Projecting the Most Dominant NBA Starting 5s in 5 Years
Five years is a long time.
Heading into the NBA's 2022-23 campaign, we'll probably be excited to watch a few players who aren't even on the radar yet. Maybe they're still working their way through high school, navigating their varsity basketball contests and prom invitations. Perhaps they're currently buried on a collegiate bench, waiting to break free and shoot up draft boards.
But five years isn't that long. Plenty of established studs and current up-and-comers will still be playing at rather high levels, and those are the men with whom we're concerned for this particular article.
In order to keep the focus on player growth and chemistry within existing rosters, we're not factoring in contributors currently outside the NBA. Nor are we allowing for any specific free-agency movement, since the point here isn't to bolster a lineup simply because it might have a shot at signing LeBron James.
This applies most heavily to the Los Angeles Lakers, who don't have access to James, Paul George or any other primary targets in the coming offseasons. Those studs could obviously help boost the Lake Show, but again, the scope here rests upon incumbent talent and burgeoning cohesion.
These are merely the best incumbent quintets we can find, taking into account each player's style, age and expected on-court effectiveness five years into the future.
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Combining Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and Nerlens Noel certainly makes for an intriguing start. But the Dallas Mavericks have too many question marks for us to assume they'll boast a top-five unit in the post-Dirk Nowitzki era. That is, if the German 7-footer isn't still playing five years into the future, of course.
Noel's skill set might seem intriguing, but there's a reason he didn't land a big contract this summer and instead wound up working on a qualifying offer. His offense just isn't developed enough, and he has yet to demonstrate he can become a star-caliber player in a league with such modern stylings.
Plus, who fills the two remaining positions? Seth Curry and a cane-aided version of Wesley Matthews? Dorian Finney-Smith?
Having one uncertain spot is fine. Two, especially without an established star, is too much to overcome.
Just having Nikola Jokic, who asserted himself as a top-20 player during his sophomore season, is hugely beneficial. Ditto for Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, though it's still unknown whether the Kentucky product will show off the facilitating chops necessary to fill in at the 1.
But that's only three players.
Juan Hernangomez could continue improving and become a convincing option at one of the forward spots. Will Barton could stick around and start spending more time at small forward. But a 37-year-old version of Paul Millsap isn't boosting the Mile High City into contention for a featured spot, and the other reasonable options at power forward are wholly unproven.
Regardless of whether Patrick McCaw or Jordan Bell becomes a part of the Golden State Warriors' starting five in years to come, the rest of this dynastic force will be far removed from their prime years. They're talented enough to continue making some noise if they all stick together, but just look at the ages of the four core pieces five seasons into the future:
- Stephen Curry: 34 years old at the start of 2022-23
- Klay Thompson: 32 years old
- Kevin Durant: 34 years old
- Draymond Green: 32 years old
Betting on a quartet with that much mileage on the collective tires is a terrifying proposition, even if their games should age relatively well.
Maybe Devin Booker will morph into a full-fledged superstar, though it's worth noting his current level of play doesn't come close to matching his reputation. But who else are you counting on for the Phoenix Suns?
Right now, the most promising starting five this far into the future seems like it'll be comprised of Tyler Ulis, Booker, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. One or more of those players will probably be replaced by future draft picks, but we have no clue who those will be.
Assuming Phoenix jumps into the top five gives far too much credit to a collection of players who haven't achieved much—or, in some cases, anything—at the professional level.
John Wall (32), Bradley Beal (29) and Otto Porter Jr. (29) will still be playing solid basketball a half-decade from now, but two primary concerns keep them from rising into the featured portion of this countdown.
Who are we supposed to count on in the frontcourt? The incumbent pieces are too old or mediocre to make much noise, and the Wizards are too competitive to find a top-notch replacement through the draft. That's problematic, especially since we aren't counting on free-agency acquisitions for any squad (and the Wizards don't have the cap space to make big plays, anyway).
Secondly, this team, as currently constructed, is wholly reliant on Wall. Maybe that changes going forward, but if the status quo sticks, point guards don't typically play at All-NBA levels when they're two years removed from their 30th birthdays.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Point Guard: Lonzo Ball, 24 years old
Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 29 years old
Small Forward: Brandon Ingram, 25 years old
Power Forward: Julius Randle, 27 years old
Center: Question Mark
Having this much talent that will still be under 30 years old five seasons into the future is a luxury for which many organizations would do unthinkable things. And that remains true even if you sub Larry Nance Jr. or Kyle Kuzma into the projected starting five.
But upside alone can't push the Lakers any higher than No. 5, especially when we're still waiting to see if there's top-end talent lurking in Staples Center. Which of these players has proved himself in the NBA?
Lonzo Ball hasn't yet played a single minute, and his unorthodox jumper looked like it could initially serve as a liability during summer league. Brandon Ingram struggled immensely during his rookie season, though he began gaining confidence and playing better defense after the All-Star break. Julius Randle has thrown up a handful of triple-doubles, but consistency has eluded him through his first two professional campaigns—his actual rookie season, for all intents and purposes, shouldn't really count after he broke his leg in his NBA debut.
Even Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hasn't accomplished much at the sport's highest level. He occasionally served as a floor-spacing option and defensive ace for the Detroit Pistons, but many advanced metrics don't back up the eye test and instead point to a player who has tremendous potential and hasn't yet realized much of it.
This quartet should form a stellar core for years to come, with numerous shot-makers and players who can create offense. If Ball has an impressive run at Rookie of the Year, positive perception will only grow. But without NBA resumes on which they can rely and with uncertainty reigning supreme at center, they can only get so much credit.
4. Boston Celtics
Point Guard: Kyrie Irving, 30 years old
Shooting Guard: Jaylen Brown, 25 years old
Small Forward: Gordon Hayward, 32 years old
Power Forward: Jayson Tatum, 24 years old
Center: Question Mark
Eventually, the Boston Celtics will have to figure out their options at center. No option currently on the roster belongs in a projected starting five this far into the future, since Guerschon Yabusele is too undersized while Al Horford (36 in five years) and Aron Baynes (35) are too old.
But that's the only hole.
The versatility and shot-making abilities of the four featured players are just off the charts. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward should be able to switch on virtually every pick-and-roll, lending the amorphous nature to the lineup that head coach Brad Stevens desires. Having interchangeable players at the three positions in the middle is the future, and this trio exemplifies the trend.
Plus, this Kyrie Irving guy is pretty good.
In his first season away from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Irving should show how much he's grown since the last time he was tasked with truly leading a team. He's evolved into the league's premier isolation threat who can rain jumpers from all over the court, and his defense does tend to improve a bit during the most important part of the NBA calendar. Five years later, that should remain true, and Stevens should have taught him how to maximize his facilitating talents, as well.
With Irving, Hayward and Tatum providing offense while all the wings play high-quality defense (especially the future Defensive Player of the Year threat locked in at shooting guard), these Celtics would be a formidable force.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
Point Guard: Question Mark
Shooting Guard: Andrew Wiggins, 27 years old
Small Forward: Jimmy Butler, 33 years old
Power Forward: Justin Patton, 25 years old
Center: Karl-Anthony Towns, 26 years old
The Minnesota Timberwolves are an exception to the rule.
Having two question marks in the projected starting five is supposed to doom organizations in this particular competition. And the 'Wolves most certainly have two, since a 34-year-old Jeff Teague is their best option at the point while Justin Patton's role is entirely uncertain. His massive two-way upside could make him a mainstay next to Karl-Anthony Towns in an ultra-sized lineup, but he could also be coming off the bench and spelling the Kentucky product, leaving a glaring hole at the 4.
But this is all almost irrelevant, thanks to the superduperstars elsewhere in the lineup.
Jimmy Butler may not qualify as he's moving toward his mid-30s, but the skill elements to his game indicate that he could have a continued impact that late into his career. What if he's filling an Andre Iguodala role, just as an example?
Meanwhile, there's no telling how good Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns could become.
Wiggins hasn't yet provided much positive value for the Minnesota Timberwolves, thanks to his middling shooting percentages, woeful defense and lack of ability in other non-scoring areas. But he'll be just 27 years old at this point, and he'll likely have learned quite a bit from the Butler-Tom Thibodeau battery. If he's even competent on defense (and we're largely referring to his off-ball work, since he can look like a stopper in one-on-one scenarios), he'll be an All-Star lock.
Towns, though, might be the best player in the league. He's already coming off a season in which he averaged 28.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 59.7 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from downtown and 84.1 percent at the stripe after the All-Star break.
If those numbers are a hint of what's to come, he alone could carry a group of four replacement-level players into playoff contention.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Point Guard: Markelle Fultz, 24 years old
Shooting Guard: Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, 27 years old
Small Forward: Ben Simmons, 26 years old
Power Forward: Dario Saric, 28 years old
Center: Joel Embiid, 28 years old
Ultimately, I can't in good conscience put the Philadelphia 76ers in the No. 1 spot.
They may make the penultimate placement look foolish five years down the road by exploding to the top of the Eastern Conference and becoming the Association's newest dynasty. But this entire core could also flounder and frustrate believers in the trusted process. That second outcome seems massively unlikely, but can anyone actually verify its lack of validity?
Not yet, they can't.
Embiid, for all the two-way talent he's displayed, has only 31 games under his belt and is still dealing with serious injury issues. Assuming he's healthy as a 28-year-old center requires a massive leap of faith. Already, evaluators are having trouble figuring out where to place him. Here's what Rob Mahoney wrote for Sports Illustrated's rankings of the top 100 players while pegging the big man at No. 41:
"This ranking—a futile attempt to bridge two extremes—will likely be wrong. It’s possible that Embiid plays out his 2017-18 season as something close to a top-10 player. The talent and the impact are there. It’s somewhat more likely, however, that the 23-year-old who has played just 31 games in three years again sees his season undercut by injury. For Embiid to play 50 or 60 games could feel like an incredible victory. That’s a tough sell for a top-40 player, no matter his evident qualifications."
Projecting him one season into the future is tough enough. Five? That's impossible.
The same is also true, though to a lesser extent, for Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons. Neither has suited up in even a single NBA game, so their remarkable talents still remain pure conjecture at this stage. They could easily team up to form the league's newest dynamic duo and start making serious runs at championships, but that's far from a safe assumption for two incoming rookies.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Point Guard: Malcolm Brogdon, 29 years old
Shooting Guard: Khris Middleton, 31 years old
Small Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, 27 years old
Power Forward: Jabari Parker, 27 years old
Center: Thon Maker, 25 years old
The Milwaukee Bucks simply don't have any holes, and their core pieces are all young enough to still be effective five years into the future. Khris Middleton will be the wily old veteran on that squad, and a 31-year-old version of the swingman should still be worthy of major minutes in a three-and-D role.
Seriously, what if Middleton—who has finished in the top 10 of ESPN.com's real plus/minus among 2-guards during each of the last three seasons—is this core's worst player in five years? That's a distinct possibility.
Malcolm Brogdon is coming off a Rookie of the Year campaign, demonstrating that he's already a mature point guard who controls the tempo masterfully. He never allows an opponent to dictate the action, but instead prides himself on his savvy decision-making and ability to probe for weaknesses before committing to a play.
Jabari Parker was looking like a Most Improved Player contender before suffering his second ACL tear. Those injuries are worrisome, but medical technology has advanced to the point that the previously devastating injury just requires a long rehab before some contributors bounce back with even more explosion. Especially locked into a complementary role, he should be a threatening presence as an inside/outside scorer.
Thon Maker's game is still coming together, but he's already working to assert himself as a bona fide unicorn. Not many 7-footers possess this kind of ball-handling and perimeter-shooting skill while simultaneously working to become rim-protectors.
And yet, exciting as each individual may be, they all pale in comparison to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now coming off an All-NBA and All-Defensive season, the "Greek Freak" might be the sport's most untouchable commodity. He's achieved all this success without a consistent jumper, and learning how to connect from the outside could make him the league's best player. No, that's not even remotely hyperbolic after his 2016-17 exploits.
The Bucks match the upside of Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid with Antetokounmpo. But this starting five has more across-the-board potential and far fewer glaring holes than any other prospective unit.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.