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Denver Nuggets Stat of the Week: best young teams in the NBA

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This week’s SOTW focuses on various young teams and the value of the core pieces they have put together.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Every NBA fan loves to argue about the next “up-and-coming” NBA team, the group that has the most visible young talent in the league and is also the flashiest. There are actual ways to measure the effectiveness of young players and their likelihood of being valuable contributors at the next level, but most omit that in favor of tantalizing athleticism and flair.

This ranking of young cores around the NBA will get down to the real numbers of it. Age (cut off is average rotation age under 26), usage, efficiency, effectiveness, and team success will all be factored in by some degree. Ties will be broken through subjective bias of whether that team has a young star already in place.

Without further ado, here are the completely and utterly arguable rankings of young cores around the NBA.

Honorable Mentions (slightly too old):

  • Houston Rockets (27.3 years) - James Harden is amazing, but the majority of rotation members are in their primes. Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell, and Sam Dekker bring down the collective age of the rotation. All are nice pieces, though.
  • Chicago Bulls (26.8 years) - Again, like Houston Jimmy Butler is awesome, but Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, and the majority of the rotation are too old. There are many players 25 years or younger on the roster, and sheer number makes them an H.M.
  • Utah Jazz (26.8 years) - The Jazz have graduated. They still have some young core pieces, but Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, and Boris Diaw push them out of the young teams category. Rodney Hood, Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum, and Trey Lyles are excellent pieces though. Derrick Favors is still just 25 as well.
  • Orlando Magic (26.4 years) - The Magic are difficult to figure out. They have a bunch of youth, and then they have a bunch of veterans dragging that group away from a top draft pick. Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, and Evan Fournier should all play heavy minutes at the correct positions, but they won’t.
  • Milwaukee Bucks (26.2 years) - The first team left off is Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker is one of the most effective dynamic duos in the league, but they have surrounded those guys with mostly veterans.

11. Boston Celtics

Average rotation age: 25.6 years

Key young players: Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier

Outlook: The Celtics are heavily penalized by the limited minutes they are giving their young players. The majority of the Celtics rotation is made of of players in their prime, and beyond his starting lineup, Brad Stevens only plays Marcus Smart with consistency. Jaylen Brown is a top draft pick, but all he has displayed up to this point is physical tools. Kelly Olynyk and Terry Rozier are nice pieces, but they are fringe rotation members at this point.

Despite playing on a winning team, the net rating and win shares per 48 for the group is surprisingly low. In theory, this group should be quality, but they haven’t contributed to winning basketball yet.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

Average rotation age: 25.4 years

Key young players: C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe

Outlook: The Trail Blazers eek out over the Celtics due to the emergence of C.J. McCollum, who just barely gets under the cut off at 25 years old. He and Damian Lillard, while flawed, are incredible offensively. Maurice Harkless is a great complement to the two guards as he doesn’t need the ball to be effective, and Allen Crabbe is their microwave scorer of the future off the bench. The young players behind this trio are poor efficiency and effectiveness wise, so this group, combining for $55.4 million in salary in 2017-18, better be good.

9. Phoenix Suns

Average rotation age: 25.9 years

Key young players: Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Brandon Knight, Alex Len, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender

Outlook: The Suns have Devin Booker, a Klay Thompson clone who scores with worse efficiency but carries himself like a star. He takes a lot of shots, but I’m not sold on him as a tier one star at this point. Beyond him, the cast of characters is deep but uninspiring. The group has the worst net rating and win shares per 48 combination by far, but the youth of the key young players keeps them from taking the lowest spot. There is a lot of opportunity for turnaround with this team, and with a top draft pick in 2017, anything is possible.

8. Detroit Pistons

Average rotation age: 25.3 years

Key young players: Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson

Outlook: The Pistons nearly graduated due to Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris getting older, but the rest of their main pieces are still relatively young. Andre Drummond isn’t the Dwight Howard clone Stan Van Gundy was hoping for, but he’s still a solid building block. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is what I hope Gary Harris becomes both offensively and defensively. Tobias Harris is solid. Stanley Johnson probably won’t be, but who knows? He could be the best of the bunch. The Pistons have the ability to bounce back from what is a bad season, and I expect more growth from all of the above players.

7. New Orleans Pelicans

Average rotation age: 25.8 years

Key young players: Anthony Davis, Solomon Hill, Terrence Jones, Buddy Hield, Langston Galloway

Outlook: Any time a team has Anthony Davis, it will automatically rise a few spots. Just like the Pelicans overall, take away Anthony Davis, and the team would be a bottom two team in both the NBA standings and in terms of the outlook of the young core. Solomon Hill is averaging 6.3 points per game on 38.3 percent from the field, Terrence Jones is on a “prove it” deal, Buddy Hield is already 22, and Langston Galloway is nothing special.

Davis is literally the only thing keeping the Pelicans afloat here, which begs the question as to whether depth is more important than star power. A couple of the teams ahead of the Pelicans have depth, but most combine the two.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

Average rotation age: 24.7 years

Key young players: Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis, Jeremi Grant, Enes Kanter

Outlook: Oklahoma City? I thought Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka all grew up? Didn’t the last three leave?

Well, the Thunder have done an excellent job of reloading with role players to surround Westbrook. The six aforementioned players have all played above 1,000 minutes, and all are 25 years old or younger.

Oklahoma City is FAR in the lead when it comes to minutes played for the young core. The reason why they tend to struggle at times is they are secretly a really young team, combined with the volatility of Westbrook’s field goal percentage. The minutes will give those players much needed experience though, and it will accelerate their growth for the playoffs while Westbrook is still in his prime.

Basically, the Thunder have done a wonderful job of rebuilding on the fly.

5. Toronto Raptors

Average rotation age: 25.7 years

Key young players: Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph, Lucas Noguiera, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl

Outlook: There is no star player in this group, but in his short minutes, Lucas Noguiera has the efficiency of a star. His true shooting percentage is higher than Nikola Jokic’s, he has one of the best block percentages in the league, and he has more impact defensively than Joel Embiid. Even if he stays as a backup, Jonas Valanciunas is also very talented. Terrence Ross and Cory Joseph are what they are, but Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam are quality rotation players right now, while Jakob Poeltl waits in the wings. Toronto secretly needs to get rid of DeMarre Carroll so that Powell can play more minutes.

This group is more quiet than Oklahoma City’s collection of talent, but Toronto’s is more effective.

4. Washington Wizards

Average rotation age: 25.9

Key young players: Otto Porter, Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre

Outlook: Think about how the Nuggets feel about Nikola Jokic...that’s how the Wizards feel about Otto Porter, except they have been blessed with a first option already in John Wall. Porter is the very definition of a tier 2 star right now. He makes his open shots with the utmost efficiency, he plays both ways, he’s versatile, and his offensive game is growing very quickly. Bradley Beal gets all the hype because he scores a ton with the ball in his hands, and where people think Devin Booker is right now, that’s where Beal actually is. He shoots efficiently from all areas at a star type volume. Kelly Oubre is the only threat off the bench right now for Washington, and he’s actually improving nicely. He won’t ever be a starter in Washington unless Porter moves to power forward, but being a stud sixth man isn’t a bad calling down the line.

The two studs at the top contributing to a winning team help the Wizards climb over the rest of the pack, but their lack of a generational talent or depth keeps them out of the top three.

3. Denver Nuggets

Average rotation age: 25.1

Key young players: Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, Juancho Hernangomez

Outlook: The Nuggets fall right here on the list. The efficiency and effectiveness of the core help boost them, but the overall minutes keeps them from cracking the top two. Combined with that, the overall field goal attempts and activity of the group prevent them from rising higher. Nikola Jokic is probably the third or fourth best player among the teams on this list RIGHT NOW, but he stands alone in combining usage and efficiency for this group. Jamal Murray looks like the real deal, as does Gary Harris, and even Juancho Hernangomez in his limited time. The jury is still out on Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic though.

With multiple draft picks and tradeable assets, this group of players could change in an instant, but as of this moment, they haven’t earned higher than third.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

Average rotation age: 24.7

Key young players: Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Nik Stauskas, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, T.J. McConnell, Richaun Holmes, (Ben Simmons?)

Outlook: The Sixers earn their ranking through the development of young talent by the organization and trusting the process. Joel Embiid truly is amazing. He has flaws, but with a better supporting cast (eventually) and time, he will clean up those flaws to look a lot like Hakeem Olajuwon. Dario Saric, Nik Stauskas, and Richaun Holmes are potential rotation pieces of the future, though nothing special. The jury is out on Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and T.J. McConnell, though T.J. did hit a sweet game-winning shot against the New York Knicks.

What makes this group better is the introduction of new talent. Ben Simmons will be back soon, and he could be a Blake Griffin/Lamar Odom level player. The Sixers will have multiple high draft picks, including potentially the first rounder of the Los Angeles lakers next draft. On top of that, the team has been shopping Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, and if the reports are true, the return they could get for either (or both) is worth noting. So much depends on potential here, but if that potential hits, the Sixers will be visiting the Eastern Conference finals regularly.

1. Minnesota Timberwolves

Average rotation age: 23.8

Key young players: Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

Outlook: Well, that was suspenseful.

The Timberwolves have the brightest future because the oldest player on the above list is in fact Kris Dunn. The rookie point guard out of Providence has been awful so far, but even if he doesn’t work out, the Timberwolves are set with a franchise caliber talent and two other potential all-stars. What really sets this young group apart though is the number of field goal attempts they take, a determining factor in activity level and usage by the team.

Karl-Anthony Towns is as amazing as they come. He has to work on defense, but as far as offense, there are very few players in the NBA with a more completer game. Zach LaVine is similar in terms of guard play. He has explosiveness and touch at the rim, touch from the perimeter, and a solid midrange game to mesh the two. Hopefully, he returns strong from a recent ACL tear. Wiggins is the hardest to figure out. he can score at an average efficiency, but that’s all he does. If he turns into Rudy Gay, then it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but his age allows him the potential to be so much more.

Throw in another high draft pick in this year’s class, and the Timberwolves are far and away the best young core in the NBA.