not ancient—not even in athletic-singularity years.
Giannis has also added layers of finesse and tact to his game each and every season. Though the efficiency isn't always pretty, he has incorporated pull-up jumpers and back-to-the-basket counters when defenses force him to slow down. His passing is no longer just reactive; he doesn't have to subsist on blow-bys and anarchic collapses to set up his teammates.
Afford Giannis enough space in the half-court, and he will always have the size, length and strength to shine as a screener and play-finisher. His defense may never miss a beat. He won't always shoot unfathomably large gaps in a nanosecond, but he's carved out Defensive Player of the Year credentials by capitalizing on his length and smarts away from the ball as much as his physical tools.
Basically, for the next four to five years, it's tough to see Giannis doing anything other than cementing his status, over and over and over, as a top-five player.
1. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
At 28, Nikola Jokić already has two MVP awards and a championship to go along with the highest career Box Plus/Minus of all time—ahead of Michael Jordan, LeBron James and whichever other GOAT candidates you can think of.
This isn't an argument for Jokić deserving to rate ahead of anyone who's ever laced them up, but his statistical production and team success to this point in his career are more than enough to set him apart from all of his current peers for purposes of this exercise.
Unlike many of the younger players on this list, Jokić could retire tomorrow and be assured of first-ballot entry into the Hall of Fame. And unlike his older contemporaries, he's showing absolutely no signs of decline. Nothing about what makes Jokić so preposterously dominant is likely to deteriorate with age. It's not as if his size, vision, touch and passing chops will fade when he enters his 30s. Run-and-jump athletes lose a huge part of what makes them so special as they age.
Jokić's most important skills are evergreen.
Lastly, we haven't talked about this much so far, but Jokić's zero-maintenance superstardom is a key tone-setter for his team. When your best player would rather get kicked by one of his horses than accept individual praise of any sort, it eliminates the ego and selfishness that cause dynasties to crumble.
If you're building around Jokić, you're getting the firmest organizational foundation possible. And also: loads of triple-doubles, ridiculous passes, wrong-footed floaters, MVPs and surefire contention.
Was there ever really any suspense about who'd occupy our No. 1 spot?