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The 53 Best Franchise Players In The NBA, 2016-17 Edition

Two weeks into the NBA season, it’s still too soon to come to many sweeping conclusions about the state of the league. Maybe the talent-stuffed Warriors will continue to underperform like so many superteams have before them; maybe they’ll click and start dominating. Maybe the Clippers really are the best team in basketball; maybe they’ll still have to reckon with the trend of point guard-led teams underperforming in the playoffs. Bottom line is, there’s a lot of basketball left to be played.

In some ways, then, it feels more relevant at this stage of the season to check in on the state of the game at the player level. So we thought we’d use our CARMELO projections to update an analysis we did last year: finding the league’s top 50 (or thereabouts) franchise building blocks. These rankings are based on preseason projections, ordered according to how much value each player is expected to produce1 over the following six seasons (including 2016-17). But for each player, I’ve also listed how much a player is exceeding (or underperforming) his preseason projected box plus/minus so far this season. We’re only a few games into the NBA’s infamously long regular season, but some players could play themselves up or down the list based on how they’ve performed thus far.

In keeping with last year’s 53-player ranking, here are the 53 best franchise players in the NBA for 2016-17, according to CARMELO:

41 D. Valentine CHI 23 SF -6.1 K. Hinrich R. Gaines 23.2
42 Elfrid Payton ORL 23 PG -4.3 B. Davis L. Wright 22.9
43 A. Drummond DET 23 C +0.7 S. Kemp A. Biedrins 22.2
44 K. C.-Pope DET 24 SG +1.9 H. Hawkins H. Barnes 21.5
45 Eric Bledsoe PHX 27 PG +0.4 K. Lowry L. Drew 21.4
46 Nicolas Batum CHA 28 SF -1.1 A. English R. Davis 21.4
47 B. Ingram LAL 19 SF -0.2 C. Bosh A. Wiggins 21.3
48 M. Plumlee POR 27 C -0.8 J. Noah C. Johnson 20.6
49 Gorgui Dieng MIN 27 C +2.1 J. Noah S. Pollard 20.2
50 Al Horford BOS 31 C -1.3 P. Gasol T. Gugliotta 20.0
51 A. Wiggins MIN 22 SF -1.9 S. A.-Rahim M. Beasley 19.9
52 Ed Davis POR 28 PF -5.4 D. Davis T. Battie 19.4
53 Jae Crowder BOS 27 SF +0.7 D. Majerle H. Pressley 19.4
Top NBA franchise players: Nos. 53-41

Based on “upside WAR” — wins above replacement with negative seasons zeroed out — over next 6 seasons.

Al Horford at No. 50! That’s probably not what the Celtics were hoping for when they inked him to a $113 million contract, but he’ll also turn 31 in June and his reputation has always (slightly) exceeded his numbers. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins is an old hobbyhorse here at FiveThirtyEight, and — although his breakout season hasn’t quite materialized yet — CARMELO thinks he’ll start to show his true skills during the 2016-17 season. He’s not alone among the talented-but-kinda-raw perimeter types in this group, which also include Elfrid Payton, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and rookies Brandon Ingram and Denzel Valentine. CARMELO has been particularly high on Payton for a few years now, though he (like Wiggins) hasn’t shown many signs of turning that potential into production thus far.

31 Paul Millsap ATL 32 PF -1.5 K. Malone D. Roundfield 28.2
32 D. Russell LAL 21 PG -0.1 R. Westbrook Z. LaVine 27.0
33 Otto Porter Jr. WAS 24 SF +4.3 R. McCray H. Barnes 26.4
34 Kris Dunn MIN 23 PG -1.5 D. Lillard L. Jackson 26.0
35 Kevin Love CLE 28 PF -3.4 J. Sikma S. A.-Rahim 25.3
36 Blake Griffin LAC 28 PF +5.5 P. Gasol B. McAdoo 24.2
37 Joel Embiid PHI 23 C -0.1 J. Noah M. Bradley 23.9
38 Steven Adams OKC 24 C +1.7 V. Divac J. Valanciunas 23.8
39 Ricky Rubio MIN 26 PG -7.0 J. Kidd A. Hill 23.8
40 J. Winslow MIA 21 SF -3.3 K. Garnett M. K.-Gilchrist 23.7
Top NBA franchise players: Nos. 40-31

Based on “upside WAR” — wins above replacement with negative seasons zeroed out — over next 6 seasons.

A few years ago, Kevin Love would have ranked much higher on this list. But a couple of good-but-not-great seasons since joining the Cavs have dropped his standing within the league significantly. Ditto Blake Griffin — though Griffin’s problems have largely been the result of injuries, not underperformance. Griffin’s strong start to 2016-17 suggests he might be moving up the rankings soon. Also, check out Minnesota, with two point guards in this group. Ricky Rubio has always been a tantalizing player for statheads, but often a disappointing one; even this year, he’s been injured and played poorly in the two games he did suit up for. Kris Dunn is younger, but still a rookie, and he’s also been uneven in 2016-17 thus far. How he, Rubio and Wiggins perform will go a long way toward determining whether the T-Wolves live up to the playoff-bound expectations CARMELO set for them in preseason.

21 D. Cousins SAC 26 C +1.6 K. Malone B. Griffin 33.7
22 Jimmy Butler CHI 27 SG +2.4 D. Majerle J. Howard 33.7
23 Paul George IND 27 SF -2.1 D. Wilkins L. Hughes 32.9
24 Kemba Walker CHA 27 PG +3.8 J. Terry E. Johnson 32.6
25 Marcus Smart BOS 23 PG -7.7 D. Harper J. Givens 32.3
26 Kyrie Irving CLE 25 PG -4.1 S. Curry B. Gordon 32.0
27 G. Hayward UTA 27 SF +0.1 C. Mullin B. Roy 30.1
28 Nerlens Noel PHI 23 C J. Sikma S. Swift 28.6
29 Derrick Favors UTA 26 PF -5.2 P. Gasol S. Swift 28.4
30 Victor Oladipo OKC 25 SG -3.2 R. Allen O. Mayo 28.2
Top NBA franchise players: Nos. 30-21

Based on “upside WAR” — wins above replacement with negative seasons zeroed out — over next 6 seasons.

In this neighborhood of the rankings, you’ll find a number of really solid players either entering or already in their primes, though not all of them have met expectations in the early going. Boston’s Marcus Smart, for instance, was a CARMELO favorite in 2016, but he didn’t have the star turn the algorithm expected and he’s been downright bad so far this season. (Unsurprisingly, Boston has also failed to meet preseason projections as a team this year.) But Charlotte’s Kemba Walker has been a pleasant surprise: His individual numbers have beaten CARMELO’s forecast,2 and his Hornets are off to a 6-1 start. It could be another career season for a player who’s improved his BPM every year of his career.

11 Dr. Green GS 27 PF +1.3 L. Nance R. Reid 43.1
12 Chris Paul LAC 32 PG +11.9 J. Kidd K. Johnson 42.0
13 Ben Simmons PHI 20 PF C. Bosh A. Bennett 42.0
14 K. Porzingis NY 22 PF +0.0 D. Nowitzki Y. Jianlian 39.7
15 Rudy Gobert UTA 25 C +0.2 J. Noah D. Causwell 39.5
16 Damian Lillard POR 27 PG +1.5 R. Allen B. Roy 39.2
17 John Wall WAS 26 PG +1.2 J. Kidd T. Evans 38.0
18 D. Jordan LAC 29 C -2.2 B. Wallace E. Okafor 36.6
19 Kyle Lowry TOR 31 PG -2.2 G. Payton G. Williams 36.3
20 Aaron Gordon ORL 21 PF -1.4 L. Deng M. K.-Gilchrist 34.0
Top NBA franchise players: Nos. 20-11

Based on “upside WAR” — wins above replacement with negative seasons zeroed out — over next 6 seasons.

We’re starting to enter the territory of elite players. Then again, the NBA is a notoriously top-heavy league, so all of the names in this group are still probably too young (Hi, Aaron Gordon), too old (Kyle Lowry) or too otherwise flawed to be the No. 1 player by value over the next six seasons. But this portion of the list features some fascinating possibilities for future league leaders, including John Wall and his breakneck speed, Damian Lillard and his endless range, and Kristaps Porzingis and Ben Simmons, who both have freakish star potential. (Though we won’t really see what Simmons can do this year until he returns from a foot injury.) And although Chris Paul slipped down to No. 12 from eighth place last year, he’s played like a man possessed in the early going this season. (Maybe the Clippers can win a ’chip with a star point guard after all!)

1 Stephen Curry GS 29 PG -4.5 L. Bird T. Porter 73.0
2 R. Westbrook OKC 28 PG +6.2 M. Jordan G. Hill 63.1
3 James Harden HOU 27 SG +5.9 L. James G. Hill 62.7
4 K.-A. Towns MIN 21 C +1.2 K. Garnett J. Smith 59.4
5 Kawhi Leonard SA 26 SF +5.1 C. Drexler W. Davis 51.0
6 LeBron James CLE 32 SF +0.5 K. Malone D. Wade 50.0
7 Anthony Davis NO 24 PF +1.8 K. Garnett D. Favors 45.6
8 Kevin Durant GS 28 SF +0.4 K. Malone B. Daugherty 45.1
9 G. Antetokounmpo MIL 22 PG +6.2 K. Garnett R. Gay 43.6
10 Nikola Jokic DEN 22 C -1.3 S. Kemp Z. Pachulia 43.2
Top NBA franchise players: The top 10

Based on “upside WAR” — wins above replacement with negative seasons zeroed out — over next 6 seasons.

Finally, the top 10. And first, the surprises: Nikola Jokic at No. 10? (Twenty-year-old big men don’t put up the kind of season he had last year very often.) Giannis Antetokounmpo at No. 9? (His youth and versatility are great indicators for the future, and he’s playing even better so far this season.) Kevin Durant down at No. 8? (CARMELO is still cautious after KD’s injury-plagued 2015 season.) Anthony Davis, last year’s No. 1, dropping to seventh place? (You can read our analysis of AD’s down 2016 season here and here.) Defending NBA champ LeBron James below up-and-comers Kawhi Leonard and Karl-Anthony Towns? (This one depends how gracefully LBJ ages.)

But at No. 1, we’re rolling with longtime FiveThirtyEight favorite Steph Curry. Although Curry is off to a weaker start than projected this season, his revolutionary 2015-16 season was one of the greatest performances in league history. Russell Westbrook is the greatest triple-double machine known to man (and has only added to his legend so far this season), so we’ll have to keep an eye on the Steph-Russ derby all season. But for now, Curry projects to contribute the most value of any NBA player over the next six seasons, to go with all the other Warriors high up on this list.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.


  1. Specifically, how much positive value; we quantify a player’s upside by adding up his wins above replacement and zeroing out negative seasons.

  2. He has a +6.6 BPM, compared to his projection of +3.0.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.


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