As the NBA heads into the home stretch of the 2016-17 season, and with a good idea of who is going to wind up in the NBA Championship game, we are left dreaming about what the future holds for many of the other teams in the league.
The NBA Playoffs features 16 teams, the top eight from each conference, Western and Eastern, fighting for a chance at NBA immortality through a seeded tournament where teams are ranked based on their final standings in the regular season. When the season ends, the rest of the league begins planning their next moves and the things they can do to prevent another season as part of the bottom 14 teams in the NBA. They can begin working on scouting reports for the upcoming draft, fire their head coach, or begin planning on wooing the league's biggest free agents during the summer.
The teams closest to the top overall selection in the draft have it easy. They can look at just about anyone in the country and start planning around their selection and the building of a future champion. By doing it this way, many teams can find themselves with a true contender as opposed to a one-trick pony that wins a title and then falls apart. It is about building a dynasty, not just a good team.
Since we have the time, let's take a look at the NBA's future and the project the next 15 champions beginning with the current season.
15 Cleveland Cavaliers (2016-17)
The Cleveland Cavaliers are around 10 games behind the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. In fact, if they were in the Western Conference, they would be in fourth place. They currently sit atop the Eastern Conference as their top seed heading into the final few weeks of the season. That is, however, unless the Boston Celtics or Washington Wizards can pass them up.
So why do we pick the Cavaliers to win it all this season if they are struggling to dominate the softer, easier, Eastern Conference? Because of LeBron James, that's why. If there was ever a player that could single handily carry a franchise, it is King James. He has done so for the past few seasons after Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love ended up dealing with injuries in the 2015 playoffs. Then, last season, he led the Cavs back from being down 3-1 to a NBA Title over the Golden State Warriors. This year, things should remain pretty much the same and we should get a battle between the Spurs and the Cavaliers.
14 Milwaukee Bucks (2017-18)
Maybe this was not the best choice after watching Jabari Parker sustain a second torn ACL injury in his young career back in February. Their entire roster is not going to collapse because of the loss of Jabari Parker, he will eventually return next season. The Bucks will fall apart if they lose Giannis Antetokounmpo however. The "Greek Freak" has emerged as one of the best overall players in the NBA this season after raising his season averages all across the board. He is currently averaging 23 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.8 steals and is among three players averaging these numbers. His 1.9 blocks per game average seperates him from Russell Westbrook and LeBron James, the other two guys on that list, and is turning into a legit MVP of the league.
Just in time for a 2018 NBA Title run too.
Besides Giannis, the Bucks are built for future success with Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Greg Monroe, Thon Maker, Mirza Teletovic, and Tony Snell. John Henson, Miles Plumlee, Matthew Dellavedova, and Michael Beasley round out the rotation that, with the addition of Terrence Jones, could make a run this year too. If they can add one more big time star this summer, and they will have the money to do so, then do not be shocked if they run away with the 2018 title.
13 New Orleans Pelicans (2018-19)
When the New Orleans Pelicans traded for DeMarcus Cousins, the rest of the league thought it was a rumor that would never turn into reality. However, not long after the All-Star game ended, the move was made and the announcement was released to the public that the Pelicans just added the league's best Center, to play alongside one of the best big men in the NBA, Anthony Davis.
The future for the Pelicans is dependent on Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins finding out how to partner up and dominate the league. So far this year, it has not worked out that great but they need time, and practice, and an off-season to prepare as a unit. The fact that we are talking about these two men playing together feels like something out of a video game. These two men just might be the top two big men in the league today and will eventually realize it and start destroying the Western Conference. Just not right now.
Give them a year or two, maybe even a new head coach and one or two solid free agent signings and the Pelicans will be hoisting the NBA Title.
12 New Orleans Pelicans (2019-20)
If they can do it in 2019, they can do it again, in 2020. The Cousins-Davis combo is like an old lawnmower that has a 1967 Shelby Mustang GT engine powering it up. It will take a few tries to get the mower going but once it does, hold on to something because it is going to cut down anything in its' path.
That is what will happen to the Pelicans once these guys find a groove. After winning the 2019 NBA Title, they will simply attract more talent and build more respect for the Pelicans as they head into the 2019-20 season looking for a repeat.
The one thing stopping the Pelicans right now is coaching. Alvin Gentry has not been able to figure out a way to use the two big men in today's NBA. He could study the Houston Rockets from the 1980's when they had Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson but that was a different time and era. Centers are now much more athletic and can shoot from just about anywhere on the court.
11 Boston Celtics (2020-21)
The Boston Celtics are the one team that could disrupt the league for many seasons to come because they own a multitude of draft picks and are already starting to dominate the Eastern Conference today. They own this upcoming drafts, most likely, top overall pick from Brooklyn, three second round picks, Brooklyn's 1st round pick next year, and the Clippers and Grizzlies 1st round picks for 2019. If the Celtics play their cards right, they could build one of the best young lineups in league history.
It is a little too soon to start labeling high school kids as the future of the NBA but since the Celtics have so many first round picks over the next few years, we had to go ahead and do a little digging anyways. Michael Porter, Marvin Bagley, Moses Brown, and DeAndre Ayton are a couple of projected top overall picks in both 2018 and 2019. By 2021, if the Celtics do not trade them away, they will be loaded with young talent, led by Isaiah Thomas and Jaylen Brown.
10 Minnesota Timberwolves (2021-22)
The Minnesota Timberwolves are going to break out in the near future, only time will tell. With Andrew Wiggins leading the way, this young club is built for the near future with nine players with less than three years experience in the league. In fact, their oldest player is Brandon Rush. Between Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones, and Zach LaVine, this is a roster waiting to burst out.
The one thing we cannot forget about is that these are projections based on current rosters, attrition, and possible future lineups. The one thing we cannot forget about is the addition of draft picks. As we watch the Timberwolves grow this season, they still have struggled and will be able to bolster their lineup in the 2017 draft, leading up to another year of growing their loaded lineup into an eventual champion in the league. It never hurts to own Andrew Wiggins, a future top-five NBA superstar in the making.
9 Boston Celtics (2022-23)
If all goes according to plan, the Boston Celtics are going to have a consistent contender in the Eastern Conference. We already believe they will win the 2021 NBA title and expect them to return a year later.
One of the toughest things to do for any NBA GM is to build a roster of players that mesh well together. Team chemistry is not something that simply happens overnight. It takes time and effort from both sides. The first time around, the Celtics won a title from shocking the league when they did not expect it. But this time, they will win it from building a consistent winner through free agency and the draft.
8 Philadelphia 76ers (2023-24)
The Philadelphia 76ers have not won more than 19 games in a season since the 2012-13 season when they finished 34-48. Their struggles have become comical at times but things are finally starting to turn around for a franchise that once fielded a starting-five featuring Moses Malone, Julius Erving, and Charles Barkley.
They currently have a ton of raw talent that is in need of a little work but it seems as though the emergence of Joel Embiid, T.J. McConnell, and Dario Saric has helped this unit grow much quicker than originally thought. If they can remain healthy, they have a roster that can compete with anyone in about six or seven years. Ben Simmons was the top pick and has not played a single minute because of a season-ending injury. Jerryd Bayless is another injured player that has helped them out.
The 2023-24 season is seven years from now but could turn into the year of the Sixers.
7 Los Angeles Lakers (2024-25)
The Los Angeles Lakers have never been down for very long. Right now, the Lakers have taken a huge dive in production and are not even considered an elite landing spot by some of the league's brightest future stars. In fact, their biggest free agency signing last summer was Timofey Mozgov, which is a symbol of exactly where the Lakers are today. They missed out on so many superstars that they are more of a joke than anything else.
But given time, and the hiring of Magic Johnson as the President of Basketball Operations for the team, there is no doubt in our minds that a future champion will emerge from within the mess that are the current Lakers. They have some of the pieces already in place, they just need to develop these young men into a star, and that can take time.
The NBA is broken into decades of dominance. In each decade, you can always find one franchise that was simply the best. In the '60s and '70s, it was the Boston Celtics, the 80's was easily the Lakers while the '90s were dominated by MJ and his Chicago Bulls. The Lakers dynasty is heading towards a run in the mid to late 2020's and should continue through multiple seasons.
6 Los Angeles Lakers (2025-26)
After the Lakers finally get back to the NBA Finals in 2025, they will then earn the love and respect that once made them a favorite landing spot for the league's biggest stars. In the 1980's, if you asked everyone in the NBA if they would like to play for the Lakers, the list of names would read like a All-Star game. They were the hottest ticket in town back then before dropping off in the '90s. When Kobe Bryant arrived, things changed again for LA and they turned out another five NBA titles under his leadership.
Now that he has long since retired, who will be the man for the Lakers to lead them to the NBA title for two consecutive seasons?
The NBA is different today than it used to be. Players are younger, faster, and can score from just about anywhere on the floor. Even the best Centers in the NBA today can shoot from outside, something that used to be unheard of. The Lakers have the young and talented core that, if they stick around for many seasons, will grow into an unstoppable force.
5 Los Angeles Lakers (2026-27)
The Los Angeles Lakers, if things continue going down the right path, and if they win the same two titles we project them to, will win a third in 2027. By then, this team will be featuring a "Big 3" that they built on their own, from drafting players in the first round of the draft.
The "Big 3" that could turn the Lakers into repeat champs are Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, and D'Angelo Russell. These three guys can turn into some of the best players at their positions in the NBA by 2025. All three of these guys are not even 23 years old yet. Randle is the oldest at 22, followed by Russell at 21, and Ingram at 19. Fans forget just how young the Lakers are right now.
This season alone, they are combining for 36.5 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists, 2.6 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game. They are growing each week and with the addition of Magic Johnson to the front office, there is no reason to not think the Lakers will win three in a row in a few years.
4 New York Knicks (2027-28)
After spending the past fifty seasons living in mediocrity, the New York Knicks will finally figure out a way to become a champion again, in 2028. By then, the rebuilding process will be complete and Carmelo Anthony will be long gone, no longer draining their salary cap and keeping them from reaching the next level. The Knicks are going through a slump right now that has been going on since the '80s and will continue until the next few years when they have a chance to rebuild and reload.
If the Knicks plan on getting to the NBA championship game in 2028, the most important asset to them is Kristaps Porzingis. They need to lock him down forever and build around him. With six rookies currently on the roster, there is a very good chance the Knicks find themselves in contention for a few years before finally getting their in 2028.
3 Los Angeles Clippers (2028-29)
If there is one team in the NBA that has to play in the shadow of another, it is the Clippers, who share an arena with the Lakers and have to play second fiddle to them, even when they struggle. Why? Because they are the Lakers and their brand sells, regardless of winning or losing. The Clippers, however, have to fight for their fans. They have to battle it out to earn the respect of the people who live in LA and after the Lakers wind up winning three in a row, they will do whatever they have to do to win the next year.
In pure panic mode, the Clippers will build a one-year champion, similar to the Florida Marlins over in the MLB. The Clippers will be secretly building a champion while the Lakers dominate the Western Conference and win three-in-a-row. It is not easy being the red-headed cousin of the NBA but for some reason, the Clippers manage to fit into that role perfectly.
2 Houston Rockets (2029-30)
The Houston Rockets have not been back to the NBA Finals since the mid '90s when they had Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon leading the way. Since we are now about 12 years into the future, it is almost impossible to know who is going to be running the league but odds are in the Rockets favor because they are going to be rebuilding in five years anyways. If there is one thing the Rockets can do great, it is rebuilding.
Every time they lost a superstar or two, they spent around five years turning things around and growing their roster from free agency and draft picks. Much like anyone else in the NBA, the Rockets will do it with offense and fun, like they are doing it today. They just need to find a way to build on their current success for the future.
1 Louisville Legends (2030-31)
For our final projection, we just could not resist imagining the NBA adding a couple of new franchises: the Louisville Legends and the Las Vegas Predators. There is very little reason to believe that the league will not be expanding by 2030, especially after watching the NFL move three franchises to two cities over the past two years.
Some of the most popular NBA destinations remain Louisville, Kentucky, and Las Vegas, Nevada. The two cities are polar opposites but this is the NBA and it is not about the population, it is just about the money. Both cities would bring in enough money to support a franchise and how difficult would it be to imagine that a NBA title run would come from at least one of them.
Since this is the future and flying cars are a possibility, it would be fun to pretend that an expansion team would reach the NBA Finals in one season in the league. It would actually be something that fans of the NBA would love to see.
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