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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

Playoffs statement? Boston builds 40-point lead, routs Toronto

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The way the NBA standings look right now, there’s a reasonable chance that the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors could be slotted to see each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And Celtics coach Brad Stevens is already making it clear — if that happens, a blowout win over the Raptors now won’t mean anything then.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points, Jayson Tatum added 18 and the Celtics never trailed on the way to an emphatic 122-100 win over the Raptors on Friday night. Kemba Walker scored 17 points in 23 minutes for the Celtics, who led by 40 at one point and kept slim hope alive of catching the Raptors for the No. 2 spot in the East race.

“This game will mean nothing if we get that opportunity again,” Stevens said. “They’re a really good team. I thought they missed a lot of open looks and it just wasn’t their night. Our guys played well, but it won’t mean anything in a couple weeks.”

Boston also won the season series against Toronto, taking three of the four meetings. The Celtics also won back-to-back games for the first time in the bubble.

“We’re enjoying each other and building chemistry,” Tatum said.

Fred VanVleet scored 13 for Toronto, which got 11 from Kyle Lowry and 11 more from Pascal Siakam. The Raptors’ starters — VanVleet, Lowry, Siakam, Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby — combined to shoot 16 for 45 (36%) from the field, 3 for 19 (16%) from 3-point range.

“One thing about this team, we always bounce back and we always stick together,” Toronto’s Norman Powell said. “I’m not too worried.”

Toronto’s biggest deficit in its first three games in the bubble was six points against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors trailed Miami by three, then didn’t trail Orlando at any point in their game on Wednesday.

But only five minutes into this one, the Raptors were down eight.

And it would only get worse from there for the reigning champions.

The biggest deficit Toronto had faced this season was a 30-point hole against Dallas on Dec. 22, a game where the Raptors rallied to win. The Celtics didn’t allow anything close to a rally on Friday — after the Raptors closed within 10 early in the third, Boston went on a 36-12 run over the final 9:39 of the quarter.

It was 91-57 entering the fourth, and the Raptors went with subs the rest of the way. Making the night even worse for Toronto: forward Serge Ibaka left early in the fourth after getting hit in the face on a drive by Boston’s Gordon Hayward.

“I hate to say it, but there’s nothing really I learned,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “The only thing I probably did learn is we’ve got to get a couple of our guys playing a little better.”

Nets, Magic lock up playoff spots in East; Grizzlies help own cause in West

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The NBA playoff picture is getting a little clearer, and the Eastern Conference field of qualifiers is now set.

Brooklyn and Orlando clinched the last two remaining East spots Friday, meaning no play-in series — a new wrinkle added to the rules of the NBA’s season restart at Walt Disney World — will be needed on that half of the bracket.

Brooklyn secured its trip by defeating Sacramento 119-106. Orlando’s spot was clinched when Washington lost to New Orleans 118-107 later Friday, eliminating the Wizards from contention.

The Nets and Magic will be No. 7 and No. 8, in some order, in the East playoffs. The No. 8 seed will face the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17. The No. 7 seed could meet the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who currently hold — but have not secured — the East’s No. 2 spot.

For the Nets, the clinching comes as something to savor in a topsy-turvy season.

Kevin Durant couldn’t play at all because of his recovery from Achilles surgery — yet still got a $1 million contract bonus because Brooklyn made the postseason. Kyrie Irving missed much of the year because of injury, the Nets had several regulars opt out of participating in the restart, changed coaches in March and have used 24 players so far this season.

“It’s great to punch our own ticket into the playoffs,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I joked with the guys: I like my laundry being done, but nothing like doing your own laundry.”

Orlando could have clinched with a win Friday, but lost to Philadelphia 108-101. The Wizards lost about an hour later, falling to 0-5 in the bubble. Washington was one of nine teams from the East who qualified for the restart, but has since fallen behind Charlotte into 10th place in the conference.

Philadelphia’s win tightened the race for No. 4 in the East. The 76ers (42-27) are tied with Indiana for the fifth-best record in that conference, one game behind fourth-place Miami (43-26).

The race for the last unclaimed playoff spot in the Western Conference remains close, with teams vying to grab the No. 8 spot and play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. If the eighth- and ninth-place teams are within four games of one another when the seeding game schedule ends next week, there will be a two-game series to determine who gets the last playoff spot.

Should that series take place, the ninth-place team would have to go 2-0 in a best-of-two series to advance.

Memphis remained alone in eighth out West, after the Grizzlies snapped a four-game bubble losing streak by beating Oklahoma City on Friday 121-92. The Grizzlies are one game ahead of Portland in the West standings.

“We channeled what we’ve done all season long,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We played Grizzlies basketball. Grizzlies basketball equals Grizzlies wins, more often than not. We hadn’t done that in the first four games.”

San Antonio leaped idle Phoenix into 10th in the West by beating Utah 119-111, with the Spurs improving to 3-2 in the bubble. The Spurs (30-38) are one game behind Portland in the standings.

“At the end of the day, we can’t control what they’re doing,” Spurs center Jakob Poeltl said. “We can only control what we’re doing. We’re going to take every game as it comes. We’re going to try to win every game.”

Phoenix, Sacramento and New Orleans remain in the mix for a West play-in series spot. The Suns, who are 4-0 at Disney, play Miami on Saturday.

Training camps for “delete 8” reportedly might happen inside Orlando bubble

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Whether the eight teams not invited to the NBA restart will have training camps and get together for scrimmages depends on who you ask. There are some teams adamant they will be at a massive disadvantage if their young teams go nine months without playing competitive NBA basketball. The problem is bringing teams together creates coronavirus issues that are not easily eliminated.

Which led to an idea: Why not bring those eight teams into the Orlando bubble on the Walt Disney World Resort campus and let them practice/play there?

It’s being talked about as an option reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

What if those eight teams joined the rest of their colleagues inside the Walt Disney World bubble for training after the eliminated teams departed? Sources say the NBA has been exploring that possibility for quite some time now, and that the idea was raised most recently on the aforementioned governors’ call. And in some ways, it makes perfect sense.

As NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has made clear all along, the union has been skeptical of any basketball setting that doesn’t match the Orlando approach in terms of precautions and protocol. But starting on Aug. 17, when six teams go home and the 16-team playoffs begin, space will be opening up inside this three-hotel, three-court, (seemingly) COVID-free community they have created.

More space will open up in the bubble as more teams are eliminated from the postseason, although some of those rooms were to be used by family of team staff still in the bubble. It’s a delicate balancing act for the league.

The eight teams in question are Golden State, Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Charlotte.

Putting together a second bubble for the “delete eight” was never likely to happen, it’s a logistical nightmare, and it’s expensive (but without the television money payoff of the actual bubble). There is some logic to inviting those eight teams to Orlando.

Whether it happens or not remains to be seen.

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis lost its first four restart games and would have fallen into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings with a loss.

“As a whole, we never doubted ourselves, doubted what we can accomplish as a team,” Morant said. “But like, we all was very confident in our team and feel like tonight, we just went out and played freely and we were able to come out with a win.”

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. The Thunder made 7 of 13 3-pointers in the first quarter but 6 of 30 the rest of the way.

“I thought it was a little bit of fool’s gold in the first quarter,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.

Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul got a steal and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

“They started making shots,” Paul said. “We never really made them feel us all game long. They were just so comfortable. They got a little bit of everything. They got floaters, they got the threes, they got to the free-throw line. Our defense was just bad today.”