For the teams stuck in futility, rebuilds or perpetual disappointment, one concept binds them together: building for the future. The NBA often puts an emphasis on the long haul, especially with so many draft prospects entering the league before they can even legally enjoy a beer. For this exercise, I’m considering Western Conference teams’ current situations. What young players, draft assets or bona fide superstars does each franchise have? Is a franchise so stable organizationally that it can contend with any competent roster? After careful consideration, I give you my Western Conference playoff picture in five years.
I love how this roster is constructed. First there’s the obvious in Ja Morant, who will be knee-deep in his prime in five years with the upside to crack the top-10 players in the league. He’s a dazzling playmaker who makes his supporting cast a lot better. And that cast is no pushover either. Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke and others have been brought together to play beautiful, harmonious basketball. It’s a roster effectively matching enticing upside with rock-solid role players. In a few years, this could be one of the strongest teams in the Western Conference from top to bottom, especially if the Grizzlies time the addition of another star with Morant’s peak years.
Denver is just getting started. I love the trio of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. These guys are all relatively young and will continue to grow and thrive together. The Nuggets already have quite a bit of nail-biting playoff experience, and I expect this team to just get better with every subsequent run. I also expect Jokic to score himself an MVP one of these years, especially since he’s only 25 and scarily capable of getting even better.
Oklahoma City Thunder
What the heck will the Thunder’s roster be in five years? No one really knows, but I’d argue that no one should really care. This team has the most stacked haul of draft assets in recent memory, and a savvy general manager in Sam Presti to piece it all together. The first-rounders in his war chest could become a top-end young prospect or trade ammunition for a star on the block, several times over. The only limit to this team at this point is Presti’s imagination.
Two words: Luka Doncic. I don’t care that this season has seen Kristaps Porzingis take a colossal step back and the supporting cast regress mightily. If the Mavericks can keep Doncic, it won’t matter. They have the cap space and assets to land Doncic another co-star, and Doncic himself is a LeBron-caliber player who can absolutely grow to carry this team through the playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson is already one of the league’s most dominant offensive forces at age 20. Throw in Brandon Ingram, a load of draft assets and young players, and you’ve got yourself a great team two or three years down the line. While this squad may be a bit disappointing right now, one needs to consider the raw nature of Williamson’s development, especially on the defensive end. He can get a whole lot better. This team’s arrow is still firmly pointed up.
The Suns have finally built themselves a playoff-caliber roster in 2021, but a lot of that is predicated on the success of their offseason acquisition of Chris Paul. However, supporting Paul is a pair of young stars on the upswing in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, who will prop this team up for years provided the Suns keep Booker happy and Ayton continues to develop effectively.
Los Angeles Lakers
This will eventually be Anthony Davis’ team. He’s learning under the mentorship of LeBron James to be “the guy,” and barring injury, I expect him to fill that role admirably. The Lakers have built a deep, intriguing roster in 2021 with some young pieces that could stick around for years to come. I also love what Dennis Schröder and Talen Horton-Tucker have cooking.
My final pick comes primarily at the hands of Donavan Mitchell’s presence as a superstar in the making. I don’t really care about the rest of this roster five years down the line, in all honesty. Mitchell will still be at near-prime level at age 29, and he can still get much, much better, a scary sentence for me to write.