Top Five NBA Teams of the Future

Steve O Speak

By Fanspeak contributing writer Geoff Nelowet

With the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers dominating nearly every media outlet, and with the words “Kobe” and “LeBron” prefacing every NBA conversation, it’s time we take a look at the teams that aren’t leading the league right now, but almost certainly will be in the future. I’ve ranked the top five teams of the future based on three criteria: young talent, salary cap space, and projected draft status. Two of the five teams are currently NBA bottom feeders, but they have young talent, cap space, and ostensibly a top-five draft pick in this summer’s NBA draft.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Record: 39-24 Payroll: 58.3 M (28th in NBA) Draft Status: two non-lottery first round picks, OKC and Phoenix

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and James Harden make up easily the best young nucleus in the NBA. Durant is currently second in the NBA in scoring at almost 30 per game, and Westbrook is averaging nearly 17 points and 8 assists in just his second professional season. Jeff Green is having a bit of a down year, but he’s still putting up 14.5 points and over 6 boards a night, and rookie James Harden is averaging 10 points per game in limited minutes.

This team has already found success in the NBA, as they currently sit as the five seed in the rugged Western Conference playoff race. They will definitely be the proverbial “team nobody wants to face come playoff time” because they get better every week, and it’s only a matter of time before they become the NBA elite.

This team also holds the third-lowest payroll in the NBA, and with this summer expected to be the biggest free agency in decades, the Oklahoma City Thunder could land a low post player such as Amare Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer. Even more optimistically, the Thunder could go after Chris Bosh. Regardless of what transpires this summer or the next, the Thunder are in line to sign a major low-post contributor that will almost definitely push them over the top.

2. Portland Trail Blazers

Record: 39-28 Payroll: 55.8 M (30th) Draft Status: non-lottery selection

The Portland Trail Blazers looked like a team with an even brighter future a year ago, but with Greg Oden facing major injuries – and the fact that he simply has not become a dominant NBA center, the Trail Blazers bright future has slightly dimmed. Also many people had high hopes for foreigner Rudy Fernandez, and especially after the Olympics, but he has yet to amount to anything more than a solid backup wing player.

Despite these setbacks, the Trail Blazers are still a team fraught with good, young talent. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge have become cornerstones for the franchise, and Roy looks to be one of the best young scorers in the NBA. Oden still has plenty of upside as long as he stays healthy, and Jerryd Bayless and Nicolas Batum round out a very young and talented bench.

Portland also has the lowest payroll in the NBA, and premium talent is on its way. Portland of course, will be vying with nearly half the league to sign the big name free agents this summer, but even if they end up signing second or third tier players, they will still be a major force in the Western Conference for years to come.

3. Memphis Grizzlies

Record: 34-31 Payroll: 57.4 M (29th) Draft Status: three first round picks, top-fifteen pick (Memphis), two non-lottery DEN and LAL

OJ Mayo, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay have already made this team competitive, and they will only get better with time. Mayo averages 17.5 points per game in just his second NBA season, and Gasol has emerged as one of the best young centers in the league averaging nearly 15 points and 10 rebounds. Rudy Gay has been equally as good averaging 20 points and 5 boards.

Memphis’ young nucleus has been in the NBA for three seasons or less, and with solid young players such as Mike Conley and Sam Young contributing on a nightly basis, this looks to be one of the better teams in the NBA down the road. Memphis also has center Hasheem Thabeet, whom they drafted second overall last summer riding the bench. He is the prototypical “project” player, and he has spent time in the NBDL, which is generally a bad sign, but he still has the ability to be an excellent player. With three first round picks they can either package them to acquire a top lottery pick or use all three to have a top young bench.

Memphis holds the second-lowest payroll in the NBA. They have the ability to make a major splash in free agency, but it will be difficult for them to reel in big name free agents when they are competing with the New York Knicks or any other more enticing destination.

4. Golden State Warriors

Record: 17-47 Payroll: 65.9 M (21st) Draft Status: top-five pick

This team may be a surprise on this list, but they will boast arguably the best backcourt in the NBA for years to come. Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry have become two of the best guard in the NBA, and they can both score and pass. Ellis is currently fifth in the NBA in scoring at 25.5 per game, and Stephen Curry, in his rookie season, has averaged over 20 points per game over the last two months.

The Warriors also have Andris Biedrins and Anthony Randolph – two very good young players – in their frontcourt. Biedrins has been battling injuries, and Randolph has been inconsistent at times, but both have the skills to be excellent starters, and they have demonstrated that on numerous occasions.

Golden State will likely not be a big spender this off season, but they are in line for a top-five draft pick, which means even more young talent. Of course, their pick could be a bust, but this draft is expected to be unusually deep. If the Warriors get lucky and earn a top-two pick, they could set themselves up for a very promising future.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

Record: 14-51 Payroll: 62.2 M (24th) Draft Status: Up to three selections, top-five pick Minn., late-1st round (Utah), mid-round (Charlotte)*

The Timberwolves have one of the best young frontcourts in the NBA with Al Jefferson averaging 17 points and 9 rebounds per game, and Kevin Love contributing 15 points and 11 boards per night. Both players are under 25 years old, which is the most impressive part of their performances. Rookie Jonny Flynn has averaged nearly 14 points per game at point guard for the Timberwolves, and he completes their triumvirate of young talent. The Timberwolves also hold the rights to the top international player, Ricky Rubio, who can be used as a major trade chip down the road.

The Timberwolves also hold a minimal payroll, with most of their contracts coming off the books at the end of the season. As with every team, signing a big name free agent will be a highly competitive endeavor, and it is unlikely that someone such as LeBron James would ever consider signing with Minnesota, but looking ahead to future free agent classes, the T-Wolves could be a major player.

Most importantly, Minnesota is a lock for a top-five draft pick. They will be able to add a fourth elite young player to their already talented core group. They could also have an additional two first round picks that the Timberwolves could use to bolster their bench with young talent.This summer’s draft could push teams such as Minnesota and Golden State to immediate playoff contenders similar to the jump that Memphis made this past year.

*Charlotte’s pick is top 12 protected, right now they are just outside the top 12, but that could easily change.

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