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NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Paul George, Kevin Durant, players 30-26

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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 is the link to players 50-4645-41, 40-36 and 35-31. These are players 30-26 on our list.

30. Paul George

The fact that we’re even talking about Paul George being on an NBA court — let alone a guy who finished third in the MVP voting last season — is a testament to modern medicine and his work ethic in rehab. His Team USA leg injury five years ago could have ended his career. Now that career has come back home to Southern California where he and Kawhi Leonard have completed the transformation of the once laughing stock Clippers into title contenders (and probably favorites heading into the next season).

George is a complete player on both ends in his prime now, but with a game that should age well so that he is still a significant contributor at age 34 in 2024. Last season he scored 28 points a game for the Thunder, shooting 38.6 percent from three, grabbing 8.2 rebounds a game, dishing out 4.1 assists per night, plus being one of the better and more physical wing defenders in the NBA. If those numbers slip some in the next half-decade, he’s still contributing a lot. It’s his play on that defensive end of the court that, while it likely will drop off some in five years, keeps him high on this list — George is going to be a guy a coach can throw at the other team’s best perimeter player in 2024 and still get results. That skill matters.

The biggest factor in the equation about how good George will be in 2024 is health — George had surgery on both shoulders this offseason, and he has certainly had injuries in his past. Fluky ones, but injuries nonetheless. How well will his body hold up and lets him play his old-school style game will determine his value.

But in five years, George is still going to be good. Maybe very good. And he’s going to help some franchise win a lot of games.
—Kurt Helin

29. Kevin Durant

At times in the last couple of years, Kevin Durant seemed bored. He was a great player who joined a great team and made it even more dominant. There was little perceived suspense in the championship chase. Many just ceded the title to the Warriors. So, Durant worked on expanding his individual game, tinkering with different skills.

That luxury is gone now.

Durant is on the wrong side of 30 and has a torn Achilles. He left Golden State and his multi-star supporting cast for the Nets. Neither individual nor team success will come so easily.

In the next five years, Durant has a chance to reshape his legacy. He’ll never completely shake taking the easier route to a title with the Warriors. But if he plays a leading role in a Brooklyn championship, even with Kyrie Irving also starring, that’d prove he can elevate a team to that level.

By 2024, he’ll almost certainly be well past his prime. If Durant’s history of injuries compound, he could be finished well before this. But even with the torn Achilles likely accelerating his downfall, he’s declining from an extremely high peak. His shooting, handles, size and fluidity give him a chance to age gracefully.
—Dan Feldman

28. D'Angelo Russell

One year ago, would D’Angelo Russell have made this list? Maybe, he would have been in consideration, but if he did, he certainly would not have been this high up on it.

That’s the kind of leap Russell’s game made last season, one large enough that the Golden State Warriors were comfortable offering him the four-year max this summer (the most they could do in the Kevin Durant sign-and-trade). Russell earned his max averaging 21.1 points and dishing out seven assists per game while shooting 36.9 from three last season in Brooklyn. Numbers that made him an All-Star. His game is all about hesitation, starts and stops that throw defenders off, combined with fantastic court vision that lets him find the open big man rolling to the rim or the open shooter in the corner. Last season his assist percentage went up and his turnover percentage dropped.

However, what really changed last season is Russell’s shots started to fall. In particular, he shot a lot better from floater range and from three — now he was a threat to score, not just pass, and it opened everything up.

Russell also matured as a person, setting the stage for him to be a leader in Brooklyn and the kind of player other teams want in their locker room. The Laker version of Russell was not that guy. He’s grown up, he and his game have matured, and Russell should take Kenny Atkinson to dinner because the professionalism and slow-and-steady growth Russell learned in Brooklyn got him that max contract.

Russell will be in his prime in 2024, at age 28, and those shooting and passing skills should be heightened. He could use to become a guy who is grittier on defense (he still gets hung up on picks) and more willing draw contact when he drives, but Russell is an All-Star point guard living up to the promise of being the No. 2 pick. In his prime, he’s going to win some team a lot of games in 2024.
—Kurt Helin

27. Jaylen Brown

What stood out watching Jaylen Brown when USA Basketball training camp came to Los Angles last week was that he was playing freely and aggressively. Like the Jaylen Brown of a couple of seasons ago, the one from the conference finals playoff run, not the cautious guy hesitating and looking to find his space at the start of last season.

Brown was among the numerous young players who struggled in Boston last season when Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returned and changed the dynamic. Rather than take the expected leap forward in his third season, Brown’s start slow — 40 percent shooting overall and 25 percent from three the first 20 games — eventually cost him his starting spot. Brown had to adapt to coming off the bench.

Brown adjusted to that role and by the end of the season and was one of Boston’s few bright spots — after the All-Star break he averaged 13.8 points per game with a 59 True Shooting Percentage.

Brown may have found his groove again, but this is still a team with Marcus Smart starting at the two and Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward on the wing, all ahead of Brown on the depth chart. Brown is going to have to earn his run on this roster.

Was the reason for Brown’s plateau last season the chemistry issues around Irving? If so, will the “put his arm around you and run with you” style of leadership Kemba Walker brings to Boston help Brown make the leap we expected a season ago? Or, were expectations of Brown as an All-Star player too high?

This coming season will start to give us our answer. However, watching him this summer, Brown looks like a guy ready to take that step up. The NBCSports prognosticators believe Brown is going to come close to reaching his ceiling now, not fading away, which is why he is this high on the list.
—Kurt Helin

26. Myles Turner

Myles Turner feels poised for a breakout season. At least in the eyes of fans. While he has gone underappreciated nationally the folks at USA Basketball saw what Turner had become and put him on Team USA this summer.

Here’s what I like best about Turner (and Pacers/USA fans should, too), when I asked him about his game in five years, personal goals and getting a brighter spotlight, he always tied that back to team success.

“With the whole world watching (the FIBA World Cup) it’s a chance for me to go out and show a little bit of what I can do, but it’s not about that,” Turner told NBCSports.com in Los Angeles, while USA Basketball trained there. “It’s about sacrifice at this point. We’re here, you’ve got to sacrifice. You’re not going to be able to play 30 minutes a game, shoot the ball 20 times a game, you have to come out here and play within a role.”

In his role with the Pacers Turner made a leap last season. He led the NBA in blocked shots at 2.7 per game and had more blocks (199) than the entire Cleveland Cavaliers team (195). Plus Turner shot 38.8 percent from three. He evolved into an All-Star level center and a guy who was fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting (that award voting always seems to be about a year behind what is happening on the court).

The Pacers’ big man is just 23 and in the past couple of seasons has found his rhythm in Indiana, in a rotation with Domantas Sabonis. Turner said he sets his goals one season at a time, but he’s set his sights high.

“Defensive Player of the Year is a big goal of mine, I want to obtain that by any means necessary,” Turner said. “All-Stars, obviously, that’s on everybody’s list of things to do. And just getting out of the first round of the playoffs, I’ve been in the league four years now and been to the first round every year.”

Turner’s defense is his calling card, but what gets him into the All-Star games and on All-NBA teams will be continued improvement in his offense — keep knocking down threes, take fewer long twos (although he hit a respectable 41.1 percent of them) and improve his passing to rack up assists as defenses start to adjust to him.

In five years, when Turner is at his peak at age 28 in 2024, he could be one of the top few centers in the NBA. An anchor of a very good team — one that makes deep playoff runs. Nothing needs to change, stay on the course he is on and the recognition — and wins — will come.
—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-