In a recently released article by ESPN Insider Amen Elhassen, ranking the NBA’s best under-25 teams, the Thunder expectedly came in at the top spot.
That’s not shocking. OKC has two of the top 10 players in the league, regardless of age, and when you lower the requirements to those who can’t rent a car without hefty insurance bumps, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could make a strong case for being the two best.
Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and James Harden have an argument, but none of the three play together. That’s what ascends OKC right toward the top of Elhassen’s list.
But with two other established youngsters (Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson), plus some promising developmental pieces (Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson), the Thunder easily flies above the rest (although the comment on Perry Jones III potentially being ‘Durant-lite’ seems a bit unrealistic).
Here’s part of Elhassan’s reasoning…
“…what makes the Thunder No. 1 on my ranking is their stable of young prospects and track record for developing talent. Jackson is a shining example of this, going from hardly playing in his rookie season to being a major contributor (and a starter in the playoffs once Westbrook went down). Elsewhere, Lamb is a silky-smooth shooting guard with excellent length and athleticism, Jones III has the chance to be a “Durant-lite” with his size and skill set, and rookies Adams and Roberson bring a different dynamic to the front line. Oklahoma City is the rare team that is legitimately contending for a championship while simultaneously stockpiling real talent in its youth pipeline.”
That last point by Elhassan is an important one. Take a closer look at his rankings, particularly the top 10/bottom 10, and you’ll notice a trend:
1. OKC Thunder
2. New Orleans Pelicans
3. Utah Jazz
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
5. Chicago Bulls
6. Houston Rockets
7. Golden State Warriors
8. Detroit Pistons
9. Portland Trail Blazers
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
Of those 10, only four were playoff teams last season — the Thunder, Rockets, Warriors and Bulls — all of which are widely regarded as having some of the most appealing rosters, a select group who have firm foundations for the present and future. The rest are rebuilding clubs, who have been slowly stockpiling young talent but still lack playoff experience and veteran talent.
Meanwhile, take a look at the lower part of the rankings:
21. Boston Celtics
22. Denver Nuggets
23. Milwaukee Bucks
24. Memphis Grizzlies
25. San Antonio Spurs
26. New York Knicks
27. Brooklyn Nets
28. Miami Heat
29. Dallas Mavericks
30. Los Angeles Lakers
That’s nine playoff teams from last season, including a four-team group (Heat, Mavs, Lakers, Spurs) that holds claim to the last nine NBA titles. A group of veteran teams with closing windows, some of which have already been shut (Celtics, Mavs, Nuggets).
Free agency clearly alters the future outlook. And big market teams have the upper-hand there. But with the information we currently have, OKC looks to be at the top of a select list of teams who are set to compete now and in the future.
Of course, Thunder fans are probably a bit tired of being labeled the best ‘young’ team in the league. They’re only concerned about making the next step and, you know, becoming the best team in the league, regardless of age, salary cap or whatever else.
But moving forward, the first category has a long-term correlation with the second, as Elhassan puts it:
“While an inventory of talent under the age of 25 on a roster is not predictive of a franchise’s future success (the quality of management decision-making, financial resources, team chemistry, coaching and, of course, luck all play major roles),” Elhassan writes, “you’d rather your team have the assets in hand than not have them, all else being equal.”