Apologies to the teams in basketball purgatory – looking at you, Detroit – but the NBA has been divided into two groups: The contenders and the young cores.
The Bulls, after 27- and 22-win seasons, obviously fall into the second category. They enter the 2019-20 season with seven former Lottery picks who are 26 years old or younger – and that doesn’t even include Chandler Hutchison and Daniel Gafford. They’ve got their young core, just three years after entering a rebuild by dealing Jimmy Butler on Draft Night 2017.
But where does their rebuild stack up against some of the others around the NBA? We’re glad you asked.
We’ve identified 10 different rebuilds around the NBA that have generated a young core of future stars. The Hawks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Knicks, Suns and Kings have all entered rebuilds at one point or another and have put together cores their front offices believe will eventually turn them into contenders.
For this specific piece, past playoff teams weren’t included. Teams like the Sixers, Clippers and Nuggets all have outstanding young cores, but they’ve already made that jump to playoff success, and all three will compete for a championship next May and June. We also didn't include the Heat, who have a few core pieces under 26 but not enough to really consider them a rebuild. They added Jimmy Butler. They're trying to contend now.
Also, we’re considering age – not experience – when determining what constitutes a “young core. For this piece, that age is 26 years old. Yes, that’s Otto Porter’s age and it is certainly the reason why the cutoff is what it is. Feel free to debate that - and much more - as you read. We also took the five best players from each rebuild. Some teams have six or seven core pieces, while others really have three or four that they consider their future. Each team below has five players, for better or worse.
The five criteria chosen will also be up for debate, but it’s what we’ve decided on:
Star power: Stars win in today’s NBA. And while stars can be acquired via free agency (Kevin Durant) or trade (Kawhi Leonard) once a young team is ready to compete, teams get bonus points for growing their own elite talent. That’s why teams get a 1.3x multiplier for this.
Potential: The 1.3x multiplier also comes into play when considering the potential of the five players. After all, that’s what rebuilds are about. It’s why Lotteries are littered with freshmen and sophomores, and why a 23-year-old like Brandon Clarke fell to 17th last month. We're looking for the teams with the highest ceilings here.
Production: Can they play? Potential is great, but it’s also hypothetical. We’re pretty sure Zion Williamson is going to be a superstar from Day 1, and Ja Morant looks like a future All-Star. But those guys haven’t done anything yet. Past production matters for young players who have already proven something. Because it isn’t the most important factor, there’s a 0.7x multiplier involved.
Team success: Tanking is all the rage these days, even with the new Lottery odds. But there’s something to be said for these young players producing wins for their teams. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton posted massive numbers last season, but the Suns won 19 games. Again, that will also get a 0.7x multiplier.
Depth: You increase your chances of hitting on a rebuild if you’ve got multiple options in your young core. The Timberwolves have an All-Star in Karl-Anthony Towns who is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Below him? It’s pretty bleak. The Kings, meanwhile, have gotten production across the board from their five guys, who all look like legitimate NBA talent.
So here we go. Here are the 10 best young cores in the NBA.
10. Cleveland Cavaliers: 5.0
Core: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr., Dylan Windler
Star power: 1
It’s bleak in Cleveland. The post-LeBron James era has not been kind to the Cavaliers, whose rebuild has included the 8th (Sexton) and 5th (Garland) picks. Sexton put together an outstanding post-All-Star break campaign, and his perimeter shooting was a pleasant surprise. Garland has potential but he’ll have missed almost an entire calendar year when he plays his first NBA game.
Osman and Nance both have significant playoff experience but were much better bench guys on a Finals team than they are core pieces of a rebuild. Windler was outstanding in Summer League and looks like a potential steal, while fellow rookie Kevin Porter Jr. could wind up being a wild card in all this. If he puts it together, he has All-Star potential.
There’s just nothing to get excited about here. Their outlook here might have looked different if a Kevin Love trade came to fruition in the offseason, bringing in a host of young talent and assets. For now? The Cavs are banking on their two-guard system of Sexton and Garland panning out. They’ll be playing for Lottery balls the next two or three seasons.
9. New York Knicks: 12.7
Core: R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle, Kevin Knox, Elfrid Payton
Star power: 2
Barrett was oft-criticized playing alongside Zion Williamson but still posted incredible numbers at Duke and was fairly impressive in the Summer League. Robinson has Rudy Gobert potential and looks like one of the biggest draft steals in recent memory (he went 35th overall, with the Bulls’ original 2018 second-round pick). Randle posts big numbers but has never had a real impact on the game, but there’s still untapped potential there.
Knox was woefully inefficient as a rookie but still a versatile 20-year-old who should get better. Payton was a free-agent acquisition this summer but after a solid campaign in New Orleans last year should be considered part of this core. Guys like Dennis Smith, Frank Ntilikina, Allonzo Trier and Ignas Brazdeikis all fall in the core category but have lower ceilings.
Barrett and Robinson could wind up being an excellent 1-2 punch. Both have All-Star potential, but after such a downer of an offseason in the Big Apple, it’s tough to put their total core higher.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves: 21.5
Core: Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie, Keita Bates-Diop
Star power: 4
There isn’t a more accomplished or talented player on this list than Towns. At just 23 years old, he’s a two-time All-Star with career averages of 22.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. The problem is there’s not much else going on in Minnesota. Wiggins hasn’t improved much during his five-year career and his points (19.4 for his career) haven’t made up for his ugly peripherals. It feels like this is who he is: an inefficient scorer without much play-making ability and average defense.
Culver felt like a steal at No. 6 – he was No. 3 on this author’s big board – and could give the Wolves a do-over of sorts on Wiggins. Okogie and Bates-Diop fill the switchable, versatile forward mold that should play well in today’s NBA, but neither have established themselves in their short careers thus far. It’s a big upcoming year for both players.
Towns is a core by himself. The Wolves reportedly were interested in signing D’Angelo Russell and should be players in free agency next summer. As it stands, it’s Towns and a bunch of question marks.
7. Memphis Grizzlies: 26.1
Core: Jaren Jackson, Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson, Tyus Jones
Star power: 5
The Grizzlies could wind up being much higher on this list a year from now. Jaren Jackson has the look of a future two-way All-Star. Injuries limited him as a rookie but he’s every bit as good as any big man drafted the last three years. Morant could lead the league in assists at some point in his career and his athleticism will make him a lethal transition scorer. He’s everything teams are looking for in a point guard of the future. All Clarke did in the Summer League earlier this month was win MVP and lead the Grizzlies to a championship.
Anderson was awful in his first year with the Grizzlies but is one of the more underrated young wings in basketball. He does everything well and should flourish if he stays healthy. Jones set an NBA record for assist-to-turnover ratio last season and still has potential. He was a solid under-the-radar signing for a rebuilding Memphis group.
Jackson and Morant are the keys here. They’re young, athletic and complement each other perfectly. It wouldn’t be surprising to see both turn in giant seasons for a Grizzlies team that will unleash both. Clarke is an X-factor in all this, but early returns are he’s going to fit in just fine. And maybe a change of scenery unlocks Josh Jackson’s potential, which would give Memphis six rock-solid young pieces.
6. Phoenix Suns: 26.7
Core: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre, Dario Saric, Mikal Bridges
Star power: 7
Let the Booker debate begin. There’s no question he’s a talented shooting guard who produces enormous counting stats. But it hasn’t translated into wins yet (not totally his fault) and he still needs to improve his efficiency. An actual point guard would do wonders for him, and maybe that happens this upcoming season with Ricky Rubio. Ayton put together an excellent rookie season that was somewhat overshadowed by Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Make no mistake. Ayton is the real deal.
Oubre could wind up being the x-factor in the Suns’ rebuild. He posted solid numbers in Phoenix after the trade from Washington and could make a real jump with a full season next to Booker and Ayton. Saric is an established player but his ceiling feels capped. Bridges looks like a potential All-Defensive Player, and he may not have to be more than a spot-up 3-point shooter to make his impact on the game felt.
Phoenix is another team that could be much higher on this list next season. Maybe Rubio was the missing piece to really make this young core mesh together. They’ve also got rookie Cameron Johnson (they could have had Jarrett Culver) and Dragan Bender as wild cards.
5. Chicago Bulls: 32.1
Core: Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter, Wendell Carter, Coby White
Star power: 6
The Bulls are slowly putting the pieces together. Markkanen has plenty of work to do, but a 7-footer with his outside shooting prowess, ball-handling skills and strength screams future All-Star. He’s the face of the franchise and, after an injury-riddled sophomore campaign, could really flourish in Year 3 (and, like all these guys, a full year under head coach Jim Boylen). LaVine has proven to be a three-level scorer and looked comfortable with the ball in his hands in pick-and-roll action. He’s got “leap” potential if his counting stats include more efficiency and, most importantly, lead to wins, while any defensive improvement would be a welcome sight.
Porter may not be part of the long-term future – his contract lines up with 2021 free agency – but he’s an established core player with 11,000 career minutes under his belt. He was stellar in 14 games for the Bulls and will provide critical spacing for an offense that desperately needs it. Carter is a plus defensively and looks comfortable around the rim, and he may not need to be much more than that with LaVine and Markkanen as lead scorers. Any additional range he provides would be a bonus. White is going to need plenty of time as a raw combo guard prospect trying to learn the point, but even if he develops into a quick-hitting, second-unit scorer the Bulls will be happy.
This is a big year for the Bulls. They've shown flashes (February 2019) but it's hard to evaluate because of all the injuries they've suffered. They have a host of other under-26 guys, including Kris Dunn, Chandler Hutchison, Shaq Harrison and Denzel Valentine. LaVine and Markkanen have All-Star potential in the East, and Carter could be the guy who turns around the league's worst defense, and White has the skill set of a lead guard in today's NBA. This group produced solid individual numbers last season. Now it's time to win games.
4. Sacramento Kings: 34.7
Core: De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Harry Giles
Star power: 3
They may not have that established, can't-miss prospect, but the Kings are rock-solid across the board. Fox turned a disastrous rookie campaign into one of the most impressive sophomore seasons, finishing second in the Most Improved Player voting. His teammate, Hield, wasn't far behind after he made the jump from spot-up shooter to three-level scorer, averaging 20.7 points in his third NBA season. Bagley's rookie season began quiet but he turned it around in a big way, averaging 18.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and .487/.390/.702 splits post-All-Star break. He's got work to do but certainly looks the part and won't turn 21 until late next season.
Bogdanovic isn't the most efficient player but he's still a solid second-unit scorer with playmaking ability. Giles is an x-factor. Injury concerns still linger, but the 21-year-old came on strong late in the season and could be headed for a bigger role after Willie Cauley-Stein departed in free agency. Top-to-bottom, there isn't a deeper group on this list. They're the only group here with no incoming rookies, and they were in the playoff race well into March. They get points for that. Whether one of Fox, Hield or Bagley can become a superstar will determine how far they go. But they're on the right track in the post-Boogie Cousins era.
3. Dallas Mavericks: 35.6
Core: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Jalen Brunson, Justin Jackson, Dorian Finney-Smith
Star power: 9
Luka Doncic's first season was nothing short of an all-time great rookie campaign. He became the fifth rookie to average 20-5-5, joining Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Tyreke Evans. That's a good list to be on. He won't turn 21 until the 2020 All-Star break, where he very well could be enjoying his first All-Star Game appearance. He's got next when it comes to future superstars. The Mavericks obviously sensed that and got aggressive in dealing for Kristaps Porzingis. He hasn't played since February 2018, but let's not forget about who he was before his ACL tear: 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.9 3-pointers per game at 22 years old. If he returns to that form, Doncic and Porzingis will be the best 1-2 combination on this list.
It's not all that pretty after those two, but there's a caveat: Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Delon Wright are all 27 years old. So while they just missed the cut as far as this list is concerned, the Mavs' young core still includes those guys. Brunson looks like a second-round steal, while Jackson shot a respectable 37% from deep after coming over from Sacramento in the Harrison Barnes trade. Finney-Smith is a jack-of-all-trades who plays hard on both ends.
Dallas' young core is top-heavy, but it's pretty hefty with Doncic and Porzingis. Stars win championships, and the Mavericks have two of them. Perhaps even more important than that, having both locked up for the foreseeable future should attract top free agents in the coming years.
2. Atlanta Hawks: 38.3
Core: Trae Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter
Star power: 8
Maybe they won't reach KD-Russ levels of success, but the Young-Collins pairing sure feels like one that's going to win a lot of games over the next seven seasons. Young's second half of the season was as good as any point guard's in the league - not just rookies. He averaged 23.6 points, 9.1 assists and 2.5 3-pointers in 32.4 minutes. There were concerns about how his body would hold up at the NBA level, but he played 81 games and only got better as the season went along. The crazy part is he might not have been the best player on his team in that span. Collins was a 20-10 guy on 53% shooting in 19 games after the All-Star break.
Hunter, Reddish and Heurter are all wild cards. The Hawks liked Hunter enough to move up to No. 4 and grab him, and we shouldn't doubt GM Travis Schlenk after he drafted Collins and Young. Reddish is a boom-or-bust prospect but if he pans out the Hawks could have four legitimate All-Star-caliber players. Huerter is a nice rotation piece with outstanding 3-point range. His ceiling seems capped, but he'll be a floor spacer with length, at worst.
Young and Collins were monsters last season. It's why they were so high on our "production" rankings. Both ended the season playing their best basketball, and it should give them plenty of momentum heading into Year 3 of their rebuild. Add in a pair of top-10 picks in Hunter (4th) and Reddish (10th) and you've got one heckuva rebuild. They're going places behind their 1-2 punch.
1. New Orleans Pelicans: 42.3
Core: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Walker-Alexander
Star power: 10
In just about 3 months, newly minted general manager David Griffin turned Anthony Davis into the best young core in basketball. It involved a bit of Lottery luck but there's no question as to who sits atop this list.
Williamson is a future superstar - if he isn't one already. He's everything a face of a franchise is supposed to be, and he's the best on-court prospect since LeBron James in 2003. Summer League was an admittedly small sample size, but Hayes (16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.2 blocks) and Alexander-Walker (24.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists) both turned heads. This could become an all-time great draft class for the Pelicans.
And let's not forget the return from the Lakers. All Ingram did after Christmas last season was average 20.5 points on 51% shooting, 6.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists. He'll be just 22 years old when the season begins. Ball has his flaws, but he's also one of the league's best passers and perimeter defenders. He'll also turn 22 at the start of the season. We'll also tack on 24-year-old Josh Hart and 23-year-old Jahlil Okafor to this list of talented young players.
Any way you slice it, the Pelicans lead the way. Williamson is a can't-miss star, Ingram and Ball are established in the league, and the "other" two rookies both look like keepers. The post-AD era is off to a tremendous start.
Here's the rankings in chart form, before taking multipliers into account.