Which Young NBA Cores Are Built for the Future, and Which Are Built to Tank?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2021

Which Young NBA Cores Are Built for the Future, and Which Are Built to Tank?

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Parity feels a bit more prevalent in today's NBA than it did four years ago, when the Golden State Warriors winning a championship felt inevitable. Now, reasonable arguments could be made for a number of teams to be considered title contenders.

    Still, there's a significant portion of the league that has no chance. And there seems to be a pretty strong correlation between that group and youth.

    For teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder and others loaded with inexperienced pros, it's all about selling hope to the fans.

    Some of those squads already have a deep supply of hope on the roster. Others need more cracks at the draft to get to that point.

    Here, we'll examine the cores that already have enough young talent to start building for the future, as well as those that may be in line for some more tanking.

    The 10 youngest teams in the NBA are under the microscope, which likely omits one or two you'd like to see here (more on them in the next slide).

    Some thought was given to more complex methodology, like looking at the teams with the most wins over replacement player from guys under 25. That specific idea becomes a problem for a roster like OKC's, where veterans Al Horford, Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala take up three of the top four spots.

    Ultimately, average age seemed like the simplest and most logical path.

Just a Bit Too Old

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns all have plenty of young talent, but the veterans bumped their average age just out of reach of this exercise. Still, a word (or a few) on each.



    Tyrese Haliburton and De'Aaron Fox are first and second among Kings in wins over replacement player. They're 21 and 23 years old, respectively. But after those two, there really isn't another surefire young keeper on the roster. They're likely still a few lotteries away.



    Denver's the 13th youngest team in the league, but they already have one of the game's most exciting young trios with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. They really don't need anymore young talent. Now, it's about supplementing those three with vets who can help them contend for titles.



    Luka Doncic just turned 22, but he already looks like a perennial MVP candidate. And frankly, as long as he's healthy and on the roster, Dallas probably won't even be able to tank. He's too good.



    The Spurs have a bunch of intriguing young (or youngish) talents in Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and Derrick White, but there may not be anyone on the roster with a superstar ceiling. That suggests a need to tank. But like the Mavs, San Antonio might have a hard time piling up losses even if it wanted to.



    Chris Paul is the obvious reason Phoenix's average age was too high. Much of the rest of the rotation is comprised of young talents like Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, all of whom look primed for playoff battles already. The Suns' tanking days should be over for a while.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Built to Tank

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    The Timberwolves are the youngest and perhaps most confusing team in the NBA.

    When he's healthy and engaged, Karl-Anthony Towns can look like an MVP-level talent. But after him, there are just a bunch of question marks.

    Confidence in Anthony Edwards should be increasing. He's averaged 21.7 points over his last 10 games (and 26.0 over his last five), but his season-long numbers are still atrocious.

    It's dangerous to put much stock in a rookie's numbers, but there are times when it feels like Edwards may simply be a stronger Andrew Wiggins.

    Again, it's early.

    Malik Beasley and D'Angelo Russell—24 and 25, respectively—are also worth mentioning. Both are probably suited to more limited roles than they have in Minnesota, though (and maybe that's where they'll settle in if Edwards' recent stretch is for real).

    A few more shots at the top of the draft are probably in order, but Minnesota may already approaching the tightrope act that the New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis were faced with a few years ago.

    If you steer into a tank, you might have a better shot at a star, but you could also alienate the one who's already there. If you try to speed up the timeline, you may sacrifice the chance for another foundational piece in favor of a few middling playoff runs.

    For the T'Wolves, who have Towns under contract through 2024, you probably have to bite the bullet, accept a couple more losing seasons and hope for a rapid turnaround ahead of unrestricted free agency.

Memphis Grizzlies: Built for the Future

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    Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

    The Memphis Grizzlies are loaded with intriguing young talent, including Brandon Clarke, De'Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. (who has yet to appear in a game this season, due to injury).

    The obvious headliner, though, is Ja Morant. Some of his numbers have slipped a bit from his rookie campaign, but the raw production puts him in impressive company.

    The only players who matched or exceeded his averages for points and assists through their first two seasons? Tim Hardaway, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Damon Stoudamire, Isiah Thomas and Trae Young.

    If Morant can figure out how to be an average shooter, he has superstar upside. And his willingness and ability to set up his teammates should lift them.

    With a possible cornerstone in place, and plenty of high-floor talents around him, the Grizzlies are firmly in the "build for the future" camp.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Built to Tank

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    Mark Black/Associated Press

    OKC is in a situation similar to Minnesota's, though it's probably more stable.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is still on his rookie contract and is already posting a higher box plus/minus than KAT. Plus, in today's NBA, it might be easier to build around a multipositional playmaker than a center.

    After SGA, though, the Thunder are mostly mysterious. They have seven more 25-and-under players with at least 400 minutes this season, all of whom have below-average box plus/minuses (most are below replacement level).

    The highest upside of that non-SGA group might belong to Aleksej Pokusevski, who just turned 19 in December. But his occasional flashes of playmaking 5 ability aside, he appears to be years away from steady contributions.

    With their massive stockpile of incoming draft assets, OKC should be more than content to see who it might be able to add to those two. Moving vets like Horford or George Hill could give them even more draft capital too.

    Now, one might argue that the presence of SGA and all those future picks might actually put the Thunder in a prime position to build for the future. Why not pair a bunch of those picks together and pounce when the next superstar makes it clear he wants out of his current situation?

    OKC certainly shouldn't rule that possibility out. Each situation should be analyzed individually. But right now, patience should be (and appears to already be) exercised.

Charlotte Hornets: Built for the Future

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    The Charlotte Hornets are another team that already has at least one centerpiece-type talent on the roster. In this case, it's LaMelo Ball.

    Since he entered the starting lineup, Ball is averaging 19.5 points, 6.4 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 2.7 threes, while shooting 43.3 percent from three. Even in today's up-and-down and three-happy league that has led to plenty of gaudy stat lines, that is All-Star caliber production.

    Unlike Towns and SGA, though, Ball is putting up his numbers on a team that has a shot to make the playoffs and features a good mix of youth and experience.

    The Hornets are getting positive contributions from of 25-and-under players like P.J. Washington, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges, but some on the other side of that dividing line are probably even more important.

    Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and Devonte' Graham have allowed Charlotte to ease Ball into his current role, and chemistry among those four should continue to develop over the years. Moving any of them in anticipation of a tank job doesn't make much sense.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Built to Tank

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    If you were to put Collin Sexton's year-over-year marks in box plus/minus, true shooting percentage, points per game and assist percentage on a line graph, they'd all be heading in the right direction. His defense, which is tougher to capture with numbers, appears to be trending up, too.

    At 22, Sexton is obviously a keeper who figures to keep improving for a few more years.

    Jarrett Allen also looks like a longterm piece, with averages of 13.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 28.8 minutes with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He isn't a dominant rim protector, but the threat of his rolls to the rim drags defenders into the paint on the other end. Like Sexton, he has plenty of time to work through his shortcomings.

    And then there's Darius Garland, who's averaging 16.1 points and 5.8 assists with an above-average three-point percentage. He too needs to work on his defense (which can be said of just about every Cavalier), but it's fine to focus more on the positives for a second-year player.

    The thing about all of the above, and this probably applies to the entire roster, is that it's tough to confidently declare any of them are sure to be All-Stars.

    Years from now, if this roster is going to contend for championships (or even deep playoff runs), these promising young talents are probably surrounding a different No. 1. And for a team in a smaller media market, finding that player probably happens in the draft (unless another generational talent is born in Ohio).

Atlanta Hawks: Built for the Future

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    If this past offseason is any indication, the Atlanta Hawks have already signaled which side of this debate they think they're on. They spent big on Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rajon Rondo, suggesting they were ready to move forward.

    And it's really not hard to understand that line of thinking.

    Trae Young is a bona fide offensive hub. His career averages of 24.1 points and 8.8 assists are matched only by Oscar Robertson. His vision is among the game's best. And his ability to shoot from well outside the three-point line spreads the floor in a way few others can.

    Looking for the kind of players who fit around him and cover his defensive limitations is the right call.

    In terms of pure talent, John Collins is another player Atlanta can build around. And recent reports indicate he'll be there beyond the deadline. With his ability to both shoot from the outside and do damage as a rim roller, he fits well alongside Young and Clint Capela.

    When those three are on the floor, the Hawks are plus-5.0 points per 100 possessions. Finding the right pieces to go around them doesn't require tanking.

New York Knicks: Could Go Either Way

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    This exercise may be one of futility as long as Tom Thibodeau is on the sidelines. Imagine trying to convince him to tank.

    This season, the New York Knicks have thoroughly outperformed expectations behind Thibodeau's hard-nosed, defense-first coaching. Julius Randle broke out as an All-Star. And RJ Barrett is starting to look more and more like a potential centerpiece talent.

    Much of New York's success can be attributed to journeymen vets, though. The young core, which includes keepers like Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, leaves a bit to be desired.

    It's too early for judgment on Obi Toppin, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to see a ton of upside in Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina.

    Unloading the vets to deadline buyers and stacking up losses against one of the East's tougher remaining schedules could be a recipe for landing one of this loaded draft's talents.

    But again, with Thibodeau in place, and Randle and Barrett playing the way they are, that's probably a tough sell. Staying competitive for a few years could restore some luster to this market as a free-agent destination.

New Orleans Pelicans: Built for the Future

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    This is one of the easiest calls of the slideshow.

    Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are 20, 23 and 23, respectively. Over their season-plus together, the New Orleans Pelicans are plus-5.2 points per 100 possessions when all three are on the floor.

    They're ready to enter the next phase of team-building, which will require them to find the right players to accentuate the games of the young stars.

    The priority should probably be shooting. Ingram and Ball are both above-average three-point shooters, but with Zion in the lineup, four deadeyes in the other spots is ideal.

    Zion's playmaking has made significant strides in his second season, and spreading the floor for his drives is a recipe for success. Defending him one-on-one is a nightmare. And if you have four shooters on the three-point line, it's tough to double the ball-handler in the middle of the floor.

Chicago Bulls: Could Go Either Way

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    Mark Black/Associated Press

    Like New York, the Chicago Bulls are kind of on the fence here.

    Zach LaVine is only 26 years old, and he's working on a combination of scoring volume and two-point efficiency matched only by Shaquille O'Neal and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Tanking with that kind of offensive star on the roster may trouble the star himself, though, unless he's traded as part of the tank.

    Does Chicago really want to unload a talent like LaVine? What are the chances a tank job yields someone as good as (or better than) him?

    The other side of the argument is that LaVine may not be a No. 1 on a title contender, and none of the players younger than him look like surefire future stars.

    This core isn't likely to push the likes of the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks in the near future. And some front offices prefer a complete reset to the treadmill of mediocrity.

Boston Celtics: Built for the Future

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    Sam Hodde/Associated Press

    As was the case with New Orleans, the answer for the Boston Celtics is clear. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are already All-Stars. Boston has done the hard part. Now it needs to find the right role players to support those two.

    Another youngster, 23-year-old Robert Williams, may be one of those players. He's a hyper-athletic rim runner and shot blocker, as well as an underrated passer. Kemba Walker, assuming he's healthy, is obviously important. And Marcus Smart helps in all those hard-to-track ways.

    But this roster has hovered around .500 for most of this season, and it may have a shortcut to contention. The Celtics' massive $28.5 million trade exception could land them some talent.

    There's really no argument for tanking here.