Young talent is the coveted commodity in the NBA. Young talent is cheap, young talent is reliable, young talent holds the promise of future greatness. So when onlookers seek to rank NBA teams for the future, to see which teams have the best prospects for lasting success, they look to a team's "young core."
That's just what Bradford Doolittle did on ESPN.com today, ranking every team in the NBA using three-year WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) projections on their collection of young talent, defined here as any player who will still be 26 by the time next season ends. Quibbles with methodology aside, it's a quick, quantitative look at which teams have the strongest cadre of young, talented players to build around.
Here's the good news: WE NUMBER ONE!
The Bucks cemented this spot when they signed free-agent Monroe this summer. Monroe doesn't turn 26 until June of next season, yet he likely will be the oldest member of a Milwaukee starting lineup that will grow together over the next few years. Middleton has already established himself as one of the top 10 shooting guards in the league, and if we were re-selecting the 2013 draft, Antetokounmpo might be the first player taken (though it would probably be Utah's Rudy Gobert). And these numbers are almost certainly underselling Parker, whose rookie numbers don't give him a great baseline from which to project.
For reference, Doolittle's model included the following players: John Henson, Greg Monroe, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Jabari Parker.
We've talked a lot about core players here. We've debated what qualifies a player as a "core piece" versus just another decent young guy and when the line between production and potential becomes an important one to cross. For a rebuilding team like the Bucks, who are even perhaps a bit farther along in their process than expected at this time, this is a nice validation of the many changes that have gotten them to this point. Deftly nabbing Giannis Antetokounmpo in the draft, lucking into Jabari Parker at #2 (and potentially avoiding the seemingly-cursed Joel Embiid), landing Khris Middleton for spare change and attracting a talented player like Greg Monroe in free agency, these are moves that set a team up for big things.
So should we start stocking champagne for Milwaukee's inevitable 2018 championship parade? Maybe not just yet. As rosy as these numbers look, they're still nothing more than projections, and in many cases they don't have much to go on. As Doolittle notes, the methodology almost by definition undersells really young players like Parker, which also explains why Minnesota ranks just 15th despite having perhaps the most subjectively attractive young duo in the league with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Moreover, projections also can't entirely deduce the way each player will fit with the guy next to him. That one may be the most important of a few key questions we still need to consider before taping off space for a new championship banner. Here are a few of them.
Does John Henson belong in the core?
The Bucks organization certainly seems to think so. Despite starting in just 43 of his 200 games with the Bucks, Henson is apparently viewed by the Bucks' brass as a key part of their long-term plans. He's settled in as a reliable backup center and parlayed a solid 2015 first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls into increased national attention, but he still pops up in trade rumors a fair amount and doesn't project to play a huge role with Monroe now in town. Many of Henson's numbers are solid, with a career 18.0 PER and good production on the offensive glass, but the Bucks haven't always been better with him on the court, particularly when considering metrics like Real Plus-Minus and other on/off-court splits. The result is a player whose value is hard to peg, both to the team that might consider him an integral piece, and on the trade block for a league that isn't quite sure what to make of him.
Can these players become more than the sum of their...regressed linear projections?
Here's a quick rundown of the efficiency differentials for a few three-man units featuring the Bucks' two highest-minute players, Antetokounmpo and Middleton, per NBA.com/Stats:
Carter-Williams / Middleton / Antetokounmpo: +6.9
Middleton / Parker / Antetokounmpo: -12.8
Middleton / Antetokounmpo / Henson: -0.6
What do we make of those numbers? Is Jabari Parker ruining the team? Could Michael Carter-Williams be the key to unlocking everybody else's potential? Are we sure John Henson actually exists? All important and equally-silly questions that point to the bigger issue: these guys have to play together. They need to be able to space the floor, rebound missed shots, make the right passes, and keep opponents out of the paint. Projections may suggest Milwaukee has a nice bunch of building blocks, but it's a big jump to actually build something.
How will the Bucks manage things over the life of these projections?
Milwaukee has, by all accounts, done a few things very right in the last year-plus. Jason Kidd, while mixing a bit of uneasiness into the front office situation, looks like a top-tier coach. The Bucks have a pristine cap sheet ready to retain the services of their young core at almost any price. And they've shown a flair for finding solid contributors outside the top of the draft, even if they don't always give them a chance to prove their worth. But there are so many pitfalls between here and the promised land. The Bucks traded away two strong veteran contributors in Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, leaving a locker room void that Kidd and his now-younger roster will have to fill. There remain long-term concerns about Michael Carter-Williams' ability to flourish in his role without improvement as a shooter (the same questions exist, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, for Parker and Antetokounmpo). As every tomorrow passes, these questions loom larger on the horizon. The Bucks have historically had a frustrating knack for stumbling into limited and temporary success, only to squander it shortly thereafter. Avoiding those traps and breaking through to the elite is a much more difficult task -- and one nobody has figured out how to project just yet.