Over any major sports league, the NBA has an edge in its ability to showcase its players’ starpower. I’d like to take a deeper look into what makes a modern NBA team championship caliber, and then put together a roster under the salary cap that would result in the perfect modern NBA team. To define “modern”, I’m looking at the attributes of the NBA’s top teams of the last 10 years (2010-present).
What Makes a Modern NBA Team Successful?
In today’s NBA you can’t win a championship without at least one of the league's superstars. To prove this to be true, here is a list of each champion’s stars the past 10 years:
Each one of the players named is one of the league's best 25 players EVER… If you take the best of the best, these teams mostly have more than one star. The Big 3 in Miami and the KD Warriors each had 3 of the league's top 20 players at the time. The Heat’s third best player, Chris Bosh, would’ve been the best player on at least 15 other teams. The same can be said for Klay Thompson. Other notable stars on these teams include: Pau Gasol, Jason Kidd, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kyrie Irving.
You have to have capable three point shooters at 4 positions at the minimum in order to keep up with today’s teams. While defense is still a vital part of a team, so is having the ability to score at will from anywhere. If you look at 2020 championship contenders including their starters that are capable 3 point shooters the list includes:
Lakers: 4 out of 5
Bucks: 5 out of 5
Clippers: 4 out of 5
Rockets: 5 out of 5
Celtics: 5 out of 5
It also helps tremendously to have a wing player that can shoot the lights out of the ball (Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal, Paul George, etc.). These players can change games lightning quick when they get hot. Bradley Beal just a month ago dropped back to back 50 point games--Klay Thompson almost hit 40 points in a quarter! Previous Championship teams have also had bench scorers that can drill threes--Kyle Korver and Mike Miller you matter too! Players that can fill a vital role off the bench on a nightly basis are just as important as some of the starters (The Warriors would have one less championship without Andre Iguodala).
Kawhi will lock up Steph Curry or Joel Embiid, the 9 inch height difference doesn’t matter. While Kawhi is an anomaly, previous champions have all had at least one player that can guard 1 through 5.
Those dudes will all guard whoever you put on them. While Durant’s ability to score at will brought an offense like no one has ever seen to Golden State, his defense made them unstoppable. Having 2 players (Durant/Iguodala) that could lock up anyone on the court was just simply unfair.
While the NBA has become a fast paced shootout, screens haven’t gone anywhere. A team that can switch any matchup is at an immediate advantage. While the Rockets defense may be lacking, it has brought an element of frustration to opposing offenses as every screen is switched. If they had the personnel to defend at a high level, they could have become a powerhouse. Point being, height isn’t the end-all-be-all. You need defenders that can quickly switch on screens and defend any player that they are matched up against.
The roster consists of 12 players that would create the best possible team in the NBA under the salary cap. Every element of the players’ games is considered including their basketball IQ, character, skills, teammate chemistry, and salary.
2019-2020 salary cap: 109.1 million
*All salaries based on the 2019-2020 season
Point Guard: Luka Doncic
Salary: 7.77 million
While It was tempting to put LeBron in this spot, Luka’s contract is too good to pass up. At 7.77 million he is the biggest steal out of any player on this team. While he isn’t known for his defense, his 6-7 frame makes it easier to get in the way of opposing point guards. In his first two seasons he has registered a positive defensive plus/minus. So while he won’t be guarding the opposing team's best player, he will be making a positive defensive contribution. On offense, Luka can shoot from anywhere on the court, which helps this team as he may not always have the ball in his hands. His basketball IQ is already one of the best in the league and should help facilitate LeBron in running the offense.
Shooting Guard: Wesley Matthews
Salary: 2.56 Million
Bet you didn’t see this coming… But Wes Matthews is one of the most underrated players in the league. He’s the perfect compliment with ball handlers around him. He's a career 38.2% career 3 point shooter while also averaging over a steal a game. He’s exactly what you want in a wing 3 and D player. If the Bucks are to win a championship, he will be a big part in that and could be their Mike Miller. At 2.56 million, Matthews is a steal, and is LeBron’s dream teammate. He’s a better/cheaper Danny Green, who was The Lakers (LeBron’s) top catch in free agency. I almost elected to put Donovan Mitchell in this spot but reality is that Matthews fits the lineup better- there’s only one ball.
Small Forward: LeBron James
Salary: 37.44 Million
It would be completely irrational to try and put together the NBA’s best team and leave LBJ off. Arguably the GOAT, LBJ has accomplished everything anyone could’ve asked. You could make the argument he should have at least 5 MVPs. LeBron fits this team as the other primary ball handler to Doncic, and the pair’s basketball smarts should completely overwhelm the opposition. While LeBron isn’t the all defensive player he once was, he still has the ability to switch 1 through 5, which is one of the best abilities in basketball. He’ll be able to handle the inferior forward while he lets Kawhi lock down the opposing team's top player.
Power Forward: Kawhi Leonard
Salary: 32.74 Million
While I almost elected to pick Giannis instead, Kawhi’s ability to make a huge difference without the ball in his hands won out. Kawhi is the perfect teammate and can make a difference from anywhere on the court. Pairing him with two 6-7+ ball handlers is almost unfair. He’ll get open shots all game long while locking down the opposing team’s best player. The salary is expensive, but as shown above you need superstars and Kawhi is as good as it gets sans LeBron.
Center: Pascal Siakam
Salary: 2.35 Million
Spicy P signed a 4 yr 130 million dollar extension back in October but luckily we got him at 2.35 million for one more season. Siakam is an unbelievably gifted offensive player as he can score from the inside or outside with guard-like handles. While Kawhi was far and away the best player on the Championship Raptors, Siakam shouldn’t be forgotten. He proved he was a capable defender and has the quickness to switch onto guards and not miss a beat. His contract is just a bonus as he becomes the cheapest starter on the team.
Salary: 6.27 Million
Trae has flashed greatness and it’s fair to wonder how great he could be with a better supporting cast. For this team, he becomes the lead dog off the bench. Trae’s IQ and passing ability should lead to open looks and easy transition buckets for his teammates. While his size makes it difficult on the defensive end, his flamethrower shot making should more than make up for it. Trae’s effort on the defensive end never lacks and he should have an easier time with formidable teammates around him.
Salary: 3.64 million
Mitchell is a star in the making as he quickly has become the Jazz’s go to option. He can score from the inside or out while also getting to the free throw line often. He’s also a good enough defender to take on the best player on the floor when he’s out there. His team friendly style should make him an easy fit with this roster.
Salary: 2.63 million
While Caris doesn’t carry the name recognition as the other players on this team, he has become one of the league's most improved players. He hustles on defense and has microwave abilities on offense. Flashback to his 51 point game on March 3rd, that's the upside he brings on a nightly basis.
Salary: 3.53 million
Sabonis is another player that signed an extension back in October (4 yr 77 mil), but we get one more year at his rookie price. Sabonis went from a name in the PG blockbuster to future star quite fast. While he’s an old school player, he has new school range. He's a great scorer in the post and should be a great post option for Trae off the bench. He is also a capable defender with impressive rebounding skills. Looking at tape, he also is a high energy player who coaches never have to worry about his effort. At just 3.53 million he’s an easy choice to be one of the first bigs off the bench.
Salary: 3.45 million
Bam has transformed his game in just a few short NBA seasons. He was never known for his passing and ball handling, but now he is gifted in both as a big. While the skills competition doesn’t mean much, it's incredible to see a bouncy dunker turn into a well polished modern big man. On the defensive end, Adebayo should clean up the glass at ease off the bench.
Salary: 1.42 Million
Who? That's right, the next Kyle Korver fits perfectly with this roster. First let's start with his cheap price tag. At 1.42 million he’s easily the cheapest player on the team, but don’t let that minimize his abilities. Robinson can get hot at any time and change a game. While he hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves, he's quickly become one of the league's best shooters. Every champion needs a flamethrower off the bench, just ask LeBron, he has one every year (JR Smith, Korver).
Salary: 2.69 million
While Collins doesn’t have some of the offensive capabilities Sabonis and Adebayo have, he is the most athletic out of the bunch. Collins is a high flyer who has begun to extend his range and abilities. He is not great at guarding 5s, but with the surrounding roster, he should have no issue guarding the opposition’s power forward. On offense, he’ll run the floor and be a great finisher. We’ve seen what he can do with Trae Young on the floor and luckily that won’t change with this team either.
Total Salary: 106.49 Million
*All salary information found on Basketball-reference.com