Happenings in the NBA can be tough to predict. If anticipating what will happen this season is hard, then glimpsing into a crystal ball for future results is just foolhardy. So naturally, we’re going to do it anyway.
The draft, free agency and the state of each team’s core can give at least some insight into how things will play out as we head into the future. While we marvel at the Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett Show at Duke and wonder how they'll do in the NBA, we can also enjoy Giannis Antetokounmpo ascending into the rarefied air of superstar in Milwaukee, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray thrilling the Denver Nuggets faithful and rookie phenom Luka Doncic helping the Dallas Mavericks transition away from Dirk Nowitzki. Of course, it takes more than an exciting player or two to build a championship contender.
Based on the way things seem to be coming together, we're getting an increasingly clear picture on where the game is headed and which teams might be the torchbearers to guide it there. That leaves some clubs looking like future title contenders, even as others struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Stuck in between hopeful and hopeless stands a group of teams that will likely take a shot at greatness, even if they don’t go all the way. In this list, we'll look ahead past this current generation of Warriors-dominant basketball (deliberately leaving Golden State out of this exercise) and see who might be left standing when the Dubs’ dynasty inevitably falls. Instead of a specific assessment of who will win an NBA championship and when, here we look at eight teams that could head into the 2020s as contenders, who will come up short and who remains hopeless.
20 Title Contender: Utah Jazz
Look, I get how Utah Jazz fans remain fired up about a future built around Donovan Mitchell, but it’s not as though the 22-year-old guard known as “Spida” is infallible. For as good as Mitchell’s 2017-18 rookie campaign was, it resulted in neither a Rookie of the Year award, All-Star selection nor a spot among the league’s top 20 scoring leaders.
Good thing, then, that the Jazz have surrounded him with an impressive supporting cast that features Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors and Joe Ingles. Not all of those guys are likely around for the long haul in Utah, but that type of savvy asset management, particularly in light of losing Gordon Hayward in 2017, shows that GM Dennis Lindsey and head coach Quin Snyder have the Jazz headed in the right direction. Those two, plus Mitchell, make for the start of a pretty good foundation.
19 Come Up Short: Los Angeles Clippers
As visions of Kawhi Leonard dance in the heads of some Clippers fans heading into this summer’s free agent fracas, there are others who won’t be fooled by another Clips’ bid for marquee free agents. After all, the club has dreamt big over the years in pursuit of stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, but Baron Davis remains arguably the biggest get in team history (and even his arrival coincided with the surprise departure of Elton Brand).
The organization still has owner Steve Ballmer’s deep pockets and the allure of its home L.A. market going for it. That might help them develop into a playoff team and maybe even a contender, but the other Staples Center residents have plenty of work ahead, especially if they hope to finally advance to the Conference Finals for the first time.
18 Title Contender: Dallas Mavericks
As exciting as Luka Doncic’s rookie season in Dallas has been, it hasn’t exactly propelled his Mavs to the top of the west standings. Although they likely won’t have trouble surpassing last year’s 24-win campaign, a playoff spot might be a bridge too far in what is likely Dirk Nowitzki’s last season. That’s not great news for the big man, but it does bode well for a team who has demonstrated a magic touch at the draft table of late.
The draft night trade for Doncic came one year after Dallas landed Dennis Smith Jr. at the 2017 event. Depending on how owner Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson elect to build the roster around Doncic and Smith, the Mavs could be on the verge of something special.
17 Hopeless: Orlando Magic
The Magic would like to sell you on the notion that they're a group of young upstarts on the rise. Yes, their roster is headlined by the likes of Aaron Gordon, Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac, all top six picks from recent drafts, with more top selections likely to come. That’s all well and good, but would you really want any of these guys on your team? Gordon looks like a good-stats-on-bad-teams kind of player, while neither Isaac nor Bamba have really stood out.
Add in wasted top five picks used on Mario Hezonja and a later-to-be-traded Victor Oladipo and there’s little reason to believe in Orlando’s draft track record. Looking at a seventh straight season out of the playoffs, the Magic have been rebuilding forever and don’t appear poised to turn things around anytime soon.
16 Come Up Short: Phoenix Suns
The combination of super-scorer Devin Booker and rookie big man Deandre Ayton have opened the door for some hope in the desert. And sure, much of that hope seems warranted. Booker is somehow still just 22 and Ayton has done nothing to detract from his No. 1 overall selection. That tandem offers a recipe for improvement, but being a serious title threat is another matter, entirely.
Each young talent carries his own warts - Booker is a high volume chucker whose defense remains a work in progress and it’s unclear how truly valuable Ayton can be in a league moving increasingly away from the traditional center. The other unknown here is whether rookie GM James Jones is capable of building a standout roster around them.
15 Title Contender: Oklahoma City Thunder
By highlighting the Thunder here, we aren’t so much setting the stage for future talent as we are anticipating a not-too-distant trek into June from the current core. Even with Golden State lurking, a group that features Russell Westbrook and Paul George in their prime is bound to have a deep run or two in them, no? If they don’t, you can almost already hear future generations of fans saying, ‘they had Russ and PG13 and couldn’t get out of the West?’.
OKC’s entire core is locked in for the long haul, so there’s ample time for everything to come together. And if they need more help, GM Sam Presti, the visionary who acquired George and convinced him to stay, could be of service.
14 Hopeless: Cleveland Cavaliers
In the aftermath of LeBron James’ second tenure with the club, it’s clear that the Cavaliers are in disarray once again. What the worst team in the league should have going for them, though, is better odds at the No. 1 pick and, with it, a chance to select Zion Williamson. Or so you’d think. That scenario has been threatened in recent weeks by news that the Warriors have asked the NBA to look into the Cavs’ signing - and subsequent waiving - of restricted free agent Patrick McCaw for potential collusion or other improprieties.
In the unlikely event that the league finds enough evidence to implicate Cleveland, that coveted pick could theoretically be taken away. Admittedly, the odds on that scenario are slim and nil, but even if both the investigation and draft lottery break their way, the Cavs will need more than just Williamson to work their way back into the spotlight.
13 Come Up Short: Memphis Grizzlies
Last season brought an end to what had been seven consecutive playoff appearances for the Grizzlies. The primary constants across those seven postseason runs - apart from continually falling victim to the Spurs and failing to win a Conference Finals game - essentially boil down to Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and a fundamental tough, hard-nosed playing style. Now in something of a transitional period following the drafting of Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizz still have Conley and Gasol around as gatekeepers for that very same gritty, grind-it-out style of play.
It’s an admirable, blue collar approach that helps set the club apart from other Western playoff hopefuls - it’s just not really the stuff of champions. Perception here could be skewed by their past record (or lack thereof) of truly elite talent, but the Grizzlies’ next serious MVP hopeful will be the team's first.
12 Title Contender: Denver Nuggets
They aren't talked about in the same way as the league's other young stars, but maybe Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray of the Nuggets should be. Hard as it may seem to believe, the Nuggets are largely flying under the radar even as they reign atop the imposing Western Conference. And leading the way, at an average age just under 23, are a three-man core of Jokic, Murray and vastly underrated wing Gary Harris.
This Denver group is well-coached thanks to Mike Malone, deep and plays with a distinct edge that shows they feel they belong among the best. They still aren't exactly playoff-proven despite the presence of veterans like Paul Millsap and Will Barton, so this may not be their year. But make no mistake - it's coming, especially with injury-prone but intriguing prospect Michael Porter Jr waiting in the wings and a boatload of cap space to use.
11 Come Up Short: San Antonio Spurs
In general, not betting against Gregg Popovich is probably a good lesson in life. After all, it was Pop who turned a skinny, lightly-recruited point guard and a quirky afterthought into two-thirds of a dynasty and refused to let his Spurs squad relent in the face of numerous proclamations that they were on the decline. Who knows, maybe he can coach a core of DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and the injured Dejounte Murray into a contender.
The Spurs did, after all, go 11-5 in December and now find themselves in the thick of a jumbled Western playoff picture. But even still, no one should confuse this roster for a serious contender. At 29 and 33, respectively, DeRozan and Aldridge are hardly spring chickens and have both shown throughout their careers to be half a step behind the league's elite. Tough out? Sure. Larry O'Brien threat? Probably not.
10 Hopeless: Sacramento Kings
If the Kings are focused on building their future around Marvin Bagley III, they sure have a funny way of showing it. Kings head coach Dave Joerger recently displayed almost a sense of regret/jealousy when he said of Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic, “I think perhaps there was an idea that there was a ceiling on him? I don’t see it, unfortunately for us. But he’s great for them, and he’s great for our league.”
Here, Joerger goes beyond basic praise for the youngster to a point where it blatantly seems like he's openly regretting passing on the Slovenian phenom to draft Bagley (Sacramento choice Bagley one pick before Atlanta took Doncic). So there's your future, Kings fans: let's get excited about the guy who already looks like a mistake halfway through his rookie campaign.
9 Title Contender: Milwaukee Bucks
All the speculation surrounding Anthony Davis represents just the latest example of what is an on-going problem in the NBA: small market teams are constantly in tough to retain their own stars. That doesn't seem to be a pressing concern for the Bucks when it comes to freshly minted superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, however.
Currently in the midst of a season that has garnered MVP talk, Giannis is signed for two more seasons after this one and seems unlikely to leave his adopted hometown. And with Antetokounmpo has come marquee status for the Bucks, helping the club lure in-demand head coach Mike Budenholzer, rank among the best in the East this season and possibly even become an attractive free agent destination this summer. Will titles soon follow?
8 Come Up Short: Indiana Pacers
In 2017-18, they were everyone's favorite unlikely success story in the NBA. In 2018-19, they've become one of the true powers of the East. Indeed, it's got to be an emboldening time of pride for Pacers fans these days, having grown into something of a fringe contender in the aftermath of the Paul George trade. But make no mistake - there's a ceiling here. For as good as he is, Victor Oladipo probably isn't a go-to option on a championship team.
Likewise, a supporting cast of Jeff Teague, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovich, Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young appears short a few pieces. Things will only get more complicated for Indy this summer, when a good chunk of their core becomes eligible for free agency. Just as it seems that the Pacers' run among the Conference heavyweights is only beginning, tough free agent decisions could force them to either take a step back or lock into a group that might not be quite good enough.
7 Hopeless: Minnesota Timberwolves
The easy part is over in Minnesota. Jimmy Butler was a major headache, so he was sent packing. Coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t getting results and had few supporters in the locker room, so he got canned. Now what? The pressure falls squarely on Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, two former No. 1 overall picks that haven’t demonstrated that they can be valued contributors on winning teams. Both men remain immature and hard to consistently motivate, not ideal qualities for max money basketball stars who will still be making more than $65 million in 2022-23.
Wiggins is an exceptional athlete who hasn’t developed in a meaningful way but is still owed over $120 million in the coming years, and Towns, is the new recipient of a $190 million super max contract who still has only made one All-Star Game and appeared in five playoff contests, the Timberwolves have a two-man core that is filled with both talent and question marks.
6 Title Contender: Boston Celtics
It appears the Celtics have hit a little speed bump. Projected to contend for the top spot in the East, the Celts have underwhelmed to date, struggling on the road and losing to the likes of the Suns, Magic and Knicks. Moreover, Gordon Hayward has been a disappointment, Jayson Tatum hasn't taken the expected step forward in year two and Kyrie Irving has displayed open frustrations amidst an uncertain future in Beantown. If we're looking at the big picture here, though, that this is really just a blip.
Boston remains well positioned for a deep playoff push this season. Beyond that, they could have as many as four first round picks this summer to join the young core of Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier and could also carve out significant cap space depending on the futures of Irving and Al Horford. With so many options at their disposal, it would be hard for the club to mess this one up.
5 Come Up Short: Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are all-in on the 2018-19 season. That much was made clear when they packaged star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and young big man Jakob Poeltl for pending free agent superstar Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Raptors knew Leonard had just a year left on his deal and came with no guarantees of re-signing, but felt their only shot at acquiring an elite superstar - and a title opportunity - came in spending a year convincing Leonard to stay.
There's no telling if Toronto is any closer to keeping the Klaw around long-term, but they are off to a sizzling start atop the East and look like potential Finals contenders. There remains a significant uphill climb, however - both to an NBA championship this season with Golden State standing in the way and to a lengthy agreement with Leonard, who is widely believed to want to play near his Southern California hometown.
4 Title Contender: Philadelphia 76ers
Even with the futures of Markelle Fultz and Jimmy Butler up in the air, the long-term outlook of the 76ers looks pretty rosy. And really, that optimism essentially boils down to two big factors: the twin pillars of 24-year-old Joel Embiid and 22-year-old Ben Simmons. The organization is flush with cap space heading into the summer and believes that the presence of Embiid and Simmons could attract marquee free agents. It almost worked out that way already, as LeBron James has admitted he gave serious consideration to signing in Philly for the chance to play with the young duo. With just six players under contract for next season, the Sixers have their work cut out for them, but Embiid and Simmons represent a pretty good starting point.
3 Hopeless: New Orleans Pelicans
The NBA can be a pretty unfair place at times, particularly for the small market teams. Even if everything falls perfectly into place for your roster, there's no guarantee that you're ticketed for success. The Pelicans won the draft lottery ahead of the 2012 NBA Draft, earning the right to select a generational phenom in Anthony Davis. The 'Brow has been everything New Orleans could hope for and more, but they still haven't found a way to build a consistent winner around him.
Now, the time appears to be ticking, with Davis set to likely opt out of his deal after next season and reports already reaching a fever pitch that the five-time All-Star will be taking his talents elsewhere. A future without AD is a future that no Pelicans fan wants to think about.
2 Come Up Short: Houston Rockets
On the surface, it's hard to see much distinction between the Russell Westbrook-led Thunder and the James Harden-led Rockets, at least when it comes to their status as present contenders. Both clubs boast a perennial MVP contender and both are positioned a shade below the Warriors amidst the Western hierarchy.
What puts OKC among the contenders and sees Houston come up short, then, is simply age. Westbrook and Harden are separated by a mere 10 months, but the real difference comes in their supporting cast. Paul George is 28, giving Westbrook a long-term running buddy with the Thunder. Chris Paul, meanwhile, is 33 and plagued with persistent knee problems that may put a firm cap on the Rockets' window of contention.
1 Title Contender: Los Angeles Lakers
In the aftermath of LeBron James becoming public enemy No. 1 in some NBA circles when he "took his talents to South Beach" back in 2010, fans seemed to take great pleasure in any Miami Heat setback. The Mavericks certainly drew in some extra fans when they upended Miami in that first Finals of the Big Three era. LeBron, however, would get the last laugh in winning back-to-back titles thereafter and earning a third as a returning hero in Cleveland. Now with James in LA, this feels like another version of the same story.
The Lakers were mocked for following up the James signing by adding middling vets like JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, not to mention 'Bron's decision to play alongside a young, inexperienced group featuring Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Now, L.A. has looked downright competent and look poised to be major players in free agency this summer, to say nothing of a trade push for Anthony Davis. Will James, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka let this era of LA basketball go without a title or two? I don't think so.