Today's NBA is rife with Hall of Fame candidates and potential NBA dynasties. By 2017, how will they have shaped the NBA Top 100 of all-time?
Over the next five years, it's conceivable that either the Miami Heat or the Oklahoma City Thunder will be multiple ring winners.
Players from other squads may advance deep into the playoffs on a consistent basis. They will put up memorable playoff performances and gaudy regular season statistics. But they are less likely to win even a single championship.
These possibilities leave a lot of fodder for legacy speculation. Esteemed NBA basketball author Bill Simmons captured this spirit in his New York Times Bestseller The Book of Basketball.
In this work, Simmons discusses in considerable detail the "Top 96 players" of all time (with honorable mentions).
Using Simmons' rankings as a benchmark for discussion, here is a list of 9 current NBA players under 30 who will shape the NBA Top 100 of all time.
Relevant Simmons Rankings:
No. 89: Shawn Kemp
No. 86: Arvydas Sabonis
Justification: At 21 years old, the 6'11", 270-pound power forward/center averaged 18.1 ppg and 11 rpg a game. Of those 11 rebounds, four of them were offensive boards.
Cousins is one of the purest talents in the game. His combination of size, strength, and agility draws a rough comparison to former NBA center Shaquille O'Neal.
Cousins also has soft, large hands that seem to magnetize rebounds toward him—think Charles Barkley or Larry Bird.
The problem is that like Shawn Kemp throughout his career, Cousins is on the fence between becoming a team leader or an immensely talented player with work-ethic issues.
Take these two statements Cousins provided to The Sacramento Bee for instance:
"I'm not going there (Las Vegas) just to practice," Cousins reiterated Monday after meeting briefly with local media. "I can make that team."
"My main focus is to come back a better leader," Cousins said Monday. "Learning from the elite guys in this league, who are already leaders on their team, just picking up habits from them … "
Most likely, by 2017 Cousins will have developed into a massive regular season force. He'll have learned how to score more efficiently around the rim and to stop taking unadvised jumpers. At around 25 ppg and 13 rpg, Cousins could be considered the most productive center in the league.
Whether he is on a winning team or a borderline playoff contender is another matter. Cousins is currently on the woeful Sacramento Kings, who will most likely exercise their team option on Cousins in the 2013-14 season.
There are also questions about Cousins' development in other areas. Will he be able to focus on the defensive end of the floor? Will he develop the leadership attributes and ball facilitation skills to be championship level players?
How Cousins answers these questions (and right now there's not enough evidence to determine he will do so adequately) will determine just how high his stock will rise in the NBA.
If he answers them in the positive, Cousins could be a championship contender one day and a Top 50 player of all time.
Relevant Simmons ranking:
No. 72: Chris Webber
Power forwards Chris Webber and Blake Griffin have a lot in common. Like Webber was from 1998-2003, Griffin is one of the five most athletic and strongest players of his generation.
Griffin also has a high basketball IQ; while the statistics don't indicate as much, Griffin is considered one of the best outlet passers and pick-and-roll players in the league.
However, also like Webber, Griffin has two very concerning Achilles' heels: his mid-range game needs a lot of work and his free-throw shooting is poor.
Chris Webber advanced deep into the playoffs with the Sacramento Kings during his prime. However, he could never lead the Kings to the NBA Finals. Is it possible that Griffin will suffer the same fate?
Griffin has the benefit of playing alongside the best pure point guard in the NBA, Chris Paul, and a pretty good supporting cast. If the two stay together in Los Angeles, even if Griffin's abilities don't improve, Griffin should be a consistent 21 ppg / 12 rpg force and a late Western Conference playoff regular.
This will put Griffin in Chris Webber territory. Which is outstanding, but just short of NBA Championship material.
Relevant Simmons Rankings
No. 55: Dominique Wilkens
No. 54: Paul Pierce
Best Case Scenario: Derrick Rose maintains his health and goes on to average 26 ppg / 9 apg over the next several years. He is re-crowned the best guard in the league. His silky smooth style coupled with strong mid-range game wins him a second MVP.
The Miami Heat "Big Three" whittles down by 2014. Nagging injuries and age relegate Dwyane Wade to a 19 ppg player shooting below 50 percent. The Heat can't find a suitable replacement for Wade, and while LeBron James is still a dominant player, he's not putting up the godly numbers he did for the first half of his career.
The Bulls young nucleus of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Rose grows stronger in its prime (or, the Bulls pick up Dwight Howard). The Bulls acquire a shooting guard to take double teams off Rose.
The Bulls—a more complete team than the Heat—advance to the NBA Finals two or three times between 2013 to 2017. Rose wins his first ring and is considered a top 25 player of all time.
Worst Case Scenario: At some point over the next two years, Rose is bogged down with injuries and the rest of his Bulls team dissolves. As a result, Rose becomes a shell of his former self. He's remembered in the same discussion as Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill—players who were future Hall of Famers if not for terrible injuries.
However, by sheer ability and his one MVP award, Rose is still considered in the high 90s of best players of all time.
Conclusion: It's too soon to tell. Splitting the difference, Rose's prediction in the 50s feels sound.
Relevant Simmons rankings:
No. 52: Dennis Johnson
No. 42: Jason Kidd
No. 40: Gary Payton
No. 23: Isiah Thomas
At the onset of Paul's career, the point guard was earning comparisons to two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas. Both players are relatively short (6'1") for their position, deadly mid range shooters, and fearsomely competitive.
Paul's breakout 2007-08 season was legendary. The then 22-year-old Paul averaged 21.1 points, 11.6 assists and 2.7 steals.
Paul then lead the otherwise mediocre New Orleans Hornets squad to the Western Conference semi-final, where the Hornets almost supplanted the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs hung on to win the Series in 7 games.
Paul averaged 24 ppg and 11 apg in twelve playoff games.
However, since 2009, Paul's game has been riddled with knee injuries. Paul has had to adjust his game by establishing different gears in his game to conserve his energy and health.
Routinely, in the first three quarters, Paul has been primarily a play facilitator almost to a fault. His court vision is brilliiant to watch; his game is predicated on extreme levels of astuteness and savvy.
However, that dominating Isiah Thomas-like presence that Paul had back in 2008 has faded.
Even more concerning is that Paul suffered an ankle injury in the playoffs which rendered him ineffectual in the Western conference second round against the Spurs.
Paul will most likely duplicate his 2012 results for the next several years. You'll see injuries keep Paul on the sidelines. But even if injuries compromise his athleticism, Paul's strategic brilliance on the court keep him as a regular on the All-NBA team.
Paul will lead the Clippers to a number of deep playoff runs with Blake Griffin as a strong first option. Maybe the Clippers will be the Oklahoma City Thunder's biggest threat one year. But expecting an NBA championship from a Paul/Griffin combination is a stretch.
All things considered, Paul will be considered the best or second best point guard in his generation. But without a ring, he can't reach the Isiah Thomas echelon.
Relevant Simmons Rankings:
No. 39: Patrick Ewing
No. 11: Shaquille O'Neal
No. 10: Hakeem Olajuwon
Dwight Howard will probably win an NBA championship by 2019.
Whether it's through a trade or free agency in 2013, Howard will eventually leave the Orlando Magic and join an elite No. 1 option to play alongside.
That elite No. 1 could be Derrick Rose or Kobe Bryant. It could be Kevin Durant (how sexy would a Westbrook for Howard trade be?). Whomever it is, "Superman" will fly to some NBA franchise and become one of the best No. 2 options of all time.
Howard will average 22 points a game, reign in 13 rebounds, and be a championship team's defensive anchor. However, as a No. 2 option, Howard won't win any MVPs in his career.
He may not even be considered the best center in the league in a few years; that honor could belong to the more talented DeMarcus Cousins.
Certain aspects of Howard's game will always be called into question, and justifiably so. His low post offensive game doesn't look like it will improve. His free-throw shooting is awful.
With or without a championship ring, these shortcomings will keep Howard just outside of Patrick Ewing (Ewing was a better offensive player and a true No. 1 option). Howard may be "Superman," but it doesn't look like he's fly along the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaquille O'Neal.
Relevant Simmons rankings:
No. 29: Allen Iverson
No. 23: Isiah Thomas
In games 4 and 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook was a veritable Jekyl and Hyde. In Game 4, Westbrook shot 20 for 32 for 42 points.
On Thursday night—in a series ending Thunder loss—Westbrook shot a miserable 4 for 20 from the field for 19 points.
If you look at Westbrook's career, you see a lot of games on both poles.
Westbrook represents a relatively new type of NBA player: the combo guard. A combo guard is a point guard who shifts between a play facilitator and top scoring option.
Westbrook has the talents to be the best combo guard of his generation. His game is based on relentless attacks to the basket, overwhelming athleticism, and an unusual willingness to take contact on his way to the hoop.
However, he has also built a dubious reputation for forcing shots when the better strategy would be adjust into the role of a pure-point guard and distribute the ball to his offensively gifted teammates Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka.
The 23-year-old Westbrook has shown signs of grasping the versatility necessary to master his position. In his last two games against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, he averaged 10 assists a game.
If Westbrook can play a more efficient, flexible game, he can be a two or three time champion and a top 20 player of all-time. He's on the most talented squad in the NBA. However, whether Westbrook is the floor general on a championship dynasty is in large part up to him.
Relevant Simmons Rankings
No. 22: Kevin Garnett
No. 19: Charles Barkley
No. 18: Karl Malone
Admittedly, this is an ambitious prediction predicated on an eye-opening single season performance. In 2011-12, Kevin Love posted 26 ppg / 13 rpg and shot 37 percent from behind the arc.
But it was only a single season on a young Minesotta Timberwolves team that failed to make the playoffs in 2012.
So how do you justify a prediction that Love's play will be mentioned in the same breath as Garnett, Barkley, and Malone?
For starters, Kevin Love's game isn't predicated on intense levels of athleticism which could either wither or be addressed by defenses in the future.
Rather, Love's game is cerebral in the same light as Tim Duncan's game: elite fundamentals, terrific footwork, and a seemingly infinite upside (based in no small part on a legendary work effort).
Love can spread the floor on offense like no other power forward in recent NBA history. Love shot 37 percent from three last year. His ability to hit the three will cause all sorts of match up nightmares for even the best defenses in the NBA.
Behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Timberwolves have the best blue print for a championship squad in the Western Conference, Ricky Rubio will be an elite pure point guard in the league, and Love has a twin-tower compliment in center Nikola Pekovic.
You could expect the Timberwolves to consistently reach the Western Conference semi-finals or finals and perhaps start a rivalry with the Oklahoma City Thunder over the next few years.
Perhaps Love will go down as the best NBA player ever not to win a ring. He'll win a regular season MVP trophy putting up stratospheric numbers and win his fair share of All-NBA awards.
Under the right circumstances, Love and the Timberwolves could win an NBA championship this decade.
Either way, this projection for Love's legacy is ambitious, but very reasonable.
Relevant Simmons Rankings:
He's an interesting factoid: Jerry West—whose likeness was used for the NBA official logo—was given the nickname "Mr. Clutch" during his career.
West won only one NBA title with the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers. He was considered the best offensive player of his generation. However, his Lakers routinely couldn't supplant the 1960s Boston Celtics championship dynasty (lead by center Bill Russell).
Once the Celtics' dynasty faded in the late '60s, other Eastern Conference foes—the Milwaukee Bucks with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the New York Knicks with Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe—reached their peaks and also defeated West's Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Sound familiar to a future Hall of Fame star of this decade?
Barring injuries, Kevin Durant will be considered the best scorer in NBA history. He's the most effortless, if not intelligent, scorer the NBA has ever seen. Durant averaged 30 ppg in his first NBA Finals against a ferocious Miami Heat defense. He shot better than 50 percent from the field in the series.
Nicknamed "King Clutch," Durant will also be considered one of the best clutch player's ever.
The problem for Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder is that the NBA landscape may be too craggy to win more than one ring in his career.
First, the Thunder will have to defeat the Miami Heat while LeBron James and Chris Bosh are in their prime. Russell Westbrook's game will need to evolve, and the Thunder will need to keep James Harden in the 2013 offseason (Harden will have numerous suitors for a max contract).
Even if the Heat fade, some team may be a Dwight Howard acquisition away from being the new title favorite.
All things considered, the Oklahoma City Thunder's talent base is strong enough to win a championship ring over the next five years. However, it's difficult to imagine that Durant will enter into Larry Bird/Magic Johnson territory by the end of his career.
He'll just have to settle for one echelon lower.
Relevant Simmons Rankings:
No. 5: Larry Bird
No. 4: Magic Johnson
No. 3: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
No. 2: Bill Russel
No. 1: Michael Jordan
One championship down. And it most likely looks like two to go.
LeBron James' 2012 NBA playoff performance will be up for "best ever" considerations. The Heat star averaged 30.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, and 5.6 apg en route to both his first NBA championship and NBA Finals MVP.
James' regular season statistics are also in contention for the best of all time.
Which begs the question: if James posts performances like these for the next five years or so (he'll be 32 years old in 2017), can he be considered the best player of all time?
Most likely not. As far as NBA sports legacy is concerned, the number of championship rings won distinguishes a top three from a top five player. Magic Johnson won five championship rings, Abdul-Jabbar six, Jordan six, and Bill Russell 11.
It's also relevant how the Lakers Magic Johnson and Abdul Jabbar won their rings.
The '80s Los Angeles Lakers had to contend with two other legendary franchises on way to its five championships: the '80s Celtics (three championships) lead by Larry Bird, and the late-'80s Pistons (two championships) lead by Isiah Thomas.
It's very plausible LeBron James will win two more championship rings over the next three years while he has the benefit of playing alongside a still-excellent Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. However, these wins will not be against an established NBA dynasty like the '80s Celtics, Lakers, or Pistons.
James' chances at winning five or more rings are slim As James reaches his early 30s, he'll most likely lose the majority of his No. 2 scoring option Dwyane Wade's effectiveness.
James's game—predicated on enormous strength and athleticism—may slip as well (remember, by the time James turns 30 years old, he will have played twelve NBA seasons).
In the meantime, in the NBA's constantly changing free-agency landscape, some other team based on an array of max-contract players will develop to prevent the Heat from winning a half-a-dozen championships.
Surely, by the end of his career, James will be mentioned in the same vein as the NBA's top five of all time.
However, it's still too much of a stretch to say that "King James" will reign over this elite company of NBA players. In today's hyper active free-agent market, championship dynasties are hard to come by. There is always a new "Big Three" developing just around the pike.