Inside the 365-day, 24-hour news cycle also known as the NBA, you’d be hard-pressed to find a management team that take days off from pursuing their goal of a championship.
Sure, 29 teams enter an off-season disappointed after falling short of a title, but it’s not as if these organizations aren’t pulling strings behind the scenes to try moving closer towards hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
For some teams — the bottom dwellers in each conference — the path to actually contending for a title is a long and winding road. For others, a couple of roster tweaks make all the difference.
Before we dive into this, it’s important to remember that future assets don’t guarantee competitiveness by any means, but, if used correctly, they do give teams increased flexibility when it comes to becoming a contender.
Although they’re far from ‘contender’ status at the moment, here are four organizations that, with a few shrewd moves, could become one of the NBA’s next powerhouses.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Current assets: Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick
Future assets: Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Marcos Silva, nine (possibly 10) future first-round picks through 2026 draft.
Why they could be a powerhouse: With a projected franchise talent in Williamson, New Orleans could have one of the more dominant defensive starting lineups for seasons to come. There’s plenty of room for this roster to develop, and multiple future picks available to help expedite that process if Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin so chooses.
Timeline: Competitive by 2022
Pelicans fans far and wide must be petitioning for Griffin to be handed a key to the city after his brilliant wheeling and dealing in recent months.
Seriously, just look at the laundry list of assets he’s acquired since replacing former general manager Dell Demps:
Obviously, lucking out and drafting Williamson made the Pelicans outlook far more promising, but Griffin’s moves to surround his future franchise player with complimentary talent shouldn’t be overlooked. The former Cavaliers general manager has built a roster with a trifecta of win-now talent, future assets, and financial flexibility, which is something Pelicans fans should be ecstatic about.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Current assets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Chris Paul
Future assets: Up to 15 first-round picks through 2026 draft, potential Chris Paul trade haul
Why they could be a powerhouse: If Gilgeous-Alexander emerges into a star — which many believe he could after the skill and potential he showcased in his rookie season — the Thunder will have enough draft picks and upcoming expiring contracts (Gallinari in summer of 2020, Steven Adams in summer of 2021) to surround him with a talented and competitive roster. A potential Paul trade would help Oklahoma City add even more future assets to its collection, but those discussions are reportedly at a standstill for now.
Timeline: Competitive by 2024
If you thought the Pelicans collection of picks was impressive, wait until you get a hold of Oklahoma City’s:
Trading away Paul George and Russell Westbrook netted the Thunder a combined seven first-round picks, not to mention the rights to multiple pick swaps. As a result, Oklahoma City could have up to 15 first-rounders through 2026 if certain pick protections kick in. Expecting all those picks to turn into star talent is fool’s gold, but even if a few materialize we could see the foundations of a strong, young core form before our eyes. The Thunder know exactly what that experience is like at its best, too, after taking Kevin Durant, Westbrook and James Harden in three consecutive drafts.
Don’t get us wrong: expect many losses for Presti and Co. for the first few years of this rebuild given how long they’ll have to wait for a return on their future assets. And for a small market team like Oklahoma City that doesn’t typically sign big name free agents (with George serving as one of the few exceptions), maximizing a return on said assets is pivotal. It’s also worth noting the Thunder losing more games increases the likelihood they receive all 15 possible draft picks.
Current assets: Trae Young, John Collins, DeAndre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, Bruno Fernando
Future assets: Seven (possibly eight) first-round picks through 2026, young roster (four of top-10 picks in 2019 draft), expiring contracts of Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner and Chandler Parsons will create over $62 million in salary cap space after 2019-20 season.
Why they could be a powerhouse: The Hawks already had a solid one-two punch in Young and Collins. Once you add incoming rookies Hunter and Reddish to that mix, you start to see the framework of a roster oozing with potential. If Atlanta’s defence improves, they’ll be one of the East’s best teams a couple seasons from now. Development and implementing good habits should be the Hawks’ top priorities for now though, considering they’re currently contending for ping-pong balls instead of playoff seeding.
Timeline: Competitive by 2023
The Hawks allowed a league-worst 119.4 points per game last season, so finding defensive-oriented players that make the sum of the parts work more effectively together is key. Hunter, who earned ACC Defensive Player of the Year honours at Virginia in 2018-19, is a Hawks draft pick who definitely fits that description. Expect more to follow.
Only Young, Collins, Hunter, Reddish, Fernando and Jabari Parker (if he exercises his 2020-21 player option) will be under contract after the 2019-20 season, which means Atlanta won’t be lacking the necessary financial resources to recruit defensive-oriented types in free agency. Trying to uncover similar types of players would be ideal when drafting, too.
Current assets: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dwight Powell
Future assets: Five first-round picks.
Why they could be a powerhouse: Doncic and Porzingis have the potential to become one of the league’s premier duos in short order, so long as the latter’s torn ACL and rehab didn’t turn him into a shell of the player he once was.
Timeline: Competitive by 2022
From day one, Doncic showed he was ready to occupy the role of Dallas’ franchise saviour. He did so admirably, too, producing one of the greatest statistical rookie seasons in league history. He’ll have a highly-skilled running mate in Porzingis along for the ride in year two, which should help balance some of the offensive workload. That, coupled with a full summer of NBA strength and conditioning programs, means the best is yet to come for Doncic.
Under Mark Cuban’s ownership the Mavericks have prioritized remaining competitive over stockpiling future assets, which means if things go according to plan Dallas will trot out a playoff-ready roster at the first opportunity. That shouldn’t be too far down the line with Doncic and Porzingis on the same roster.