NBA Power Rankings: Which Rosters Are Best Built for the Future?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 10, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Which Rosters Are Best Built for the Future?

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    With the playoff field narrowing and so many teams already on the sidelines, we're switching things up for this week's edition of NBA power rankings.

    Instead of ordering teams based on what they've already done, we'll focus on what they could do soon.

    For our purposes, that's mainly the next couple of years, with emphasis on the 2019-20 season. No, we can't be sure where free agents are going, and we also won't know the draft order until it's settled Tuesday.

    But we do know who's under contract, which players look like candidates to improve and which teams have the means to add and cultivate talent. That's a lot of information on which to base a new set of power rankings.

    Critically, we're placing more value on known commodities than hypotheticals. Cap space and draft picks are great, as are prospective cornerstone talents. But they're not more valuable in the immediate future than reigning MVPs, in-prime stars and organizational harmony. If you don't have those locked-down assets, you'd better have flexibility and a path to getting them.

    If you've got neither, well, see you down toward the bottom of the rankings.


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    Kemba Walker
    Kemba WalkerKent Smith/Getty Images

    30. Cleveland Cavaliers

    The Cavs don't have an obvious cornerstone, even if Collin Sexton dramatically improved his shot profile after the All-Star break. Worse than that, Kevin Love's massive contract may actually cost them assets to move it. 

    Cleveland is starting over, but it's trying to do it without the benefit of a clean slate. That's a tough combo.


    29. Washington Wizards

    John Wall's four-year, $170 million extension kicks in at the start of the 2019-20 season. It may be the league's most onerous contract—even after he returns to whatever passes for full health at some point in 2020.

    The Wizards are highly unlikely to have any money to spend this summer, as most of their resources will go to retaining restricted free agents such as Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Thomas Bryant. Ian Mahinmi is on the books for $15.5 million in 2019-20 as well. The payroll clears up in 2020-21, but Washington lacks young talent and doesn't have any incoming first-rounders from other teams.


    28. Charlotte Hornets

    If Kemba Walker sticks around on a max deal, the Hornets could catch a few breaks and sniff .500 again, but that ignores the reality that their long-term outlook is bleak with or without Walker. Keep him at or above his market rate, and you're locking in more mediocrity. Let him go, and things will get much worse for at least the next couple of years.

    Miles Bridges is a promising rotation piece, but the cupboard is otherwise stocked with overpaid veterans and role players. That makeup produces a low ceiling and a low floor. Not ideal, folks.


    27. New Orleans Pelicans

    With David Griffin in charge, there's hope the Pelicans can institute a solid rebuilding plan based around Jrue Holiday (fairly compensated at $26.2 million per season over the next three years) and whatever return an Anthony Davis trade brings.

    Trading Holiday could add assets, but a Pels roster without Davis, Holiday or any other established star would put this organization back at square one. One of New Orleans' best possible outcomes is starting to rebuild this summer. That makes for a hazy future—one made even harder to predict based on the Pelicans' generally poor free-agency track record.


    26. Miami Heat

    This is what a whole bunch of C-minus (at best) contracts for non-stars gets you.

    The Heat will pay Hassan Whiteside about eight times what they'll give Bam Adebayo next season, assuming Whiteside opts into the $27 million he's owed, and Goran Dragic may only be a bench weapon. If he opts in, he'll get $19.2 million in 2019-20. Even after those two come off the books, the Heat will still likely be paying eight-figure annual rates to James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters through 2021.

    Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow will probably turn out to be bargains on their new extensions, but they're both high-end role players. Miami likely can't get them any star-level help in free agency until the 2021-22 season, and it owes its unprotected 2021 first-rounder to the Clippers.

    There just aren't any quick, clear ways forward until the bad contracts run out.


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    Jaren Jackson Jr.
    Jaren Jackson Jr.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    25. Detroit Pistons

    The Pistons made the playoffs behind a phenomenal season from Blake Griffin, but it's unrealistic to expect him to repeat the heavy-lifting effort he turned in. Still, he's a deserving All-NBA performer, so it's hard to slot Detroit any lower.

    Andre Drummond isn't a star, but he's productive and reliable in a "this is about as much as you can get from an old-school, paint-bound center" kind of way. He's due $27.1 million next year but will hit an opt-out before the 2020-21 season. In better news, Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer and Langston Galloway will be off the books after next season. For now, though, they represent a combined $35 million in poorly spent 2019-20 salary.

    Bruce Brown is a sound defender with no offensive game, and Luke Kennard is a decent reserve in the backcourt. Outside those two, there's very little reason to expect organic growth on this roster.


    24. Orlando Magic

    In Jonathan Isaac, the Magic have a potential game-changer on defense. If he progresses and Orlando gets either Mo Bamba or Markelle Fultz to pop next year, there'll be reason for hope. All are on rookie deals.

    Timofey Mozgov's expiring contract still hurts, but a hefty new agreement with unrestricted free agent Nikola Vucevic could induce more pain. Orlando must decide if Vucevic's breakout in his age-28 season was convincing enough to warrant nine figures over the next four years. If the Magic get that contract wrong, they could wind up in trouble.

    Zoom out, though, and it's not hard to imagine Orlando as better than Detroit next season and over a longer timeline on the strength of some viable young talent.


    23. Memphis Grizzlies

    Jaren Jackson Jr. was a difference-making defender in his short rookie season, ranking fifth among power forwards in Jacob Goldstein's Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus. Broadly speaking, most rookies hurt their teams on defense. Jackson, playing a pivotal role, was among the most helpful defensive bigs in the league.

    If we forecast moderate growth from that strong starting point, the Grizzlies could have a franchise-level cornerstone in the middle—one who'll function well in a modern game that demands mobility and multiple skills from its bigs.

    Mike Conley is due $67 million over the next two seasons, but trading him could bring back valuable picks and players. By contrast, there's little hope Chandler Parsons will provide value as an on-court producer or trade chip. The $25.1 million Memphis owes him next year will basically be dead salary.

    Jackson is the best pure prospect of any team we've hit so far. It says a lot about his potential that Memphis ranks this highly without any other major assets (and a first-rounder owed to the Celtics at some point by 2021).


    22. Chicago Bulls

    Zach LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. are both moderately overpaid, but Porter could opt out after the 2019-20 season, and LaVine's deal ($19.5 million per year through 2021-22) isn't a disaster.

    Lauri Markkanen may develop into an offensive star, but at worst he's a valuable floor-stretching big with more off-the-bounce game than many think. If he takes a step forward and Wendell Carter Jr. proves he can play with the Finnisher in two-big lineups, the Bulls may have something intriguing.

    This team needs a point guard and could get one with a first-rounder likely to fall within the top five. Other than Cristiano Felicio's rotten deal, there's not much bad money here. With big-market appeal thrown in, this is about as good as a team can look without having a true star.


    21. Phoenix Suns

    This ranking will seem too kind to those who've seen Devin Booker's impressive early-career stats and written them off as empty production on a terrible team.

    Though there's room for debate, I'm not entirely in that camp.

    Besides, there are better reasons to be skeptical of the Suns' future. Deandre Ayton's defense is a major concern, Josh Jackson looks like a bust and the organization's recent draft history (Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Jackson, to name three) means we can't be sure a guaranteed top-seven pick in the 2019 draft will yield a cornerstone.

    Booker is the only reason Phoenix, a franchise known mostly for top-down turmoil and failed player development, ranks this high.


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    Karl-Anthony Towns
    Karl-Anthony TownsAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    20. Los Angeles Lakers

    You can't just stop the analysis with LeBron James anymore. He's heading into his age-35 season and missed significant time (and the playoffs!) this past year. His future is cloudier than ever.

    The Lakers are in a similarly fuzzy state marked by more questions than answers. Can they close the deal on Anthony Davis? What will it cost? Will their free-agency dreams come true in the form of a star to join James?

    If James stays healthy and L.A. provides him better supporting talent than it did this past season (How could the Lakers do any worse in that regard?), there's a road to building a competitive roster. And if Davis does come aboard, Los Angeles' long-term outlook will change dramatically for the better.

    Still, ownership and the front office are showing no signs of ending their misguided adherence to the idea of Lakers Exceptionalism, so it's tough to trust they'll make the right decisions. All the upside is speculative.

    Speaking of which...


    19. New York Knicks

    The Knicks are a challenge to rank. They've got those two max slots, some beefed up draft assets from the Kristaps Porzingis trade and as good a shot as anyone at landing the top pick in the 2019 draft (14 percent). That's a towering pile of possibility.

    It's all theoretical, though, and this organization's ownership and management structure has found ways to ruin every opportunity it's had over the last couple of decades. So you have no choice but to bake in concerns regarding the Knicks' penchant for somehow getting everything wrong.

    Maybe Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson will play home games in Madison Square Garden for the next few years. Or maybe the Knicks will fail spectacularly. Considering history, we can't rule out the latter.


    18. Sacramento Kings

    De'Aaron Fox took a significant step forward in his second season, upping his free-throw and three-point attempt rates and spearheading a fast-paced attack that gave the Kings their first clear-cut identity in years...unless you count constant dysfunction as an identity.

    Sacramento erred in taking Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic, but Bagley still profiles as an exciting offensive weapon. Throw in Harry Giles III and Buddy Hield, and you've got a core that should grow together for several years.

    Unfortunately, the Kings don't own their 2019 first-rounder, and the front office, now controlled even more strongly by Vlade Divac, hasn't yet earned the benefit of the doubt. There's also the real-world stakes and uncertainty surrounding the fact that new head coach Luke Walton is being sued for sexual assault.

    Sacramento has some nice pieces, and Fox may become a star. But until the Kings show us a few controversy-free, culture-building seasons, we can't slot them any higher.


    17. Atlanta Hawks

    Maybe Trae Young doesn't do it for you. Maybe you're focused on his awful defense. Maybe those first few months of his career, when he couldn't make a shot and was physically overwhelmed on both ends, matter as much to you as his leap to stardom later on.

    Even if he's not a franchise-altering supernova, the Hawks still have four incoming picks in addition to their own (two firsts and two seconds) lined up over the next two offseasons, a head coach in Lloyd Pierce who's rapidly gaining clout as a culture-builder, starting-caliber kids in Kevin Huerter (20) and John Collins (21), and a recent history of patience that makes it easy to believe they will do this thing right.


    16. Minnesota Timberwolves

    It takes a lot to outweigh the negative impact of Andrew Wiggins' max contract, but the Wolves have a couple of hugely positive forces pushing back at that atrocious deal.

    Karl-Anthony Towns is a superstar locked into a five-year extension. One of the most complete offensive bigs the league has ever seen and durable enough to miss just five games in his first four years, he's insurance against the chance Minnesota will ever bottom out. Expect a true leap in his upcoming fifth season.

    New president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas is the other key piece. After years of working alongside Daryl Morey in Houston, Rosas should have the analytical bent to get Minnesota playing smart basketball.

    Rosas was part of a Rockets organization that reeled in stars via trade, got the most out of veteran free agents and built a contender without tanking. Those skills should help the Wolves, who've historically struggled to add talent outside the draft.


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    Luka Doncic
    Luka DoncicGlenn James/Getty Images

    15. Indiana Pacers

    The Pacers lack the big-ticket talent the Wolves have in Towns, but most other teams fall short of Minnesota by that method of comparison. What Indy has that warrants a higher spot in the rankings are two All-Star caliber studs in Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner, and both are inked to fair deals that could become even bigger bargains as they age.

    Oladipo's health is a concern after a ruptured quad tendon, but he just turned 27 and proved in 2017-18 that he's one of the toughest individual covers in the league. Turner is only 23, and he's already on the short list for Defensive Player of the Year this season.

    In those two, the Pacers have anchors on either end—and it's not like they're one-way players. Oladipo can be a shutdown defender, and Turner will become a devastating offensive force as he adds three-point volume.

    Indiana will have significant cap space this summer, a Coach of the Year candidate in Nate McMillan, the option to retain or flip Domantas Sabonis and an organizational history that produces playoff trips on the regular. The Pacers have missed the postseason six times in the last 30 years.

    You can trust this team to maximize the considerable talent it has while also leveraging its flexibility to build on the margins. Being consistent, which the Pacers are, is not the same thing as being boring, which they definitely aren't.


    14. Oklahoma City Thunder

    Given their ages and levels of production, none of Thunder's top three players—Russell Westbrook (30), Paul George (29) and Steven Adams (25)—figure to be better next year than they were in 2018-19. That's a problem made worse by the fact that some of OKC's younger pieces, chiefly 20-year-olds Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo, haven't shown enough to inspire confidence that they're on the verge of leaps.

    Jerami Grant added a three-point shot this past season, and he's a viable five-position defender. Beyond him, the Thunder are short on players we should expect to trend up in a meaningful way.

    OKC will be competitive because of its best players, but Westbrook is in serious decline, and the long-term outlook here isn't great.


    13. San Antonio Spurs

    Heading into his age-34 season, LaMarcus Aldridge is a prime candidate for slippage. Fortunately for the Spurs, their young backcourt trio of Derrick White (24), Bryn Forbes (25) and (a healthy) Dejounte Murray (22) is one of the league's more exciting positional groups.

    White and Murray should quickly become the NBA's best defensive guard duo, and Forbes is a dead-eye shooter who can hide on weaker matchups whenever he's sharing the floor with the other two. It's probably unrealistic to project consistent All-Star trips for any of those three guards, but San Antonio's backcourt will play winning ball.

    The Spurs will continue to be the Spurs, a team committed to execution and allergic to B.S. There's nothing spectacular here, but you can bank on winning records and playoff trips in perpetuity.


    12. Portland Trail Blazers

    If Zach Collins becomes a reliable high-volume three-point shooter, you've got something interesting for the long term in Portland. But this is generally a win-now group defined by its veterans—who aren't particularly old, by the way. Evan Turner is the most senior Blazer, and he's only 30.

    Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, once healthy, give Portland the foundation of a playoff team for the next few seasons. If Al-Farouq Aminu doesn't stick around in free agency, perhaps Jake Layman or a re-signed Rodney Hood will absorb his minutes without hurting the Blazers' bottom line too badly.

    Portland is a stable winner, and it figures to stay that way.


    11. Dallas Mavericks

    Luka Doncic's presence means the Mavs' future is bright, no matter what else happens this offseason.

    It would certainly help if Dallas jumped into a top-five lottery spot, which would allow it to keep its first-rounder, and it'd be nice to have some certainty about Kristaps Porzingis' next contract—not to mention his health upon returning from a torn ACL.

    But Doncic, already a transformational force as a rookie, is the key. A forward who can run an offense, spread the floor and empower teammates with his vision and IQ, Doncic is the ultra-rare superstar around whom you could construct virtually any kind of team. Dallas could have between $30 million and $40 million in cap room this summer, and it can confidently use that space to add shooting, size, ball-handling, defense or anything else. Whatever the Mavs do, Doncic will make it work.

    The deal to add Porzingis forced the Mavs to take on ugly contracts for Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee. Add to that three future outgoing first-rounders between now and 2023, and the Mavs have several roster-building hindrances.

    Good thing Doncic is there.

10. Utah Jazz

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    This is where the prioritization of stability and demonstrated value over prospective talent shines through. Otherwise, it would be hard to justify ranking the Utah Jazz over Dallas and Doncic.

    But Rudy Gobert, 26, is in the early stages of his prime (and saying all the right things about continuing to improve), and Donovan Mitchell has already been the offensive focal point on playoff teams in his first two seasons. The Jazz have already won a ton of games behind those two, and they will win plenty more.

    The Jazz also have a top head coach in Quin Snyder if we take the league's general managers at their word, a laudable blue-collar attitude and enough cap space to sign a max free-agent if they can overcome their rough history of attracting talent.

    Utah might not have a championship ceiling over the next few years, but there's something to be said for what feels like a 50-win floor.

    This team defends, develops talent and doesn't have any bad long-term money on the books. Add a shooter or two and bank on growth from Mitchell, and you've got an extremely dangerous team for the foreseeable future.

9. Brooklyn Nets

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    The Brooklyn Nets don't have Utah's one-two punch of Gobert and Mitchell, and they also don't have Utah's track record of sustained success. But they've made themselves into a playoff team without the benefit of their own first-rounders for the last half-decade, and they've got no shortage of cost-controlled role players, which should be attractive to free-agent stars.

    That's where the uncertainty comes in.

    There's a chance Brooklyn secures top-end talent in free agency. Its readymade rotation includes Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris. The Nets also control D'Angelo Russell's restricted free agency and could clear upward of $63 million in cap space if they renounce several players' rights and stretch Allen Crabbe ahead of two major signings, per The Atheltic's Danny Leroux.

    Don't forget the big-market appeal.

    If you're a marquee free agent who wants to win big in New York, there is no logical case for choosing the Knicks over the Nets.

8. Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    The Toronto Raptors are a legitimate title threat, but what will they look like if Kawhi Leonard leaves, Kyle Lowry (33) and Marc Gasol (34) are a year older and Pascal Siakam has to take over as the team's alpha?

    There are worse fates; Siakam seems ticketed for stardom, and an aging Raps team could still win close to 50 games without Leonard next year—especially if OG Anunoby ascends. But the downside is hard to ignore, and maybe that's why team president Masai Ujiri was reportedly intrigued by a front-office opening with the Washington Wizards, per NBC Washington's Ben Standig. He's as sharp as executives come, and he might see the end of the road approaching sooner than most.

    Toronto has been a model franchise for several years, though, and that has to count for something. Sans Leonard, there would still be plenty of talent on the roster. And assuming Ujiri's not going anywhere, it's fair to believe he'll find ways to keep the Raptors among the East's top teams.

    If Leonard stays, this ranking will be about five spots too low.

7. Boston Celtics

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Good luck guessing what the Boston Celtics will look like next season.

    Kyrie Irving will opt out and could be gone. Al Horford has expressed a desire to stay, but he can also hit the market. And you've got to wonder whether Irving's potential departure will entice Horford to try on a new uniform. If this year taught us anything, it's that Irving's leadership style is at best a mixed bag.

    Marcus Morris might also be a goner in free agency.

    Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have loads of potential, but they could be part of a major trade.

    Uncertainty aside, the Celtics remain asset-rich. They could have as many as four first-rounders in the 2019 draft, Brad Stevens remains a highly regarded coach and Gordon Hayward's contract is the only one you'd point to as a burden. Even that deal, which will pay Hayward $32.7 million next year and has a player option for $34.2 million in 2020-21, might not look so bad if his late-season improvements continue.

    Boston is positioned better than most to swing a franchise-altering deal, and there's lots of young talent there. But the uncertainty surrounding its future means we have to cautiously slot the C's outside the top five.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Clippers rank highest among teams about whom we mostly have to speculate. And while it may seem ridiculous to drop them in ahead of the Celtics, consider a few factors in L.A.'s favor:

    • The Clips will have over $50 million in cap space this summer with the ability to clear even more if they want to grab two max players.
    • Kawhi Leonard could well be one of said max players.
    • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet look like high-end rotation players at the very least.
    • Head coach Doc Rivers receives much love and respect.
    • Owner Steve Ballmer is retaining all of his top executives. Deep pockets get a lot done.
    • Though they owe their 2019 first-rounder to Boston, the Clips could have firsts coming from Philadelphia in 2020 and Miami in 2021, the latter being unprotected
    • As the Lakers stumble around in the dark, the Clippers continue to look like the superior option for free agents who want to live in Los Angeles...and there are, historically, a lot of players who want that.

    The Clippers just feel like a team with a grand plan—basically a hallmark of any organization that employs Jerry West. More importantly, they also have every imaginable resource to execute that plan.

    If you're looking for the next superpower, this might be it. The only reason the Clips don't rank higher is because we've said throughout that certainty matters more than possibility. 

5. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Ill-fitting as they may be, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid give the Sixers a young one-two punch worthy of leaguewide envy. With those two on the roster, aged 22 and 25, respectively, Philadelphia's foundation is set.

    There'll be decisions to make on Jimmy Butler (player option), Tobias Harris and JJ Redick this summer. If the Sixers retain those free-agent starters and run it back with the same first unit they deployed when healthy this year, they'll have a group that outscored opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions in the regular season.

    That quintet was even more effective in the playoffs, despite superior competition.

    Depth is an issue, but the Sixers can count on development from Zhaire Smith and should have a good shot at adding rotation pieces with the taxpayer mid-level exception and minimum deals.

    Maybe the Sixers will lose Butler and/or Harris to bigger offers. Even then, they'll still have what every franchise wants: two young stars who've already banked playoff experience—ones whose ages suggest further growth is a given.

4. Houston Rockets

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    The Houston Rockets might seem a little long in the tooth to rate this highly in a future-focused set of rankings, but it's just too hard to overlook the presence of James Harden, an MVP in his prime.

    In addition to the league's most dominant offensive force, the Rockets have their entire starting five under contract for the 2019-20 season. Though Chris Paul, 34, continues to slide down the slope of that unforgiving aging curve, it's fair to expect sustained performances from PJ Tucker, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon.

    Houston will pay its first unit around $116 million next year, which means it will have to scour the scrap heap for role-fillers. That's not a problem; the Rockets do it well every year. Note the way Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, Danuel House Jr. and Iman Shumpert all contributed during the playoffs. None were on the roster when the season started.

    As long as Harden's at the controls and Daryl Morey's out there swinging deals that give the rest of the league migraines, the Rockets will be contenders. They've done enough things right in recent years to earn the benefit of the doubt, no matter how little young talent they have in the pipeline.

3. Denver Nuggets

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Possibility and certainty collide here, as the young Denver Nuggets are a legitimate force with ample room to improve. They've progressively advanced in each of the last five years, increasing their victory total and perhaps even skipping a step by winning a series in their first postseason trip.

    Nikola Jokic is an ideal franchise cornerstone—a triple-double machine whose main goal is creating great shots for teammates. As free-agent attractants go, that's hard to top. He's 24, by the way.

    Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap are all under team control next year, and we should expect the Nuggets to try to retain Millsap on a longer deal at a lower annual value. He's got a team option for $30 million.

    Don't forget Michael Porter Jr., a player regarded as a high-lottery talent in the 2018 draft but who slipped because of health concerns. He missed the entire 2018-19 season with back problems, but if he recovers and even sniffs his potential, Denver could have another star in its rotation alongside Jokic.

    We also shouldn't rule out a leap from Murray in the next year or so. He's shown plenty of flashes, and all it'll take for him to reach All-Star status is consistency (and maybe a little more effort on defense).

    The Nuggets are loaded, built the right way and have a locked-in, star-driven core that seems to enjoy playing together. You can't ask for much more.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    I suppose if you extend the timeline out to four or five years, you could make the case the Golden State Warriors are in trouble. Whatever's left of the star core that produced this decade's dynasty will have aged well past their primes by then.

    But the entire league will look different that far from now, and even if you imagine worst-case offseason scenarios for the Dubs, they've still got enormous advantages that should make them extremely competitive for another few years.

    Stephen Curry's megastardom isn't going anywhere, which provides insurance against a Kevin Durant exit. Golden State has the means to retain Klay Thompson this summer, extend Draymond Green and add ring-chasers on the margins after that.

    No, there's nothing in the way of young talent here. But the Warriors are heading to a new arena in San Francisco that will only further increase an already enormous revenue stream. Their ambition outstrips everyone's from a business perspective, which means we shouldn't be surprised when the Warriors happily offset a colossal luxury-tax bill with sources of revenue unavailable to most teams.

    Even if all Golden State has is its culture of success, Curry, Thompson, Green, head coach Steve Kerr, president of basketball operations Bob Myers...that's still an embarrassment of riches. When age-related decline and the loss of an MVP-caliber talent merely drops you from "prohibitive title favorite" to "serious contender," that's not so bad.

    The Warriors have been so far above the rest of the league these last few years that even if they fall, they'll still land very close to the top.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    You could probably stop the analysis at "Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the roster."

    At 24, he may already be the league's best player. And unlike most of the other names in that conversation, Giannis has an obvious path to significant improvement. His playoff run has featured expanded reliance on the three-point shot. If he gains confidence from deep, the only ways to guard him will involve kryptonite and prayer.

    It's true the Bucks have four key players—Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic—headed for free agency. The market could make some of them too expensive to retain, but it's difficult to know what Milwaukee would be willing to spend if it wins a title with this core.

    If the Bucks lose some of their top-end talent, they'll have opportunities to replace it. Playing with Antetokounmpo's paint-collapsing drives is a boon for shooters. Any free agent with a jumper should be clamoring at the chance to snipe for the Bucks, and it doesn't hurt that Milwaukee is now good enough to be attractive to ring-chasers.

    Yes, there are small-market concerns here, and the Bucks haven't been willing to pay the luxury tax in the past. If you really want to go all doomsday, you could point to Antetokounmpo's 2021 free agency as a concern.

    But the Bucks were significantly better than any other regular-season team, and they look similarly dominant through two playoff rounds. With Antetokounmpo anchoring everything, these guys are positioned to dominate for years.


    Stats courtesy of, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, May 9. Salary info courtesy of Basketball Insiders.

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