The latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings drops this Friday in theaters. As a real superhero nerd growing up, the MCU has been a big part of my life for the last thirteen years. I’ve seen all of the films multiple times. Like a lot.
As you may know, if you’ve read me in this space before, basketball has also been a big part of my life. In comics, the team-up is a big deal and as the MCU has expanded, so has the prevalence of their own team-ups. All of the stories are woven together now. In the NBA, players conspire to join up into superteams all the time. The stars want to play with other stars in order to capture a title.
Thus I am capturing that same spirit and doing a superteam/team-up of my own. I will be casting a major character from each of the MCU films with a current NBA player that best fits that role. It’s long so let’s jump right in.
Iron Man (2008)
Casting: Tony Stark/Iron Man
Player: Kevin Durant
Iron man is the cheat code. He has an answer for every situation. Need to fight aliens? He’s got armor for that. Need to fight your own teammate who happens to be an uncontrollable rage monster? He’s got a suit for that. He’s constantly making upgrades. KD is unstoppable. Need long-range scoring? Check. Need him to take it to the hole with an unnatural handle-per-height ratio. Check. Elite defense? That’s what those shoulder rockets are for. If he had gotten his toe behind the line against the Bucks, that might have even been his snap moment as they could have taken that title no problem.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Casting: Bruce Banner/The Hulk
Player: Ben Simmons
Now, this is a curious one. Mainly because Ben Simmons feels like two different people to me. On one hand, he’s a unique player with all the gifts in the world. He can drop a 40-9-9 on you quite easily. Then there were the most recent playoffs where he was shook. I don’t know what to make of it. Much like Bruce Banner and his green alter-ego, you need the right version for the right fight and sometimes they get mixed up and you’ve got Bruce fighting an invasion. I want to recognize Smart Hulk from Endgame here. If Ben Simmons can sort out combining his defensive mastery, point guard vision, and physical gifts, and also get his mind in the right place, he will be amazing. Here’s hoping there’s a world, perhaps Sakaar, where this can happen.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Casting: James Rhodes/War Machine
Player: Blake Griffin
James Rhodes has been a staple in the MCU since the beginning, granted he was a different guy at the beginning. Blake Griffin was also a different player at the start of his career. Once he was the apex of athleticism in the league. Now he’s a multifaceted, skilled big man. He is a role player who comes in, makes a few plays, and calls it a night. Rhodey fires off his rockets as well as his one-liners and that’s his job. Injuries, one hundred knee injuries for Blake and a friendly fire paralysis for Rhodey did affect both of their trajectories.
Player: LeBron James
I have a feeling this might surprise people, but hear me out. Thor might be the best character in the MCU. He’s had so many versions throughout the movies. He’s also the only original character still going strong. He’s got another movie in 2022! He can really do it all. He’s got action skills and comedy chops. You can build any type of team around him and he will succeed. See? Just like LeBron. His longevity is startling and unprecedented. He can score, defend, pass, and play any position on the court. Not many people are worthy enough to lift that championship Hammer when he’s at full strength.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Casting: Steve Rogers/Captain America
Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The before and after pictures of Giannis from when he entered the league are eerily similar to Steve Rogers when he gets that super-soldier serum. One of Steve’s greatest strengths is his ability to do whatever is necessary to win. He keeps getting back up and he finds a way. Giannis demonstrated those same abilities this most recent postseason. He had a cringe-worthy knee injury right before the finals. It didn’t matter. He got up. He can score 50 in the clincher, grab 15 rebounds if necessary, and block alley-oops all day. Check out my article on him to see how he is also growing as a hero off the court. He also might be one of the few guys worthy of picking up LeBron’s hammer.
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
Casting: Nick Fury
Player: Chris Paul
Chris Paul has been on the Hornets, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, and Suns. Every one of those teams has been successful. He knows exactly which strings to pull with teammates, coaches, opposing players, and even referees. He is a maestro. Nick Fury has been in more Marvel movies than I can count and he always gets results. He can put together the right mix of avengers, or call in the big guns at exactly the right time. He sees the whole court so to speak and is always several moves ahead. Chris Paul’s hamstrings have also faked their own death a few times in the playoffs.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Casting: Happy Hogan
“Player”: Steve Kerr
I know I’m stretching my arbitrary rule of “current player” here a bit. Happy Hogan is the character played by Jon Favreau. He is generally a supporting player in the Iron Man orbit, making his way into Avengers and Spider-Man movies as well. Favreau also directed the first two Iron Man films. He’s the perfect analog for Steve Kerr. Kerr was a role player on five championship teams in the late 90s and early 2000s with the Bulls and Spurs respectively before going on to coach the Warriors to three more titles.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Casting: Jane Foster
Player(s): 2021 Rookie Class
I am choosing the whole rookie class here for the specific reason that we do not know what they will be when they get to the pros. For Jane Foster, she was a supporting character in two Thor movies, yet overall we did not see much of what she could do. It frankly felt like a waste of Natalie Portman’s talents. 2020 was a tough year for a lot of these incoming rookies. We saw glimpses of them in college or internationally or wherever, but it wasn’t the real picture or the full scope of what they could do. In 2022, Jane Foster returns in a starring role in the next Thor film. I can’t wait to see what comes of it in the same way that I can’t wait to see what this class becomes.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Casting: Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier
Player: Klay Thompson
Klay Thompson is a trained assassin. OK, not really, but he is one of the best shooters of all time. Bucky Barnes was a trained assassin. He’s also a great complementary character to the top-billed stars like Captain America. Thompson is in the perfect spot on the Warriors team with Curry, making up the Splash Brothers. Bucky was also a Splash Brother with Cap when he fell in that ravine. And both guys have had really tough injuries!
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Casting: Peter Quill
Player: James Harden
Both Quill and Harden notoriously like to party. Quill enjoys a good scheme and relies on trickery to escape many situations. Just go ask opposing defenders how they feel about James Harden’s use of trickery. He uses every move in the bag to get to the free-throw line. They are not without their faults, however. Quill let Thanos get his gauntlet back and Harden continues to disappear in the playoffs for one reason or another.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Casting: Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlet Witch
Player: Paul George
When you’re watching Wanda or PG-13, you never know what kind of show you might be in for. George has all the skills of an upper-echelon superstar: long, athletic, skilled shooter, strong defender, and underrated passer. Some nights, he puts that all together and it’s awesome. Other nights, you get frustrated because he seems lost out there. Wanda might be able to take Thanos down on her own, but she might also mentally enslave a small New Jersey town the next day. It’s really a toss-up, yet the power is undeniable.
Casting: Scott Lang/Ant-Man
Player: Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic plays like he can control his own size which is ironic because throughout his career, his size has been a big talking point. He can shrink his style of play down and dominate a game like a guard, initiating the offense and zipping perfect dimes. Other times, he stretches up and scores like a modern big man. His elbow jumper and three-point shot are near unblockable and he can move defenders around to score in the paint too.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Casting: Sam Wilson/The Falcon
Player: Jaylen Brown
Jaylen Brown has long been seen as the second star on the Boston Celtics. The sidekick. I believe there will be a moment when he will mimic Sam Wilson taking Cap’s shield at the end of Endgame. He is a new type of basketball leader, proving to be a thoughtful and critical thinker as well as a 20 point-per-game scorer. He is a visible presence in social justice movements. He has worked very hard to turn himself into an all-around star. Sam Wilson’s tenure as Captain America will hopefully be similar.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Casting: Doctor Stephen Strange
Player: Kyrie Irving
Doctor Strange is an odd mix. He’s a medical doctor who is the Sorcerer Supreme. He’s an arrogant jerk whose heart is in the right place. Kyrie is a similar swirl of styles. He is one of the most talented players in the league. His finishes around the rim are truly the stuff of wizardry. He also disappears for weeks from his team. He is a master of the mystic ball-handling arts for sure.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017)
Player: Trae Young
Baby Groot was an internet sensation for being cute. He was also a formidable force with a bit of a mean streak when spearing oncoming enemies. In Infinity War he was also a petulant adolescent, but when he had to ice some Chitari, he stabbed them with glee. Ice Trae was the same way. Perhaps discounted because of his size and the trade that brought him to Atlanta, he showed that he’s actually a devastating offensive player as he tore through the playoffs this past season.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Casting: Peter Parker/Spider-Man
Player: Luka Dončić
The spunky young kid with the weight of the league/franchise/movie studio on his shoulders. Spider-Man surged onto the scene in Civil War and followed that up with a brilliant turn in Homecoming. Spider-Man is easily one of the most popular characters in the MCU. He’s also being positioned as the bridge between the past MCU movies and the future. Luka is similarly situated. He exploded right out of the gate in his rookie year and continues to get better and better. He is unguardable, with a skill set that belies his youth. He might just hold the future of the league in his hands.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Player: Jimmy Butler
Is Jimmy Butler an enemy or a hero? It depends on who you ask. Fans of the Bulls, Timberwolves, 76ers, and Heat will all have different answers. Loki’s journey is similarly winding. He always seems to be working on a scheme. He plays both sides of most conflicts in much the same way that Jimmy Buckets plays both sides of the court. He is a master of defensive trickery and is self-aware enough to know which spots to pick on offense. The thing they have most in common? They both just want respect. They will go to any lengths to receive the reverence they believe they are owed.
Black Panther (2018)
Casting: T’Cchalla/Black Panther
Player: Steph Curry
The comparison between Steph Curry and T’Challa begins with their impact. They were both instant phenomena. Curry breathed new life into the way basketball was played in the NBA and T’Challa sparked a new wave of interest in the possibilities of the MCU. In terms of playing style, Black Panther is an agile warrior, using his top-level tactical mind and technology to form creative solutions. Curry has trained for any situation he might face. His ball-handling and shooting give him outs in almost any tight spot. Curry is also a second-generation player who grew up around the NBA. This matches well with Black Panther’s use of the knowledge of his ancestors.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Player: Joel Embiid
When Joel Embiid is healthy, he’s an MVP candidate. He is an offensive juggernaut and a defensive brick wall all by himself. He can punk opposing big men like Thanos trashing the Hulk. Just ask former punching bag and current teammate Andre Drummond. He has made it clear that he wants to achieve greatness. Once he does that, perhaps he can find peace. His health concerns could be equated to Thanos getting his head chopped off before time travel shenanigans brought him back. When he is healthy, he is skilled enough to snap his fingers and take care of the Eastern Conference.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Casting: Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp
Player: Zach LaVine
Zach LaVine was a dunk contest champion and seemed to be bursting with ability. However, something wasn’t clicking. Perhaps he was just in the wrong situation? Hope van Dyne was clearly the superior fighter, tactician, and spy to Scott Lang and yet she was not allowed to wear the Ant-Man suit. When she finally got her Wasp suit, she proved just how capable she was. When LaVine was given the reins of the Bulls under Billy Donovan, He became an All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist. Sometimes you need the opportunity.
Captain Marvel (2019)
Casting: Captain Marvel
Player: Zion Williamson
Immediately upon arrival to the MCU, Carol Danvers was a force to be reckoned with. She planted her flag as perhaps the character with the highest raw power level out there, flying through ships and shit. Zion is the same way. Upon entering the league, he has put up numbers that are jaw-dropping. He is a unique and special force. Figuring out how to use those gifts is still on the to-do list, in the same way Marvel has to figure out just how to use their dynamo.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Casting: Clint Barton/Hawkeye
Player: Dame Lillard
Clint Barton is the resident master marksman of the MCU. While he has no “powers” he proved again and again how important he is to the Avengers. He shows no fear in volunteering to be the time travel guinea pig. He opens the movie with some tough losses. Dame Lillard has ended recent seasons with some tough losses. He is also one of the premier shot makers of the NBA. His Game 5 against the Nuggets this past postseason was very reminiscent of Clint taking down a horde of Chitari. Miraculous shot after miraculous shot. And no fear.
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Player: Kristaps Porzingis
It was all a sham. He was supposed to be the hero we needed. He seemed to have all the gifts. And then reality set in. Perhaps KP will never be the superstar it seemed he was destined to be. Mysterio tricked the world into believing he was the successor to Iron Man. Injuries did derail his career as well..since he died. Spoilers, sorry.
Black Widow (2021)
Casting: Natasha Romanov/Black Widow
Player: Fred Vanvleet
Black Widow relied on her espionage training, her dynamic athleticism, and her keen anticipation. Even with all of those traits there was a self-aware, how-is-she-out there-with-someone-like-Thor feeling. She earned it every night, though, as the quintessential teammate. How could this be anyone other than Fred Vanvleet? He was crucial to the Raptors’ title despite being discounted every step of the way. His superpowered friends grabbed headlines, but his acrobatic drives, crafty ballhandling, and pesky defense were every bit as important.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Player: Kawhi Leonard
This is a future projection, really. Kawhi came into the league as a mystery. He was not a household name. He turned out to be a pivotal force for multiple championship teams. I imagine that Shang-Chi could have the same trajectory. Most people are not aware of his comics history, but if Marvel has figured out how to deal with his racist history and fixed some of those challenges–similarly to Kawhi fixing his jump shot–he could be a true fixture of the MCU going forward. True two-way star capability.
There you have it. I imagine there might be some other opinions or ideas out there. Hit us up in the comments or on social and let us know what you think.