For over a decade, there have been two methods to assembling a championship contender in the NBA.
The first strategy is to be the team with LeBron James - wherever he goes, there’s your Finals contender.
The second strategy is to build your team through the NBA draft. Before the Warriors built their superteam - via the seventh, twelfth, and thirty-fifth pick - the model was the Thunder - via the second, fourth, third, and twenty-fourth pick - and before the Thunder, it was the Spurs - via the first, twenty-eighth, and fifty-seventh pick.
For the 29 teams that don’t have LeBron James on their roster, building through the draft is the easiest option available to build a contender. Some teams walk the line between playoff contenders and basement dwellers, hoping their one superstar is enough to complement internal development to raise the level of play for the team. Some teams flat out remove all talent from their roster, with the intention of being absolutely terrible for a time in a gamble that they’ll be able to get as many shots at superstar talent in the draft.
Championships aren’t won by young players - they have to become veterans first - but it’s important to have the young players that will become the right veterans eventually.
Let’s define “young core” as 23 years or younger as of the start of the 2017-18 season - sorry Dennis Schroeder.
Mavericks - Nerlens Noel, Dennis Smith Jr.
The Mavericks have not been a team that has looked to build through the draft in recent years. With a legend in Dirk Nowitzki, there wasn’t a priority on patient building of young players. Talent like Jae Crowder was shipped out of town for veteran quick fixes, and as such, they have an old roster. But the trade for Noel and the acquisition of Smith Jr. after tanking down the stretch has given the team two young players to begin to lay a new foundation upon. Don’t overlook the Mavericks, who have a great coach, a strong culture, and have their point guard of the future (they hope).
Celtics - Ante Zizic, Guerschon Yabusele, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown
The reason the Celtics young core is rated so low is because half of them haven’t played a single NBA game. They have the rights to so many young players as well, it’s difficult to figure out which players will eventually become their core. Smart, Rozier, and Brown are good role players, but haven’t shown that they are anything to get too excited about. The best player of the bunch is Brown, but I’m not sold on him being one of the best three players on a championship team.
Magic - Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, Stephen Zimmerman, Elfrid Payton
Isaac is the latest player to be drafted by the Magic, who haven’t shown that they have been able to draft players that can play together well for many years. Zimmerman played in 19 games his first season, Payton isn’t likely to get a second contract from the Magic, Hezonja has been terrible, and now Gordon plays a similar position on the court to Isaac. The reason I have them higher than the Celtics is because of Gordon and Isaac. If Frank Vogel can figure out how to play those two together, they’ll have a great front court to work with.
Lakers - Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Ivica Zubac, Josh Hart
The Lakers would be much higher if they hadn’t traded DeAngelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez. Ball could be their point guard of the future, but that remains to be seen. Randle might not get a second contract from the Lakers, and Ingram might never weigh over 200 pounds. Zubac showed off a lot of talent his first season, especially as a 19 year old. Josh Hart won’t likely ever be a starter, but brings value as a rotation player.
Kings - Buddy Hield, Malachi Richardson, Justin Jackson, Georgios Papagiannis, Harry Giles, De’Aaron Fox, Skal Labissiere
For starters, Hield barely makes this list and Willie Cauley-Stein will be 24 at the beginning of the season. However, they’ve done a good job taking fliers on some high-ceiling young players, and if Dave Joerger can help them develop, they could be onto something. The combination of Fox and Hield is especially exciting in my opinion. If they can find an efficient big man rotation with Papagiannis, Skal, Giles, and Cauley-Stein, that will go a longs way as well. All their big men are such question marks though, I can’t move the Kings up in these r ankings.
Suns - Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, DragaThn Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson, Davon Reed
I rank the Suns here because of the potential of Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. Those two should be dynamic players on the wing for Phoenix, complementing each other on offense and defense. Ulis looks like a good rotation piece, but will need to excel on the offensive end of the court with his size limiting him on defense. They’ll probably be bad again this year, which may not be the worst thing, because they could really use a point guard. I don’t think they should plan on Eric Bledsoe being part of the next good Suns team.
Timberwolves - Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Tyus Jones, Justin Patton
I rank the Timberwolves here because of Towns. One player doesn’t make a core, but without a true star player, all a team really has are young assets. Towns is a true franchise player, it just remains to be seen if the other young players can succeed with him. Wiggins has great athletic tools, Jones is a heady point guard, and Patton certainly has athletic tools that could help him be a rotation player. Towns is just really good.
Up to this point, I’ve put the cores in tiers. The Mavericks and Celtics are in a tier. The Lakers, Magic, and Kings are in another tier. The Timberwolves moved into their own tier after trading Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn to the Bulls. The remaining teams are in two tiers, with the Nuggets in their own tier and the Bucks and 76ers in the top tier.
Nuggets - Nikola Jokic, Trey Lyles, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, Emmanuel Mudiay, Tyler Lydon
The Nuggets found their franchise star last season in Jokic. The only players age 23 or under that had a higher win shares value last season were Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis (24 now). Murray flashed star potential in his rookie season while playing through a sports hernia. Harris shot over 40 percent on 3-point attempts and showed off a high basketball IQ. Hernangomez was inconsistent, but so were his minutes. Mudiay struggled with a back injury and a reduced role. They just need one of their new players, Lyles and Lydon, to hit, and they’ll have five talented young players to play with Jokic. They may not make national headlines, and this is a Nuggets blog, but don’t sleep on this core.
Bucks - Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker, Jabari Parker, D.J. Wilson
The Bucks didn’t need a lottery pick to find their franchise cornerstone. Antetokounmpo is younger than Joel Embiid, and will be playing on his second contract next season. He is capable of doing things on a basketball court that no one else has ever done. Maker was great for the Bucks in the playoffs, and showed rapid improvement after joining the NBA straight from high school. Parker suffered another ACL tear, and may not be able to be as efficient as he was before his injury. Wilson is a lean, long armed, skilled power forward, and with the Bucks, they’ll know how to develop him. They probably won’t be picking in the lottery with their own draft pick again for a while.
76ers - Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Jawun Evans, Sterling Brown
The top team in my rankings has seen their top two players play in 112 career games. It seems highly presumptuous to assume that Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz will be great. Okafor was a top-5 pick, and he hasn’t necessarily been too productive for the 76ers so far in his career. However, Embiid (when healthy) has been a special player, and Saric was good in his first season (didn’t get injured either). Toss in TLC, Okafor (as a bench player), Evans and Brown, and the 76ers have assembled quite the talented squad. If Simmons is capable of playing well within their system, and Fultz is the point guard this team needs, then the 76ers clearly have the best young core in the league. Each player has question marks on them however, and if they don’t deliver on their potential, they’re just a team with a lot of young players that can’t get things done.
Where should the Nuggets be ranked in terms of best young core?
This poll is closed
6-10 - Nuggets bias is showing
3-5 - Where they are is accurate
1-2 - Keep hating on Denver