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NBCsports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Players 40-36

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

Here are the links to players 50-46 and 45-41. These are players 40-36 on our list.

40. LeBron James

LeBron James wants to play in the NBA with his son, who’s set to graduate high school in 2023.

They have a chance to make that happen.

It starts with LeBron already remaining elite into his mid-30s. That gives him a lot of runway to decline and remain a viable NBA player.

Before LeBron this year, 16 players made an All-NBA team in their age-34 season. A whopping eight of them still played in the league five years later. That’s a huge number for that age demographic.

But we’re projecting LeBron to do more than just stick in the league for a couple of seasons with his son. We’re expecting him to remain quite good.

Picking a 39-year-old for a list like this is always dangerous. Injuries become more likely. Declines can be sharp. There’s a decent chance LeBron is completely finished well before 2024.

Only Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dirk Nowitzki (appointed by the commissioner this year) were All-Stars in their age-39 seasons or later. Karl Malone and John Stockton are the only other players to even near that level while so old.

LeBron might be the special player to join that group.

He’s an unprecedented athlete with his combination of size, strength, speed and coordination. There’s so much room for his athleticism to slip and remain good enough. Not that LeBron is idly letting himself deteriorate. He invests heavily in taking care of his body. Perhaps most importantly, in recent years, LeBron has carefully selected when to exert full effort.

LeBron also has the most basketball intelligence in the league. Even as his physical tools erode, here’s betting he finds ways to thrive.
—Dan Feldman

39. Marvin Bagley III

The biggest knock on Marvin Bagley III: He’s not Luka Doncic.

Bagley will likely never live down the Kings drafting him No. 2 last year ahead of Doncic, who ranks way higher on this list. But Bagley is the on track to make his own name in the NBA.

With quick hops and amazing elevation, Bagley finishes above the rim so effortlessly. It’s easy to see that translating to other areas of his game – primarily defense.

Bagley isn’t as overwhelmed defensively as it seemed he’d be entering the league. He has shown nice timing for blocking shots. Sure, he must improve his awareness and get stronger. But that’s true of nearly every young big.

Offensively, Bagley has also shown more skill than expected. His shooting range and ball-handling are trending in the right direction.

Bagley will probably never catch Doncic. Bagley might not surpass No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. or No. 5 pick Trae Young, either.

But Bagley is a highly intriguing young player. That ought to be appreciated.
—Dan Feldman

38. Gary Harris

In 2017-18, Gary Harris posted 5.5 win shares. Here’s a complete list of other shooting guards who are younger than 25 and have had such a productive season:

At 24, Harris is a rare combination of young and established at the NBA’s most talent-scarce position.

The base of his game is 3-point shooting and defense – the highly coveted skills that allow him to fit into any situation. But he also has enough all-around ability that a 3-and-D label sells him short.

After continuously rising his first four years in the NBA, Harris backslid while playing through injury last season. He just wasn’t nearly as sharp on either end of the floor. That got largely overlooked because the Nuggets had their best season in several years. Harris provided enough.

He should be healthier and better going forward. If he picks up where he left off a year ago – not guaranteed, but definitely possible – he could even develop into an All-Star.
—Dan Feldman

37. James Wiseman

Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens.

The biggest question with Wiseman is what he expects out of himself. In the words of one NBA draftnik, “he thinks he’s Giannis when in reality he’s a lot closer to Myles Turner.” There is nothing wrong with being Myles Turner. Turner just turned 23 years old and he is coming off of a season where he averaged 13.3 points, 7.2 boards and an NBA-best 2.7 blocks while shooting 38.8 percent from three. He’s really good. You are going to see him in this top 50.

But Turner knows what he is and what he isn’t, and he isn’t Giannis. If Wiseman embraces the fact that he can be a top five center in the NBA doing the four things I listed above at an elite level, then he’ll make himself a lot of money while making some NBA GM very, very happy.
—Rob Dauster

36. Aaron Gordon

Because he plays in Orlando with a franchise that seems to be in a constant state of rebuilding, because his game improves incrementally every year rather than by the massive leaps we see from him on the court, fans tend to overlook Aaron Gordon. He’s just the Dunk Contest guy to many.

We shouldn’t — Gordon is a damn good player. Not just a phenomenal athlete, although he is that, too, but Gordon is a player. He averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds a game last season, shot a career-best 34.9 percent from three, saw his assist numbers improve again (16.6% assist percentage), has the handles to create his own shot, has the versatility to play the three or the four, and he’s a quality defender on the perimeter or in the post. All that and he will turn just 24 right before training camp opens, he will be in his prime at age 28 in 2024. He’s a guy who fits the direction the NBA is headed: A versatile 6’9” player who is skilled and can help a team a lot of ways.

The question remains: Can Gordon take the next step and be a trusted go-to scorer in the crunch time of games? Can he get there with his incremental improvement, or will it take a big leap?

Gordon puts in the work. We’ll see if he can reach that level, and we’ll see if Orlando management can put a team around him that would better complement and showcase what Gordon can do. If that comes together, we should have an All-Star level player in Gordon in 2024. A guy who is a top two (or maybe three, depending on the roster) player on a very good team. We’ll just have to see if he (and the Magic, or eventually another team) can get there.
—Kurt Helin

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-