NBA PM: Parsing Late-Season Up-and-Comers

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Each season, NBA play after the All-Star break can feel a bit like a different league. There’s finally certainty about player locations following the trade deadline, and team trajectories and goals are generally set by now. The contenders are positioning, the playoff hopefuls are fighting and the tankers are starting their facades.

There are differing schools of thought here. Some in the league will tell you that this makes the post-All-Star period the worst period there is for evaluating the future – teams might play wildly unbalanced schedules, and with so many different motivations or goals at play, there are worries about an incomplete picture.

Others, though, look to certain indicators of future success during this period. Certain younger, up-and-coming teams who may not have quite put everything together earlier in the season can play with less pressure during this chunk of time, and an in-season gelling process can take place. Others get guys back from injury, or intrigue in some other way.

The answer is likely in the middle – reading too deeply into late-season surges from non-contenders can be dangerous, but there are definite nuggets to glean as well. With that in mind, let’s look at three teams who mostly fit the bill of up-and-comers succeeding since the break, and try to break down their relevant indicators.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Wolves have been a model of inconsistency this year, and that’s continued since the break. They came out in late February on fire, spending several weeks as the league’s best post-ASB team before evening out over the last few weeks. A sneaky run at the 8-seed in the West briefly looked possible, but is in the rearview now.

This is what young teams do, and most of the smoke signals in Minnesota are just as generally positive as most would have expected heading into the year – even if success this season has been fleeting.

It starts with Karl-Anthony Towns, who has put any lingering questions about his impending superstardom to bed ever since missing out on an All-Star berth. Towns has been among a handful of the best individual players in the league since the break, and the list of guys you’d take over him to start a franchise remains minuscule or nonexistent.

Nothing else on the roster is quite as certain, but none of it has to be. Andrew Wiggins has his warts, but “bust” talk is wildly premature for a guy his age, and his learning curve is accelerating. Ricky Rubio may or may not be a part of the long term future, but he’s been a flamethrower in March. Gorgui Dieng has settled in as a perfectly capable center next to Towns, and the entire group has finally started putting a few of Tom Thibodeau’s defensive dots together.

The biggest question mark for the future surrounds injured Zach LaVine, and the Wolves’ inescapable relative success without him. This was a question before he went down as well, and while it won’t get loud for at least a year or two, it’s worth considering whether a player with a skill set at least somewhat similar to Wiggins’ is redundant in some ways.

Regardless, Towns’ presence means no young team in the West has a higher future ceiling. Their indicators are all over the place this season, but there’s little confusion about what’s expected of them moving forward.

Denver Nuggets

The Northwest Division lost Kevin Durant, arguably a top-two player in the entire world, last season – and still might be the strongest division in basketball, even with several of its biggest stars still in their respective youth phases.

This includes the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, every basketball nerd’s muse for most of this season. The Nuggets have quietly been the league’s eighth-best per-possession team since the All-Star break, and they’re the NBA’s best offense by a decent margin since Jokic entered the starting lineup permanently in mid-December. A spirited playoff charge isn’t totally dead yet, though a Tuesday night loss to 8-seed rivals in Portland put at least one nail in the coffin.

Jokic is a tier below Towns for overall future outlook, but the Nuggets have a depth to their future core that the Wolves and every other fanbase in the league should covet. In Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez and even Emmanuel Mudiay, this group is stocked with future potential. Mudiay is the only one of this group not exceeding expectations this year; certain league thinkers still have Murray pegged as a borderline star-level offensive player.

The true test for this group down the road will come defensively. Even this strong post-ASB run has come while they’ve basically just outscored teams as often as possible, and there isn’t a single blue chip defender among the youth. Jokic by himself guarantees a dominant offense as long as he stays healthy – how far this group goes without alterations to the core will depend on how much they’ve yet to show on the other end.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks are the virtual definition of “up-and-comers.” Guys aged 26 or younger have made up nearly 75 percent of their minutes played this season, and that’s with Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton both missing significant time with injuries.

Before a three-game winning streak in February heading into the break, things were looking bad in Milwaukee. The Bucks were 22-30 on February 10, sitting in 12th in the East. Two days prior, they had learned the devastating news of Parker’s second ACL tear, which ended his season.

The turnaround since has been nothing short of remarkable. Milwaukee is 15-6 in that time, with wins over the Clippers (twice), Raptors and Hawks – who they suddenly trail by nothing but tiebreakers for the fifth seed out East. They’re a top-10 team for both offense and overall per-possession rating during this stretch, even with Giannis Antetokounmpo seeing small dips in his frantic early-season pace.

Middleton’s return to the lineup has been huge. He offers offensive spacing the Bucks have badly needed all year long, plus wing defense that complements Antetokounmpo perfectly. He’s nailing over 44 percent of his threes and playing the best all-around ball of his career.

Unlike the others on our list, the Bucks could make some real playoff noise amid chaos at the top of the East. They lack the discipline to beat a truly focused, elite team in a seven-game series, but no one is lining up to play these guys. Jason Kidd deserves quiet Coach of the Year mention amid several other more obvious candidates.

And moving forward, they’re almost like Nuggets (or Jazz) East. They have multiple strong young players at several positions, with one sure thing (Giannis) and a couple other very strong core pieces. They even have Thon Maker, an endlessly intriguing seven-footer with shooting range and ball skills.

Antetokounmpo’s eventual plateau (if it ever comes) will probably be the biggest variable for this group in the future, but they’ve put themselves in a great position where several other dominoes could fall the right way behind him. Fifth might be the lowest we see these guys finish out East for the rest of the decade.