The NBA is constantly changing. With one draft, or with one key free agent signing, a team can go from the worst team in the NBA to a contender if they manage to get their hands on a once in a generation talent. If they lose a star to another team or to injury, they can fall out of contention just as fast. Five years ago the Oklahoma City Thunder made the Finals and looked like they would be booking appointments there for the next decade, but they have not gotten back since. Five years before that they weren’t even the Thunder but the Seattle SuperSonics. In 2012 both the Cavs and the Warriors had less than 25 wins, the Knicks, Bulls, and Lakers were all in the playoffs, while the Wizards, Raptors, and Rockets were all in the lottery. Sure the Spurs still had 50 wins five years ago but they are the Spurs, they will have 50 wins or more as long as Pop is brusquely answering sideline reporters’ questions. One big factor in changes like these is big time players coming and going. The Thunder no longer have Durant, The Cavs got back LeBron, and Kobe is retired. So where will some significant players be in five years, and how might that affect the league? Read on to see where these 15 NBA players could be in 2022.
15. Draymond Green: Washington Wizards
As the emotional heart and soul of the Golden State Warriors for the past few years, Draymond Green has been a major factor in their success. As an occasionally overemotional head-case he has also been a major factor in the Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals last year. Green still drives the team with his energy and spark, but with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson as the leaders of the team, an emotional kick in the pants is not always required. Assuming the Warriors keep the team together they will eventually need to hand out bigger contracts to their superstars. If Klay, Steph, and Durant all keep things humming smoothly, finding reliable veterans to come off the bench might be more important than having an emotional firecracker like Draymond. If they let him walk, many teams would love to have his spark instead. One team that has an elite point guard and a dead eye shooter in John Wall and Bradley Beal but could use an impact player down low, with some fire in his belly, would be the Washington Wizards. Adding Draymond Green to those two and Otto Porter Jr, could have the makings of an off-brand Lineup of Death that could send the Wizards on some deep playoff runs in the mid 2020s.
14. Kris Dunn: Detroit Pistons
One of Minnesota’s longest tenured players is also the guy who has been the subject of trade rumors for longer than he has actually played there. There are always reports that Ricky Rubio might be heading somewhere else, but he remains entrenched as the Timberwolves point guard. The main reason the Timberwolves are lukewarm on Rubio is his shooting, but other than that he is one of the best point guards in the NBA. In a move to replace Rubio, Minnesota selected Kris Dunn with the fifth overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Rubio however has just gotten better with his improved supporting class. If the Timberwolves figure out that Rubio is their best bet, they may be willing to move on from Kris Dunn eventually. If Dunn can develop well behind Rubio, the Wolves could deal Dunn for something useful in a few years. If the Pistons don’t stick with Reggie Jackson long term, Dunn could be an ideal replacement.
13. Isaiah Thomas: Toronto Raptors
Although Isaiah Thomas is easily the Celtics best player at the moment, the team needs an infusion of talent to really make it to the next level. They should be getting that with the draft pick assets they have over the next few years and the ability to make a splash in free agency or with a trade at the same time. Ultimately, as Boston acquires more talented players at more positions, Thomas might not remain the most important player on the team, and they could even look to deal him for something more valuable. If they were to let him go, the sort of team that could use him is one that can use a ball dominant scorer to take over on offense. Those are usually the middle of the road teams who are not tanking but might not be solid playoff threats quite yet. By 2022 the Toronto Raptors could be in that boat, especially if Kyle Lowry and/or DeMar DeRozan are no longer in Canada.
12. Zach LaVine: Charlotte Hornets
Now that Zach LaVine is out with an injury, the Minnesota Timberwolves seem to be having a little bit more success. It is not that LaVine is not a great player but his skill set seems to overlap a little bit with Andrew Wiggins. The Wolves still consider him one of the building blocks of the future so they will probably keep him around for a while, but once he gets closer to unrestricted free agency in 2019, if it still looks like things run a bit smoother without him, they might start looking to trade him or let him walk. Perhaps by 2022 LaVine may have joined his fellow two-time Slam Dunk champion, Michael Jordan with the Charlotte Hornets. By then the Hornets young core of Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Kemba Walker should only be missing a shooting guard like LaVine to provide another scoring threat from the wing.
11. Paul George: Oklahoma City Thunder
At the trade deadline this year, the Pacers were entertaining deals for Paul George with both the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets. One reason that nobody decided to pull the trigger is based on Paul George’s apparent desire to end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers once he becomes a free agent in a year or so. If another team gets their hands on him in a trade, but is unable to convince him to re-sign with them, their team could be nothing more than a short-term layover on his way to Los Angeles. Like many free agents however, the opportunity to win a championship is usually one of the most important factors in where they ultimately decide to sign. One team that is familiar with deep playoff runs, but who are now on the lookout for a second superstar, could prove to be a very exciting destination for George. With a Kevin Durant sized hole at small forward, a defensive stopper who can create his own points could be a great addition, not to mention a better fit. Many people believe that Westbrook is another player who will end up in LA, but what if he and George do end up together, not with the Lakers but in Oklahoma City? If the Thunder could figure out how to get George they could have a combo reminiscent of Jordan and Pippen and perhaps similar playoff successes as well.
10. Anthony Davis: Milwaukee Bucks
In addition to surprising everyone, the DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans trade also got most NBA fans extremely excited as to the potential havoc that the two best big men in the league might be able unleash upon every other team over the next few years. Everyone is curious to see what happens and hoping for something amazing. There is the chance however that this might not work and the Boogie and the Brow experiment could be a short and volatile ride. If it goes south, and if the New Orleans front office cannot come up with another plan to surround Anthony Davis with viable NBA stars to help him, then there is a good chance that AD will eventually look to move when he hits free agency in 2021. One clue everyone looks at to predict where someone might sign is where they are from. As a kid from the South Side of Chicago, Davis might not want to head to the Bulls if they are still in the sort of shape they are at the moment. But there is another team 90 miles north of Chicago who could be on the verge of contending and will have one of the league’s superstars in five years. With Giannis at point guard surrounded by his long and athletic teammates, Anthony Davis could be a major piece that creates a championship team in Milwaukee.
9. Marquese Chriss: Dallas Mavericks
In the years to come, the Dallas Mavericks will be building their team around Harrison Barnes and Nerlens Noel. If they stick with their strategy of building the team through free agency and trades then there could be a whole lot of interesting new people around in 2022. With Noel and Barnes they have the seeds of a switch everything identity that many teams see as the future of the NBA. If they are looking to embrace that style, one player that might fit in, if they can get him, is Marquese Chriss of the Phoenix Suns who hits restricted free agency in 2020 and full free agency in 2021. Although just a rookie, the 6-foot-10 inch power forward is averaging over 8 points and almost four rebounds per game. If he develops into a star, or even just a solid starter, he could be a good piece for the Mavs.
8. Carmelo Anthony: New Orleans Pelicans
If Carmelo Anthony is still around in 2022 when he is 38 years old, you know he will be on one of those wily-veteran ring-chasing tours. All the great ones who have not been able to win a championship start the process in their mid to late 30s. When they decide their current team is no longer a contender and their contract comes up, they enter free agency and start signing one and two-year deals with teams they think will make it to the NBA Finals. The Heat had a few of those guys when LeBron was there, the Cavs, Spurs, and Warriors have a bunch of them at the moment as well. So if Carmelo is around in 2022 we can assume it is because he wants to get a ring. But who will be the teams that give him that chance. The Timberwolves should be thriving in a few years. The Celtics seem on the verge of becoming contenders for a long time, but if the New Orleans Pelicans can figure out the Boogie and The Brow show, find themselves a great point guard, and get their hands on some dependable perimeter defense in the next couple years, they could easily be dominating the league in the early 2020s. If Carmelo still has his long range shooting and can come off the bench to rain some threes in the clutch, he might make a key addition to the future Pelicans playoff hopes.
7. Jahlil Okafor: Utah Jazz
Everyone assumed Jahlil Okafor would be long gone from the 76ers by now, even Jahlil Okafor and the 76ers. With a skill set that could have been dominant in the ’80s or ’90s, Okafor is still a valuable piece. But in the current climate of small ball and stretch fives, Okafor’s back to the basket specialization becomes more of a niche thing. With multi-faceted Joel Embiid down low, Okafor will never be the first option so he will most probably depart sooner rather than later. One new trend that seems to be on the verge of developing is the traditional big man as a key sixth man. Against second units with fewer stretchy, switchy, do-everything players, an old school low post player can provide consistent scoring while not hurting too much on defense. If Okafor continues to develop and a forward looking team figures out they can exploit his skills, he could become very worthwhile. One team that has two great big men but might be able to exploit Okafor against bench units is the Utah Jazz. With Rudy Gobert providing top of the line defense for the starting five, Okafor could provide scoring punch against backups as a sixth man.
6. Jimmy Butler: Memphis Grizzlies
Another player who everyone assumes will not last much longer with his current team is Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls. Butler was the subject of endless trade talk as the deadline approached, but the Bulls could not find a suitable suitor for their requirements. If the Bulls cannot get their front office act together soon, Butler could reach unrestricted free agency in 2020 and would be free to head anywhere with nothing in return to the Bulls. The ideal spot for Butler would be somewhere with strong frontcourt that needs a good guard. If Marc Gasol is still hanging in there in 2022 and they have another solid big man coming up behind him, Butler could make a fantastic replacement for Tony Allen, giving the Memphis Grizzlies an excellent backcourt made up of him and Mike Conley.
5. D’Angelo Russell: Philadelphia 76ers
With a glut of top of the line point guards available, if the Los Angeles Lakers are able to keep their first rounder this year, there is a good chance that they will go with one of them despite having the number two overall pick from 2015 at the top of their point guard depth chart at the moment. If they do grab another point guard, they will hold onto both of them for a couple of years before deciding which one is their number one guy. If they decide against Russell he will need to find a new home. If the Lakers do pick one of the star point guards this year, that probably means they did not have to give their top three pick away to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers have a wonderful assortment of big men but they do need a point guard. If they cannot grab one this year, and they still need one a few years down the line, they could add Russell, the number two pick in 2015, to Okafor and Embiid, their number three picks from 2015 and 2014 and have a pretty solid future.
4. DeMar DeRozan: Los Angeles Lakers
Of all the players who have been linked to the Lakers, DeMar DeRozan might be the one who actually heads there eventually. Although he loves Toronto and is signed through 2021, if the Raptors window of contention looks closed by then he might decide to go home, especially if the Lakers have returned to the upper echelon of the league. Originally from Compton, DeRozan attended USC where he played for one season and was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman team in 2009. If the young Lakers continue to develop into stars, they should be a playoff team within a few years. Adding a veteran presence like DeRozan at the right time could be a way to turn themselves into legitimate contenders. If the Lakers do not get their hands on one of the more high profile stars that they covet, DeRozan could be a good addition instead.
3. Kristaps Porzingis: San Antonio Spurs
One question everyone with any compassion in their heart must be asking is, will Kristaps Porzingis still be trapped in New York with the Knicks in 2022. If the Lord is merciful, or if his agent is halfway decent, Porzingis will have made his escape by then. But where would he end up? If he can prove himself inept with the Triangle offense, Phil Jackson might just dump him sooner rather than later. Chances are he will be held onto for as long as possible however. Once he does escape, one place that would be very interesting to see him land is with the San Antonio Spurs. He would fit right in with the international flavor of the Spurs and it would be fascinating to see how coach Gregg Popovich could exploit his unique skills. Pop could create a 7 foot 3 inch, three point shooting Tim Duncan to terrorize the league. And for Kristaps himself it would be like going from basketball hell to hoops heaven.
2. Gordon Hayward: Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics have been collecting assets and cap space for the past few years while building a pretty solid team without having a star other than Isaiah Thomas. In order for them to take things to the next level they need a legitimate superstar and at least another one, or two, star players. They have some great draft picks in the next few drafts which should net them at least one guy who can develop into a star, but they may have to look to free agency or a trade to get an established player. Danny Ainge has done it before so they should be able to pull it off again. There is one big name out there that might be the perfect fit for the Celtics. Gordon Hayward is a high efficiency scorer who has the Utah Jazz about to clinch a playoff spot with the sixth best record in the NBA. He also happens to be the player who helped Celtics coach Brad Stevens to two straight Final Four appearances at Butler. As an all-around playmaker he would be a great addition to a long line of Celtics greats.
1. Russell Westbrook: Los Angeles Clippers
The one player who is constantly discussed as someone who is a lock to sign with the Lakers once he hits free agency is Russell Westbrook. This is based on the fact that he played at UCLA and spends part of his offseasons there already. But having signed one short extension with the Thunder already, it is possible that he will stick with them as long as they make some solid moves to give him some help. If those moves do not work out however, or if the Thunder think they might lose him for nothing, and they decide to trade him, then he could easily be gone. What if he goes to LA but not to the Lakers though? The Clippers probably have two or three more years with their core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. If they do not surpass their current plateau in that time, it will probably be time to rebuild. If they can get Westbrook for any combination of their big three, they should jump at it.