Zion's Pelicans and the 5 NBA Teams Best Set for the Future
The NBA should consider a rebrand for the term "offseason," as the months from May to August are fast becoming the most exciting and prominently discussed ones on the league calendar.
With notable All-Stars and franchise players exercising their free-agent rights and requesting trades in a delicious form of red rover, the power in the NBA may have shifted from franchises like the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors to the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, among others.
But while those organizations are taking strides to tackle their immediate windows of opportunity, others are focusing on the long game and how they can dominate in three to four years and beyond.
Which teams are in the best position to take that next step? Which have the right combination of incumbent talent and draft capital to grow from within while featuring fortified culture and stability?
The Atlanta Hawks promise to be one of the league's most exciting League Pass watches in 2019-20, thanks to a group of youngsters loaded with skill and athleticism at every position.
Trae Young headlines the group after surging throughout the second half of his rookie season and posting 24.7 points, 9.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game on 44.2 percent shooting from the field and 34.8 percent from three over his final 23 outings. Young's stroke from long distance could make him one of the more dangerous offensive weapons since Stephen Curry, and he's not alone.
In the frontcourt, John Collins continues his own ascendance. During just his second season, he put up 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game while slashing 56.0/34.8/76.3.
The 19th pick of the 2018 draft, Kevin Huerter provides size (6'7") and shooting, and he can fill either the shooting guard or small forward position. After converting 38.5 percent of his three-point attempts on nearly five shots per game as a rookie, Huerter may quickly become one of the game's deadliest perimeter scorers.
Under head coach Lloyd Pierce, the young Hawks will continue to fly in 2019-20 with two additional lottery picks. They took perimeter lockdown defender De'Andre Hunter at No. 4 overall and Duke prospect Cam Reddish at No. 10. Reddish may have been one of the NBA's most inefficient lottery picks, though Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman openly wondered whether Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett joining him on the Blue Devils hindered his development.
But the Hawks' young group is far from assembled. In addition to possessing each of their own first-round picks, the Hawks control the rights to the Brooklyn Nets' 2020 first-rounder (lottery-protected) and the Oklahoma City Thunder's 2022 first-rounder (lottery-protected), as well as several additional second-round selections.
The Hawks have the opportunity to put together one of the NBA's best and most exciting young cores. If nothing else, they should be one of the most fun to watch.
If they can maximize Walker under head coach Brad Stevens and help Gordon Hayward rediscover his All-Star form, they may be one of the NBA's best now and later.
Either way, Boston has done a nice job finding Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Tatum's efficiency and effectiveness took a dip in 2018-19 as his volume increased, but the 2017 No. 3 pick continued to show glimpses of elite-level scoring and nice touch from every inch of the court with his 15.7 points per game. His three-point stroke dropped from 43.4 percent to 37.3 percent, but his free-throw percentage (85.5) rose, indicating that his shooting is still growing. His on/off numbers receded, but he still managed to make the Celtics 4.6 points per 100 possessions better in his sophomore campaign.
FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projections measured Tatum's second season as a blip, indicating he will return to his rookie level before continuing to grow and categorizing him as a future All-Star.
Brown endured a similar regression in both points per game and three-point percentage, but his player impact plus-minus wins and defensive regularized plus-minus still put him in the 93rd and 95th percentile, respectively, per BBall-Index.
His CARMELO numbers don't show him returning to his 2017-18 form, but they still forecast steady improvement. Brown's efficiency elevated after the All-Star break as he converted 50.2 percent of his field-goal attempts and 41.3 percent of his triples. Those numbers largely continued through nine playoff games, during which he continued to shoot over 50 percent from the field while averaging 16.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per 36 minutes.
The Celtics also put together what may serve as a nice draft class in Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, Tremont Waters and Grant Williams, and they added the highly coveted but lightly protected (top-six) first-round pick from the Memphis Grizzlies in 2020. They also control the Milwaukee Bucks' first-rounder in 2020 should it fall outside the top seven selections.
The Denver Nuggets don't have the draft stash of most teams featured here, but they do have the youngest roster of any 2018-19 playoff squad, as well as the best player in this discussion: 24-year-old Nikola Jokic.
Jokic has already entered his name in the conversation about the game's best regular-season player and gave arguably the most impressive postseason performance. During his first playoff appearance, he averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 39.3 percent on three-pointers.
Referencing those 14 playoff games, Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey wrote, "If that was a glimpse into Jokic's future, he'll graduate beyond 'best center in the NBA' conversations."
But the Nuggets' star-studded potential goes beyond the Serbian big man. They locked up Jamal Murray on a five-year, $170 million deal after the former Wildcat took a prominent step forward in 2018-19, culminating with a 21-point fourth-quarter outburst in Game 2 of Denver's first-round collision with the San Antonio Spurs.
For the Nuggets to take the proverbial step forward, Jokic will need to continue his MVP-caliber play. But their title aspirations truly rest with the ceiling and consistency of Murray. In seven postseason victories, he averaged 24.1 points and 6.0 assists on 50.4 percent shooting from the field and 43.2 percent from three. In seven playoffs losses, his numbers plummeted to 18.4 points and 3.4 assists per game on 35.6 percent from the field and 26.1 percent from three.
The Nuggets could further bolster one of the NBA's best young two-man tandems with a roster full of developing blue-chip-caliber contributors: Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and even Michael Porter Jr.
Beasley converted 40.2 percent of his three-point attempts in just his third season, which helps make him an ideal perimeter three-and-D weapon. Morris was a more than capable offensive engineer at the point and should only continue to grow in his third season.
The Nuggets' young core has proved able to find success under the bright lights and should keep developing in the Mile High City over the next few seasons.
New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans put together one of the most dramatic roster overhauls in the NBA and added a treasure trove of assets in the process.
The Pelicans' luck began with the lottery, which brought them the rights to select Zion Williamson at No. 1 overall. Williamson has been pegged as one of the most impressive prospects in a decade and could vault the Pelicans atop this list one year from now—and for the foreseeable future—should his full potential be realized.
They also traded Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers for a great deal of perimeter and backcourt talent in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, all of whom will enter restricted free agency within the next two summers. The Pelicans will have the ability to retain each of them thanks to the financial flexibility enjoyed by executive vice president David Griffin.
If they decide to go a different route, they can still package any of the aforementioned players with the contracts of E'Twaun Moore and Darius Miller to gain max-level trade capabilities after Dec. 15.
General manager Trajan Langdon also appeared to hit a home run in the draft-day deal with the Atlanta Hawks that brought the Pelicans Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Marcos Louzada Silva.
Hayes exploded in summer league, scoring 28 points in his inaugural performance. However, Las Vegas still belonged to Walker, who finished third in scoring and fourth in assists, earning first-team honors despite missing the first two games due to the NBA moratorium.
The Pelicans own each of their first-round picks going forward, as well as four additional ones from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers. They also have control of four more second-round picks from the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The New Orleans Pelicans' return for Anthony Davis looked like it could be the heftiest haul in league history—for a few weeks.
By moving Paul George and Russell Westbrook in separate deals, the Oklahoma City Thunder gained a potential franchise player (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) and what could potentially amount to 10 first-round picks from the Houston Rockets, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets.
Gilgeous-Alexander is the highlight who will begin the Thunder's resurgence after Chris Paul (acquired in the Westbrook deal) and Steven Adams see their time in Oklahoma City come to a close. He shined in his first regular season with the Clippers and seized the spotlight in the postseason, scoring 17.1 points per 36 minutes on 50.0 percent shooting from three-point range.
General manager Sam Presti shared his excitement after the acquisition:
"To get Shai is a big deal for us.
"We're really excited about him. I think he's not really even scratching the surface. … I think he's got tremendous makeup, and that's a big—I think that's going to be a big accelerator for ultimately how good a player he becomes, and I think he has that. He's got great size and great length, and he's a sponge."
Gilgeous-Alexander gives the Thunder the total package. He can manage positions 1 through 3 on both ends of the court and excels both on and off the ball on the offensive end. He doesn't carry the ceiling of players like Nikola Jokic, Zion Williamson and Jayson Tatum, but he can still morph into a franchise-level talent.
However, the draft return from both the Rockets and Clippers—plus the Denver Nuggets thanks to the Jerami Grant trade—makes the Thunder's situation most appealing. While Oklahoma City could send its protected 2020 and 2022 picks to the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks, respectively, it'll collect as many as 10 first-rounders and pick swaps in the next seven years.
The Thunder don't yet possess current blue-chip youth on their roster outside of Gilgeous-Alexander, but they have more ammunition than any other team in the NBA to collect intriguing prospects. Plus, they will do so under Presti, who has a notable draft history that includes Westbrook, Adams, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Reggie Jackson.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.