“Who’s got next?” is one of basketball’s eternal questions, as essential at the playground or the local YMCA as it is at the game’s highest level, in a who-snags-the-Larry O’Brien-trophy-next sense.
It just gets a lot trickier and more unpredictable when lining up NBA teams in some purported order of succession. Consider one earnest attempt from back in 2013, which identified (in ascending order) Utah, Sacramento, Orlando, Cleveland and New Orleans as the league’s “next big things.”
Through no fault of the article, owing to common uncertainties and vagaries of life in the NBA, four of those teams have combined to finish 240 games below .500 and go 1-2 in playoff series over their combined 16 seasons. The fifth, Cleveland, only got transformed when LeBron James decided to go home, a development unaccounted for in the story’s crystal ball.
And yet, like moths to a lamp, here we go again, trying to prognosticate which teams will be ready to step up for potentially extended periods when the Warriors and the Cavaliers move on, and when current challengers such as the Rockets, Spurs, Raptors and Wizards come and invariably go. For a sense of how bright the league’s future really might be, we have chosen three teams from each conference, any one of which could claim “next.”
OK, so the Celtics are current challengers, as the conference’s No. 1 seed in the 2017 playoffs. But that team has for all practical purposes been rebuilt for the long haul, extending its shelf life through and beyond what generally is considered the LeBron James era. Boston still has a bushel of valuable draft picks – Brooklyn’s 2018 pick, the Lakers/Kings 2018 pick and as many as three 2019 first-rounders. It has two bright young forwards in Jaylen Brown and newcomer Jayson Tatum. Isaiah Thomas likely will continue as an offensive tormentor with a new contract next summer, and now Gordon Hayward is aboard as a second initiator. The Celtics have depth, experience and firepower, enough to make James (for all his East dominance) think their grass really is greener.
There has been some hand-wringing over Milwaukee falling short in salary cap space next summer, a bind that wouldn’t be ideal if the Bucks needed to surgically address a pressing need. But the prospect of some name free agent choosing Milwaukee over competing bids is as remote now as it has been for most of the franchise’s five decades. The Bucks are one of the NBA’s unglamorous teams that has to get by on trades and drafts, with internal player development substituting for retail therapy. Fortunately, in talent such as Khris Middleton, Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, Sixth Man candidate Greg Monroe, improbably long Thon Maker, improving Tony Snell and the twice-hurt, double-determined Jabari Parker, Milwaukee has most of the pieces it needs. We didn’t forget Giannis Antetokounmpo – just saving for last the marvelously versatile leader who, if he extends his shooting range this season, could make good on his personal challenge to be the 2018 MVP.
Finally, the team that turned The Process into a dirty phrase around the league will enter a season facing won-lost expectations. It might be too soon to expect Brett Brown’s crew to suddenly compete for a playoff berth next spring, but somewhere in the vicinity of 35-39 victories – double what the Sixers managed in any season from 2014-2016 – seems like a reasonable step. From there, with presumed future stars in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz, one of the NBA’s legacy markets should be able to attract veteran free agents to mentor along the young guys. Philadelphia fans have been astoundingly patient – or at least quiet – during the long overhaul, and it’s time now for The Payoff.
Most of the teams on this list have some combination of valuable veteran additions, young stars in the making, future cap space to court free agents and/or one special player in the house. The Nuggets have all four with Paul Millsap’s arrival and validation of Denver as a team eager to make its move now. The payroll is in good shape for one or maybe two max salaries in 2018. And Nikola Jokic is a multi-threat in the middle, a center through whom Denver can run its offense with enough skills to torment even Golden State’s stingy defense. The stat that’s getting all the play: Once Jokic moved into the starting lineup in mid-December, Denver ranked No. 1 in the NBA in offensive rating (113.3 points per 100 possessions). As for budding pieces Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, the Nuggets think highly enough of them that they reportedly declined to include both in any sort of Kyrie Irving package deal.
Los Angeles Lakers
It’s possible, in their frenzy from the Las Vegas Summer League, that some Lakers fans will quibble with the timeline of this piece. The excitement over Magic Johnson’s return as chief basketball impresario and Lonzo Ball’s charismatic game and personality hit 11 on the dial in July and hasn’t dipped since. Thus, a trophy presentation next June might seem feasible. Uh ... no. But Brandon Ingram seems ready for a big step up, Julius Randle has worked himself into a salary-drive-ready machine, Brook Lopez is a workable big despite the game’s shift outside and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a nice floor stretcher in the short or the long term. As for that long term, the name of that superstar in Cleveland figures to hang over the Lakers all season, in what could be a very good way.
It’s hard to predict with certainty – this is a franchise that missed the playoffs three consecutive years with Kevin Garnett in his prime – but the postseason drought should end at 13. To be followed, given the exuberance in the Twin Cities, by a playoff run to match the Wolves’ success from 1997 through 2004. In Tom Thibodeau’s first trade as combo head coach/POBO, he acquired his Bulls buddy Jimmy Butler. Butler had chafed in Chicago the past two seasons, but he’s perfect as a current All-Star to solidify Minnesota on both sides of the ball and in the locker room. Karl-Anthony Towns should be an all-NBA center this season, with a game mostly in need of consistency. Point guard Jeff Teague was a pricey but valuable free-agent signee who brings some perimeter shooting and organizational skills to the offense. Two questions linger: Will Andrew Wiggins play up to the max-salary contract extension he’s expected to sign before the October deadline (his “motor” isn’t exactly Thibs-crafted), and will the defensive-minded coach boost the Wolves’ performance on that end of the floor?
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