Ranking NBA Future Cores, Part II
Alright, we're back with the second part of these rankings. Let's get back into it.
15. Charlotte Hornets
Key Young Players: F/C Frank Kaminsky III, F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, G Malik Monk, G Kemba Walker, F/C Cody Zeller
The Hornets have some well-known names, but the team’s future ceiling is very limited. It’s almost exactly the ceiling of the current Trail Blazers team. Portland’s current core is a dynamic offensive backcourt that’s limited defensively, several versatile wings, a stretch big, and a center that does all the little things well (Lillard and McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, and Jusuf Nurkic). Charlotte’s potential future backcourt of Kemba Walker and Malik Monk, while capable of nightly SportsCenter highlights, will allow as many points as they score. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a physical and versatile defender, but his jumper is beyond fixing, and the frontcourt of Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller is too inconsistent on offense and not athletic enough on defense to be impactful at the highest levels of playoff basketball. There’s League Pass potential here, but not perennial contender potential.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder
Key Young Players: C Steven Adams, G Terrance Ferguson, F Paul George, F Jerami Grant, G/F Andre Roberson
This is an artificially high ranking. Paul George is still 27, so he must be included, despite his relatively advanced age and status as a likely one-year rental. So, instead of talking about PG13, let’s worry about some of the Thunder’s role players, the ones that warrant a much lower ranking. Because of Oklahoma City’s presence in the NBA spotlight, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson are names that most basketball fans know, but because of this, both have become overrated. Adams is a good defender, but shouldn’t play a large role on offense, and Roberson, while he’s an elite perimeter defender, is worse than a zero offensively. Meanwhile, Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson are athletic freaks, but neither are close to being valuable. It’s a good thing Russell Westbrook has decided to stick around for a while, because Sam Presti needs some time to figure out a post-Russ core.
13. Utah Jazz
Key Young Players: C Tony Bradley, G Dante Exum, F/C Derrick Favors, C Rudy Gobert, G Rodney Hood, G Donovan Mitchell, G Ricky Rubio
While the post-Gordon Hayward Jazz don’t necessarily look imposing on paper, they are set up for plenty of potential success. The conversation starts with Rudy Gobert, who became the league’s premier defensive big man last season. He’s one of a few players who can dominate a game without scoring, and has even shown some decent offensive skills. The Frenchman is complimented by the oft-injured trio of new point guard Ricky Rubio, wing Rodney Hood, and big man Derrick Favors. Rubio is a passing savant who will create easy looks for Hood and Favors, the team’s de facto offensive focal points. However, I buried the lead here: this year’s first-round pick, shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, ripped apart Summer League and looks like a future star. The backbone of a ferocious two-way squad exists in Utah, and with excellent coaching and good leadership, could make for a sneaky contender over the next decade.
12. San Antonio Spurs
Key Young Players: F Kyle Anderson, F Davis Bertans, G Bryn Forbes, F Kawhi Leonard, G Dejounte Murray, G Derrick White
I like to imagine that every night before bed, everyone associated with the Spurs says, “Thank god for Kawhi Leonard,” and if they don’t, they really should. If not for him, this team’s future would be bleak for the first time in decades. Kawhi has become a top-4 player in the league, one with a ready-made MVP case due to an underwhelming supporting cast. This talent issue in San Antonio stems even deeper than just the Aldridge/Gasol/Parker/Green core- the young group offers little reason to get excited either. Kyle Anderson is a nice point forward, but he’s remarkably slow, Dejounte Murray is still very raw, and while Bryn Forbes was a nice Summer League story, that might be the extent of his NBA success. With Leonard’s free agency rapidly approaching and his supporting cast aging out of productivity, RC Buford needs to unearth the next generation of Spurs stars to keep pro sports’ longest dynasty running.
11. New York Knicks
Key Young Players: G Tim Hardaway Jr., C Willy Hernangomez, F/C Enes Kanter, F Doug McDermott, G Frank Ntilikina, F/C Kyle O’Quinn, F Kristaps Porzingis
I can’t imagine the last time the Knicks were ranked above the Spurs in anything resembling a talent ranking, but they are now! New York’s future quite obviously rests on the shoulders of Kristaps Porzingis, the team’s best talent since Patrick Ewing. The Unicorn has perennial All-Star written all over him, and sets the tone on both ends of the floor. His supporting cast has also been much maligned in recent weeks and months, which has started to underrate them. Tim Hardaway is an athletic wing who broke out last season as a shooter, Willy Hernangomez is a good rebounder with decent offensive skills, and rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina has George Hill potential as a defensive-minded combo guard. It’s hard to project a title with all the other great Eastern Conference young cores, but at least New York will return to its rightful place as a perennial playoff disappointment.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
Key Young Players: F Al-Farouq Aminu, F/C Zach Collins, F Maurice Harkless, G Damian Lillard, G CJ McCollum, C Jusuf Nurkic, F/C Caleb Swanigan
There are teams below Portland with higher ceilings, but the established nature of the Blazers’ core gives them an edge in these rankings. I already briefly discussed this group in the Hornets section, but they’re interesting enough to deserve a separate deep dive. Despite their defensive shortcomings, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are a top-five backcourt in the NBA. Switching Mason Plumlee for Jusuf Nurkic seemed like a big fat L at the time, but the move couldn’t have turned out better. Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless are almost redundant on the wing, but Aminu plays a little bigger and Harkless is a better defender. The Zach Collins situation is a little odd- Portland traded up to pick a rookie who needs reps on a team with a full rotation- but regardless of his outcome, Portland will be a playoff team for the next five to seven years, and a fun one at that.
9. Golden State Warriors
Key Young Players: F Jordan Bell, F/C Draymond Green, G/F Patrick McCaw, G Klay Thompson
Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are both 27, so they fit the age cutoff, but both are clearly part of the current dynastic core, so I’ll be brief and just say that despite Golden State’s media omnipresence, they’re both still underappreciated. Now, onto what makes the Warriors truly ridiculous, and that’s their consistently deadly supporting cast. From Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston to JaVale McGee and Ian Clark, the Warriors have boasted countless role players that fit the modern NBA. Jordan Bell and Patrick McCaw are two more in this mold. McCaw broke out in the NBA Finals as a rookie, and has an Iguodala-like ceiling. Bell, who Golden State snatched from the Bulls on draft night, will be an impactful and unique defender in the mold of Draymond. At some point, Golden State will likely add an elite young scorer to lead the post Steph/KD/Klay/Draymond Warriors, and their dynasty will roll onwards.
8. New Orleans Pelicans
Key Young Players: G Ian Clark, C DeMarcus Cousins, F/C Anthony Davis, F/C Cheick Diallo, G Jrue Holiday
This ranking is likely way too high. It’s based on the presence of their two stars- DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis- and neither of them are likely to be on the team in two years. Unfortunately, even with the two big men on the team, there’s very little talent, young or otherwise. Jrue Holiday is a decent point guard but gets injured frequently, Ian Clark was a nice pickup from the Warriors but plays no defense, and forward Cheick Diallo showed glimpses of potential in his rookie season, but is far from being Cousins or Davis-level. After the Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving to Boston for, among other things, a presumably high first-round, rumors of Cleveland trading that pick for Cousins immediately arose, and that’s smart for both teams. The Cavaliers want to contend and keep LeBron around, and the Pelicans want to be viable in the long term and retain Davis. Let’s see who loses that game of chicken as this season progresses.
7. Washington Wizards
Key Young Players: G Bradley Beal, F Kelly Oubre Jr., F Otto Porter Jr., G John Wall
Last year was the start of something special in DC. John Wall, fresh off double knee surgery, became a full-fledged franchise point guard, and his running mate, Bradley Beal, stayed fully healthy through a whole season for the first time and scratched his Ray Allen-level potential. After Wall signed a supermax extension this summer, they’re both committed to the team for the foreseeable future, one of only a few homegrown All-Star caliber duos in the NBA. However, the Wizards are more than Wall and Beal. Small forward Otto Porter Jr. has improved every year of his career and also signed a big-money extension this summer, and his backup Kelly Oubre Jr., while inconsistent and hot-tempered, showed big potential last spring. While Boston and Cleveland are the consensus top two teams in the Eastern Conference, don’t count out Washington. The chemistry is unmatched, and there’s scary potential yet to be reached.
6. Los Angeles Lakers
Key Young Players: G Lonzo Ball, G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, G Jordan Clarkson, F Brandon Ingram, F Kyle Kuzma, F Larry Nance Jr., F Julius Randle, C Ivica Zubac
We’re now at the elite portion of the rankings, and start with a group that probably will look very different this time next year. While there are eight players listed above, only Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are guaranteed to be on next year’s roster, and that’s because management team Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson will rid the team of any salaries they can to get Paul George and LeBron James to LA next summer. Kyle Kuzma is trying his hardest to stay in purple and gold, putting on impressive Summer League and preseason performances, and Larry Nance will likely continue to occupy an energy big role, but Caldwell-Pope and Randle specifically are iffy future propositions. I personally predict a 2018-19 opening night lineup of Lonzo, PG, Ingram, LeBron, and Brook Lopez with Nance, Clarkson, and Kuzma coming off the bench. It’s versatile, it’s fun, it’s a title contender. Are the Lakers back? They just might be.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Key Young Players: F Giannis Antetokounmpo, G Malcolm Brogdon, C John Henson, C Thon Maker, G/F Khris Middleton, F Jabari Parker, G/F Tony Snell, F DJ Wilson
At the beginning of 2017, Milwaukee had surpassed Minnesota as the group with the highest post-Warriors, non-LeBron ceiling. Giannis Antetokounmpo had just become a bona fide superstar, and pre-injury Jabari Parker was amidst a breakout season. However, reality has come crashing down. Giannis is a jumper away from being unstoppable, Malcolm Brogdon is the reigning Rookie of the Year, and Khris Middleton is still the prototypical two-way wing. However, Parker’s second ACL tear significantly altered Milwaukee’s future fortunes. Regardless of whether he can stay on the court, nobody else on the team has the skills to be an elite shot creator. Middleton doesn’t have the physicality, Thon Maker is too physically raw, and Tony Snell doesn’t have the handle. As long as Giannis is around, the Bucks can contend, but as long as they lack multiple dependable shot creators, their ceiling is limited.
4. Denver Nuggets
Key Young Players: G Will Barton, G Malik Beasley, G Gary Harris, F Juan Hernangomez, C Nikola Jokic, F Tyler Lydon, F Trey Lyles, G Emmanuel Mudiay, G Jamal Murray, F/C Mason Plumlee
The Nuggets have had quality depth for almost a decade, and that doesn’t exempt current young talent. Serbian sorcerer Nikola Jokic is the star. He runs like a hungover college student, yet somehow shoots well, attacks closeouts, and throws ridiculous passes from various arm angles into extremely tight windows. He’s complimented by a seemingly endless horde of guards. Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Malik Beasley are all young and all need playing time, so Denver must figure out who to keep and who’s expendable over the next year or two. The forward spots are more uncertain. Juan Hernangomez impressed last year in a small role and should eventually start besides Jokic, but he’s the only big currently worthy of a starting spot. The Nuggets are in a great spot with so much depth, but eventually they need to settle on a rotation that will last the bulk of Jokic’s development and prime.
3. Boston Celtics
Key Young Players: G/F Jaylen Brown, G/F Gordon Hayward, G Kyrie Irving, G Terry Rozier, G Marcus Smart, F Jayson Tatum, F Guerschon Yabusele
Finally, after multiple years of anticipation, a Celtics trade involving a Brooklyn Nets first round pick and an All Star occurred this summer. It wasn’t for one of the usual Boston targets- Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or DeMarcus Cousins- Ainge went out on a limb to snag former Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. The trade came on the heels of two years of frenzied personnel moves, from drafting athletic wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to signing once-and-future Brad Stevens disciple Gordon Hayward. Boston’s core for the next half-decade is now essentially set in stone- Irving will run the offense, Brown, Tatum, and Hayward will surround him on the wings, with French big Guerschon Yabusele waiting in the mid or high post. There’s a lot of potential in that starting five, and while the defense leaves a lot to be desired, any team led by Kyrie Irving owns such a high offensive ceiling that championship heights are possible.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves
Key Young Players: F/C Gorgui Dieng, C Justin Patton, C Karl-Anthony Towns, G/F Andrew Wiggins
Minnesota’s young core is smaller than the Internet might have you believe, partially because several young pieces are recently departed, and partially because Karl Towns and Andrew Wiggins are talked about constantly. However, this does NOT mean they are not a talented group. Towns is a legitimate MVP candidate at 21 years old, and Wiggins is ready for stardom if he pays attention to Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler, and Taj Gibson. Also, let’s not underrate their lesser known big men comrades. Gorgui Dieng is a good defender who’s stretched closer to the three-point line every season, and Justin Patton has poor man’s Towns potential as a long, defensive-minded big who can make a jumper. There’s a reason Minnesota has been hyped for so long. This year, they make the playoffs for the first time since 2004; next year, win a series; 2019-20…who knows? The future is bright, to say the very least.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
Key Young Players: G/F Justin Anderson, F Robert Covington, C Joel Embiid, G Markelle Fultz, F/C Richaun Holmes, G/F Furkan Korkmaz, G/F Timothe Luwawu, C Jahlil Okafor, F Dario Saric, F Ben Simmons
Sixers fans have gone overboard with excitement this summer, but they should be hyped. The Process combined with post-Hinkie personnel decisions have created a tantalizing young group. The group is headlined by three top-3 picks in center Joel Embiid, point forward Ben Simmons, and guard Markelle Fultz. Embiid has the most potential of the three, but is also the most injury-prone. However, what makes this talent crop so special is that even if Embiid can’t stay healthy, Fultz’s Harden-like offensive style and Simmons’ elite IQ can lead to playoff success. And myriad talented role players surround the trio. From wing Robert Covington and forward Dario Saric to big Richaun Holmes and wings Furkan Korkmaz and Timothe Luwawu, the Sixers have versatility to match up with anyone. Somehow, Philadelphia basketball is now a fun watch every night for the foreseeable future- maybe until the eventual title and victory parades.