The Oklahoma City Thunder have become one of the NBA's elite teams in a way that very few can comprehend. With their four most significant players all 23 years of age or under, it's incomprehensible how they've made the Western Conference Finals the last two years and the NBA finals in 2012.
The youth of the NBA is supposed to take so much longer than this to grow. Players at 23 are expected to first be discovering their abilities, not outperforming the game's elite.
While we could outline this success and sing the Thunder's praises, it's important that we understand whether or not this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In order to do so, we must weigh the possibility that another franchise is on their way to similar success.
The question is, who could it be?
The following five slides will offer a glimpse into the future. Although these teams are far from guaranteed to duplicate the Oklahoma City Thunder's success, they have the capacity to achieve such greatness.
As for who they are and what it will take to achieve such a feat, the following slides will answer just that.
Key Players: Kyrie Irving (20), Tristan Thompson (21), Dion Waiters (20), Tyler Zeller (22)
Players to Watch: Omri Casspi (24), Jon Leur (23)
The Cleveland Cavaliers were labeled as a team with no hope for the future after LeBron James left town for the Miami Heat. Just two years later, the Cavaliers have the reigning Rookie of the Year and one of the most promising young rosters in the NBA.
The question is, can they find legitimate success with their impressive youth?
The first reason to believe that they can is Kyrie Irving. Most people see an impressive stat line and assume that he's a star in the making. What they appear oblivious to, however, is what it is that makes him such a superb player.
Irving is excellent at pacing a game. What truly sets him apart is the fact that he is already an elite fourth quarter performer. In fact, Irving led the NBA with 56.4 points per minute in clutch time. Directly behind him was Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
With a clutch star already on their roster, it's simply a matter of building around him.
The Cavaliers have done a great job of doing just that, selecting shooting guard Dion Waiters to work alongside him. They've also drafted power forward Tristan Thompson and center Tyler Zeller, making that four potential starters in just two drafts.
Waiters will provide a scoring boost at the shooting guard position, where Anthony Parker and Daniel Gibson lacked in efficiency. Thompson, meanwhile, has already proved to be one of the better young interior defenders in the game. He's also working diligently on improving his scoring ability.
The key to all of this is Tyler Zeller. While relatively young players Alonzo Gee and C.J. Miles will provide help on the perimeter, it's the rookie center who must provide a legitimate interior scoring presence.
With all due respect to Anderson Varejao, that's something that they certainly lack.
As for those skeptics who don't believe in the Cavs ability to win, it's important to note that the Eastern Conference is incredibly weak, and confidence can be built in a flash. Don't forget folks, the Cleveland Cavaliers were in the playoff hunt at 13-17 with a far less talented team just one year ago.
2011-12 Regular Season Record
Alexey Shved could change everything for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Key Players: Kevin Love (24), Ricky Rubio (21)
Players to Watch: Chase Budinger (24), Alexey Shved (23), Derrick Williams (21)
The Minnesota Timberwolves are a difficult team to project. The veterans they've brought in this offseason have great upside in Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko. They've also been out of the NBA for over a year.
Which is exactly why the youth determines this franchise turnaround.
Their 24-year-old power forward Kevin Love is already considered to be the best player at his position. At only 21, Ricky Rubio made an instant splash in 2012 and proved to be one of the most dynamic playmakers in the entire NBA.
If the two of them can stay healthy, we've seen what could transpire. Their 21-19 start to the previous regular season is evidence of such.
Surrounding Love and Rubio is a cast of young players that must develop consistency. Chase Budinger is a reliable three-point shooter who finishes well in transition. He's also a player who has displayed a tendency to disappear for long periods of time.
Derrick Williams was selected second overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. As a rookie, Williams flashed the form of a second-round draft, proving to be incapable of carving out a role or defining his position within the T-Wolves rotation.
If he is able to do so in year two, Minnesota could follow the Oklahoma City Thunder's pattern. With elite talent in their young players, we could see the T-Wolves make some noise in the postseason.
If that dream is to come to fruition, it is a rookie who must step up and take on the pressure in stride. That player happens to be Alexey Shved, who is a 6'6" point guard that is set to play out of position at the 2.
If Shved can prove to be a dynamic playmaker with the ability to create for himself and others, the T-Wolves may just have their less athletic Russell Westbrook. In turn, they'll become one of the most difficult teams to defend in the NBA.
2011-12 Regular Season Record
If Eric Gordon can stay healthy, the New Orleans Hornets could be the next great young franchise.
Key Players: Ryan Anderson (24), Anthony Davis (19), Eric Gordon (23), Austin Rivers (20)
Players to Watch: Al-Farouq Aminu (21), Xavier Henry (21), Darius Miller (22)
The New Orleans Hornets have four players under the age of 25 that are projected to flirt with elite-level play. That includes a frontcourt consisting of 2012 Most Improved Player of the Year award winner Ryan Anderson and this past June's first overall draft choice, Anthony Davis.
Two players who, on paper, appear to complement each other to perfection.
Davis is an elite defensive prospect whose unbelievable length enabled him to lead the nation in blocks per game during the 2012 college basketball season. Those skills are expected to translate well to the NBA level, which is music to Anderson's defensively inept ears.
Anderson, meanwhile, has proven to be one of the best three-point shooters in the game. He's also an underrated rebounder, which suggests that he could perform adequately alongside Anthony Davis.
The key here, however, will be the perimeter play of the New Orleans Hornets.
Eric Gordon is considered by some to be one of the top shooting guards in the NBA. This is difficult to label as true or false as he has missed 107 games due to injury in his four-year career. If he continues to be sidelined by ailments, the Hornets' status as the next Oklahoma City Thunder will end before it begins.
Should Gordon remain healthy, he will prove to be one of the better scorers in the NBA. Although his shooting ability is overrated, he is a versatile enough scorer that he can hold defenses accountable for shutting down him down in a variety of ways.
The question marks continue as you look down the roster, as Austin Rivers, Al-Farouq Aminu, Xavier Henry and Darius Miller all have question marks.
For Aminu and Henry, they have underperformed throughout the duration of their young careers, and Rivers and Miller are rookies, with uncertainty surrounding how they'll be able to contribute. With such uncertainty, an uphill battle is upon the Hornets.
Just don't think they can't emerge as the next young team to find postseason success.
2011-12 Regular Season Record
Arnett Moultrie could end up being the steal of the 2012 NBA Draft.
Key Players: Andrew Bynum (24), Jrue Holiday (22), Evan Turner (23), Thaddeus Young (24)
Players to Watch: Lavoy Allen (23), Spencer Hawes (24), Arnett Moultrie (21)
This past Summer, the Philadelphia 76ers made the leap from a team good enough to make the postseason to one that could compete for the Eastern Conference crown. The most notable player involved in this improvement was Andrew Bynum.
Bynum is widely considered to be the best center in the NBA not known by the name Dwight Howard. At 24, his low-post game is more polished than roughly 90 percent of big men in the NBA. He's also an elite rebounder with the capacity to dominate on the defensive end.
The question is, can he come along mentally and overcome the fragility that has held him back over the past two seasons? If he can, the Sixers could make a legitimate push for a title.
Working alongside Bynum will be point guard Jrue Holiday. Although Holiday has failed to duplicate his high school success at the NBA level, his size, youth and athleticism offers promise for the future. Although his drop in assists from 6.5 per game in 2011 to 4.5 per game in 2012 is concerning, there is reason for optimism.
Holiday has started 18 postseason games already at just 22 years of age. In that time, he has averaged 15.4 points, 5.3 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game on 44.3 percent shooting from distance.
The breakout player of the season will not be Bynum or Holiday, though. Instead, it will be Evan Turner.
Turner was selected second overall in the 2010 NBA Draft. Last season, he finally began to show why, with averages of 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on an average of just 26.4 minutes of playing time. Expect those numbers to increase with a bump in minutes and a shift to small forward, his natural position.
Also, expect another versatile forward to shine as Thaddeus Young finally emerges from Andre Iguodala's shadow.
The 24-year-old Young has proven capable of dominating games while spending time on the floor. He's an excellent rebounder who thrives on the defensive end of the floor. Young can also finish in a multitude of ways on offense due to his length and elite athleticism.
If Young can continue his rapid development, the Sixers could make noise. The question is, how will the power forward trio of Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen and Arnett Moultrie fare?
2011-12 Regular Season Record
Is Isaiah Thomas the Sacramento Kings' spark plug or franchise point guard?
Key Players: DeMarcus Cousins (22), Tyreke Evans (23), Thomas Robinson (21), Isaiah Thomas (23), Marcus Thornton (25)
Players to Watch: Jimmer Fredette (23), Tyler Honeycutt (22), James Johnson (25)
The Sacramento Kings may have the most raw talent of any team in the NBA. With all five of their potential starters under the age of 25, the Kings' window of opportunity for greatness is as wide as any. The question is, will we ever see this team form even the slightest amount of chemistry?
If we don't, this could only be described as a colossal waste of talent.
The team is led by DeMarcus Cousins, who has made his mark as one of the best young big men in the NBA. Cousins posted All-Star caliber averages of 18.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. He also led the league by grabbing 4.1 offensive boards per contest.
As he enters his third year in the league, the baby step to elite will be taken.
Whether or not the players alongside him will follow is up for debate. Fortunately, the Kings selected 21-year-old power forward Thomas Robinson out of Kansas this past June creating a promising frontcourt.
Robinson is a well-mannered player with an excellent motor. His defensive intensity and rebounding prowess should work perfectly alongside Cousins. Pairing with Jason Thompson should only make the learning curve easier to overcome due to their similar playing styles.
As for the backcourt, 5'9" point guard Isaiah Thomas was as impressive as any rookie in the game last year. His energy was infectious and his influence on teammates is indescribable. Although he could lose his starting job to Aaron Brooks, Thomas has proven to be more than just another Nate Robinson.
He can start.
At shooting guard, Marcus Thornton has become one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Although he's limited in virtually every other statistical category, Thornton has proven capable of scoring at a high rate. His 18.7 points per game ranked first on the team and fourth amongst NBA shooting guards.
As we shift to small forward, however, bright skies get cloudy.
Since winning the 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year award, Tyreke Evans has been on the decline in every major statistical category. Evans averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game as a rookie. In 2011, he averaged 17.8 points, 5.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds. In 2012 his numbers dropped to 16.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game.
All a result of his lack of position.
If Evans is able to discover how to translate his street ball abilities to the NBA, thus discovering where he's supposed to be on the floor, we could be witnessing the emergence of an elite player. His skill set suggests that he could rival the best of the best in terms of statistical production.
Tyreke Evans' recent struggles suggest that the Kings will never lift off. Should he turn things around, we could be witnessing the next great team in the Western Conference hitting their stride.
2011-12 Regular Season Record