For the past five years or so, half the rebuilding teams in the NBA have been doing their best to replicate the Thunder model. They gut their rosters, bottom out for a few years, and try to build a new foundation with lottery picks. This trend didn’t start with Oklahoma City, but the Thunder definitely perfected it. Now every team that’s looking to tank for a year or two will invariably point to Kevin Durant (no. 2 pick), Russell Westbrook (no. 4), and James Harden (no. 3) in OKC.
So it’s pretty funny that the two NBA teams that look like the most convincing heirs to the Thunder never quite committed to the Thunder model. The Bucks lost by accident last season, and the Wolves were on the fringe of the Western Conference playoffs for the past two years. Now they might have as bright a future as any team in the league.
The NBA is off all week after the All-Star Game, so let’s just nerd out and dig into a question that nagged me all weekend in New York City. It came to me after hearing about Giannis Antetokounmpo and Andrew Wiggins in the Rising Stars Challenge, watching Brandon Knight in the skills competition, and the morning after the dunk contest, when I finally picked up all the pieces of my brain that Zach LaVine had thrown everywhere. If you could choose between the Wolves and Bucks, whose future would you want?
Let’s run down the list.
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On the one hand, Ricky Rubio still can’t shoot, his defense is a question mark, and he just missed almost three months rehabbing an ankle injury. In addition to his limitations on the court, last season was the only one of his career he stayed healthy for every game. On the other hand, Rubio is the absolute best.
It’s like watching Lionel Messi play point guard. And if we’re talking about pure entertainment potential, Rubio throwing no-looks and alley-oops to LaVine and Wiggins might end the conversation before it even gets started.
Four years and $56 million is very fair, and here’s the most important point: He’s due for some good things to happen, both with his health and the roster around him. Something has always gone wrong to derail the Rubio takeover, and now most people have stopped waiting. But being surrounded by Wiggins, LaVine, and Lottery Pick To Be Named Later? Maybe Rubio’s window has finally cracked open.
In Milwaukee, it’s complicated. Knight is never going to be one of the best point guards in the league, but he’s gotten worlds better this season. He’s averaging 17.8 points and 5.4 assists per game, and his renaissance this season might be the single biggest reason the Bucks have had a renaissance of their own.
At the same time, as Giannis and Jabari get older and better at carrying the offense, the need for a shoot-first point guard to take big shots and bail out possessions will slowly disappear. The question is whether the Bucks can go from fun surprise team to good team with Knight at the center of the attack. And what do they pay him this summer? If it’s four years and $56 million, that could work, especially if the salary cap balloons. If it’s more? That might be too much for a point guard who will never be among the best in the league and may not even click with his superstars as they grow.
For now, Rubio and Knight are like mirror images, and maybe the most interesting part of this debate. One can’t shoot, the other can’t pass. For this season’s Bucks, Knight helps more. For the theoretical future, when today’s rookies are tomorrow’s superstars? Give me the most creative passer in the league.
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This one is very easy to grade right now, but might be a lot more interesting a year from now. Jabari was decent but unspectacular before his injury in mid-December. But Wiggins was exactly the same at that point. They both averaged about 12 points a game through the first six weeks, and Jabari was shooting better and getting fewer minutes on a team that was actually playing meaningful games. Will Jabari be a real superstar? In New York this weekend, I talked to someone from the team who asked Jabari about coming to All-Star Weekend, and he said he didn’t want to come until it was for real. Great sign.
Of course, no amount of Jabari optimism makes this a fair fight. Since mid-December, Wiggins has turned into a freak of nature. There are still games when he disappears, and other moments when you ask, “Does he know he’s allowed to dribble?” But remember, he’s 19. And he just averaged almost 20 points a game while playing almost 40 minutes a game in January. By the end of the year, he’ll probably be among a group of teenage minutes leaders that includes LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Carmelo Anthony. After watching three months of Wiggins, anyone who thinks he won’t be a superstar should be institutionalized.
Who is the Wolves’ second superstar in 2017? Zach Lavine? Because I don’t know if he really counts. That dunk contest was incredible, but LaVine is averaging seven points per game and shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc. Right now, he might be a star or he might be a better version of James White — the greatest non-Vince dunker I’ve ever seen and a not-very-good shooting guard who could never quite catch on in the NBA. It’s too early to guess which way it’ll go.
Giannis has gotten so much meaner this year. Just the way he carries himself on the court should be enough to have Bucks fans going crazy. He’s growing into stardom, and everything that used to be a cute sideshow is now a full-on freak show. On defense, his length will make Milwaukee a pain to play against for the next 10 years, and his work-in-progress offense has progressed faster than anyone could have expected for a 20-year-old who was playing minor league basketball in Greece two years ago.
Giannis is a nightmare to deal with. He’s the kind of do-everything player that good teams love, except he’s not as boring as those players usually are, because three or four times every game he will break your mind. He’ll never be as skilled as Anthony Davis, but his game comes with all the same “Well, shit, what do you do against THAT?” questions that make Brow the future of the NBA.
What’s great about the Bucks’ future is that, theoretically, Giannis and Jabari perfectly complement each other. Where Jabari will struggle (defense), Giannis is a monster. Where Giannis will struggle (shooting, creating offense), Jabari should be fantastic. You couldn’t ask for a better sidekick long-term.
Massive advantage: Bucks
Weirdly Intriguing Role Players
Larry Sanders is already on the way out in Milwaukee, and let’s assume that Nikola Pekovic won’t be on the Wolves in 2017. That leaves Gorgui Dieng, Anthony Bennett, and Shabazz Muhammad in Minnesota, and John Henson, Khris Middleton, and Jared Dudley in Milwaukee.
I’m going with the Wolves if they find a way to use Bennett as a low-post option over the next few years. Muhammad can be a scorer off the bench, and Dieng will either be a perfect backup big man or a capable placeholder in the starting lineup if Minnesota can’t land a star center in the draft. The Bucks role players are better right now — since Middleton’s return to the starting lineup, the entire offense took a step forward — but overachieving guys like Henson and Middleton will eventually command decent-sized contracts that will eat up valuable cap space.
Of course, if Flip Saunders hasn’t figured out a way to use Bennett for more than 16 minutes a game during this meaningless season, maybe that’s a sign it’s time to give up hope. In that case …
Draft Picks and Cap Space
The Wolves win the cap space battle for the reasons mentioned above. It will be expensive to keep this current Bucks core together, while the Wolves’ only big long-term obligation is Rubio, and just have to worry about Wiggins and whoever they draft this June. Speaking of which …
For six weeks now, I’ve been dreaming of Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota.
It’s so perfect. It has to happen. Have you seen this guy? It’s impossible to watch Karl Towns and imagine anyone else going no. 1 in June. Milwaukee will be out of the lottery this year, so it’s probably not landing anyone who changes the bigger picture. But thanks to Rubio’s injury and the murderous West, Minnesota has the worst record in basketball. That gives the Wolves a chance to add one more superstar, who could take all this to another level, whether it’s Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, or maybe Myles Turner. (But please, make it Towns.)
Massive advantage: Wolves
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Not only has Jason Kidd proven he can win, but he’s found a way to do it in two situations (last year’s Nets and this year’s Bucks) that made him look really impressive. Remember when we all turned him into a never-ending punch line at the beginning of last season? The only other time the entire basketball world has been that wrong recently was the proposed Klay Thompson–for–Kevin Love trade.
In Milwaukee, Kidd has found ways to use Knight off the ball, and the offense has steadily improved. He’s succeeded with unconventional talents like Henson, Giannis, and Middleton, and without the help of Parker for much of the season. It’s still early, but it’s hard to imagine a young coach who would make fans feel better than Kidd.
Flip Saunders isn’t as exciting. Last spring I called him the Wade Phillips of the NBA, and that still feels right. On the other hand, Wade Phillips can coach! Maybe he’s not the guy you want leading a Super Bowl team, but as far as developing young players for a few years, there are far worse choices. This category goes to the Bucks for this year and beyond, but it’s not as much of a landslide as you would think.
Consider Saunders, the GM who gave away a first-round pick for one year of Thad Young, and Glen Taylor, the owner who has been happy to tread water in the West the entire time the Wolves have been in Minnesota.
Now THAT’s where it turns into a landslide.
Not as simple as it sounds!
The West is getting older, and in two years, teams like the Spurs and Mavericks and maybe Grizzlies won’t be nearly as brutal to deal with. There will be plenty of room for Wiggins to force his way into the mix.
Meanwhile, LeBron is sitting in Cleveland, and the Bulls somehow find a way to reload with mid-first-round draft picks every few years. Throw in Paul George coming back to the Pacers, John Wall and my stupid Wizards, the Raptors, evil Pat Riley finding a way to steal at least one star in the next two years … the Future East is not as easy as it looks.
But the Bucks have the advantage for two reasons. First, because while some teams get older, Anthony Davis gets older, too, and it’s only a matter of time before the Pelicans turn into a version of the Wolves that (probably) has the better player.
More importantly, the Bucks are playing meaningful games right now, and they will be for each of the next two years. That’s the biggest reason being in the East is an advantage. Young teams have a chance to build confidence-wise and learn how to win before they get eaten alive. Isn’t that basically what happened to the Wolves the past few years? A weak bench and bad defense didn’t help, but those Kevin Love teams fell apart because they played in a conference that went 10-deep with good teams. And they failed so often they could never learn to succeed together.
Meanwhile, the Bucks are succeeding right now. And Giannis is still 20. And Jabari isn’t even playing yet. The conference imbalance may even out by the time these teams are ready to compete for a title, but the Bucks will have a major head start in terms of confidence. That’s why the East is better.
It’s the Bucks. There are too many question marks with the Wolves management, the West is a miserable place to grow as a young team, and Wiggins by himself isn’t quite good enough to win out against a Giannis-Jabari combination. Rubio and Wiggins will make every Wolves game appointment television over the next few years, but if you’re picking a bandwagon, it’s always going to be more fun to watch a great team, and that’s where the Bucks are headed. They have a potentially great coach, they have two potential superstars, and the new ownership has injected life and ambition that was missing for decades under Herb Kohl.
On the other hand, if the Wolves land a top three pick this June and walk away with Karl Towns? Suddenly the core of Rubio, Towns, and Wiggins is pretty much impossible to resist. And then Minnesota still has Pekovic’s contract to trade and LaVine as a wild card, plus tons of cap space … Really, it doesn’t matter which bandwagon you choose. There are no wrong answers here.
Only one thing is certain. The future of the NBA is fucking COLD.