Part of the mass appeal of the NBA is its cyclical nature. The postseason begins in a couple weeks, showcasing the league’s elite, but the calendar year has hardly stopped for the 14 teams on the outside looking in. Eliminated teams become free to make personnel moves even as the playoffs wear on, and the ever-vital NBA Draft takes place just days after a champion is finally crowned. Before anyone knows it, eyes will once again be looking ahead to the future.
With that in mind, before we reach playoff time, here’s a nod to the franchises – a few of whom will still be playing in late April – who have put themselves in the best position for sustained runs over the next half-decade or more. Let’s take a look at the top young cores in the NBA.
Our list will stop at five, meaning many potentially qualified situations will be left out. A brief look at some of those who didn’t make the cut (others weren’t even quite worthy of a runner-up list, including groups like Brooklyn and Phoenix who are incredibly devoid of overall future assets).
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis’ presence alone likely would have qualified the Pels for a top-five spot in these rankings a year ago, but a campaign from hell has set the franchise back. Davis is shut down for the year, trying to finally catch up with maladies plaguing him for years, and New Orleans has been so thoroughly decimated by injuries that assessing them realistically is virtually impossible. Jrue Holiday, another clearly injury-prone player, is their only other young-ish piece with a positive outlook if he can stay on the court, and while Davis’ potential still gets them in the conversation, the prospects are much bleaker than they once looked.
Orlando Magic: The right guys making leaps could easily see the Magic threaten for a spot in the top five on this list next season. In Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja and Elfrid Payton, Orlando has a deep core that will have a chance to blossom together. None is quite a blue-chip superstar in the making, but all five have significant potential, with Gordon and Hezonja’s ceilings still mostly untapped and potentially very high.
Los Angeles Lakers: Putting aside ludicrous team turmoil, the Lakers do have a solid core including D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. A completely untenable organizational situation could shake things up in a hurry, and even if not, Los Angeles will need to add at least one more name to compete with the big boys in terms of core potential.
Philadelphia 76ers: The league’s most rampant tanking has yielded a number of high picks, but only lukewarm results. It’s tough to gauge whether any members of the current roster outside Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid are truly part of the long-term core, and each of these guys has their own set of questions. Overseas star Dario Saric may or may not be in the NBA soon. The 76ers have a war chest of picks still upcoming, but until these turn into actual prospects with bright futures, they can’t crack the top five.
New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis is a great start, but they have a long way to go. Jerian Grant and Langston Galloway might be the only other worthwhile future pieces on the current team, and neither is exactly blowing anyone away. Whether the Knicks will have the patience to rebuild fully remains to be seen.
Boston Celtics: There’s a temptation to put Boston on the list due to their unmatched stockpile of picks and movable contracts, but this doesn’t really qualify as a “core.” Boston absolutely could acquire a young centerpiece with their assets, but until that time they don’t really qualify. They could just as easily use those picks to add a veteran and speed up their rebuild. With that said, this is a very good team with a terrific head coach in Brad Stevens (as I recently wrote).
Alright, onto the true contenders.
- Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are in something of an interesting place. Their young core is supplemented by three guys in Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried who don’t really fit within the same age timeline, but also have clearly defined roles on the current team. It’s tough to imagine more than one of them playing a major role when this group is truly contending, though, so we’ll consider their young foundation separately.
They’re not exactly lacking in that department, to be fair. Savvy drafting and a bit of trade poaching have put GM Tim Connelly in a fantastic position, with pieces at nearly every position: Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay and sophomore Gary Harris in the backcourt, Will Barton (sneakily obtained in the Arron Afflalo trade that also netted Denver a first-round pick) as a swingman of sorts, and a triumvirate of talented young bigs in Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne. The Nuggets lack that superstar, yes, and it feels unlikely any of these names outside perhaps Mudiay could reach that perch, but they have capable, high-ceiling guys up and down the roster.
They don’t get credit for it for the same reasons as Boston and Philly, but the Nuggets are also incredibly well-positioned draft-wise on top of an already-impressive collection of talent. Denver is a favorite to be in possession of three first-round picks in the 2016 draft as of this writing: Their own (which they have the right to swap with the Knicks, if New York’s is more favorable), Portland’s (will convey unless the Blazers tumble out of the playoffs, which is highly unlikely) and Houston’s (again, assuming the Rockets don’t miss the playoffs).
They’re unlikely to grab a fourth that was possible earlier in the season – a Memphis first-rounder, but that pick becomes only top-five protected in 2017 and 2018, making it possible the Nuggets are owed yet another lottery pick in the near future. They don’t owe anyone a single first-round pick moving forward, and their flexibility might top any team in the league outside of Boston.
They still have to capitalize on that potential, but they have a strong group already in place even if things don’t go perfectly. This could be the last year the Nuggets rank even this low on this list.
- Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have a similarly deep collection of young talent. Mason Plumlee, Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe and Noah Vonleh are all in their third NBA season or earlier, each with varying degrees of potential still left.
Where they differ from the Nuggets, though, is in top-end talent. The combination of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum as core foundational pieces separates Portland from other groups that have similar depth but lack the star power. Even if a couple of the supplementary pieces don’t quite pan out, the Blazers have the cushion of two elite shooters and playmakers to fall back on.
The Blazers also have a ton of cap space available and are a sneakily desirable destination, meaning they could make the leap from up-and-comers to true contenders in a big hurry with one or two signings this summer or thereafter. Their pick situation isn’t as robust as Denver’s, but they don’t owe any further first-rounders after likely sending this year’s mid-teens pick to the Nuggets. This team has made more noise than nearly anyone expected this season, and will be primed to take yet another big step next year if they have a productive summer.
- Milwaukee Bucks
We’re likely picking nits from spots two to four, but the Bucks take the middle spot among this group. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker aren’t quite the sure thing Lillard is in Portland, but both are far younger with very high ceilings. Khris Middleton remains only 24 and locked into a long-term deal. John Henson and Michael Carter-Williams both likely have their best years ahead of them, and who knows what rookie Rashad Vaughn, just 19, could turn into.
Ceiling-obsessed folks could easily make a case for placing the Bucks behind only Minnesota for long-term outlook – if Giannis and Jabari check all their boxes, Middleton stays consistent and the rest of the roster fills out, this has the potential of a dominant future core. Both are still very raw at this point, though, and we all know the pitfalls of assuming development in particular areas before it actually takes place.
The 2016-17 season will be huge for parsing out exactly where the Bucks fit on this list for the long run. Antetokounmpo has made large strides this year, but still has work to do as the leader of an offense and the pressure will be on the group as a whole to get back to the postseason after a strange down year.
- Utah Jazz
Some might argue Utah’s true ceiling is lower than both of the previous two teams (more on this in a moment), but even if they’re right, what the Jazz have already accomplished combined with a still-growing foundation gets them the nod. The Jazz seem likely to make the 2016 playoffs despite an untimely rash of injuries to multiple starters, and better yet are doing so while fueled entirely by virtually the exact core they expect to compete with in the future.
In Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, Utah holds a three-man group clearly capable of competing at a playoff level already – and all 25 or younger. Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and Shelvin Mack have yet to reach 26 years old as well, with plenty of team control in the former two cases. And that doesn’t even count perhaps the team’s two highest-leverage pieces: Rookie Trey Lyles and injured sophomore Dante Exum.
These latter two make any conversation about ceilings interesting when comparing the Jazz alongside their rivals on this list. Exum might have the widest outcome range of any player named in this piece; his floor might not even be a backup point guard, while a true ceiling could see him among the game’s most valuable two-way guards – particularly defensively. Lyles is the exact sort of playmaking four the league is falling quickly in love with, a guy who could define the team’s flexibility between small and big lineups if he develops in the right ways (he’s already a bona fide stretch big at 20 years old).
Tack those two onto what the team already has going for them, and their best possible outcomes suddenly start to compare favorably with others above. A starting five of Exum-Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert was already succeeding last season. If supplemented by solid development from guys like Lyles, Burks and Mack, plus perhaps one or two savvy signings, why couldn’t this group reach huge heights? Like both teams directly behind them, the 2016-17 season will be a make-or-break year for their prospects.
- Minnesota Timberwolves
The top spot is far and away the easiest on this list. The Wolves, stocked with the most exciting prospect in nearly a half decade and a reasonably impressive group behind him, stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league for future potential.
Karl-Anthony Towns drives the wagon, of course. The first overall pick in 2015 is arguably already one of the top 25 players in the entire league, and is likely the most untradeable asset under 26 the league has seen in quite some time. His otherworldly skill set will make him a good fit with virtually any combination of players the Wolves place around him, making their drafting situation moving forward as simple as finding the best players available. He’s the only guy mentioned in this list (outside Davis in honorable mention) who could win multiple MVP awards without league-wide shock.
Opinions vary on the rest of the core, but even the lowest possible estimations are still carried over the finish line by Towns’ vast potential. Andrew Wiggins, 21, has been disappointing in some areas and hopeful in others; he at least can be a high-quality second or third option. Zach LaVine has made some real strides near the end of this season, with so much physical talent still left to harness. Whether Ricky Rubio still counts as part of the core probably depends on who you talk to, as does his value. Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng may not be sure-thing future pieces, but are developing well enough to stay in supporting roles if the chips fall correctly. Should Rubio end up elsewhere, the Wolves have Tyus Jones in place to man the point.
Even if a few of these pieces disappoint in the long run, Towns coming anywhere remotely close to his ceiling makes this team an automatic contender once he enters his prime. They’ll add another high lottery pick this upcoming draft, and don’t owe any major picks of their own. Rivals out West had better hope they don’t strike gold in the 2016 draft. Towns and the rest of this core paired with another true blue-chip guy would make Minnesota even more terrifying. The sky seems the limit for this group.
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