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NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Kristaps Porzingis, James Harden, players 20-16

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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 here are the links to players 50-4645-41, 40-36, 35-31, 30-26, and 25-21. These are players 20-16 on our list.

20. Pascal Siakam

Last season the switch flipped for Pascal Siakam.

He went from promising young player to critical contributor on both ends for a championship team. He became a guy who could average 21.3 points per game for a month (February). What fueled the change was his jump shot started falling — the season before he shot 22 percent from three, but last season that jumped to 36.9 percent, and with that came more attempts. Coach Nick Nurse believed in Siakam, gave him some freedom and touches, and Siakam responded with a Most Improved Player season.

Siakam will be in his prime the next five years, and the question now becomes just where is his ceiling? He’s a 6’9” elite athlete who is a strong perimeter defender on one end and can create his own shot on the other. There are not a lot of those around. Nurse said that Siakam now has “gotta be the man” for the Raptors, can he be that No. 1 option (Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol will start this season in Toronto but likely are not there a year from now). Siakam got a lot of wide-open looks at threes last season, with defenses often focused on Kawhi Leonard, but how will he adapt when he is the guy at the top of the opponent’s scouting report? (To be fair, defenses focused on him more and more last season with Leonard sitting out games, but this is a new level.)

The next step for Siakam All-Star and maybe All-NBA level seasons. He’s got that in him, both in terms of raw talent and in terms of the work ethic to reach those goals. In five years, he’s going to be one of the game’s elite wings.
—Kurt Helin

19. Kristaps Porzingis

One of the ways we looked at how to evaluate players for this project, projecting out five years ahead, was to ask this question: If you were a GM who could give a player a five-year max contract right now, would you with this guy? And how comfortable would you be with that fifth year?

The Dallas Mavericks answered that question on Kristaps Porzingis with a resounding “we believe” this summer, inking the big man to a five-year, $158 million max extension. They want to pair him and Luka Doncic as the cornerstone of a contending team for years to come (their new Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki).

That’s a big bet on Porzingis as he returns from missing an entire season with a torn ACL — there is not a lot of precedent for mobile guys this size coming back from this injury. When healthy Porzingis is a 7’3″ unicorn of a big man who can defend inside, run the floor, and knockdown threes. He averaged 17.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a game over his career with the Knicks, all while shooting 36.1 percent from three. There are no other big men who bring his skill set to the game.

But will we get the same Porzingis going forward? How well will he move coming back from that ACL, and can he stay healthy? Our evaluators think he can get back to form, or close to it at least, and that why he is on the teens in this list. But if he can get all the way back and stay healthy — two big “ifs” — this ranking will be too low.
—Kurt Helin

18. James Harden

James Harden is the greatest offensive force in the NBA right now. One of the — or, if you ask GM Daryl Morey, THE — most unstoppable offensive force the game has ever seen.

Morey could be right. Harden averaged 36.1 points per game last season, shot 36.8 percent from three, plus dished out 7.5 assists and pulled down 6.6 rebounds a night. His step-back three is the most unguardable shot in the game today. The beard is an unstoppable force right now (unless you take the ball out of his hands to make sure Russell Westbrook is happy, but that’s also a discussion for another day).

The questions for evaluators in this series were, “How good will Harden be at age 34 heading into his age 35 season? How will his game age?”

Probably pretty well, which is why he is still so high on this list (while some of his current elite contemporaries were down farther around 30 on our list). Harden’s game is all about craft, it’s not built on his explosive athleticism or his freakish skills for someone so tall. Harden’s unconventional, hesitation-filled game is more about throwing his defenders off-balance — he has a lot of old-man-at-the-Y in his game. That will still work well as he ages. Harden has logged a lot of miles on his body, and while he’s stayed healthy so far that will be harder and harder to do. Still, there’s no reason to think the perpetual MVP candidate will not still be able to go out in five years, isolate on a defender, and just get a bucket. He’s going to be able to create space and get off his shot. Which is why in five years he’s still going to have a lot of value.
—Kurt Helin

17. Bradley Beal

Right now Bradley Beal is standing at one of the crossroads in his career. The two-time All-Star — who averaged 25.6 points, 5 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game last season — has heard his name come up in trade rumors, but on the other hand the Wizards have put a three-year, $111 million max contract extension on the table in front of him, trying to lock him up.

What does Beal want to do? He has yet to take the safe route and sign the extension, but it sits there on the table if he wants it. He could say he’s not signing any extension with the franchise, essentially forcing a trade. Or — and this may be the most logical option — he can just wait, sign a four-year, $154 million extension next summer, and if he makes the All-NBA team (he was seventh in guard voting last season but there are only six All-NBA guard spots), Beal can get a $250+ million max extension from the Wizards.

Whatever he chooses, wherever he is playing, Beal is going to be one of the top shooting guards in the game the next five years as he is just entering his prime (he will be 31 in 2024). Beal has made more threes in his career than any other player through their age 25 season (Beal has 1,071, Klay Thompson is second at 1,060, then Stephen Curry is third with 905). Beal can shoot the three (35.1 percent last season), put the ball on the floor and drive, moves well off the ball (he ran more total miles last season during games — 222.7 total, or 2.75 per game — than any player in the league), and is an active and willing defender.

With John Wall out likely for the entire coming season in Washington, the Wizards become Beal’s team. He is option No. 1 on offense, the guy who gets to have the ball in his hands when he wants it. Beal is going to get to eat all he wants on offense next season for the Wizards. Providing he still wants to be in Washington.
—Kurt Helin

16. Jaren Jackson Jr.

This kid has Chris Bosh written all over him — and he can be even better. It feels odd to call him “kid” when his game screams wily veteran. Jackson Jr., is still just 19 years old, but he already can stretch the floor and block shots like a seasoned big.

There’s a reason why Kevin Garnett is one of his top statistical comps, but I like the Bosh parallel because of how he came into the league in a similar vein. Drafted No. 4 overall in a stacked draft with Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley, it’s easy to overlook Jackson Jr.’s production, especially playing in a small market like Memphis.

But Jackson’s game is tailor made for the pace-and-space era. He made 51 triples last season and converted 35.9 percent of his tries beyond the arc, making him one of the sweetest shooting bigs in the league already. He has a guard-like handle and moves fluidly on the block. On the other end, he has a great nose for creating turnovers, but there’s plenty of room to grow as a rim protector. If he can iron out his focus and court awareness on the defensive side, he can be a perennial All-Star like Bosh.

With Ja Morant in town, this could be the most promising tandem in the NBA. Jackson Jr., is so young that he still wouldn’t be in his 30s if we looked 10 years down the line instead of five. Get on board now.
—Tom Haberstroh

LeBron James on 2011 NBA Finals: ‘I lost my love for the game’

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LeBron James became a villain by leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat on The Decision in 2010. He arrived in Miami promising “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships.

By the end of his first season with the Heat, he was beaten down. The Mavericks topped Miami in the NBA Finals, winning the last three games of the series. While Miami blew its 2-1 lead, LeBron averaged 15.3 points and 4.7 turnovers per game. He shot 2-for-12 on 3-pointers and 4-for-10 on free throws.

After Game 6, he callously mocked his critics:

“All the people that were rooting for me to fail… at the end of the day, tomorrow they have to wake up and have the same life that (they had) before they woke up today,” James said. “They got the same personal problems they had today. And I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do.”

ESPN:

LeBron emerged from his funk and led the Heat to consecutive titles. He returned to Cleveland and won another title there. He’s now with the Lakers leading another championship pursuit.

He plays well. He plays smartly. He plays with joy. He often rises to the biggest occasions.

LeBron probably had to go through a setback like the 2011 Finals to sharpen his mental edge. But it’s incredible how far he has come from the defeated player who left that series against Dallas.

Tristan Thompson on Cavaliers anonymously griping about John Beilein: ‘Y’all better find them names ‘cause I’ll pull up on ‘em right now’

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The Athletic – quoting at least three unnamed players – reported the Cavaliers are rebelling against John Beilein’s collegiate coaching style.

Cleveland big Tristan Thompson, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“Y’all better find them names ‘cause I’ll pull up on ‘em right now,” Thompson said. “You can’t do that s—.

“At the end of the day if you’re going to build a culture and a family, you can’t have that Chatty Patty s— going on. That s— is whack to me. Everyone’s got to look in the mirror, there’s only so much coach can do and there’s only so much we can do. Do we have the best roster in the NBA? No. But we’re going to go out there and compete every night. Guys got to look in the mirror. So I hope whoever reported that was just bulls——g and blamed it on a player.”

That’s quite the rhetoric from Thompson. I wonder whether he has the same energy in the locker room.

Thompson confronting his teammates would certainly raise the stakes. And make no mistake: His teammates are among the unnamed sources. The report not only specifically cited players, it said “Veterans and younger players, from all corners of the roster” are having issues with Beilein.

Even if he supports his coach, that’s a lot for Thompson to take on.

But if he’s looking for a place to start, I have a guess.

Report: Raptors president Masai Ujiri would be intrigued by Knicks

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The Knicks are reportedly “obsessed” with Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

Would he actually leave Toronto?

Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

Sources also say Ujiri would be intrigued by the challenge of fixing the Knicks, the chance to build something from scratch and, not insignificantly, by the opportunity to elevate his Giants of Africa philanthropy by working in the New York market.

Influential voices in the NBA have strongly advised Ujiri not to take the job, if it’s ever offered, sources say. But those same sources say Ujiri might do it anyway, if the money is right, if he’s granted the necessary autonomy and if Dolan funds Giants of Africa as generously as the Raptors ownership group has.

Ujiri’s contract is believed to run through 2021 but with an out clause under certain circumstances. He turned down a lucrative extension last summer, sources said, leaving the impression that he wants to keep his options open.

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

contrary to a report that Ujiri turned down an extension – there has never been one been offered, according to sources

There’s no good reason to believe one reporter’s unnamed sources over another reporter’s unnamed sources in this case. Maybe the Raptors offered an extension. Maybe they didn’t.

Without knowing the terms, it doesn’t matter much for predicting Ujiri’s future, anyway. If it were truly a “lucrative” offer, that’d indicate Ujiri values flexibility more than staying in Toronto. But if it were a lower offer considering how much time is left on his current deal, that could mean Ujiri is just trying to negotiate more from the Raptors.

Still, even Grange wrote extensively on way Ujiri might go to New York. There’s smoke here.

The upside of running the Knicks is higher than the upside of running the Raptors. That’s just the reality of market, ownership spending and team prestige.

The Knicks also have owner James Dolan and all the complications he brings. He will be New York’s biggest obstacle in any attempt to lure Ujiri. Past dismissive comments can easily get written off to Ujiri having a competitive streak. Dolan – particularly his temperament and insistence on keeping unproductive employees around – is the real challenge.

Ujiri has a good thing going in Toronto. I doubt he’s rushing to leave. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if he’s at least willing to hear out the Knicks.

It’s not Showtime 2, but Lakers fast break surprising, running past teams

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LOS ANGELES — Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers ran past the Timberwolves.

Literally.

The Lakers got their first bucket when Anthony Davis got a rebound, pushed the ball up the court himself, and went coast-to-coast for an and-1 lay-up. Soon after LeBron James was throwing look-aheads to a sprinting Davis.

Los Angeles had 17 fast-break points in the first quarter, on their way to 32 for the game. The Lakers kept getting easy buckets in transition, which kept a feisty Timberwolves team in the rear-view mirror.

That happens a lot. Talk to opposing the coaches about the Lakers and you hear about their length defensively, the activity of their big men, and how the LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll leaves defenders with impossible choices.

The fast break points sneak up on teams. These Lakers are not the second coming of Showtime, but the break has become a vital weapon for them.

“The transition game over the past couple of weeks has really picked up,” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said.

Los Angeles averages 18.4 fast break points per game, third most in the NBA, but that number doesn’t tell the entire story. The Lakers add as many points per game on transition plays as any team in the league, looking at the advanced stats at Cleaning the Glass (which filters out garbage time in its numbers). The Lakers start 16 percent of possessions in transition, eight highest percentage in the league, and they have a ridiculous 130.8 offensive rating when they do get out and run, third best in the NBA.

Maybe more importantly, the players love it. They want to run. Vogel praised Davis’ “old school, smash mouth” 50 points against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves, but he did that in part by rim-running hard in transition and getting some easy dunks early.

“For me, I like to get out and run, get some easy buckets first, especially on the break get a lob or a lay-up, see the ball go through the basket and go from there,” Davis said of those early transition buckets Sunday.

Transition points have to start with a stop and a rebound, which has been the focal point of Vogel and the coaching staff. Once the break starts it’s much more straightforward —get LeBron the rock and just run.

“Prior to the Denver game (Dec. 3), we had not been rebounding the basketball very well,” Vogel said. “With a strong message delivered that we’re not going to reach our potential if we continue to be poor on the glass and rely on our athleticism to rebound rather than really committing to hitting people — and if we secure the rebound and hold people to one shot — then we’re dealing with live rebounds and we’re able to run.

“We always encourage our guys to run their patterns. LeBron James, he’s just unbelievable with his throw aheads. He’s putting the ball on target in narrow spaces and getting guys easy lay-ups.

“So I think it starts on the defensive end with the defensive glass and then LeBron running the action.”

Those easy transition buckets make it much harder to beat the Lakers and are a key reason they are a West-leading 21-3. Los Angeles is difficult to score against with all its length, and it has the sixth best defense in the NBA. Against teams like that, giving up easy transition buckets almost guarantees a loss. Teams can’t make up the ground.

Which sounds a lot like the Showtime Lakers.

This year’s Lakers’ edition may not be Magic to Worthy for the tomahawk dunk, but it’s closer to it than the Lakers have been in a long time. Even if it’s not what people notice first.

Keep the pace up and these Lakers may be able to run their way to some of the success — and the rings — of those Showtime Lakers.