The phrase “franchise player” gets thrown around a lot. Teams usually have a player that encapsulates what the franchise is about. They help sell tickets, bring in new fans and most importantly — win games. Let’s look at one player each team in the NBA couldn’t manage without.
Atlanta Hawks: Al Horford
Al Horford is a very underrated player. A very skilled big man, Horford doesn’t get the attention of frontcourt mate Josh Smith — perhaps due to J-Smoove’s dunks — but he is definitely more of an elite performer. Accomplished at either the 4 or the 5, Horford is the best player on the Hawks roster. Even if Dwight Howard signs in the summer, Horford will have a place on the team.
Boston Celtics: Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett bleeds green. He is the emotional leader of this Celtics team and is one player that coach Doc Rivers couldn’t do without. Despite his age, he is still one of the top defensive players in the league and on offense, he sets solid screens and has an abundance of moves on both the low and high post. Many would say Rajon Rondo is perhaps more vital, but the Celtics have many guards that can run the pick and roll (Avery Bradley, Jason Terry), but they do not possess someone in the ilk of Kevin Garnett.
Brooklyn Nets: Brook Lopez
When the Brooklyn Nets missed out on Dwight Howard in the summer, many saw the re-signing of Brook Lopez as an afterthought. He’s been anything but; 19.2 points and seven rebounds per game make for very good reading. The sometimes lackadaisical big man is also improving as a shot blocker, moving from 0.8 blocks per game to 2.0. Perhaps the Nets got a slice of luck by missing out on Howard.
Charlotte Bobcats: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Despite not being in the conversation for Rookie Of The Year, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has proved to be a steady No.2 pick by Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats. It was a culture move to draft MKG; the former Kentucky Wildcat brings hustle and an incredible motor to the team on the defensive end. Sure, he is still rounding out his offensive game a little, but he’s a quick learner. I can see him being a vital piece for the Bobcats a few years down the line.
Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose
It has not been an easy year for the Chicago-born point guard. A torn ACL against the Philadelphia 76ers ended his 2011-12 season and looks to keep him out of the regular season this year. Despite that, he is still the key to this Chicago Bulls team for the next 10 years — it’s that simple. A former MVP, Rose plays with great heart, terrific athleticism and is simply one of the best players in the world.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving has emerged as one of the best point guards in the NBA. I’d argue that he has the best handles of anyone in the league and has the unteachable “clutch gene.” Uncle Drew is trying to make LeBron James a distant memory and if owner Dan Gilbert can surround him with the right pieces, the Cavs could be competing in the next 10 years.
Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki
This was an easy one. Dirk Nowitzki is arguably the greatest-ever Dallas Maverick. He was the Finals MVP in 2010-11 and will have to rekindle some of that form if the Mavericks are to make a run at the playoffs again this year. The days of Dirk are slowly coming to a close; savor it — he’s one of the best ever.
Denver Nuggets: Ty Lawson
For a team without a “star,” the Denver Nuggets have a deep roster that looks to be well on its way to securing a top-four seed in the tough Western Conference. Ty Lawson is probably the most vital player to this team though, his quickness and penetration is not only brilliant in transition, but provides many opportunities for teammates in the halfcourt set.
Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
Perhaps the biggest steal of the 2012 NBA Draft, Andre Drummond has already exhibited some highlight plays and looks to be a very good NBA player for years to come. A formidable frontcourt partnership with Greg Monroe could be the platform for a future playoff team.
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry
The Golden State Warriors made the right decision by trading Monta Ellis as opposed to trading Stephen Curry. Curry is arguably the best all-around shooter in the NBA and injuries aside — he is one of the best young point guards in the game. He is just coming into his prime, and will be an All Star next year, for sure.
Houston Rockets: James Harden
When the Rockets traded for James Harden, they landed a superstar. Having a superstar in the NBA is vital if you are to have any chance to challenge for a championship. Now it’s time to surround him with more pieces.
Indiana Pacers: Paul George
If James Harden has made the transition from very good player to star, then so has Paul George. Standing at 6’10’’, George is a terrific two-way player. A combination of George and Hibbert means the Pacers will be in the playoff picture in the East for years to come.
Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul
The All-Star Game MVP, Chris Paul is arguably the best point guard in the NBA. A perfect balance of scoring and assisting, Paul can take over a game like few in the league. It is vital the Clips keep him around.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant is one of the best players to ever play in the NBA. His resumé speaks for itself: Two Finals MVPs and five championships. Even at the age of 34, Kobe is the best player on this roster and his health is vital if the Lakers are to make the playoffs.
Memphis Grizzlies: Marc Gasol
My pick for Defensive Player of The Year, Marc Gasol marshals the Memphis Grizzlies and provides a great option to run offense through at the elbow. A terrifyingly underrated player, Gasol is now comfortably better than his brother.
Miami Heat: LeBron James
Is this even a question? LeBron James is the best player in the world. He leads the Miami Heat in scoring, assists and rebounds. James is vital to the Miami Heat and the franchise will only go as far as LBJ will take it.
Milwaukee Bucks: Larry Sanders
Leading the league in blocked shots, Larry Sanders has become a vital part of this Milwaukee Bucks team. Sure, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are both probably better players, but Sanders is more important than both. He will be a Buck for years to come, which can’t be said for the two aforementioned guards.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio
One of the best young players in basketball, Ricky Rubio is an international superstar waiting to break out. He is slowly making the Wolves relevant. It is vital they can keep him fit and healthy to ensure they make the playoffs next season.
New Orleans Hornets: Anthony Davis
The Brow, Anthony Davis is going to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate for years to come. Davis is a shot-blocker extraordinaire. He is a franchise player in the ilk of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan and it will interesting to see if he can live up to the hype.
New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony is one of the best players in the NBA. Bullishly strong, ferociously fast, Melo is virtually unguardable. They would be a fringe playoff team without him.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is the best player in the Western Conference. He is the most important player to OKC and it isn’t even close. Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook are very good players, but they do not compare to Kevin Durant. He can shoot over anybody and is one of the most clutch performers in the league.
Orlando Magic: Maurice Harkless
An effective slasher and very good perimeter defender, Maurice Harkless is slowly making his mark in the NBA. This one is a tight one and you could have picked any of the Magic’s young players.
Philadelphia 76ers: Jrue Holiday
Phoenix Suns: Goran Dragic
Perhaps one of the more underrated point guards in the league, Goran Dragic has been a shining light in an otherwise forgettable season for the Suns. Expect this to change if they manage to draft someone like Nerlens Noel.
Portland Trail Blazers: LaMarcus Aldridge
I have long said that LaMarcus Aldridge is the best power forward in the world. He is the go-to man in Portland and will be for the next five years. It is time the Blazers added some depth to their rotation and gave him a chance to succeed.
Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins
The controversial but skilled big man is already one of the best centers in the NBA. He would be better at another team, but from the Kings point of view, they would be Charlotte Bobcats-bad without him.
San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker
Tim Duncan’s career is coming to a close. Tony Parker is becoming the No. 1 option in San Antonio. He is now the best player on the roster and is the player that they can lean on the most to take over a game.
Toronto Raptors: Rudy Gay
This was a tough one; all of the Raptors players are not exactly vital to the team’s fortunes. However, I’ve gone for their best player — Rudy Gay. The long-bodied small forward is a poor man’s Kevin Durant and will have to play like that if the Raps are to make the playoffs next year.
Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward
Gordon Hayward can do it all: score, assist, rebound, defend. It is just piecing all of these things together over an extended period of time. There are a lot of big men in Utah; Hayward is one of their only swingmen with real upside.
Washington Wizards: John Wall
John Wall is a superstar waiting to break out. Perhaps the best athlete in the NBA, Wall can explode to take over a game and will need to find consistency to really put himself among the top players. However, with Bradley Beal he has formed a really good backcourt and it won’t be long before we see the Wiz in the playoffs.