The NBA is loaded with young talent. Whenever the wave of veterans led by LeBron James steps away from the game, the league will be left to very capable hands.
Giannis Antetokounmpo just won a Finals MVP at the end of his age-26 season. Nikola Jokic secured the regular-season MVP for his age-25 season. Luka Doncic is 22 and already looks like a perennial MVP candidate, while 21-year-old Zion Williamson is already one of basketball's best scorers.
If you had to choose one to build around for the next decade, there really isn't an easy answer. And if you expand the question to who the top 10 would be, you find out pretty quickly that there are plenty of contenders for that list.
In an effort to alleviate some pressure from the exercise, FiveThirtyEight's five-year market value projections were consulted. If those are weighted evenly with a fan vote that pitted 100 players against each other in randomly generated either-or scenarios, this is the resulting top 10:
Luka Doncic (1st in projections, 2nd in vote)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (3rd in projections, 1st in vote)
Nikola Jokic (2nd in projections, tied for 3rd in vote)
Jayson Tatum (5th in projections, 5th in vote)
Zion Williamson (10th in projections, tied for 3rd in vote)
Joel Embiid (4th in projections, tied for 10th in vote)
LaMelo Ball (7th in projections, tied for 10th in vote)
Trae Young (18th in projections, tied for 6th in vote)
Michael Porter Jr. (15th in projections, tied for 12th in vote)
Donovan Mitchell (24th in projections, tied for 6th in vote)
Relying entirely on those indicators presents at least one issue, though.
The FiveThirtyEight projections only look five years into the future. For a 32-year old like James Harden, who ranked sixth in that forecast, expanding to a decade means going into his 40s. At some point, every star's production tails off, and Harden will likely experience that before the 10-year window closes. The same goes for probably every star already in his 30s.
The results above may struggle to capture other important considerations as well (though the fan vote obviously introduces subjectivity). Other things to think about include the wave of positionless basketball currently sweeping over the league, injury concerns, size, athleticism, etc.
While the projection system and fan vote served as solid guides, ultimately this top 10 also relied on plenty of good old-fashioned opinions.
Before we jump into the list, here is a handful of honorable mentions (in alphabetical order by last name) who have solid arguments to make the top 10, along with a sentence or two on why they didn't.
Bam Adebayo: He can be a dominant, versatile defender, but building an offense around him is more difficult.
Deandre Ayton: In the 90s, a player like Ayton would almost certainly make the cut, but setting a center as the cornerstone simply isn't as common anymore. Versatility at all five positions is the current name of the game.
LaMelo Ball: The FiveThirtyEight projections love Ball, but another season or two of evidence would go a long way.
Lonzo Ball: Lonzo checks pretty much every box but "potential lead scorer," but that's an important one if you're looking for the foundation of your franchise.
Bradley Beal: Beal is one of the most dynamic scorers in the NBA, but he's 28 and has looked like a liability on defense in recent years.
Devin Booker: This is probably the closest call so far. Booker is like a younger, slightly bigger version of Beal. He's already made the Finals and can score in bunches. Defense is the concern here.
Jaylen Brown: Like Lonzo, Brown checks plenty of boxes. The one he's currently missing is playmaking.
Anthony Edwards: There may be more prognostication at play with Edwards than some of the other honorable mentions. Advanced numbers loathed his rookie season, but he was phenomenal after the All-Star break. As is the case with LaMelo, we just need a little more evidence.
De'Aaron Fox: One of the most underrated finishers in the league, Fox can get to the rim in a hiccup, but his lack of size on defense can present some problems.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: SGA is another close call. He possesses a tantalizing combination of size, playmaking and shooting, but his ceiling feels a tad lower than those in the top 10. There's also no sample in which he's the leading man on a good team.
Rudy Gobert: Gobert is the most dominant defensive player in the NBA. If you have him, you're almost certainly going to be top-five on that end. He's 29, though. And he has to be surrounded by a pretty specific supporting cast to thrive on offense.
Kyrie Irving: On pure talent alone, there haven't been many better on the offensive end than Kyrie. His extensive injury history and age (29) keep him out of the top 10.
Donovan Mitchell: Add Mitchell to the group with Booker and SGA. He's knocking on the door, and plenty could offer strong arguments to put him in the top 10. But based on what we've seen so far, if he's your 2, your perimeter defense could be in trouble.
Ja Morant: Like some of the other smaller guards here, Morant figures to have some issues on defense going forward. And while he's a dynamic driver and passer, his shooting still needs work.
Jamal Murray: Murray looks like he'll be a reliable offensive engine for years to come, but he's not much of a ceiling-raiser on the other end. The torn ACL might add a hint of concern too.
Michael Porter Jr.: On offense, MPJ looked like a 6'10" Klay Thompson last season. He's still a few years away on defense, though. And the concerns over the health of his back are still present, even if he's done a lot to alleviate them over the past two seasons.
All the stars in their 30s: With apologies to Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or any other current star in his 30s, the premise of this list almost eliminates them by itself. If we were looking for the best cornerstones for half a decade, the top 10 would look different.
10. Ben Simmons
Let's welcome a little controversy right off the bat.
With the number of people who've jumped off the Ben Simmons ship since the infamous pass in the playoffs, he might be among the ranks of the underrated.
That play alone summed up a disastrous series against the Atlanta Hawks, and that series highlighted a massive flaw. It isn't that Simmons can't shoot. It's that he won't.
All of the above has made it easy to give up on Simmons.
In his case and others' on this list (or in the honorable mentions), it helps to try to imagine a different scenario. With the Philadelphia 76ers, Simmons' critical weakness is highlighted. On a roster with four dedicated floor spacers, his many strengths would shine brighter.
With his size, vision and explosiveness, Simmons attacking a truly spread floor would put defenses in pick-your-poison scenarios possession after possession. Once he gets to the paint, he can force collapses that leave shooters open outside.