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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

NBA owners wanted tampering crackdown, reportedly now concerned about privacy, effectiveness

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As we wrote when the details came out about owners pushing a crackdown on tampering around the NBA and increased fines, it’s one thing to talk tough and something else entirely to enforce those rules. The devil is always in the details.

This week NBA owners are descending upon New York for the annual preseason Board of Governors meetings, and they are wrestling with those devils, reports Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN. Specifically, should the league be able to monitor a team’s communications with other teams and agents?

In conversations with numerous league officials, team owners, general managers and agents, there’s some uncertainty about the means the NBA might use to investigate alleged rules violations. Atop those concerns for team officials are what league sources insist was Commissioner Adam Silver toughest decision in bringing new rules to a vote: An annual, random auditing of five teams’ communications with rival front offices and player agents…

Pre-June 30 discussions between teams and agents would migrate away from text messages and emails if the league gets the right to audit five teams per year at random. That one clause will likely engender a lot of discussion today and Friday, league sources say. Teams are curious: what would an audit entail? How much access would the league get to the cell phones of GMs and governors? What happens if they go looking for tampering and find other information of interest — intel on players and coaches, financial plans, one off-color joke?…

“I don’t think he should have any right to get into my phone,” one GM told ESPN. “I wish my owner would vote no, but I doubt he will. You’ll only make yourself a target for investigation if you do.”

What the proposed new rules do is increase fines and say Silver has the right to take away draft picks if a team is caught tampering (a power he already has, but one teams fear more than fines), and add the audits. Those audits mean teams would have to keep texts and emails with agents for at least a year. Silver also wants teams to do a little self-policing — of themselves, to act more like partners in one big business. The goal is to build an NBA culture without much tampering. Good luck with that.

Silver is too politically savvy to bring this proposal forward if he didn’t have the votes lined up, something Wojnarowski and Lowe note. It’s going to get approved, something primarily driven by small and medium market teams who see themselves as just trying to level the playing field. (Even though plenty of them tamper, too.)

However, just like now, only teams to slow on figuring out how to cover their tracks will get caught.

There are plenty of means of communication with an agent, for example, that are not texts/emails and can easily disappear from existence (WhatsApp, for example, but teams may not even use that). There also is always simply using a human intermediary to deliver a message or ask a question, something that could not easily be traced. It’s not that difficult to cover your tracks electronically, either.

The other question out there: What will be the unintended consequences of this move? Any major policy decision — in basketball, in politics, in life — has consequences nobody saw coming at the time, this move will too. And small market owners will likely complain about that, too.

Team USA keeps top spot in FIBA men’s world rankings, Spain No. 2

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USA Basketball has kept its No. 1 spot in the FIBA world men’s rankings, even after a disappointing seventh-place showing in the World Cup that ended earlier this week.

It’s now nine-years-and-counting in the top spot for the U.S., which has held the No. 1 ranking since winning the 2010 world championship. World Cup champion Spain stayed No. 2, Australia leaped eight spots to No. 3, World Cup finalist Argentina rose one spot to No. 4 and World Cup bronze-medalist France fell two slots to No. 5.

FIBA’s rankings take results from the most recent eight years into account – which means the U.S. is still reaping point benefits from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medals and the 2014 World Cup title.

“In this day and age, basketball in other countries is not a secret,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said after the Americans completed their run in the World Cup. “So it’s not like there’s an epiphany or a revelation to be made. There are wonderful teams and wonderful coaches all over the world. You go compete and the best teams win.”

It’s now expected that the U.S. will retain the No. 1 ranking going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Several top NBA players, including Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Damian Lillard have said in recent days that they intend to play for the U.S. in Tokyo, where the Americans will try to win a fourth consecutive gold medal.

Most top U.S. players declined to be part of the World Cup team.

“I’m expecting them to be so strong next year,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.

OLYMPIC UPDATE

The new rankings confirmed that European champion Slovenia, which didn’t earn a spot in the World Cup field after many of its top players couldn’t take part in qualifying since those games conflicted with the NBA and Euroleague schedules, will still have a chance to compete in the Olympics – as will seven other teams that found out they’re headed to playoffs next year.

Angola, Senegal, Mexico, Uruguay, China, Korea and Croatia also still have Olympic hopes. Those last eight playoff spots awarded Thursday went to the top two teams from Africa, Europe, Asia-Oceania and the Americas regions who hadn’t either already clinched Olympic berths or spots in the last-chance playoffs.

Japan is automatically qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament as the host country. The U.S., Argentina, Nigeria, Spain, France, Iran and Australia clinched Olympic spots at the World Cup by finishing as the best teams in their respective FIBA regions – the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

That leaves four unclaimed Olympic berths, and 24 teams to compete for them in playoffs next year. There will be four six-team tournaments held from June 23-28, 2020 – winner-take-all, all in this case meaning an Olympic berth. Bidding for sites is expected to begin shortly, FIBA said.

The other 16 playoff spots were awarded based on World Cup placing. They went to Serbia, Lithuania, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, New Zealand and Tunisia.

MOVING UP

Belize was the top mover in the new rankings, climbing 50 spots to No. 118. Kosovo rose 21 spots to No. 69, Togo went up 21 spots to No. 136, Tunisia climbed 18 spots to No. 33 and Ivory Coast went up 16 spots to No. 48.

STILL SWEEPING

FIBA has four sets of rankings – for men, women, boys and girls. The U.S. holds the No. 1 spot in all four of those rankings, though the race is tightest among the men.

The U.S. men hold a lead of 54.9 points over Spain in those rankings, while the rankings margins held by the U.S. women (310 points over No. 2 Spain), boys (291 points over No. 2 Canada) and girls (155 points over No. 2 Spain) are far more comfortable.

Report: NBA won’t allow Rockets to use Nene’s contract as $10M trade chip

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Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a huge blow to Houston. The Rockets are now stuck with an over-the-hill center they can’t trade for value and can’t play much without triggering bonuses that’ll make him way overpaid.

If they had known how this would turn out, they would’ve signed Nene to a one-year minimum contract at most. At least that’d be partially subsidized by the league. Because this is is a two-year deal, Houston is on the hook for the full base salary.

 

 

The Rockets got a valuable trade chip with Nene’s contract.

At least if the deal goes through.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

Although Nene signed with the Houston Rockets on Sept. 6, the NBA has yet to officially approve the deal. The 10-day delay is a result of the NBA discussing internally whether it should disapprove details in the contract, according to multiple sources.

Nene’s contract includes a low base salary with a massive amount of likely incentives. Houston could count Nene’s full $10 million salary (base plus likely incentives) in a trade. The acquiring team would then owe Nene his base salary plus only the bonuses he actually triggers.

It’s a workaround to the typical salary-matching rules.

The bonuses are tied to individual games played and team games won. Because Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets last season, the bonuses are qualified as likely. Last year’s performance is the default way to determine whether incentives are likely or unlikely.

You can read more about the contract’s structure here.

The NBA’s apprehension is interesting. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies a procedure for challenging incentive classification when the league or union believes the prior season is not a fair predictor. Essentially, that side makes a case to an arbiter that the default assumption is “very likely” to be wrong.

However, in a funny quirk here, that challenge system lays out only how the NBA can challenge to turn unlikely incentives into likely incentives and how the union can challenge to turn likely incentives into unlikely incentives. There’s nothing about the NBA turning likely incentives into unlikely incentives, which the league is apparently considering here (and would make Nene’s contract invalid, as there’s a limit on unlikely incentives).

The CBA also prohibits circumventing the spirit of the rules. The league could rule Houston did that here. However, that’s a tough case considering not only does Nene’s contract meet all stated technicalities, there’s a section specifically on challenging these types of details. It just doesn’t apply.

The Heat opened the door for likely/unlikely-incentive shenanigans a couple years ago. We didn’t hear then about the NBA challenging those contracts, and that’s where the official challenge system would’ve applied.

It seems unfair to punish the Rockets’ creativity now.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

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We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.