The perfect NBA roster

by Jared Dubin

With 14 roster spots and limited spending money, it’s time to build the perfect NBA roster for the upcoming 2019-20 season.

The perfect roster is an elusive thing. Prioritize one area of your team and you might end up shorthanded in another. This is especially true within the constraints of the salary cap, where you are naturally restricted in the types of players you can pursue. Still, trying to construct the perfect NBA roster is a worthwhile endeavor, and just as we did last year, we are going to attempt the feat again.

We adhered to the following set of rules, which are modified only slightly from last year’s guidelines:

  • There will be 14 players on our roster, 13 of whom will be active on game days and one who 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 who not only refuses to pay the luxury tax but will not spend even one cent above than the league-mandated cap. Therefore, the combined salary of all 14 players must fit under the salary cap, which is set at $109,140,000 for the 2019-20 season. There must also be at least a little bit of breathing room under the cap to sign the aforementioned two-way and 10-day players. (This year’s roster had a total salary of $108,566,460, leaving $573,540 available.)
  • Each NBA team can be represented on our roster by no more than one player, and there must be exactly seven players from Eastern Conference teams and exactly seven players from Western Conference teams.
  • 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 of 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 2018 class or take both Kemba Walker and Kawhi Leonard.) We’re assuming our team did not acquire any extra first-round picks in any given season, nor did it aggressively trade away first-round picks in order to acquire top-tier talent.
  • The roster cannot contain players selected in the second round or signed as undrafted free agents who were acquired in consecutive years. Basically, you cannot have both Allonzo Trier (2018) and Dillon Brooks (2017), but you can have Trier and Patrick McCaw (2016).  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 also be a maximum of three instances of players selected in the first and second round or signed as undrafted free-agents 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.
  • We’ve overhauled the coaching staff and this year our team will be coached by Nick Nurse of the defending champion Toronto Raptors. We will thus prioritize players with versatile skill-sets on both ends of the floor. Anyone who can handle the ball or work away from it on offense and defend multiple positions on defense is our kind of guy. We want to move the ball around the floor as much as possible but also still have players who can isolate, break their man down, and either get to the rim or let it fly from deep. On defense, we will cut off penetration with length, size and switchability; and we may even throw zone looks at the opposition on occasion. We want multiple rim-protection options available, as well as the ability to downshift into small-ball looks that allow for heavy pressure all over the floor. We’re willing to employ specialists, but only if the particular skill they have makes them much more valuable in a team context than in isolation. The schematic changes made from last year to this year mean higher priority was placed on wings who can also act as primary ball-handlers and a shift from big men who excel in drop coverage toward those who can cover more areas 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 2019-20 season to their projected value in FiveThirtyEight’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, Zion Williamson, or anyone who was on last year’s perfect roster. That means the following players are all ineligible this year: Delon Wright, Devin Harris, Donovan Mitchell, Gerald Green, Klay Thompson, Dario Saric, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Josh Richardson, Luc Mbah a Moute, Vince Carter, Anthony Davis, Daniel Theis, Domantas Sabonis, and Mitchell Robinson.

Without further ado, let’s get to the roster. Note that the category breakdown has changed this year, and players are listed in alphabetic order within the following buckets: lead guard, wing, space big and interior big. Starters and bench players are denoted in a separate section below.

Note: You can also build your own roster thanks to a tool built by Daniel Lewis. Try that out by clicking right here. Just follow the instructions at the bottom of the page and then tweet me (@JADubin5) a screenshot of your roster.

 

Lead guards

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

There are very few players around whom you’d rather build an offense than Damian Lillard. Point guards are often the drivers of their entire offense in the modern NBA, and Lillard does everything you need a modern point guard to do. Pick-and-roll prowess? Check. Limitless range? Check. Ability to turn the corner and get to the rim? Check. Finishing through contact? Check. Willing and able to work away from the ball if necessary? Check. Now take all of that skill and give him some big men who can actually make their pick-and-pop 3s and make some plays on the short roll? Look out. Dame still leaves something to be desired defensively, but it’s not for the type of inattention that can doom an entire possession to ruin. He knows where to be and when, and why; and on a team with some more talent, could give some more effort on that end.

 

Isaiah Thomas, Wizards

Isaiah Thomas is the first of our three players making the veteran’s minimum and will be inactive on most game nights. He’s here because, in the event that our starter (Lillard) is injured, we need someone who has shown the ability to soak up enormous usage rates from the point guard position, pressuring defenses at the point of attack and getting into the paint. If Thomas were still at the peak of his powers, he could fill that role on the regular; but in his injury-riddled state, he makes more sense as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.

 

Monte Morris, Nuggets

Monte Morris broke out last season as the league’s best backup point guard, and he fills the same role on our squad. Given his ability to work on or off the ball, he can even play next to Lillard on occasion, though due to his relatively slight stature (6-foot-3, 175 pounds) it’s probably better if he shares the floor with one of our bigger guards. Perhaps the most important thing Morris brings to the table is that he takes care of the ball and maximizes possessions. His turnover rate was a microscopic 6.6 percent, the best mark of the 3-point era among players who had a usage rate above 15, and also assisted on at least 20 percent of their teammates’ baskets while on the floor. Morris is also a plus shooter from all areas of the floor and a feisty defender, which makes him essentially the perfect backup point.

 

Spencer Dinwiddie, Nets

There were times last season where Spencer Dinwiddie looked like the Brooklyn Nets’ best player, which is really saying something when you consider that D’Angelo Russell made the All-Star team and Caris LeVert looked like he was on his way to doing the same before getting injured. Dinwiddie has excellent size (6-foot-6, 210 pounds) and like almost all of our other perimeter players, has extensive experience playing on and off the ball, and experience playing with multiple ball-handlers on the floor at the same time. It would be nice if he could nudge his deep shooting percentage up a bit, but his ability to break defenders down off the dribble and parade himself to the line is incredibly valuable — especially on bench units that so often lack the type of player who can do those things.

 

Wings:

Joe Ingles, Jazz

I wrote last season that Joe Ingles is the best fifth man in the NBA, and I still believe that to be the case. He is the perfect connector piece for most lineups, able to seamlessly slide into almost any role. He is one of the premier 3-point snipers in the league; and yet because his release looks so funky, teams tend to leave him wide open fairly often. He’s best as a secondary ball-handler on the weak side, but he has the handle and passing ability to work as a de facto point guard, as he did when the Jazz were going through injury issues last season. He works extremely hard defensively and is always in the right spot at the right time, and his size (6-foot-8, 226 pounds) allows him to defend either forward spot, depending on who he’s sharing the floor with.

 

Kyle Korver, Bucks

You could do a whole lot worse as a designated shooter for the league minimum than this dude.

 

Luka Doncic, Mavericks

Imagine if Ingles were right-handed, moved 25 percent faster and wanted to clown everybody in front of him at all times. Now max that player out to the best of his ability, and that’s Luka Doncic. He does just about everything you want a player to do offensively, on and off the ball. He’s a special passer. He can get to any spot on the floor he wants. He is completely unafraid to take any shot at any time. He’s a willing and capable rebounder. He can work as the primary ball-handler or as a second-side option attacking closeouts. He’ll be sharing a lot of the ball-handling duties with Lillard, who is used to such a burden-sharing arrangement and can weaponize his shooting to draw defenders away from Doncic when operating in the middle of the floor. His size is currently his best asset on defense, but the instincts and timing are there for him to turn into a positive on that end as well.

 

Marcus Smart, Celtics

Marcus Smart’s versatility and willingness to defend the opposing team’s premier scoring threat, regardless of position, makes our flexible system work as intended. He can take the pressure off Lillard by always handling the tougher backcourt assignment, and he can switch onto any player in the entire league. In a pinch, we can even use him as the primary defender for true big men. He’s up to the task. Perhaps the streakiest shooter in the entire league, Smart actually bumped his conversion rate up to a career-high 36.4 percent last season, which plays nicely for us. But of course, what he’s really here to do is make winning plays, and just do whatever is needed at the time it is needed to be done.

 

Space bigs:

Brandon Clarke, Grizzlies

Brandon Clarke was the second-most productive player in all of college basketball last season, and his skill-set translates perfectly to the kind of team we’re building. He is an excellent athlete, ranking in the 82nd percentile for players at his position. He does well defending in space, and can seamlessly slide between any of the frontcourt positions on that end. It helps that he also creates a ton of plays on defense, having averaged 4.4 combined steals and blocks this past season. Clarke is a nifty passer, an excellent finisher near the rim and a terrific rebounder. He fits right in.

 

John Collins, Hawks

The progress John Collins made in his second NBA season was marvelous, and he showcased the kind of varied skill-set that makes him the perfect solution as our third big man. He can roll or pop out of screens. He knocked down nearly 35 percent of his triples last season, taking more than three times as many as he did as a rookie. He’s a fantastic rebounder and he does well getting to the line. He’s a solid passer, and while he’s not yet ready to anchor a defense on his own, he can do well enough filling a role on that end of the floor — especially if he’s playing the lion’s share of his minutes against backups.

 

Myles Turner, Pacers

Myles Turner rounded out last season into the player the Pacers have always wanted him to be. It’s rare in the NBA to find a premier rim-protector that can also stretch the floor, but Turner is one of the few who fits that description. He is fully capable of anchoring the back end of a defense, whether as the lone big man or part of a tandem. He is a strong pick-and-pop option who can space the floor, put it on the deck and make plays in the short roll. He appears most comfortable operating as a No. 2 or 3 option offensively, but he also has the ability to take over short stretches of the game. He’s got everything we’re after in a big man, and that’s why he’s our starting center.

 

Pascal Siakam, Raptors

Pascal Siakam was the first player selected for this roster and the fulcrum around which the rest of the team was built. Getting All-Star to All-NBA level production for a player who essentially makes the equivalent of the veteran’s minimum was far too enticing to pass up. It helps that Siakam is an obviously perfect fit for the way we want to play, having helped bring Nurse’s system to life in Toronto last season. He is everything we are looking for in a player: long and quick, springy and agile, and equally comfortable and capable defending bigs and smalls, inside and out; stationing in the dunker spot or spotting up in the corner; setting a screen or using one; and working as either a secondary or primary offensive option depending on the situation and with whom he is sharing the floor. He makes this whole team work.

 

Interior bigs:

JaVale McGee, Lakers

JaVale McGee is not necessarily the most reliable player in the league, but he has proven situationally valuable when playing on a roster stacked with talent. He excelled in a small role as a rim-running dive man in Golden State and acquitted himself nicely in a similar role for the Lakers last season. He can do the same for us, at a minimal cost. We also have the benefit of another similar player on the roster who fills the role even better, so we can really limit McGee to only playing the games and minutes where he is making a positive impact.

 

Nerlens Noel, Thunder

The final player on our roster and also our third player drawing a minimum salary, Nerlens Noel fills the lone role for which we still had a need: the pogo-stick dive man slash rim-protector. Noel has always done fine work in screen-and-roll situations, providing a lob target that aids in vertical spacing. He’s also an active — if at times inattentive — defender, getting his hands on a ton of passes and shots. His rim protection numbers last season were elite: He allowed opponents to convert only 51.5 percent of shots when he was within five feet of both the rim and the shooter, the fourth-best mark among 101 players who challenged at least three shots per game.

 

Starters: $70,390,991 salary (64.5%), $223,700,000 CARMELO value

Lillard — Smart — Doncic — Siakam — Turner

Bench: $38,175,469 salary (35.0%), $111,100,000 CARMELO value

Morris — Dinwiddie — Ingles — Clarke — Collins 

Noel — Korver — McGee — Thomas

Salary: $108,566,460 (99.5%), $334,800,000 CARMELO value

Surplus value: $226,233,540

Our first-unit offense is going to share the heck out of the ball, and attack defenses at every possible level. Dame and Luka sharing ball-handling duties with Siakam and Turner trading off as primary screeners while Smart does Smart things? That’s all kinds of fun.

Lillard is one of the premier pull-up threats in the game, and no matter who sets a screen for him he is liable to let it rip from deep. With Siakam and Turner providing far greater threats to defenses than any of the big men he’s used to playing with, he should also have easier access to the paint than he’s used to. Oh, and we can put Doncic or Smart in the pick-and-roll with him as well, and make defenses extremely uncomfortable.

Doncic and Siakam leading our transition attack, with Smart flying down the wing and Lillard and Turner coming up behind to either step into trailer 3s or kickstart the offense with a drag screen, should be hell for defenses to deal with. There’s a slight concern about shooting in the half-court given Smart’s streakiness, Doncic’s still-developing jumper and Siakam’s on-and-off shooting prowess, but Lillard and Turner are incredibly consistent, and given the amount of space provided by all our threats, we should get good shooting from at least one of the Smart-Doncic-Siakam trio at all times. And if we don’t, well, we can always dust off Korver.

Crucially, we have a trio that also provides the backbone of what should be an incredibly strong defense. Turner was an inner-circle Defensive Player of the Year candidate last season. Smart is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and has the flexibility to defend literally anybody. Siakam wreaks more havoc than anyone, and we know that he can flit in and out of roles in Nurse’s system — and also play up top when we decide to go to the zone. Lillard and Doncic are relative weak links, but there is so much help around them in the first unit — especially with Smart and Siakam available to always handle the greatest threat in the backcourt and frontcourt, respectively — that there shouldn’t be any major issues.

Our bench has three extremely capable ball-handlers (Morris, Dinwiddie, Ingles), two of whom  (Morris, Ingles) are plus shooters. Collins makes for a nice fit next to either Turner or Siakam in the frontcourt, and those three should handle the lion’s share of our minutes up front. Clarke is a chess piece that works nicely with any of that trio as well, and with Siakam in the mix, we can even play three bigs at once, like the Raptors did on occasion during their championship run.

The multi-positionality we have off the bench is key for mixing and matching lineups. Lillard and Dinwiddie? Works. Morris and Smart? Works. Ingles and Doncic? Works. Any combination of any of those six players can play together at any time, and we can probably get as many as four of them on the floor together if we want to go really small and get as much ball-handling as possible in the game. But with Collins around, we can also go pretty big and not lose much in the way of flexibility, as the Raptors did in the playoffs. Doncic-Smart-Siakam-Collins-Turner? Have yourself some fun.

The depth on hand allows us to keep everybody fresh for the expected playoff push, and we have more than enough talent here to load-manage some guys if necessary. All of our players have skill-sets suited to the system we want to run on both ends of the floor. 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.

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