Which Top Young NBA Cores Are Built for Titles and Which Are Built to Fail?
In the NBA, playing young doesn't have to mean playing the long game.
Sure, there are always a handful of bottom-feeders who attach their hopes to undeveloped prospects, whether on their rosters or slated to join the team in an upcoming draft. But the most fortunate franchises have already assembled youthful cores capable of challenging for the crown now or in the near future.
We're here to assemble that second batch by examining which of the top young collections are built to withstand the rigors of championship contention and which will fracture before hitting their mark.
Because our crystal ball only sees so far down the line, we're focused on young cores that have already enjoyed some level of success. Even if we're bigger fans of some super-young squads (Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns) than others (Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers), we're looking at clubs hoping to compete sooner rather than later.
We also aren't interested in filling out major portions of unfinished pictures. While we're fascinated by what the New York Knicks or Dallas Mavericks might become, the lack of completed construction prevents us from determining whether the final structure will be solid.
Boston Celtics: Collapse
As packed on paper as any team outside Oakland, the Celtics are theoretically built to contend both now and later. But as this head-scratching season draws nearer to its conclusion, it's getting harder to envision this group doing either.
The current forecast calls for the doom and gloom of unpredictability. Any time you try to trust this team, it gives you a new reason not to do so. It has five double-digit losses since the All-Star break, including one to the Chicago Bulls and another to the Brooklyn Nets. Those are damaging enough for a group fighting to host a first-round series, but they're evidence of fatal flaws for a club hoping to contend.
"This time of year, it's not as much about winning games as it is about winning with a style of play that's universally accepted by all the players on a team," NBC Sports Boston's A. Sherrod Blakely wrote. "And far too often, this Celtics team looks disjointed on the floor, showing a lack of connectivity that again, a team with this level of talent this deep into the season, shouldn’t be experiencing."
The Shamrocks appear considerably worse than the sum of their parts, and fixing that might be impossible this close to the finish line.
So, if this core can't win now, when might that change? Maybe never, honestly.
Kyrie Irving's future is up in the air. Jayson Tatum has been constantly connected to Anthony Davis trade talks, and the former No. 3 pick may not mind that. Free agency looms as a possible poacher of Al Horford (player option), Terry Rozier (restricted) and/or Marcus Morris (unrestricted). Jaylen Brown is stagnating and frustrated about it. Gordon Hayward is fighting against time to prevent his contract from becoming an albatross.
Perhaps Boston takes this information and sees it as motivation to reform its nucleus. It might have the strongest AD trade offer of anyone, and the single-browed superstar could put a title (or more) within reach. Or if the front office gets a bad feeling about Irving's future, it could keep its draft capital and build a long-term blueprint around some combination of the newcomers, Tatum, Brown and/or Rozier.
But none of that moves the needle for the current core, which was supposed to be the surest thing in the Eastern Conference but looks nowhere close to its potential.
Denver Nuggets: Contend
My grandfather used to have a saying: The only thing better than an NBA team performing at a 56-win pace is when said squad has a 24-year-old first option with a 22-year-old sidekick.
A popular sleeper pick last season, the Nuggets are making major moves one year after they got knocked out of the playoffs on the campaign's final night. They have what history holds as near-essentials for a championship hopeful: a legitimate MVP candidate (Nikola Jokic) leading top-10 units on both offense (fifth) and defense (10th).
"We felt like last year we were on the verge of doing something special," Nuggets coach Michael Malone told SB Nation's Paul Flannery. "We believe in this group. We've seen them grow. Let's see it through."
The many indications that this is merely the beginning make the current trek all the more incredible.
This is just the fourth NBA season for Jokic and only the third for Jamal Murray, the fearless 22-year-old scoring guard who's erupted for 25-plus points a dozen times. It's also the first campaign with full-time roles for critical reserves such as Malik Beasley and Monte Morris, who've helped form arguably basketball's best bench. Gary Harris, Trey Lyles and Juan Hernangomez deepen this remarkable collection of under-25 talent.
And let's not forget about sidelined freshman Michael Porter Jr., whose ceiling looks as high as any. If his body cooperates, he could become the three-level scoring threat who joins Jokic and Murray in the NBA's next Big Three.
The Nuggets are shadow contenders already, and they have ample opportunity to become even greater.
Philadelphia 76ers: Contend
After they made power plays for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, the Sixers have nearly aged themselves out of this conversation.
But Joel Embiid is only 25, and he's suffered less wear and tear on NBA courts since he's had so much time wiped out by injuries. Ben Simmons turns 23 in July, and he's also had a season erased by medical woes. They might be a current All-Star nucleus, but neither should be especially close to his full potential.
Each is a matchup nightmare in his own right. Embiid looks like a modernized Hakeem Olajuwon clone. Simmons is a hyper-athletic, 6'10" floor general. They're still ironing out the kinks of their partnership—spacing can be nonexistent—but every game together brings them closer to their towering ceiling.
"You can see it on the court—our relationship has gotten so much better," Embiid said, per Sixers.com's Brian Seltzer. "We find each other—he finds me, I find him. We read each other better on the court, and it's scary, because we have so much potential."
Embiid and Simmons form the backbone of any possible championship run for Philly, whether in 2019 or the next five-plus years.
The present outlook is mostly encouraging, save for a ticking clock and potentially tightening budget. Philly's first five—Simmons, Butler, Harris, Embiid and JJ Redick—is loaded, but only Embiid and Simmons have guaranteed contracts beyond this season. Though the Sixers could potentially keep everyone, this roster would quickly get expensive.
Long term, that adds importance to the development of prospects such as Zhaire Smith, Jonah Bolden and Shake Milton. Philly's stars should keep the club in contention, but building the bench could be a critical part of widening the window.
Sacramento Kings: Contend
The Kings' young core has a notable quirk.
It's not as young as you might think. Or not all of it is, at least.
Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Harrison Barnes have all celebrated their 26th birthdays. Willie Cauley-Stein will before the 2019-20 campaign opens.
But that's fine. Hield (in his third NBA season) and Bogdanovic (second) have more growth potential than most pro hoopers their age. Plus, Sacramento's championship chances might be more closely tied to 21-year-old De'Aaron Fox and 20-year-olds Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles. While the sample size is tiny (27 minutes), those five have compiled a bulldozing 15.9 net rating together.
Hield bends defenses the way few snipers can. He's on pace to join the Splash Brothers and Dennis Scott as the only players to shoot at least 42 percent from distance while making at least 250 triples. Bogdanovic functions as a hoops adhesive who does a little of everything. Giles is the best freshman no one is talking about; his per-36-minute line includes 17.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
Fox and Bagley, though, are the biggest difference-makers.
The former is among the NBA's fastest players, and he's leveraged that speed to fuel a full-fledged breakout season (17.6 points, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals). The latter is doing everything possible to make people forget the Kings passed up Luka Doncic to get him. Since the All-Star break, Bagley is averaging 19.0 points and 8.9 boards with a 52.1/40.0/73.0 shooting slash.
"I just think the sky’s the limit for Marvin," Sacramento head coach Dave Joerger said, per Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee. "... You talk about just scraping the tip of what he can do talent-wise. I think it's going to be really fun to be around him for a long, long time."
Utah Jazz: Collapse
The Jazz are as frisky as modern teams can get. While that's mostly a defensive description, it bleeds right into steady scoring when Salt Lake City's stoppers are clicking.
So why aren't we buying this team as a short- or long-term contender? Because we're skeptical this offense can sustain the levels of efficiency needed to embark on a banner-raising run.
The Jazz are uncomfortably reliant on Donovan Mitchell, who's on pace to become just the fifth qualified sophomore with a 30-plus usage rate (31.7). Whether that's due to an oversized belief in his skills or a dearth of competent shot-creators around him, it's still asking entirely too much of a young player who flashes star potential but may always battle inconsistency as a shooter and decision-maker.
But if head coach Quin Snyder doesn't look Mitchell's way for offense, where else can Utah turn?
Rudy Gobert isn't effective beyond the restricted area, and Derrick Favors doesn't often venture outside the paint, either. Ricky Rubio's shot is broken again. Focusing on the young core specifically, Dante Exum is always hurt, Grayson Allen looks overmatched against NBA defenders and Tony Bradley can't get off the runway.
The roster doesn't have an obvious second option—certainly no one who could push Mitchell into the No. 2 role that might best match his skills. That not only lowers the current core's ceiling, but it also ushers in major questions about how the franchise will ever find one. This is the furthest thing from a free-agency destination, and it's unlikely to make even a late-lottery pick while Mitchell and Gobert are leading the charge.
Being a defense-first team is fine, but being a defense-only outfit might make it impossible to escape the Western Conference gauntlet.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.