Who Will Win a Title 1st? Making the Case for NBA's Young Stars
Defense may traditionally win championships, but in today's NBA, superstars give squads their best shots at titles.
While the 2017-18 season could end with Round 4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors, there will come a day when the league's incumbent young talent takes over. It may not happen right away, but the Association has a bright future, and for that, it can thank the next generation of franchise fixtures.
With that in mind, Bleacher Report has rallied six NBA experts to contemplate the following question: Which young star will win a title first?
Note that players were assigned to writers, and those writers were subsequently asked to make their cases. Also note that in order to qualify as a "young star," players had to be 23 or younger.
So while LeBron James and Kevin Durant (and yes, many more) are in the championship spotlight today, it's guys like Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo who have their eyes set on the Larry O'Brien Trophies of tomorrow.
The case for Kristaps Porzingis being the first among this group to win a title is a tough one. Other players on the list are either further along in their development (Giannis) or surrounded by more talent (the FEDS). Here's the thing, though: KP and the New York Knicks aren't as far off as you might think.
An offseason spent bulking up has transformed Porzingis into one of the game's top offensive weapons. He boasts as complete a scoring arsenal as any player in the league save LeBron. That, coupled with his still strong interior defense—the combination that earned him unicorn status—makes Porzingis the type of player who within a few years will be playing at a level where a team could win a title with him as its top dog.
The hurdle standing in Porzingis' way is the organization around him. Thanks to Joakim Noah and Tim Hardaway Jr.'s deals, the Knicks won't have much cap space to add max guys. There are ways to circumvent this—whether via trades or the stretch provision—and the combined allure of New York's bright lights and Porzingis' skills could transform the Knicks into a draw.
Figure out a way to flank him with one more star, and maybe Frank Ntilikina evolves into the All-Defense point guard so many project him to be. Suddenly, Porzingis' prospects in New York don't appear so dire.
Either that, or he'll demand a trade in a year or two and wind up winning a ring for, like, the Toronto Raptors. That would be the Knicksian way for this to end.
Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins
It feels like I'm getting the short straw here in having to justify a title shot for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, two guys who play for a team mired in the longest active playoff drought in the league. Fortunately, we're not measuring them against the NBA's elite; all we have to do is compare them to the young stars on this list. And if preseason expectations count for anything, conventional wisdom is in their favor.
The Minnesota Timberwolves entered the 2017-18 season with better championship odds than the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, per OddsShark. So there it is. The case is closed.
If oddsmakers' opinions aren't sufficiently convincing, we could focus on Towns' once-in-a-generation skill set. He's already the only player in league history to amass 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 100 threes in a season—and he did that during his age-21 campaign.
We've never seen a big man with his mix of range, interior guile and off-the-dribble talent. You should be able to build any number of high-level offensive schemes around a player like that. Versatility is a huge asset in title-building, and Towns' unique abilities mean the Wolves don't have to lock into one approach.
Wiggins has all of the physical potential in the world and could conceivably start caring about defense once in a while. That goes for Towns as well. If these guys commit to two-way play, they have a shot to be one of the top duos in the league for a long time.
Critically, both have been durable. Wiggins has missed one game in his career, while Towns is an attendance champion, having never sat out in two-plus years. Minnesota's young tandem has a better health record than anyone else on this list, which gives it a major edge in a league that is always getting turned upside down by injuries.
Having a top-five player is basically a prerequisite for winning an NBA title. Look at the past 30 champions. Nearly all of them employed a top-five megastud, with the lone exceptions being the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, 2011 Dallas Mavericks and 2004 Detroit Pistons.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, unlike anyone else on this list, is already one of the Association's five best players. And he just turned 23 on Dec. 6, so he isn't even in his prime. He's going to get better. That doesn't bode well for other hopefuls in the transitioning Eastern Conference.
LeBron James won't be LeBron James forever. He might even vacate the East this summer in free agency (shout-out to the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets conspiracy theorists). The Milwaukee Bucks are among the candidates to be the next team up, right up there with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
Even now, when they are far from a complete product, they are outscoring opponents by 6.1 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor—a championship contender's differential. And they are more dominant when when he shares the court with Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton, outstripping rivals by 16.7 points per 100 possessions. As Jabari Parker gets healthy and they develop Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson, the Bucks will really sing.
It won't be this year. It may not even be next year. And it might almost assuredly take them hiring a more creative head coach than Jason Kidd to incorporate all of these different pieces. But they have the burgeoning depth to get their top-five superstar over the hump. More importantly, in Antetokounmpo, they have the top-five player young enough to outlast the dynastic reigns in Oakland and Cleveland.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid
If we've learned anything about Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, it's that they adjust quickly. Simmons already is putting up historic numbers as a rookie. Embiid immediately established himself as one of the NBA's top scorers and rim protectors after sitting out for his first two seasons.
They're winning now, and they have just scratched the surface in terms of maximizing their potential and building chemistry.
The Philadelphia 76ers also locked up Robert Covington, who's transformed into one of the NBA's elite three-and-D wings, for the next four seasons. And though 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz has been out nursing a shoulder injury, there is still hope he can recover to become the star guard scouts saw in college.
Towns' Timberwolves may be fatally flawed, as the team ranks 25th in defensive efficiency. Porzingis is far away in New York without a co-star. Lonzo Ball and the Los Angeles Lakers are too young. Even with Antetokounmpo averaging close to 30 points per game, the Bucks still aren't an elite team in the East or an exciting free-agent destination. And as versatile as Nikola Jokic is, he isn't an ideal No. 1 option for a weak defensive group that includes mostly role players.
Simmons and Embiid, two franchise-player talents on rookie contracts, have made their team a playoff threat today and a more attractive destination for free agents in the future. This is only the first year since management completed "the Process," and it's working already. By the third year, we could be talking about a title contender led by one of the game's premier two-way players and most unique playmakers.
If the Los Angeles Lakers achieve their master plan, Lonzo Ball will be the first to an NBA title. While he has shown tremendous flashes as a rookie, primarily as a playmaker, rebounder and solid defender, Ball's shooting has been atrocious. If the Lakers wait for him to retool his shot, they won't be near a championship anytime soon.
Ball would still need to find an outside shot, but he would better be able to play to his strengths. His unselfishness is his greatest attribute. Ball loves feeding the ball to teammates, but he needs to be surrounded with significant firepower.
Assuming executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka can execute a monster summer, the Lakers would have a compelling mix of veteran stars and youthful talent such as Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Ball. Without a significant talent upgrade, Los Angeles will continue down its difficult, slow path. The team is gradually improving, but Ball alone isn't the reason why the Lakers would make that leap.
While Ball is unlikely to develop into a dominant scorer, he could be an elite true point guard on a winning franchise. Even with James and another free-agent All-Star, the Lakers would still need to get past the Golden State Warriors. Any franchise is going to have a difficult time beating Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in a seven-game series.