Building the perfect NBA roster

by Jared Dubin

Building the perfect NBA roster is difficult in the real world. Even the best general managers build rosters with obvious shortcomings. Building it in a video game is easy. Anyone with NBA 2K can make enough trades and sign enough free agents to construct the best team in the league.

Building the perfect NBA roster in a fictional universe, however, seems like a worthy endeavor, so we set out to do just that. But just saying “build the perfect NBA roster” is too broad, and if you take it literally, far too simple. What we needed was the concept of what a real roster would look like in a fantasy land where every single player in the league is up for grabs.

In order to construct that fake reality and still build the best roster possible, we adhered to the following set of rules:

  • There will be 14 players on the roster. 13 of them will be active on game days and one will be inactive. The leftover roster spot will be used to rotate through two-way and 10-day contracts throughout the season.
  • Our owner is a stickler and not only refuses to pay the luxury tax but refuses to pay even one cent more than the league-mandated cap. Therefore, the combined salary of all 14 players must fit under the salary cap, with at least a little bit of breathing room to sign the aforementioned two-way and 10-day players.
  • Each NBA team can be represented on our roster by no more than one player. We can’t just pick the Warriors and be done with it.
  • There must be exactly seven players from Eastern Conference teams and exactly seven players from Western Conference teams on our roster. We also can’t just load up with players from the superior conference.
  • There must be exactly four players on our roster who are on rookie-scale contracts, but there cannot be more than one player selected in the first round from any specific draft — including those drafts whose players are no longer subject to the rookie scale. (Meaning we can’t just take all the best rookies from the 2017 class or take both Kevin Durant and Al Horford, for example.) We’re assuming our team did not acquire any extra first-rounders in any given season, nor did it aggressively trade away first-rounders in order to acquire top-tier talent.
  • The roster cannot contain second-round picks or undrafted players acquired in consecutive years. It’s extremely rare for a team to find a contributor in the second round or undrafted free agency in back-to-back seasons, so it would be unfair for our team to have done so.
  • There can be a maximum of two instances of first- and second-round picks from the same draft class. It’s also rare for teams to find a contributor in both rounds of the same draft, so our team can’t have done that too many times.
  • There can be a maximum of three players on minimum-salary contracts. We’re not loading up on ring-chasing vets who are too good for their contracts.
  • Our team will be coached by Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz. We run an egalitarian offense that promotes a lot of ball and player movement as well as burden-sharing among ball-handlers, plus heavy usage of dribble hand-offs, pick-and-rolls, and flare screens. Defensively, we funnel everything toward our big man in the middle and switch if necessary, but prefer to play straight up and force opponents into a pocket of space near the elbows where we can swarm them with size and make them throw long, crosscourt passes and take contested shots late in the clock. The players selected for our roster should make sense for this system on both ends of the floor.
  • Our goal is not just to build a good team that would work well on the floor and win lots of games, but also to provide surplus value for ownership — the value of our individual players’ production should exceed their salaries by as much as possible. In order to highlight said value, we compared their salary for the 2018-19 season to their projected value in 538’s CARMELO projection system, which assigns a dollar value to each player’s projected production for each NBA season.
  • We can’t pick LeBron James. There has to be some sort of real challenge here.

If this idea sounds familiar, it’s because ESPN’s Bill Barnwell did the same thing last season for the NFL. Without further ado, here’s our roster breakdown. Players at each position are listed in alphabetical order, while the starters and bench players are denoted in a separate section below.

Guards: $27,662,305 (27.55%) 


Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors

Toronto’s 2015 first-round pick is one of our four players on a rookie-scale contract. Wright has good size at 6-foot-5, and his 6-foot-7.5-inch wingspan plays well in our system. He has experience working both as a solo point guard and next to another ball-handler in the backcourt thanks to the way the Raptors construct their rotation, and he’s shown above-average 3-point shooting ability as well. As our primary backup point guard, Wright should easily out-perform his $2,536,898 salary in the final season of his rookie deal.


Devin Harris, Dallas Mavericks

Harris hasn’t played much this season, but that’s just fine. He’s largely on our roster to soak up emergency minutes behind the regular rotation guys and be a so-called “veteran leader.” He has the flexibility to work on or off the ball offensively, as well as defend both backcourt positions due to his size and length. It doesn’t hurt that he has experience working in motion-heavy systems from his days playing for Rick Carlisle in Dallas. For the veteran’s minimum, he’ll do just fine.


Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

Think Mitchell is a good fit for Quin Snyder’s offense? Yeah, me too. Coming off a sparkling debut season, Mitchell has not necessarily shot out of the gate all that hot, but he’ll be afforded far better spacing on our team and have even more dangerous partners in the pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off actions that fuel so much of his success. Mitchell, like the other two primary ball-handlers on our roster, has the flexibility to work either as a point guard or as an off-guard, which is key because it allows us to downshift lineups if we want to go small. His defensive tenacity is a perfect fit for the system, as we’ve seen during his time in Utah. Still, in the second year of his rookie-scale deal, he is an enormous value.


Gerald Green, Houston Rockets

You can never have too much shooting, and Green has long excelled at navigating off-ball screens and hand-off actions in order to free himself for an open look. That he is so experienced working off multiple star teammates, reading their moves and sliding into passing lanes, is a major plus. His increasing comfort on defense over the past few years makes him a nice fit on the wing, and we have more than enough strong defenders to allow him to always pick up the weakest perimeter matchup whenever he’s on the floor. Being able to bring a sniper like Green off the bench is a luxury and one we’ll gladly sign up for at the veteran’s minimum.


Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

Klay’s near-max contract signed back in 2015 makes him hilariously underpaid, as he draws a salary of just $18,988,725 this year. Among players making more than that this season: Andrew Wiggins, Chandler Parsons, Harrison Barnes, Nicolas Batum, Ryan Anderson, Jabari Parker, Tyler Johnson, George Hill, and Jeff Teague. Yes, we will take the second-best shooter in the history of basketball, please. Thompson is perhaps the best off-ball player in the NBA right now, and having him spacing the floor around our pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs is going to make things so much easier for the guys with the ball in their hands. Add in the ability to run him off a series of screens, use him in those hand-off actions himself, or even use him as an on-ball screen-setter, and look out. The fact that he doesn’t need the ball in order to provide tremendous offensively value makes him the perfect player for a team like this. Thompson is also a plus defender at all three perimeter positions, which is just icing on the cake. There’s a reason he was the very first player picked for our roster.


Forwards: $41,894,445 (41.72%) 


Dario Saric, Minnesota Timberwolves

Saric’s recent trade forced us to switch up some of our down-roster players, as he moved from the East to the West and gave us an unbalanced roster. There was never much consideration to swapping him out for another player, though. Drafted in the first round in 2014, Saric spent two years overseas before coming stateside, so he is still on his rookie-scale contract. He’s emerged as a plus 3-point shooter over the past couple seasons (39 percent last year), and he is an extremely heady passer (3.1 assists per 36 minutes in each of his first two seasons), which makes for a nice fit in our offense. The way the Sixers played offensively during his two seasons also gives him extensive experience in dribble hand-off actions, which is crucial for his fit on our team. There are defensive limitations here, of course, but at $2,536,840 against the cap, he is more than worth those troubles.


Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

The second overall pick for this roster, Antetokounmpo, like Thompson, signed a near-max deal that now makes him absurdly underpaid. He costs just $24,157,304 this season, making him the 26th-highest-paid player in the NBA. That’s for a guy who is averaging nearly 26 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game, which is just unheard of production. Giannis’ ability to defend any player at any position makes him an invaluable roster cog, and his ability to work as a primary ball-handler is what makes our starting lineup (more on that below) really work. Put him in almost any action and he is damn near unguardable. He’s also the most devastating transition force in the league right now, perhaps even including LeBron. Now a foundational defensive player capable of ruining any action the opposing offense runs, there was no other possible choice for our starter at this forward slot.


Josh Richardson, Miami Heat

Richardson’s early-season breakout is making this pick look even better than it did when we made it before the year started. His $9,367,200 salary on the extension he signed prior to last season doesn’t come close to capturing his on-court value as the ultimate two-way fill-in-the-blanks guy who now also has the ability to occasionally work on-ball as a primary scoring option. The Heat run a ton of hand-off action so Richardson is familiar with our style of offense, and is comfortable in the egalitarian style we want to play. His development as a shooter makes him a great off-ball weapon, and his size, strength, length, and quickness have helped him emerge as one of the NBA’s better perimeter defenders. With him and Thompson manning the wing, we have a perimeter defense combo that rivals any in the NBA. Richardson is one of our four second-round or undrafted players on the roster, having been selected with the No. 40 pick in 2015.


Luc Mbah a Moute, LA Clippers

Our second second-rounder (No. 37, 2008), Mbah a Moute has been out with a knee injury since early this season; but his fit makes too much sense for us not to take him and wait out his return. He showed in Houston last season that he has so much more off-the-bounce verve than he had ever previously shown during his NBA career, and knows exactly how to make defenses pay for ignoring him — which they routinely do. He is one of the most versatile defenders in all of basketball, as an analysis of Second Spectrum tracking data performed by Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu last season showed that he was one of just seven players to defend four different positions on at least 15 percent of his defensive possessions.


Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks

Veteran leadership wrapped in an awesome package that brings the potential for throwback highlight dunks and 3s, at the league minimum? Say no more.


Centers: $30,863,728 (30.73%)


Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

The max extension Davis signed in 2015 is arguably the best value in the league right now. He trails only Giannis in surplus value, per our calculations, and in this fictional world where his teammates are far better than the ones he has with the Pelicans, he might even surpass Giannis. Davis is as dominant a force as there is in the NBA today, capable of changing every single possession on both ends of the floor. He is a fully foundational defensive player capable of anchoring a top-five defense with his ability to protect the rim and erase space. He is an elite roll man, a great decision-maker with the ball in his hands, and he can create pretty much any shot he wants off the dribble. He’s even gotten much better at stepping out at shooting from 3, where he has hit on 40 percent of his looks this season. He is one of the very best players in basketball — an outright superstar at the peak of his powers.


Daniel Theis, Boston Celtics

Theis went undrafted in 2013 but did not come over until last year, when he signed with the Celtics on a deal that pays a relative pittance. He’s due only spot minutes on this roster on the nights where he’s active, but he’s an intriguing player who has shown an ability to finish well inside and who is not afraid to let fly from deep on occasion. He’s not an elite defender by any means, but he’ll do in a pinch.


Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

Our final rookie-scale player, Sabonis will work as our primary backup center behind Davis. Given his skill set, he can even play alongside Davis in a Julius Randle-type role. We’ve seen from his work with Victor Oladipo that Sabonis excels at the hand-off and pick-and-roll game, and his touch on the interior and passing ability make him a clean fit next to any of our other bigs. He’s not much as a defender, but pairing him with Davis or Antetokounmpo should make that somewhat irrelevant, especially given our perimeter defensive talent.


Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

We needed both a player from the 2018 draft class and another second-round guy and Robinson, this year’s No. 36 overall selection, fit the bill. He’s already starting the for the Knicks, which is nice, but they’re largely doing that as an experiment to see if he knows what he’s doing. He’ll play sparingly on this squad but provides an element of uber-athleticism at the center spot that we don’t really have whenever Davis sits. Add in the fact that he is a shot-blocker extraordinaire and it’s a nice luxury to have him on the back end of the roster.


Total Cap Hit: $100,420,478
Salary Cap Space: $1,448,522

Starters: $81,058,972 (80.72%)

Donovan Mitchell, Klay Thompson, Josh Richardson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis

Bench: $19,361,506 (19.28%)

Delon Wright, Gerald Green, Luc Mbah a Moute, Dario Saric, Domantas Sabonis, Devin Harris, Vince Carter, Daniel Theis, Mitchell Robinson

Mitchell is not a primary point guard, but he did play 34 percent of his minutes at that spot last season, and on this roster, he is sharing ball-handling duties with Antetokounmpo and Richardson anyway. Given the design of our offense, we don’t really need a “true,” run 100 pick-and-rolls a game point guard, anyway. We’re going to share the ball, be in constant motion, and kill teams with hand-offs and flare screens and pin-downs. Mitchell knows exactly how to work within such a system, and should be able to find even more success playing off all the capable offensive threats in this starting lineup.

Thompson has a ton of experience playing with three other stars who command the ball far more often than he does and should be able to do just fine doing the same on this squad. Teams will be even more reluctant to help onto Thompson when it’s Anthony Davis setting a screen for him rather than Draymond Green or Damian Jones or Jordan Bell, so Klay could actually somehow wind up even more wide-open even more often on this squad than he does with the Warriors.

Richardson and Thompson trading back and forth with matchups on the wing, with the flexibility to have Mitchell pitch in there as well, is just mean for opposing offenses. It’s going to be extremely difficult to get the ball into the paint against us, especially when you consider all the length we can throw against you if and when you run pick-and-rolls with Giannis or Davis’ man as the screener.

Giannis should have an absolute field day running pick-and-rolls with Davis, with Thompson and Richardson spacing the floor, and the way he’ll be able to operate on the break with these guys out there with him will be downright terrifying. And if you think Davis has been dominant playing next to Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic and E’Twaun Moore, wait until he gets unleashed on this squad.

Being able to mix and match that group with Wright, Green, Mbah a Moute, Saric, and Sabonis provide us with the flexibility to go big or small and maintain all of our principles on both ends of the floor. All of our guys have the skill sets to work well within the system Snyder runs, and each player should help someone else on the floor showcase what they do best. We have shooting and rim-protection, ball-handling and space-defending galore. We have the perfect NBA roster, with room under the salary cap to spare.

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer.