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NBA Preview: Forecasting the Next Generation of Elite Teams

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Every movement has two stages: the forerunners that create it, and the second wave that improves upon their predecessors' work. Who are the NBA's second wave of this next era of basketball?

Nick Laham/Getty Images

ESPN recently released their annual "Future Power Rankings", in which each team is tabulated in a matrix of various categories to determine the franchises' overall trajectory over the next few seasons. Ranking something as mercurial and intangible as ‘potential' is thought exercise more so than concrete science, of course.

To focus solely on the basketball side, and eliminating meddlesome and unpredictable circumstances that arise in free agency, let's do our own thought exercise. This time, focusing not on numerical rankings, but of the most interesting teams moving forward.

To do so, one must consider the direction that the league is gravitating towards: length over strength. Mobility over muscle. Versatile wings, freed from the shackles of debate over their arbitrary position in the archaic 1 through 5 system. Guys under 6'5" that are allowed to shoot at their discretion without being seen as inferior to "pure" (i.e. offensively limited in most cases) "point guards". Players over 6'9" switching out onto perimeter players in the pick and role.

Pace and space. 4-out, 1-in offenses. 5-out, 0-in. Everyone a threat from outside — the shooter has climbed to the acme of significance in the NBA's zeitgeist.

Whether you disagree on the exact numerical hierarchy of the current league, most would have an easy time swallowing the notion that the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder are the top four teams assuming universal health (that includes Durant, Ibaka, Love, and Kyrie miraculously returning to full health and pre-injury form). Why?

Because they're the early forerunners of this new trend, like an army obliterating its enemy with brand new tactics on the battlefield. But the NBA is a copycat league, and there are several teams looking to catch the trendsetters. The harbingers of new trends hardly ever turn into the zenith of said trend. New ideas and tactics are rarely consummated upon first try.

With this in mind, let's look at a few teams that could some day outclass today's Warriors in a movement the Warriors themselves helped popularize.

New Orleans Pelicans

Who are they?

Anthony Davis consumes infant stellar nebulae and burps supernovas. At age 22, this chimera of legs and arms and fury is the second best basketball player on the planet. At the end of last season, I would've said third. But given that three months have passed, and given Davis' exponential growth chart, I think it's a safe bet to say that he has surpassed Kevin Durant by now.

Do we even have to go over why the monsters under your bed get nightmares about Davis? I don't know his wingspan. Scientists are currently using the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the outer edge of his standing reach. In a league with ever-loosening definitions of positions, Davis is poised to become an unstoppable force of nature.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Davis 22 3.71 7'5.5 9'0

Outside of the World Ender, you'll find a fairly quotidian lineup of young and flawed players. The caustic Tyreke Evans continues to be paid by 29 other coaches to keep the ball out of Davis' hands on offense. At least he doesn't operate with the ball in his hands as much as in Sacramento.

...In any case, Coach Alvin Gentry (solitary tear rolls down cheek) should bring his trademark ball movement to the Big Easy, and with it a general mitigation of Evans' black hole tendencies. Hopefully. For Davis' sake.

Jrue Holiday continues to have merely mediocre efficiency and a bit of trouble staying on the court—even playing less games than Eric Gordon in the past two years. Despite all the negatives, RAPM still rates him favorably, and there are some redeeming qualities for Holiday as a playmaker and defender.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Holiday 25 3.52 6'7 8'4.5

Speaking of Gordon, he's a 26-year-old who has now failed to eclipse 64 games since his rookie season, and a ‘shooter' with a .544 TS%. Despite this, he continues to perform above replacement level (0.7 VORP last year).

Why are they rising up?

Tyreke's elite shooting. Having a generational talent helps. Having a generational talent that fits directly into the new wave of basketball on offense and defense help even more.

Besides Davis? Hello? Anyone? Bueller?

What could stop them?

Incompetency in the front office... though that fear is fading with recent positive moves. Re-signing Eric Gordon when it was publicly known he wanted to high-tail it out of Bourbon Street was a sign of a desperate franchise. Tom Benson's at the helm now, and things have stabilized.

Signing Tyreke Evans is really the only post-Davis move I can immediately disparage. Jrue for Nerlens Noel? While Noel is undoubtedly a good young player (defensively), it's hard to see why a franchise would be eager to vacate the premises of the 2013 Draft. Getting an NBA player from the 2013 Draft is like finding gold in the 2013 Draft. Or like finding that watch you lost a few years ago in the 2013 Draft. Or like finding that other sock you lost in the dryer in the 2013 Draft. The 2013 Draft wasn't good.

Picking Ryan Anderson off the scrap heap was perspicacious and timely. Omer Asik, as limited as he is, can still be used in such a way as to be useful to a contender. Getting Alvin Gentry that promotion he needed? Great move. The onus is on the front office to cycle through the roster they currently have and get more shooters. More Ryan Andersons. Less of drafting Austin Rivers in the top 10.

I guess in the end, the recent track record is muddled a little bit. The Pelicans on the court are a direct result of the front office's choices, as with every NBA team. Currently, the most likely long-term roadblock to success is the front office presenting demigod Davis with more Riverses and Evanses, and less Andersonses and Holidays.

This is a squad bereft of much talent outside of Davis currently, yet it still has one of the brightest futures in the league. The Pelicans will go as far as Davis can take them--which may be all the way to the top.

Utah Jazz

The salary dump that resulted in cap space to S&T for Andre Iguodala had to include a secret clause that said Bob Myers would gift wrap Salt Lake City the best young center in the draft. It had to.

Who are they?

This one hurts. I'm sure it hurts for the 26 teams that picked above Gobert, but considering all the dancing Myers did on draft night right around the position where Gobert was taken (first with Archie Goodwin, then down to Jumanji Nedovic), plus the overall (lack of) efficacy of the European Derrick Rose... I digress.

Rudy Gobert held opponents to 40.6% shooting at the rim. Nylon Calculus breaks down a bunch of different stats regarding rim protection, and Gobert pretty much sets the 2nd place rim protector on fire in all accounts. Take a look—just have your world's smallest violin and your 2015 Championship t-shirt ready to cry into.

Before you do, though, one stowaway negative on the Gobert Love Train: he doesn't block smart. A smart block is exactly what you'd expect: tipping a blocked shot inbounds to a teammate, thus negating the shot attempt and creating was is tantamount to a live-ball turnover.

When a defender spikes the ball out of bounds for the sake of emphasis and bravado, it looks cool but it also gives the opposition a second chance at a shot attempt on their offensive possession. 'Bad' blocks are ultimately no more useful than a beaten perimeter defending kicking the ball out of bounds, and Gobert happens to be guilty of being seduced by their facade of glory:

Per VantageSports:

If you look closely, you’ll notice a positive relationship between the two variables, though it is much weaker than we hypothesized. In fact, the correlation (R-squared) between the variables came out to .164 (the closer a correlation is to 1, the stronger the relationship between the two variables). Although we didn’t graph age, the correlation between Block-to-Possession Rate and Age was an even weaker .129.

So, what does this all mean? It means if you've always assumed blocking smart is a wily veteran move, you're only slightly correct. Generally speaking there's a correlation between the two, but it's much weaker than you'd expect. Is blocking smart something Gobert can be coached into? It's certainly possible--but the data only meekly supports this.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Gobert 23 -0.48 (2.34 DRAPM) 7'8.5 (record) 9'7 (record)

Elsewhere in the rotation, we've got promise—both basketball and comedy related. Yeah, remember when you thought Trey Burke was gonna be good? Me neither, and Utah is now profusely insisting he drafted Burke on a dare his buddy made him. He swears. You don't know his buddy. He goes to another school.

Derrick Favors has been in the league 10 years now, and is still 24-years-old. Okay, he's been in the league for ‘only' 6. His TS has buoyed at around .560 the past couple seasons despite his USG% gradually growing. His FG by distance percentage breakdown has craaaawled outwards in an Aldridgian curve, yet the bulk of his shot selection (.745 last season) still comes within 0-3 feet. He has the size to bang against the few dinosaur 5s on defense, while stretching those same 5s out uncomfortably far from the rim on offense.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Favors 24 0.04 7'4 9'2

Dante Exum, who suffered an unfortunate non-contact ACL tear over this summer, is part of the recent trend of tall, lanky 1s who can't shoot worth a damn. With a TS of .457 and a WS/48 of -0.003, the kindest thing I could say in a non-sarcastic tone would be that he's a raw prospect. He clocks in with a 1.47 RAPM which was bolstered chiefly by an unexpectedly great year on defense from the rookie guard.

Utah also suffered a net -5.4 points in DRtg when he sat last season, which isn't surprising since his top 4 lineups included Gobert, and 4 of Gobert's top 5 units by minutes included Exum. However, DRAPM, which takes into account such things, still clocked him in at 1.36. Scarily enough, the Jazz may well have a duo of under 23 defensive studs.

What does this all mean? Well, Exum was pretty bad at some things and a revelation at others. For a 19-year-old, you hope he shows you life on offense, and just take what you get on defense. With Exum, it's not too far off to call him the "shaky-legged doe" version of Shaun Livingston--a lanky wing defender, with previous documented experience of running a high-level (Australian national team for his age group) offense.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Exum 20 1.47 6'9.5 8'7

And then there's Gordon "Stop calling me Potter" Hayward. In all seriousness, Hayward is a very solid player—and in the age range where continued improvement moving forward would not be anomalous. At 25, he has a VORP of 3.6 and a very good efficiency/output ratio of .567 TS / 26.2 USG%. Operating as the fulcrum of the offense, his 21.7 AST% is only matched or exceeded by 4 players of his height or taller: LeBron, Blake Griffin, Joakim Noah, and Kevin Durant.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Yer A Wizard, Hayward 25 2.49 6'7.75 8'7

Why are they rising up?

Utah's core is good. It's pieces are defensively-oriented, which is a big plus. Gobert may be their most limited asset, but Bogut and the entire history of the modern NBA has proven that if you have to have a limited player, it's best to have that player be a center whose limitations exist on the scoring side of the ball.

Utah's front office has shown itself deft and mature, navigating Deron Williams and expiring frontcourt veterans as well as it could have given the dire situations. It knows when to cut its losses (e.g. Williams; Enes Kanter's off-again, off-again relationship with defense).

This is a team that will continue to get better--and given the sweetheart deals Hayward and Favors are already under, keeping their core of Hayward, Favors, Exum, and Gobert together should not be impossible.

This is a team that could be ready to overtake the Warriors by the time guys like Kevon Looney are ready to contribute in a big way.

What could stop them?

If player development halts. Hayward and Favors are known commodities, but Exum failing to progress on offense and regressing defensively and Gobert failing to show life on offense (-2.82 ORPM) could throw a wrench in Utah's upward crusade through the Western Conference.

Is it likely? Not as likely as one or both of their developing defensive stars from progressing on one or both ends of the floor. Utah's ascendency is not assured — nothing in basketball, or life, ever really is — but it is an increasingly safe bet.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Who are they?

Andrew Wiggins isn't a good basketball player. With a RAPM of -3.62, he was near the bottom of the league, in fact. It's time to start pumping the breaks on a lot of projections (if you haven't already been doing so since Kansas). His percentage assisted and percent of FGAs by distance point a lot more towards a Rudy Gay role than to LeBron James.

That said, he is 19. And, granted, LeBron himself started out with higher percent assisted and moved down as he took the reins of the offense. That's natural. Nevertheless don't see a solid fundamental basal playmaking instinct, and that hardly (if ever) is a learned ability. Don't get me wrong—he has a solid spin move and body control. A primary facilitator? No—and that's fine. He will need to eventually need to get better at something in order to become a productive NBA player, though.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Wiggins 20 -3.62 7'0 8'11

Karl-Anthony Towns. The John Calipari talent pipeline just keeps on pumping potential superstars out onto NBA courts. In 822 minutes in college he put up .627 TS / 24 USG% and a WS/40 of .311 and an 17.3 BPM. At the same school 3 years ago, Anthony Davis put up .654 TS / 19 USG% and a WS/40 of .314 and a 18.7 BPM. Davis was a little better on defense in terms of STL and BLK%, and Towns was better on the boards and at facilitating. Towns is also about 30 lbs heavier at this juncture than Davis was when he was 19—so he trades in some mobility for some ability to absorb heavier loads on the low post.

And, oh yeah, Towns has flashed 3-point range since his high school days.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Towns 19 --- 7'3.5 9'1 -- 9'5

The backcourt of the Wolves is more limited, by still quite promising in many facets. Ricky Rubio is exciting to watch for pure visceral enjoyment of spectacles; ultimately, though, it's a bit of the Rondo Effect without the arrogance and ego. By Rondo Effect, I mean a career .481 TS%. And by "a bit", I mean he still usually posts a solid ORAPM despite his inimical spacing. Rubio is and really, always has been, a great and sneaky defender. His DRAPM of 2.46 is better than other guards like Chris Paul by a large amount (SSS--less than 700 minutes last year. However, the year before that he posted a 1.57 DRPM).

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Rubio 24 4.24 6'9 (wow) ---

Speaking of visceral enjoyment, Zach LaVine is also on the Wolves. He's above replacement level, according to VORP (-1.2) which is a small victory for a 19 year old. Unfortunately, RAPM isn't as impressed. In fact, it called him the worst player of last year, with a dead-last -6.26. And he still has a TS% uncomfortably close to his TOV% relative to what main ball handlers should have (51.5 and 20.4, respectively), which is never a sterling accomplishment.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
LaVine 20 -6.26 (unstoppable, baby!) 6'8.25 8'4

Why are they rising up?

Defensive talent and offensive potential.

Overall, the backcourt doesn't match the frontcourt potential of these Timbercubs—but when quantifying potential it's more apt to use an odometer that only goes up, and doesn't dock teams for lack of potential. Rubio continues to post positive ORAPMs despite not even making 120 3-pointers in 4 seasons. That's less than 40 a year. That's less than 1 every other game.

LaVine was so bad by a lot of measures it's unclear if he'll ever contribute to a playoff team--but it's also clear he's a player that should still be in college, so if the Wolves use this opportunity to really groom a player to their liking, they may be able to salvage a player that can contribute to some end. Regardless, he may end up being superfluous in the long-term, anyway.

The frontcourt of Wiggins and Towns oozes potential. Wiggins was a terrible defender according to RAPM, as 19 year olds are wont to be--but the athleticism and timing instincts are there. Towns will soon be versatile on both ends at an NBA standard. Beware. The Timberwolves are coming.

What could stop them?

...Unless they aren't. What could stop them? Wiggins' development is pretty central to this equation, and is far from a given. I still am scratching my head wondering how NBA coaches haven't found a way to make Rubio basically moot on the offensive end--if the code is cracked on Rubio, that's a blow to the Timberwolves' long-term relationship with him.

If Wiggins doesn't make a major year 2 leap into "actual NBA player", the whole story on the Wolves changes.

Milwaukee Bucks

The nation may soon remember to fear the deer.

Who are they?

Giannis Antento-copy/paste is Dr. Frankenstein's fever dream of mixing Kevin Durant's length with Jack Skellington and one of those medieval torture devices that stretches people out. A phantasmagoria of all the prerequisites for the prototypical wing of the current NBA: length, mobility laterally and vertically, speed. More importantly, he's improving. By age 20, he's put up a VORP of 1.6 and an RAPM of 0.42. He jumped from .031 WS/48 to .117. He went from .518 TS / 15.0 USG% his age 19 season to a .552 / 19.6 split his second year. He cut down on his TOV% and increased his AST%.

That might not bowl you over like Durant's jump from year 1 to year 2, but then you consider the fact that this is all for the Bucks' second or third best young asset.

Nylon Calculus estimates Giannis played 81.3% and 17.2% of his minutes at the 3 and 4, respectively. If he fills out his lower body, his minutes at the 4 and 5 (where he played 0.5% of his minutes at last season) should increase.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Antetokounmpo 20 0.42 7'4 ---

Khris Middleton. The only thing I can say about him is that I don't think it's quite apparent yet if we'll be calling him the Draymond Green of the East, or Dray the Khris Middleton of the West. Moving on.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Middleton 24 3.17 6'10.74 8'7

Jabari Parker is an unproven commodity due to sample size alone. He has a nice frame, though, with a 7' wingspan. In college, he put up a fair efficiency despite Kobe-level usage (.558 / 32.7) which is a great sign for a team looking for a scoring punch. 36% from the college 3 suggests range, making the possibility for some stretchy 4 action and stretch 5 potential.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Parker 20 -1.88 (SSS) 6'11.5 8'11.5

Why are they rising?

In terms of top-3 potential the Bucks could be the best young team in the league. They're young and they're good. They're versatile and long, two of the most valuable adjectives in the league today.

What could stop them?

Officious front office.

I have a sinking suspicion this front office has accrued talent based more upon luck than skill. Trading away Brandon Knight isn't inherently a bad move—he's a replaceable asset. It depends on the context of the deal. Trading away anyone and receiving Michael Carter Williams in return is a bad move. It doesn't depend on the context of the deal. It's a bad move.

Then you consider the aberrant signing of Greg Monroe. Between Giannis and Middleton, the Bucks have serious potential to emulate the new trend of positionless defense. Then the front office drudged out and myopically bought one of the few dinosaurs left that defies this trend.

This is all evidence of the front office's lack of vision. Lack of vision can hamstring your entire operation. Ask Jed York. Ask George Lucas. The Bucks are on the precipice of unprecedented success with what they have — if the management doesn't manage to guide the team back into mediocrity.

Golden State Warriors

Is it cheating to assume the Warriors are top-down cerebral enough to continue tweaking nuances within their game to continue to adapt to new changes and opponents? No? Glad you agree, because I'm listing them among both the forerunners and the second generation, anyway. This is a team with the youth, culture, and prescience to catch the second generation wave of new-school basketball by constantly improving from within.

Who are they?

Stephen Curry, a 27-year-old Most Valuable Player. Last year his 6.94 RAPM was second in the league. His marks of .638 / 28.9 (TS / USG%) were accomplished 7 other times in the history of the league. A player whose game depends on skill rather than athleticism, so should see an extended prime much like Steve Nash.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
The Rainmaker 27 6.94 6'3.5 8'1

Draymond Green, a 25-year-old All-Defensive first-teamer with a WS/48 of .163 his age 24 season and a RAPM of 5.98, good for 4th best in the entire league. Feisty defensively, able to switch between the post and perimeter seamlessly. Half-yeoman, half-physical manifestation of the competitive spirit itself.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Treymond 25 5.98 7'1.25 8'9

Klay Thompson, a 25-year-old All-NBAer. Last year his 4.09 RAPM was 15th in the league. His marks of .591 / 27.6 (TS / USG%) at his torrid pace of 7.1 3PA/G has never been accomplished by someone other than Steph or him. Very solid, fundamentally sound on-ball defender.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Klaydough 25 4.09 6'9 8'7.5

Harrison Barnes, a 23-year-old with a .573 / 14.9 (TS / USG%) line. The quintessential 3-and-D player, who also happens to come equipped with the long, strong body to defend the post. Solid in every aspect you could want from a player that neither creates on offense nor defends the rim at a high level.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Bobbita Fanfiction 23 -0.78 6'11.25 8'5.5 (gator arms!)

Kevon Looney, a 19-year-old with a 7'4" wingspan and a 9'2" standing reach. Has the body size capable of low-post offense, and outstanding skills for a 6'9" forward of his age. Has the obvious length and promising ability to become another long, strong defender on the Warriors.

Player Age RAPM Wingspan Standing Reach
Looney 19 --- 7'4 9'2 (taller than Anthony Davis'!)

Why are they rising?

Their core is the age in which improvement is not unexpected. (Note--Kevon Looney is not part of the core, but qualifies as one of the young pieces who've flashed enough skill and obvious physical attributes that listing him felt appropriate).

What could stop them?

Parsimonious owner? Nope. Short-sighted manager? Nope. Bad eggs in the lockerroom? Nope. Unproven talent that is critical to the future success? Negatory.

Take it away, Marc: "Unstoppable, baby!"

All stats except for RAPM numbers came from basketball-reference.com unless noted. Player measurements courtesy of draftexpress.com.