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The definitive list of the NBA's franchise guys (and others)

Posted Oct 13 2009 7:40PM

Tom Brady has never been given the "franchise tag" in the NFL, but the Patriots put the tag on Matt Cassel earlier this year, before he was traded to the Chiefs. In the NFL, each team can designate one player each year as a "franchise player." All that means is that a team can keep that player from becoming a free agent for a year, as long as certain conditions are met. So, yeah, for a few months, Matt Cassel was the Patriots' "franchise player," but we all know Brady was/is the squad's Franchise Player.

In the NBA, the term Franchise Player is not the cold, salary-cap, collective bargaining agreement-related designation that it is in the NFL. It's an abstract phrase and, because it isn't something mathematical or scientific, it gets thrown around haphazardly and doled out too generously. There is a difference -- sometimes huge, sometimes puzzlingly small -- between a Real Franchise Player and a Franchise Foundation Player.

Foundation Guys are usually ultra-talented stars that, if given the proper supporting talent, can have their squads in contention and should be paid very handsomely, lest you want them jetting to the next squad. I don't begrudge, for one iota of a second, A'mare Stoudemire getting his dough. I think he's worth the $16 million, then $18 million he's due to get get paid. But there's something missing with him and his ilk, and it almost never has to do with the things they do with the Spalding, but with the way their brains are wired.

Franchise Guys are the game's transcendent athletes. Not only do they leap over the normal confines of productivity and skill and bank accounts and all that, they more importantly transcend competition. They have innate qualities, hard-wired into their essence/swag/will that they impose upon the games they play, the teams they play for and the poor lames that were punished to play against them. Franchise Guys are usually supremely gifted, but they are always transformational. What set Tim Duncan apart from Elton Brand or Kobe Bryant apart from Tracy McGrady is that Duncan and Kobe -- Franchise Guys, even as, say, Duncan reaches his geriatric stage -- can transform a team and its players and routinely alter games by the sheer mix of their talent, will and whatever that abstract thing is that lets teammates know, "We're in good hands."

In my lifetime, only one team won the championship without a bona fide Franchise Guy -- the 2004 Detroit Pistons. Every other team had either Magic, Kareem, Moses Malone, Bird, Isiah Thomas, Jordan, Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Kobe or Shaq. That's not to say that you need a Franchise Guy to be a really good team. There are only a handful of players I'd call true Franchise Guys. But there are more than few teams with gifted players that win a lot of games, advance in the playoffs and contend. It's just that, at the end of the year, the squad that hoists the trophy always has that one player. The Lakers had Kobe, the Magic had Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu. See what I'm saying?

So I'm drawing a line in the sand. Not every really good player (some of them happen to be among my favorites) is a Franchise Guy. There are Foundation Guys and Franchise Guys and there are far fewer of Franchise Guys than you probably think. This is the definitive list...

Foundations Guys

Chris Bosh: Really good player, but I don't think he'll ever be transcendent. I can't ever see myself looking at two teams battling in late-May or June and saying, "Team X is gonna take this series, because they have Bosh." Also, Bosh might be the most swell dude in the league. But is he too nice?

Amar'e Stoudemire: The mid-decade Suns were one of the most symbiotic teams in recent memory. Everyone fed off each other. I always thought that if Nash was gonna win MVP, he should share it with A'mare, because A'mare is probably the most deft pick-'n-roll finisher of this era. But let's say a shambled team like the Knicks land A'mare and only A'mare next season ... does that even spell contention? So long as Stoudemire struggles to average double-digit rebounds and dozes on defense, I'd say no. It'd only be a start, which is why A'mare is basically the poster boy for the Foundation Guys.

Paul Pierce: If you gave Pauly a mediocre team, would he elevate them to elite status?

Rajon Rondo: Rondo might be the best perimeter defender in the league, he can run an offense with slickness and he's an underrated leader. If I'm Danny Ainge, I'm thinking, "If I can keep him focused and content, I have my guy for the next decade. Now let me start add the puzzle pieces."

Gilbert Arenas: When healthy, you could argue that Gil is one of the 10 most talented players in the league. I get on Gil about his leadership, though. As a Foundation Guy, he needs an Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. If you switched a leader like Jamison with, say, Lamarcus Aldridge and a gritty, aggressive scorer/defender like Tough Juice with, say, Tayshaun Prince, the Wizards are screwed. I'm still waiting for Gil to step up and grab the reins.

Steve Nash: He can still run a team with the best of them, but he can't carry a team -- at all.

Carmelo Anthony: Probably the most complete scorer in the league and, if we polled NBA players and asked them who's the most difficult player to defend, there's a good chance 'Melo would get the most votes. He's undoubtedly one of the "best" players in the league. But (and this is a pretty significant "but") Chauncey Billups said he spent a lot of time teaching/mentoring 'Melo last season. Until 'Melo takes on that kind of role, I can't call him a Franchise Guy. I hope he's moving in that direction.

Chauncey Billups: One of the best leaders of his generation, but just not a transcendent enough talent to be considered a Franchise Guy.

Al Jefferson: For the past three seasons, his teams have won 24, 22 and then 24 games. That's not all his fault, by any stretch. But, suffice to say, the jury is still out.

Baron Davis: When happy and motivated and with the right pieces around him, a Baron-led squad can be fairly scary.

Dirk Nowitzki: The Mavs are lurking. They could really make noise this season. That'll depend a lot on Dirk. He's had plenty of Franchise moments, but he was dreadful in the four straight losses in the '06 Finals and submarined the next year, his MVP year, while his 67-win Mavs were getting bounched in the first round. Those two postseason series define Dirk right now. Hall of Famer? Yes. Franchise Guy? No.

Derrick Rose: This could change within a season or two. As I've written before, I see Rose battling Chris Paul for "best point guard alive" tag soon.

Pau Gasol: If you replace Kobe with a dude like Michael Redd and Gasol becomes the Lakers best player, L.A. can't win a championship, but it would still be a really good team, because Gasol is really good.

Brandon Roy: B-Roy has some big shoulders. Few guys get it done in the fourth quarter like the young Blazer, but before I give him the Franchise tag, I want to see him advance in the playoffs.

Kevin Durant: Soon, youngster. Soon. But, as great and precocious as he is, Durant has a lot to work on before he can enter the Franchise realm.

Danny Granger: His scoring average has jumped about six ppg every year he's been in the league. I doubt we'll see him average 30-plus this season, but I do expect for his game to get more nuanced. Still, I have no idea if Granger is a Franchise Guy, since he hasn't seen the postseason since his rookie year.

Joe Johnson: Joe is a heck of a ball player. He does so many things well. Well this season is the litmus test for his Franchise credentials. The Hawks are deep, my friends -- like, two deep at every position. If Joe is a Franchise Guy then we should see this team wrestling with a fellow elite squad in late May, not getting swept out of the playoffs like last season.

Tracy McGrady: That "first round" thing is gonna haunt T-Mac for a long time.

Yao Ming: Yao is 7-6, with career averages of 19 and 9 and a string of early exits in the postseason. And when I say "early exits," I mean, up until last season, never seeing the second round.

Deron Williams: I never really got swept up in the Paul/Williams debate, because, as dope as Williams is, I never really thought it was a debate.

Dwight Howard: Hopefully, during one of these seasons, the Magic will be able to start running their offense through Howard. When that happens, he will be about as Franchise as you can get.

Franchise Guys

Chris Paul: No team is more reliant on one player as the Hornets are on CP3. New Orleans still won 49 games, in a tough West, despite all the injuries. You know why? Because Paul put up a statistical season that was downright foolish. Barring a career-ending injury, CP will go down as the best point guard not named Magic Johnson.

Dwyane Wade: Exhibit A: his 2006 playoff run.

LeBron James: No player is more Franchise. He gets you wins and packed arenas.

Kobe Bryant: The best player of his generation. As well as he has played for these past two seasons to get the Lakers back to the elite strata, I still think his 2005-2006 season -- where he averaged 35 ppg (a ridiculous figure in the modern NBA) and almost led that lame Lakers squad to a first round upset of the Suns -- was when you really saw a Franchise Guy at work.

Tim Duncan: Maybe not any more, but if you've been one for the past 12 years that included four rings and two MVPs, well ...

Kevin Garnett: OK, again, maybe not any more. But he has been a Franchise Guy for most of the millennium. He might not have been able to elevate some of those woeful Timberwolves squads past the Lakers and Spurs, but you saw what he did with Boston. That was his transcendent will and transformative personality at work.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His column appears weekly on Vince invites you to email him at or follow him on Twitter.

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