The Golden State Warriors aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. A dynasty that rivals any we’ve seen before, Joe Lacob and the rest of the Warriors’ front office team has put together a squad that will be a contender for years to come. Their sheer dominance over the league has forced teams to reevaluate the team building process. As a result, teams are tanking at a rate never seen before.
The mass rebuilding around the league has created some squads filled with youthful superstars ready to be next in line. In order of talent, we’ve ranked the five NBA teams with the brightest futures:
1. Philadelphia 76ers
Young Core: Joel Embiid (24), Ben Simmons (21), Markelle Fultz (20), Dario Šarić (24)
Valuable Assets: Cap Space, Zhaire Smith (19)
The 76ers check in at No. 1 on this list primarily because of their top-end talent. As a franchise, they’ve preached patience, adopting the slogan “Trust the Process” along the way. Their patience has paid off, as Embiid and Simmons have been molded into superstars after each of them missed extended time to begin their careers.
In just his second full year, Embiid made All-NBA Second Team, and certainly could have had a case for making the First Team had Anthony Davis not been considered as a center for voting purposes. The Cameroon native also finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and is one of only nine players to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 1 made three-pointer per game over a season.
Simmons capped off a historic 2018 by winning the Rookie of the Year award. The 6’9″ point forward effortlessly posted a 16/8/8 statline in Year 1, and possesses one of the highest ceilings in all of baskebtall.
Make no mistake about it though, this team is deep. Šarić took a huge leap in Year 2, bettering his number in just about every category. A 6’10” wing that can knock down 2 threes a night on 39-percent shooting is useful — especially when he has some playmaking chops as well (2.6 APG). Fultz is a huge question mark, and his development will be key moving forward. Ultimately, the team could end up using the 2017 first overall pick as trade bait for a future deal.
The 76ers also have the opportunity to bring in another star to help aid this group. Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Paul George aren’t off the table, and with the upside of Fultz and Zhaire Smith, Covington’s team-friendly contract, and plenty of cap space, the 76ers have the means to facilitate a deal for a mega star.
2. Boston Celtics
Young Core: Kyrie Irving (26), Jayson Tatum (20), Jaylen Brown (21), Marcus Smart (24), Terry Rozier (24), Robert Williams (20)
Valuable Assets: 2019 Sacramento Kings First-round pick, 2021 Memphis Grizzlies First-round pick
I primarily tried to keep the “young cores” to players 25 years old and under. Irving is the lone exception, as he’s far too good and has too much basketball ahead of him to not be included here. It is easy to forget the former NBA Champion is just 26 years old, and that the Celtics got him for a broken down Isaiah Thomas and a watered down Jae Crowder.
Outside of Irving, the Celtics nailed both of their No. 3 picks in Tatum and Brown. Tatum looks the part of a future MVP candidate. He’s an advanced scorer with range and length. Brown is the quintessential 3-and-D wing with explosive athleticism and plenty of room to grow. Both guys are going to be around for a long time.
Rozier is an intriguing piece to the puzzle. As it stands, Rozier will enter next year as one of the league’s top reserves. However, the Louisville product might have bigger dreams in his sights, and how can you blame him after the effort he put in during Irving’s absence this past playoffs? Rozier, along with restricted-free-agent-to-be Smart, should get some looks from point guard hungry teams.
Out of all the teams featured on this ranking, the Celtics possess the most flexibility. Danny Ainge has done a masterful job acquiring assets without mortgaging Boston’s future. The pre-draft swap last year that landed them the No. 3 pick led to Boston acquiring the ever-important Kings pick in 2019. Additionally, the pick from Memphis will likely convey in 2021, when the draft could potentially feature high school athletes for the first time since 2005.
The Celtics are set up for both the present and the future.
3. Phoenix Suns
Young Core: DeAndre Ayton (19), Devin Booker (21), Josh Jackson (21), Mikal Bridges (21), Dragan Bender (20), TJ Warren (24), Marquese Chriss (20), Elie Okobo (20)
Valuable Assets: 2021 Milwaukee First-round pick, Expiring veterans (Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley)
No team helped themselves more on draft night than the Phoenix Suns.
It started off with a bit of a gimme. Ayton was more than deserving of a top overall pick. Phoenix certainly played with the idea of taking Slovenia’s Luka Dončić, but the pairing wouldn’t have been as seamless as Ayton on this team. Phoenix desperately needed a center, and the one-two punch formed by Ayton and Booker could terrorize the league for the next decade.
The two stars will bring people to the games, but the next tier of young Suns players could take them over the hump. Jackson and Bridges are ideal complementary pieces. Both guys compete on both ends, and can match-up across multiple positions defensively. Jackson’s shot is a work-in-progress, but he’s an elite athlete with a never-ending motor. Bridges was one of the most efficient scorers in all of college basketball last year, knocking down 60-percent of his twos and 43-percent of his threes.
Warren is criminally underrated, and often times overlooked because his game resembles that of a 15-year pro. Anybody that can put up 20 points a night on 50-percent shooting with low turnovers has a place in this league.
Bender and Chriss are the two big question marks. There’s a chance Phoenix completely struck out in the 2016 draft, and will need one of them to have a breakthrough performance to prove otherwise.
Moving forward, they still have a hole at point guard. Knight, and one of Bender/Chriss could fetch a serviceable fill-in, but is it enough for Kemba Walker or even Dennis Schröder? For now, it’s not the biggest of concerns for Phoenix’s front office, as they try to slowly assimilate all of their current pieces for the upcoming year.
4. Denver Nuggets
Young Core: Nikola Jokic (23), Jamal Murray (21), Gary Harris (23), Michael Porter Jr. (19), Trey Lyles (22), Malik Beasley (21), Tyler Lydon (22)
Valuable Assets: Paul Millsap, Kenneth Faried
The Nuggets may have had the steal of the draft when Missouri’s Porter fell to them at 14th overall. There’s a probable chance that Denver never expected Porter to be available by their pick, and they wasted no time once they were on the clock. Even if Porter is forced to sit out his entire rookie season, the Nuggets got tremendous value with the selection.
However, Denver’s place among this list isn’t solely on Porter’s potential. The trio of Jokić, Murray and Harris are eager to build upon a 46-win season from a year ago. Jokić is the best passing big since Arvydas Sabonis, and made nearly 40-percent of his threes last year. Murray took a huge step in his development in Year 2, doubling his scoring output and making strides as a pick-and-roll playmaker. Harris has gotten better every year, and has become a knockdown shooter and a cagey defender. Aside from Harris taking a small dip in rebounds per game (from 3.1 to 2.6), each player in the trio saw an increase in PPG, RPG, and APG from 2017 to 2018.
Denver has been trying to unload an unhappy Faried for the better part of two years now, but they could look into shopping one of their other power forwards. Millsap was brought in as the perfect complement to Jokić, but the team actually performed fairly well in his absence. The former Jazz and Hawk member is still a good player, and given he has a team option for 2020, there could be some intriguing packages with him involved.
The Nuggets are holding a strong hand, which is not something that could have been said a few years ago. Major props to Denver’s front office for putting this team together without a top-5 pick since 2003.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Young Core: Lonzo Ball (20), Brandon Ingram (20), Kyle Kuzma (22), Julius Randle (23), Josh Hart (23), Moritz Wagner (21)
Valuable Assets: Cap Space, Magic Johnson
Los Angeles’ future outlook hinges majorly on the next two offseasons. The team has put Magic Johnson in the position he’s in for a reason. One of the league’s all-time iconic figures, Johnson will be tasked with convincing the major free agents (LeBron James and Paul George, for example) to join the historic franchise. There are also rumors linking the Lakers to LA native and current San Antonio Spur Kawhi Leonard. If Johnson can snag a big fish, then whatever the Lakers are paying him was well worth it.
If the Lakers strike out, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Although a majority of their young group has experienced some unevenness thus far, there’s still plenty of promise within the core. Ingram made a solid jump in Year 2. Randle, who is set to be a restricted free agent, also made a similar leap in 2018, finishing in the top-5 of voting for the Most Improved Player award.
For the rookies, Ball struggled mightily on offense, while Hart and Kuzma were virtual zeros on the defensive end. However, each player has a unique set of skills that will keep them in the league (Ball’s defense and passing, Hart’s rebounding ability for a guard, and Kuzma’s shooting range). It will be interesting to see what Wagner can bring to this group.
For now, the Lakers are all in on making a big splash in free agency. Either way, their rebuilding process appears to be on the up and up.
Sources: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports, Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports, Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports, Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports, Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports