Which NBA Draft Class Produced the Best Starting Five?

As you know, the 2014 NBA Draft class has been proactively referred to as one of the best collections of talent in the league’s history. We’re just as excited as the next sports blog, but of course we wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t overanalyze this claim in purely theoretical ways.

The question I want to ask today goes thusly: where does a starting five from this year’s draft rank among other draft starting fives throughout recent history? If that’s a bit confusing, please allow me to explain the guidelines of this exercise:

  • The starting fives are judged according to how they would fare over the course of a seven-game series. So, the highest ranked team would have the highest chance of winning (in my completely subjective opinion), and so on, through the last ranked team–which is no good and very bad.
  • Because I have something resembling a day job, I will pick just five players, and we can assume the benches are all equivalent.
  • This is all purely hypothetical, so we might as well have fun with it and assume each player on each team is at their prime over the course of these playoffs. So, when you see (spoiler alert!) Yao Ming, picture the tall man when he had something resembling working human knees.
  • “Recent history” in this case will begin in 1998, which is arbitrary but also coincides with Michael Jordan’s retirement–er, one of them, anyway. The one where he didn’t play baseball, but played for the Wizards later on.
  • Hindsight is 20/20, which means I won’t just put the first five draft picks on a team. Sorry, Darko. All first round talent is available, in the interest of fielding the best possible rosters.
  • It is completely possible that my starting fives will err in some atrocious way, due to an oversight or just a completely biased love for Kirk Hinrich. I would love your feedback, as long as you keep it nice and ask me how I am and stuff.

Here we go, presenting the starting fives for each draft in the modern era (again, going from worst to best):

2013

Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mason Plumlee, Gorgui Dieng

One of the reasons that the 2014 draft will look especially beefy is that last year’s haul was historically paltry. And I’m pretty sure that last sentence has never been written before, so enjoy the history we’re making together! But seriously folks, I’m really not sure if a single one of these guys has an All-Star appearance in him. I sincerely hope the Greek Freak keeps growing into his freakish potential, but that’s no sure thing considering he’s stuck in Milwaukee. Oladipo projects to be a decent player with nice upside, but at a position that’s currently replete with talent. And Mason Plumlee is merely not as bad as we figured he would be, but that’s still a long way from being a game-changing player. So yes, last year’s draft was bad.

 

2000

Jamal Crawford, Michael Redd, Darius Miles, Kenyon Martin, Jamaal Magloire

To be honest, I almost ranked this team much higher due to my huge basketball crush on the wonder that is Jamal Crawford. The man is an offense unto himself, even to this day. Also, let’s not forget that Michael Redd was selected to represent our country in the 2008 Olympics. One can only assume that he carried that team singlehandedly to Gold. AND let us take a moment to recognize that Jamaal Magloire was the second Canadian in history to be named to the All-Star team–be sure to impress all your friends with that tidbit! All that said, this is still a bad team, considering Darius Miles had a much more positive impact on Van Wilder than he ever had on an NBA team.

 

2002

Juan Dixon, Fred Jones, Caron Butler, Amar’e Stoudemire, Yao Ming

That may just be the most irrelevant theoretical back court ever constructed. Really, marvel your eyes at the ineptitude. Juan Dixon was a college star and Fred Jones was… an NBA shooting guard. That being said, Butler had some more than respectable years with the Wiz kids, and apparently his nickname was ‘Tough Juice,’ which has somehow fallen out of common use. Power Forward is actually a strength on this squad, as the choice between Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer is between one talented player who would go on to become broken down and overpaid, and another talented player who would go on to become broken down and overpaid. And then there’s Yao, who was the coolest. Regardless, though, this is a pretty atrocious team, and any ball movement that would occur is as theoretical as this exercise in the first place.

 

2011

Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, Kawhi Leonard, Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter

There is some good athleticism on this team, which is what people say about players who are obviously talented but can’t seem to live up to their potential. I love Kyrie as much as anyone, but the fact is that his teams haven’t reached the playoffs, or even cracked .500 (though in the East winning half your games would lock you into a six-seed, apparently). Leonard is the rare extremely talented guy who the Spurs got their hands on, pretty much epitomizing what a 3-and-D guy looks like in the modern NBA. As for the rest of them, well… Shumpert was supposed to break out this year, but he’s succumbed to the bad habits requisite of being a Knickerbocker, pouting lots and bricking lots and just generally being an unpleasant player to watch. And Derrick Williams, God bless his heart, will hopefully do something to prove himself as an NBA player. But he hasn’t yet.

 

1999

Baron Davis, Manu Ginobili, Shawn Marion, Lamar Odom, Elton Brand

Marion has been one of the more underrated players of the past several years, considering his defensive versatility, his bulldog mentality near the basket, and a jump shot that has no business being acceptable yet is actually quite good. Add him to Ginobili, beautiful Ginobili, who has been disproving the haters ever since he entered the league last millennium. Of course, when Odom and Baron are on the same team anything is possible, including large amounts of alcohol and burgers. Add them to Brand, an undersized power forward/center at 6’9″ (and a two-time All-Star to boot!), and you have a respectable team. There’s no transcendent players though, which explains this roster’s relatively low ranking.

 

2006

Rajon Rondo, JJ Redick, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrea Bargnani

Now’s when things start to get fun. How many assists could Rondo get with this team (assuming he completely ignores Bargs)? Would Rudy Gay finally be able to take smart shots? The spacing would be decent, although this team would be historically dreadful at defense, considering nobody here could really defend the rim. But they would be a fun team to watch, at least until they start losing and Rondo pulls out his moody cat routine. I love Aldridge’s game, though, so that’s gotta count for something.

 

2009

Stephen Curry, James Harden, DeMar Derozan, Blake Griffin, Taj Gibson

This is a tricky five to sort out, considering there are so many talented guards, while the only two true big men available are Byron Mullens and Hasheem Thabeet… yikes. In case you forgot, though, here are some of the guards selected AFTER Minnesota picked two Point Guards with the fifth and sixth selections: Brandon Jennings, Gerald Henderson, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Ty Lawson, Darren Collison, Patrick Beverley, and Patty Mills. And all the Wolves got out of their picks were a guy who now plays in Australia and a charismatic teddy bear who can’t shoot a lick. Anyway, the starting five for this year is extremely athletic and extremely small. They can and will run anyone into the ground, will put up 150 points a game, and will give up at least 148. In other words, this might be the most entertaining team of all, but that doesn’t mean they would be the best.

 

2012

Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond

It’s getting more and more difficult to rank these teams, because at this point they’re all pretty excellent. Yes, Lillard doesn’t know how to play defense YET, and Barnes hasn’t really progressed as much as one would hope, but Anthony Davis is a superstar in the making, and Drummond is growing into a more than competent big man. Throw in Beal’s perimeter shooting and you have a solid offensive team that can space the floor fairly well, and again will attempt to outscore you rather than limit your points. As these guys continue to grow, this team’s ranking is bound to rise.

 

2010

John Wall, Evan Turner, Paul George, Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins

Let’s not understate the awesomeness of a Wall-Boogie reunion, and the chance for Boogie to play with a bunch of really talented guys. Yes, he and Monroe might clog up the lane a bit, but that’s a chance any coach would take in a heartbeat, or so says I. Meanwhile, Wall might be the most underrated point guard today–he has a solid case for being the third-best at the moment behind Tony Parker and Chris Paul. Then again, Russell Westbrook and Goran Dragic might disagree… remember when I said Oladipo’s going to have a hard time getting to the All-Star game? This is what I was talking about… In other news, Paul George has had a difficult second half this season, but remember that he has played consistently excellent defense through all his shooting funks, and he’s still only 23. LeBron didn’t have it all figured out at that age, so give George some time to keep progressing. He’s a truly frightening talent, and when he’s not busy with his off-the-court sexting woes he shows occasional glimpses of brilliance.

 

2004

Ben Gordon, Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard

It’s hard to believe these guys got drafted an entire decade ago, especially considering Dwight Howard still acts like he’s 17. This draft was actually sneakily deep, considering I had to forego guys like Shaun Livingston, Josh and JR Smith, Trevor Ariza, all solid guys in their own right. And don’t forget the Timberwolves, who had to forfeit their first round pick for having violated the salary cap restrictions. What a sad, sad team… From now on I can label every single team as super athletic, but just in case you don’t realize, this team is super athletic. Dwight and Big Al could take turns dominating the paint, while Deng and Iggy could do just about anything that a basketball player might be asked to do. There might be some issues with ball movement, but then again not many people could stop a prime Dwight Howard from scoring at will, so it’s not too big of a deal.

 

1998

Mike Bibby, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Antawn Jamison, Dirk Nowitzki

I know, I know, Dirk can’t really play center. But we’re not exactly knee-deep in options here. Besides him, though, this team has two potential Hall of Famers… and Mike Bibby. Dirk is one of the greatest shooters of all time, and he carried a team to a Finals victory. Carter is one of the most athletically gifted players to step on a court, from his highlight dunks to his underrated shooting. If he could keep it together and avoid hissy fits, he could make this an extremely lethal offensive team.

 

2001

Tony Parker, Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler

It was tough to leave guys like Joe Johnson and Zach Randolph off the team, but I like how this starting five looks. Agent Zero/Hibachi was one of the most fearless and talented shooters anybody has ever seen. Parker has been an elite point guard for the past forever, and Pau Gasol is one of the cleverest big men the league has seen. And remember that Jefferson was nothing to scoff at (some years ago, that is. You can scoff today, at him and the Bucks for giving him way, way too many minutes this past season). Also, remember when Dallas won the Championship? That was thanks in large part to the defense that Tyson Chandler so adeptly anchored. This team would be truly beautiful to watch in action.

 

2005

Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Danny Granger, David Lee, Andrew Bogut

Chris Paul is the best point guard alive. Deron Williams, though overpaid, overrated, and perhaps secretly a coach killer, is still quite gifted at the game of basketball. Granger was, for a while, a respectable all-around small forward, never reaching stardom but still putting up nice career numbers. David Lee could wake up in the middle of the night and get you a double-double, assuming he didn’t injure himself while sleeping. And Andrew Bogut is a pesky, blue collar, scrappy fighter–in other words, he’s big and white. But that’s not to say he’s not a force in the paint, but with him, too, that is only when he is healthy.

 

2008

Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Love, Roy Hibbert

Let the bloodbath commence. Rose, when healthy, is on the far end of the “explosiveness” spectrum, with Westbrook not too far behind him. Gallinari and Love could both hit their fair share of threes, especially off Westbrook/Rose drives. And if anyone wants to take a break and send it into the post, Hibbert’s a mighty convenient option to have down there, and oh by the way he offers great rim protection without even jumping. That’s the nice thing about being seven feet and then some. This team would run like crazy, shoot like crazy, and play passable enough defense to get turnovers and not give up too, too many points. Plus, imagine Love’s outlet passes to the dueling point guard banjos. Sweet, isn’t it?

 

2007

Mike Conley, Arron Afflalo, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Joakim Noah

I might be biased in favor of THE SLIM REAPER, but you can’t argue that this is a truly terrifying team to face. This is a team of plus-passers, mostly solid shooters, a rebounding maniac in Noah, and let’s not forget THE SLIM REAPER. Play Durant and four Raymond Feltons and you’re good to go in my book. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but you get my point. DURANT FOR MVP DURANT FOR PRESIDENT DURANT FOR MOUNT RUSHMORE! Also, Afflalo has the distinction of being the only NBA player to directly inspire a Kendrick Lamar song, so thank goodness for him. Conley is the weak link, but even he isn’t so weak, considering he wouldn’t be asked to do too much anyway. Durant is the greatest offensive force of this generation, and the other guys ain’t too bad. LONG LIVE THE SLIM REAPER!

 

2003

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, David West

You knew it was coming. This is essentially the Heat plus one of the greatest offensive players of the past decade, and a bulldog in West. And yes, I put LeBron at the point, but don’t you dare complain. He essentially plays a version of that anyway, and I don’t have to explain myself to you, so there. Nobody can doubt that he’s already in the discussion of the greatest to ever play the game, and he’s still in his prime. Meanwhile, Wade carried a team of his own to a Finals victory, while contributing plenty to two other Championship teams. Of course, in the modern era teams that feature LeBron James are usually pretty great. Add a Hall-of-Famer (Wade), two perpetual All-Stars (Anthony and Bosh), and a solid player with good leadership ability (West), and you have the best starting five of any draft class in the modern era.

 

So the question, which must at this point go unanswered, is just how does the 2014 draft class stack up? Here, to the best of my estimation, is what the starting five would look like today (assuming Jabari Parker declares in the coming days):

2014

Marcus Smart, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Joel Embiid

That’s leaving off several potentially very good players, including (my hero) Shabazz Napier, Dante Exum, Gary Harris, Kyle Anderson, Noah Vonleh, and Aaron Gordon. Sure, Randle has some bust potential, and Embiid might never stay healthy, following a long tradition of big men with big injury troubles. But for now, let us be optimistic. Let us imagine a bright day when everyone lives up to their potential, when Wiggins is a superstar and Parker isn’t far from it. Sure, it’s never come to fruition in any other draft throughout history, but hey, maybe this is the year everything finally works out. The future is a many-splendored thing, people!