Can we win a title with this core group of players?
It's a question that every NBA front-office member asks himself or herself on a daily basis, pondering how far away from a championship they currently sit.
For the sake of consistency, I'm arbitrarily stating that a title core consists of three players. It doesn't matter what positions they play, but a trio is all that we get to think about when determining the most potent cores in the Association.
Not every team has one at the moment, though.
Some teams—the Boston Celtics, for example—have two great pieces, but the third hasn't yet emerged. Other squads just don't have enough talent to come anywhere close.
The title cores in this article have been broken down into four categories:
- "The Signs Are There. The Titles Won't Be for a While."
- "Don't Expect Anything in 2013-14. That Changes in 2014-15."
- "Now or Never"
- "Now and for the Foreseeable Future"
Does your team's core make it onto the list? More importantly, which category does it fall into?
The most potent title cores that the NBA has to offer don't all have to be ready to compete right now. Going into the 2013-14 campaign, there are a handful of teams with a group of players whom we can already identify as future studs.
They'll be competitive to varying degrees this year, but it's a bit too tough to foresee any of them making it out of the first round of the playoffs, if they even advance past the regular season.
This section's cores will be around for a long time, though.
They're comprised of young studs, and that won't change as the years progress.
If you're a fan of the Utah Jazz, you have plenty of reasons to get excited about the future.
In fact, it should say a lot that just identifying the members of a title core is hard. Not because of a dearth of options, but rather because there are just so many young players with high potential. I legitimately feel bad about leaving Gordon Hayward and Brandon Rush out of this, for example.
But still, it's all about Trey Burke, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, all of whom will have a chance to play big minutes during the 2013-14 season.
Burke, the rookie point guard out of Michigan, has the starting job and a great chance to prove himself as the point guard of the future. The other two will be taking over the frontcourt after years of backing up Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, both of whom have left for different pastures.
There will be signs of greatness mixed in with a lot of losses this year. But a few seasons down the road, we could be talking about this group as the NBA's premier Big Three.
If Andrew Bynum works out for the Cleveland Cavaliers and becomes the dominant center that he looked like before leaving the Los Angeles Lakers, then he'll replace Anthony Bennett here until the UNLV product has gained a little bit more experience at the NBA level.
But for now, the big man hasn't even been cleared for contact, so it's tough to think of him as anything more than a high-upside experiment.
However, it really doesn't matter who the third man is. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters look that promising.
Irving is the most talented of the bunch, already emerging as a top-20 player in the NBA and one of the 10 best point guards. He should use his third season—hopefully a healthy one—to ascend even further up the ranks as his defense starts the long process of catching up to his offense.
As for Waiters, he struggled at the start of his rookie year but rounded into form after the All-Star break. He has the makings of another offensive stud, and it won't be long before he's a valuable contributor for the Cavs.
A playoff push should be in the cards this year, but it will still be a while before this trio is capable of carrying Cleveland to anything more than an early exit.
Speaking of squads that should make the playoffs before experiencing the inevitable early exit at the hands of one of the Association's strongest teams...
You should expect big things from John Wall in 2013-14. Like really big things. I'm talking about the possibility of a season in which he averages 20 points and 10 assists per game while emerging as a bona fide All-Star and potential All-NBA guy.
And the future will be even brighter.
I recently broke down the Wall-Bradley Beal duo, questioning whether or not they'd be the next great backcourt of the future. You can read the full article here, but sneak preview: They will be.
It only helps when you add Otto Porter into the equation.
The rookie out of Georgetown won't take long to settle into his new home. And I mean that both in a literal sense and a calling-his-role-on-the-team-his-home sense. His lanky arms and versatile play will make him a two-way contributor right away, but he'll be all the more dangerous once he develops chemistry with the backcourt.
Considering Wall is 23 and the other two are 20, this group has a lot of time to grow together.
While the previous three title cores all have high ceilings, they aren't going to be ready to compete as quickly as this next group.
Each of the next trios is already established as a quality bunch. They just aren't capable of winning a title in 2013-14 without some significant help.
However, that changes in 2014-15, assuming they stick together and experience the amount of growth that is almost universally expected from them.
I'll also warn you: Read everything carefully here. Some of the cores featured might surprise you, and context is always necessary.
The New York Knicks are capable of winning a title in 2013-14. In fact, it wouldn't be shocking if they managed to do so, although it would require emerging from an increasingly threatening group of Eastern Conference teams.
If Carmelo Anthony channels his 2011 Dirk Nowitzki and carries the burden throughout the postseason, the Larry O'Brien Trophy really could be a realistic prize.
However, notice what it says in the title of this slide? It says "New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony," not just "New York Knicks."
What makes the Knicks true contenders is more than just the trio. It's Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, all of Amar'e Stoudemire except his knees and the impressive depth that the roster boasts.
We still need another year of improvement from Shumpert before this core—by itself—belongs in one of the remaining two categories.
Scarily enough, the New Orleans Pelicans could soon become a Big Five.
The trio of Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis reigns supreme when we're talking about the future, but it's not like we should just forget about Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson. Both of them are high-quality players in their own right and could replace any member of this featured title core on any given night.
But back to the three players in question.
The Unibrow had a strong rookie season, although it was hindered by injuries and an adjustment period. Davis still has to work on becoming more of a spot-up shooter and interior defender. The latter is especially important, as he was pushed around by bigger offensive players quite frequently.
Gordon should be healthy this year, and his happiness won't be a negative factor like it has been in the past. Playing on a significantly upgraded roster with good friends tends to do that.
Finally, we have Holiday, who emerged as an All-Star last season and should look even better now that he has a workable supporting cast that will prevent him from fading down the stretch.
A year of building chemistry and another year of development for Davis is all this trio needs.
It's a shame that we haven't seen Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic spend more time on the court together.
You can thank injuries for that. Between Rubio's torn ACL and Love's hand injuries, they've just not had sufficient opportunity to develop together for the Minnesota Timberwolves. According to Basketball-Reference, the Love-Rubio duo spent only 28:44 on the court together throughout the 2012-13 campaign.
But once these three all mesh, their skills complement each other's to perfection.
Love is the premier stretch-4 in the NBA, balancing his glass-attacking nature with his potent three-point efforts. Pekovic is just a banger on the inside, capable of making an impact on both ends of the court. And Rubio is developing into one of the best facilitators in basketball.
This trio will be around for quite some time, and they'll only need one healthy season together before they're truly ready to compete.
It's going to be tough enough for this trio to lead the Detroit Pistons to the playoffs in 2013-14, much less to a title. Having Greg Monroe—who doesn't have the upside necessary to displace any of the members I've selected—helps as well, but it's still going to be an uphill battle in Year 1.
But that's only in Year 1.
This trio has tremendous potential in Year 2 and beyond, especially if Andre Drummond blossoms into one of the league's best centers. He's shown all the tools necessary to do so, flaunting Defensive Player of the Year upside while finishing pick-and-rolls with the best of them.
In reality, it all comes down to the young center. Competing for a title is tough without an established big man, and he'll have to be truly dominant to make up for the lack of floor spacing sure to exist in Detroit.
Of course, Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith developing more consistent jumpers would help as well. They've notoriously struggled with shot selection in their past homes—Milwaukee for Jennings and Atlanta for Smoove—but the southpaws are still young enough to get back on the right track.
I'm excited to see what happens with this trio, because it could easily swing in either the positive or negative direction.
I need to see one year of development from Damian Lillard before I'm ready to boost the Portland Trail Blazers' title core into the realm of the true contenders.
As good as the young point guard was during his rookie season, he still struggled immensely on the defensive end of the court. According to Basketball-Reference, Rip City allowed 2.1 more points per 100 possessions when the Weber State product was on the court.
Synergy Sports (subscription required) wasn't much kinder.
Lillard allowed 0.87 points per possession as an individual, ranking him No. 195 among all qualified players. He was utterly incompetent in isolation situations, far too prone to being posted up and struggled whenever he had to navigate screens.
That has to change, and it'll take more than just this season for it to happen. But once it does, Lillard, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge will form one heck of a two-way trio.
The Golden State Warriors' trio finds itself in a situation rather similar to the one experienced by the New York Knicks' title core.
As a team, the Dubs are ready to compete. Adding in David Lee, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes and all the other quality pieces that Mark Jackson gets to manage tends to promote that type of readiness.
However, the triumvirate by itself needs another year of seasoning.
Stephen Curry has to continue improving his defense so that his porosity on that end of the court doesn't negate too much of his offensive prowess. Klay Thompson must continue emerging as a premier "three and D" guy while adding to his offensive arsenal.
Andre Iguodala just has to build chemistry with his teammates.
Next year, this will be a trio worth fearing on an individual basis. But right now, the team still trumps the title core.
The title speaks for itself.
This group of title cores doesn't have much time. While the championship window is open, age is causing it to close rather quickly, and this year is all the more important as a result.
While younger players could very well replace established members of the trios, that's not a guarantee. Plus it would be changing the title core anyway.
If your team falls into this section, you know just how important 2013-14 is to your hopes and dreams of emerging on top.
Tim Duncan could very well prove me wrong and play until he turns 65, but this feels like the last year. And yes, I'm aware that we say that just about every season now, and he continues to perform at an All-NBA level.
But The Big Fundamental is now 37 years old, and his role on the team has been steadily declining. While the per-36-minute numbers remain eerily consistent, the "DNP-Old"s and time spent on the bench are not so steady.
With Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard (who is firmly replacing Manu Ginobili and will prove he belongs throughout 2013-14), the San Antonio Spurs are very much title contenders.
Based on the historical success of this franchise and the brilliance of both Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford, they'll remain right in the picture for the foreseeable future. But the title core might change.
You could make strong arguments to include Joe Johnson or Kevin Garnett instead of Pierce. And you wouldn't be wrong because the three are all close enough in terms of value that it's more of a subjective choice than anything else.
But Pierce is still the best of the bunch, especially now that he'll be functioning as the league's best glorified role player. The Truth will be hitting spot-up jumpers all day and conserving energy for defense, where he'll continue to function as one of the most underrated players in the NBA.
How much longer does Pierce have left in the league, though? Could this be his last year? Even if he sticks around for a while longer, he'll undoubtedly be replaced in the core.
For this group of three players, it is "now or never," even though the Nets' title window presumably stretches out for two or three seasons.
This is the category you really want your team's title core to be in.
Not only are the players featured capable of winning a title right now, but they're also going to be around for a long time and will continue to be front-runners for a championship.
We're now working with established players who haven't had the years pile up on them quite yet. All-Stars abound, as well as potential All-Stars who are close to realizing their true potential.
Does your team boast one of the six cores in this category?
Although they were ultimately unsuccessful in their quest to beat the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals and have since lost the services of a certain bearded shooting guard, this trio has proven itself.
Westbrook and Durant are two of the league's 10 best players, and a defensive improvement from Westbrook could allow him to join his fellow superstar in the top five. He's that talented.
As for Ibaka, he's been disappointing recently, failing to emerge as anything more than a pick-and-pop threat when the Thunder needed an offensive boost. But he's still a tremendous defensive player who should compete for yet another blocks crown in 2013-14.
The Thunder are among the favorites in the Western Conference yet again, and the primary reason is this group of three players. Plus, the oldest among them is Durant, who still has yet to turn 25 years old (that will happen on September 29).
There's a lot of quality basketball left to be played by this OKC trio.
Forget about a lack of chemistry.
D12 thrives when he's surrounded by quality shooters because the defense can't collapse around him. It gives him time to work in the post and establish himself as a physically dominant player.
Last time I checked, Parsons and Harden were both pretty solid shooters.
The Florida product should emerge as one of the premier "three and D" guys during the 2013-14 season, and Harden is going to continue functioning as an elite go-to scorer capable of putting up an insane number of points on just a few shots.
They'll excel during their first year together, and things will only get better in the future.
The Memphis Grizzlies haven't been able to advance too deep into the postseason with this core, but they've at least gotten close.
While it looks like they were blown out by the San Antonio Spurs last year, nothing could be further from the truth. Each game was highly competitive, and the Grizz were just a few made shots away from taking down the eventual Western Conference champions.
According to Basketball-Reference, they outscored opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions when all three were on the court. To put that in perspective, the team as a whole outscored the opposition by 4.6.
This lineup isn't as youthful as many of the others in this section, but none of them are declining yet. In fact, Conley and Gasol are only getting better.
Having Derrick Rose suit up will immediately make the Chicago Bulls title contenders once more. Especially because he'll be playing alongside Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler, two players who provide exactly what he needs in order to thrive.
Noah is one of the best interior defenders in the Association.
In fact, there's a rather large contingent of people who feel that he was slighted when Marc Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year last season. He's the perfect security blanket for Rose, who hasn't yet developed into a true perimeter stopper.
As for Butler, the young swingman emerged as an excellent two-way player during Rose's absence.
He made 47.5 percent of his three-point attempts after the All-Star break and hit 40 percent of them during the postseason. That improvement was no fluke, especially because it was also coupled with more responsibility and a wider arsenal of moves.
Chicago is truly capable of knocking off the Miami Heat in 2013-14, and it all starts with this trio.
How's that for a nice combination?
This trio absolutely dominates on both ends of the court.
Offensively, George's versatility/outside shooting mixes perfectly with West's mid-range game and Hibbert's jump-hook on the interior. Defensively, they can cover all five positions at an elite level.
Because of this title core, Indiana is the biggest threat to Miami's reign of supremacy in 2013-14, and the Pacers will continue to function as such so long as this particular trio stays together.
The NBA's top Big Three has compiled a rather impressive resume.
- In 2011, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh advanced to the NBA Finals before losing to the Dallas Mavericks.
- In 2012, they got redemption, knocking off the Oklahoma City Thunder in rather definitive fashion.
- In 2013, they became back-to-back champions after a dramatic series with the San Antonio Spurs.
Three years. Three Finals appearances. Two championships.
It's hard to argue with that.
As long as LeBron is still a part of the title core, the Heat will be capable of winning yet another championship. And that doesn't appear likely to change anytime soon, even if the MVP does have the ability to end his contract early and hit free agency at the end of the season.
LeBron leaving is the only way that Miami would fall out of this premier category of title cores.