Which Young NBA Cores Are Built for Titles, and Which Are Built to Fall Apart?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 9, 2020

Which Young NBA Cores Are Built for Titles, and Which Are Built to Fall Apart?

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The growth process of a young NBA nucleus is fascinating. The possibilities feel endless, and they kind of are.

    The Golden State Warriors constructed a championship core by bundling a few great drafts together. The Oklahoma City Thunder arguably unearthed even more talent and made a Finals run, only to watch that group fall short and the band break up. The Minnesota Timberwolves have engineered some exciting moments since selecting Karl-Anthony Towns first overall in 2015, but they're still awaiting significant success.

    Not every up-and-coming core will realize its potential. Some may not even approach it.

    Knowing that, we're here to divvy up the Association's young cores to separate the ones that can contend from those most likely to collapse.

    Mike Monroe of The Athletic joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the Hall of Fame NBA class of 2020 including Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

Too-Early-To-Tell Exclusions

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Cleveland Cavaliers

    The Cavs are only two seasons removed from a LeBron James-led Finals trip, and their lack of elite prospect talent shows it. They've only made a pair of lottery picks so far, and they spent them both on point guards (Collin Sexton and Darius Garland). They've been outscored by 10.8 points per 100 possessions with the young backcourt pair on the floor. It's hard to say where this ship is headed.


    Charlotte Hornets

    The Hornets are what we expected to see once Kemba Walker skipped town: light on star power. They have a decent amount of solid prospects—Devonte' Graham is a sharp shooter and passer; Miles Bridges has bounce; PJ Washington does a little bit of everything—but are still awaiting the arrival of the top-shelf one to bring the rest together. They're stuck treading water until that happens.


    New York Knicks

    The Knicks probably have three pieces for the long haul: scoring guard RJ Barrett, pogo-stick center Mitchell Robinson and new team president Leon Rose. They could spend the next couple of seasons trying to supplement this core, and maybe with a new front office, they will. But given their history of perpetually chasing quick fixes, the worry is they won't give their young core enough time to work through the maturation process.

Atlanta Hawks: Collapse

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Trae Young is one of the most talented players in this entire discussion, and even if he's a wet paper bag on defense, his offense makes him a clear on-court positive. The Hawks fare 7.3 points better per 100 possessions with their All-Star point guard than without.

    But this conversation is bigger than the 6'1" scoring guard, and that's where things get dicey for the Hawks.

    John Collins seems like their second-best player, and yet his days in Atlanta could be numbered after the arrival of Clint Capela.

    While the latter is a more reliable defender at the rim, the former's growth as a shooter—Collins had splashed 59 triples at a 40.1 percent clip before the 2019-20 season was suspended—might make a frontcourt change a lateral move. Or it may even prove a downgrade as the 25-year-old Capela should be much closer to his ceiling than the 22-year-old Collins.

    The wings weren't great this season; Kevin Huerter's 11.5 player efficiency rating actually put him ahead of rookies Cam Reddish (9.0) and De'Andre Hunter (8.6). Any impatience from the decision-makers could be bad news for head coach Lloyd Pierce, who's just 49-100 so far.

    Young's presence points Atlanta in the right direction, but there are too many unanswered questions to predict a championship ending to this rebuilding story.

Chicago Bulls: Collapse

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Bulls were thinking playoffs before the season started, and back then, it seemed a realistic goal. If their nucleus took a collective step forward and the newcomers put some pep in it, then maybe they could've ranked among the season's best breakout bunches.

    But a combination of injuries and on-court setbacks instead had the Bulls in the thick of the biggest-disappointment race.

    Otto Porter Jr. barely saw the floor. Lauri Markkanen took an obvious (and ominous) step in the wrong direction. Coby White generated the most excitement—while shooting only 39.4 percent. Zach LaVine may have had his best season to date, but he did nothing to suggest he can lead a team to contention.

    Now, Chicago is seeking a major change atop the front office, which is for the better but offers no guaranteed improvements. The Bulls are already seeing their target list dwindle, and while they can still walk away with a strong candidate, their margin for error shrinks in a shallower pool.

    Markkanen's failure to launch is a big red flag for this rebuild. He has the highest ceiling of any player in it as a 7'0" mismatch, but if he can't approach the superstar ranks, who will? LaVine just turned 25, and Porter turns 27 this summer. Their NBA identities are established by this point. White flashed a knockout scoring punch, but consistency is not the 20-year-old's friend.

    Chicago might have one of the better chances of all these teams to become good, but a leap to greatness keeps getting harder to imagine.

Dallas Mavericks: Contend

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    Oscar Baldizon/Getty Images

    This might not be a universal opinion. But in my eyes, the Mavericks boast the best two-man tandem of all teams in this discussion.

    It, of course, starts with Luka Doncic, who authored a rookie season for the ages and followed it up by joining (and arguably leading) the Most Improved Player race. That combination shouldn't be possible, but the 21-year-old made a jaw-dropping jump from fringe All-Star to full-fledged MVP candidate with absurd spikes in both volume and efficiency.

    This is his second NBA season, and he's hitting numbers only two other players have ever matched.

    "It's Year 2 and he's already playing at an MVP level," fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic told Marc Stein of the New York Times. "I always thought he's going to do great things in this league, but if I'm honest, not so quick."

    As for Doncic's running mate, Kristaps Porzingis, he's back to his unicorn behavior. The 7'3" big man is the first player ever to average 19 points, two blocks and two three-pointers, and he's probably still a bit rusty after missing more than an entire season with a torn ACL.

    This was the Mavs' first campaign with their dynamic duo together, and all they did was construct the best offense in league history. The championship potential for this pair is obvious, even if it's unclear how many other long-term keepers are on the roster.

Memphis Grizzlies: Contend

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    As Jaren Jackson Jr. can attest, it's been all smiles for the Grizzlies since Ja Morant arrived as the second overall pick last summer. The Rookie of the Year front-runner has been nothing short of a fortune-changer for the franchise, catapulting it from 49 losses the previous season (and 60 the year before that) to a near-.500 record and sole possession of eighth place in the West.

    Jackson and Morant are already on the fast track toward becoming the NBA's best point guard-big man combo. Jackson is both a 39.7 percent shooter from distance and a 77th percentile finisher as a pick-and-roll screener. Morant is already comfortable calling his own number or creating for teammates. If this campaign is finished, then he's only the ninth freshman to ever average 17 points and six assists.

    They look like potential centerpieces for a championship run, and they aren't the only reasons to be excited about the Grizz.

    Brandon Clarke is a shot in the arm every time he brings his bouncy 6'8", 210-pound frame inside the lines. Jonas Valanciunas is the rare interior ground-bound big man who still adds value. Justise Winslow could be a steal if he ever gets healthy. Dillon Brooks pairs defensive versatility with a three-ball that can run red-hot. It feels like it's been years since Tyus Jones' last turnover.

    Memphis has top-level talent and loads of depth, and nearly every key contributor is under 25 (Valanciunas is the elder statesman at 27). It could take a few seasons for this core to reach a championship level, but it will have lasting power whenever the leap happens.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Collapse

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    A surficial scan of the Timberwolves reveals a pair of sub-25-year-olds who have each booked an All-Star appearance and rank among the league's toughest covers.

    If Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell merely match this season's averages, their combined per-game contributions would include 49.6 points, 14.7 rebounds, 10.7 assists and 6.8 three-pointers. Towns is a 6'11" center who launches with the volume and efficiency of a Splash Cousin. Russell's off-the-dribble arsenal can dismantle a defense at any level. Their pick-and-rolls (or pops) could be pick-your-poison scenarios for the defense.

    So, why am I voting for collapse here? Because there are two ends to a basketball court, and Towns and Russell don't bother to visit the other one very often. They are far too often indifferent defenders, and Minnesota can only expect Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie to pick up so much of the slack.

    Defense doesn't win championships on its own—even if it makes for a catchy slogan—but two-way balance does. History says top-10 play is required at both ends to capture the crown, and it's almost impossible to see the Wolves ever approaching that rank on defense. They were 21st this season and 29th since Russell's debut.

    Not even scorers this potent can cover a problem so severe.

New Orleans Pelicans: Contend

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    Hoop heads won't soon forget the night of Jan. 22 when top pick Zion Williamson made his highly anticipated debut and promptly launched all realistic expectations into orbit. We knew the 6'6", 285-pounder was different, but when he put 17 straight points on the San Antonio Spurs, it became clear we were all witnessing the future of basketball.

    "I think what you saw there was a taste of what, once we really get settled, he gets settled in, there is a lot of things we can do with him," Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters afterward. "There's a lot of potential there. ... I just think there's a really, really high ceiling that he can reach, you know. He can reach it."

    It didn't take long to realize basketball's future had become its present.

    Williamson suited up 19 times and averaged 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in only 29.7 minutes per night. He's the only player ever to post a 23/6/2 line in under 30 minutes per game, and the only others to stay below 31 are Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.

    The Pels posted the seventh-best net rating since Williamson's debut, and they've sprouted young talent all around him. Brandon Ingram made his All-Star leap. Lonzo Ball found a lethal long-range shot to pair with his preternatural passing and disruptive defense. Josh Hart hustled his way to career marks in several categories. Jaxson Hayes scraped the ceiling more than once.

    New Orleans has the veteran support to enter the championship race as soon as next season. If it keeps this group together, it will have the stabilizing two-way presence of Jrue Holiday and the always-on-target marksmanship of JJ Redick. If it learns it isn't as close as it appeared, the core is young enough to dismantle the rest of the roster and try again.

    Time is on the Pelicans' side; it's just not certain they'll need it.

Phoenix Suns: Contend

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    This might be the least confident pick of the lot since the Suns have led such a dismal existence in recent years and have encountered so much turbulence under owner Robert Sarver. But two pairings—general manager James Jones with head coach Monty Williams; All-Star guard Devin Booker with blossoming big man Deandre Ayton—seem to have finally pointed the franchise in the right direction.

    The Suns have overdue stability, plus their most victories—yes, even with an incomplete schedule—since 2014-15. Last season, they were 28th on offense and 29th on defense; this year, they jumped into the top 20 at both ends (16th and 19th, respectively). They owe some credit to newcomers like Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes, but the 23-year-old Booker and 21-year-old Ayton have done the heaviest lifting.

    Booker managed to up his efficiency without sacrificing volume. He won't finish with a 50/40/90 line, but you can see him trending that direction (48.7/36.0/91.6). Ayton had his season sidetracked by a 25-game suspension, but that didn't derail his sophomore leap. His stat line reached 19.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.7 blocks per game.

    For reference, only three players have averaged 19/12/2/2 before their 25th birthday: Bob McAdoo, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal.

    When Booker and Ayton shared the floor, the Suns outscored their opponents by 4.9 points per 100 possessions. When 24-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr. joined them, that number jumped to 9.2. These three have work to do—especially on the defensive end—but if you squint, you can see the fuzzy outline of a future contender.

Sacramento Kings: Collapse

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    If this had been written last season, the Kings probably would have come out on the contending side. They nearly made a playoff push then. They had a decorated, exciting tandem in De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III. Their wings featured an interesting combo of high ceilings and elevated floors. They counted Harry Giles III among the Association's biggest wild cards.

    But then 2019-20 happened.

    Fox made a mini-leap, but no one joined him. Bagley couldn't stay on the floor and didn't look the same when he did. None of the wings made an All-Star jump even though Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield are already paid that way, and Bogdan Bogdanovic might be this summer. The Kings didn't deem Giles interesting enough for a $4 million player option.

    Oh, and Kings owner Vivek Ranadive might be running out of patience.

    Fox ranks among the league's most exciting young players, but he doesn't look like the kind of player who can guide a championship run. Even if he's good enough to be the second-best player on a contender, who handles the featured role? Bagley played 13 games this season, and the Kings dropped all but two. Hield and Bogdanovic are older than you might think (27), and the Kings might handcuff their budget by keeping both.

    Future forecasts can change in a hurry. In Sacramento's case, that hasn't been a good thing.


    All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.