In the NBA, teams with stars and veteran leadership usually make waves in the postseason and win championships. It’s rare to see a team of young inexperienced players going deep in the postseason, no matter how talented they are. Of course, there are outliers to everything.
The OKC Thunder went to the Western Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons from 2010 to 2012, making the NBA Finals in that second year. Their core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka was all under the age of 24 with less than five full NBA seasons under their belts. Obviously, three of those players became league MVPs, which we may never see again.
A decade later, the Memphis Grizzlies have a good shot at making a long playoff run similar to the baby Thunder of 2012. They don’t have a player on their team older than 28. Their best player and MVP candidate, Ja Morant, is only 22. Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. are 22, and Dillon Brooks is 26. Just last year, the Grizzlies were a play-in team then won the eighth seed only to be eliminated in five games by the Utah Jazz. This postseason they’ll likely be the No. 2 seed and have a good shot at making a run to the Western Conference Finals.
So, it is possible, albeit rare, for really young teams to sustain deep runs in the postseason. There are a few other teams with the potential to become the next Grizzlies as early as next year.
The Hornets have their future superstar/franchise player in place with LaMelo Ball. Miles Bridges is the team’s leading scorer and should finish pretty high in the voting for Most Improved Player of the Year. Kelly Oubre Jr. seems to have finally found a good fight for his skill set in Charlotte. Terry Rozier is third in scoring for the Hornets and turned 28 only a couple of weeks ago. The oldest member of Charlotte’s core is Gordon Hayward, at 32 years old, but I don’t think he will be in the team’s long-term plans.
Charlotte is a play-in team right now, but they could be ready to make a big jump up the eastern conference standings next year with another successful offseason.
Cleveland might have the best young nucleus in the league next to Memphis, as their top five scoring leaders are all 24 years of age or younger. With Darius Garland leading the way alongside Collin Sexton once he’s healthy, the Cavs could be the next young team in waiting. This team is massive in the frontcourt, with Jarrett Allen having a breakout campaign, Lauri Markkanen, and Evan Mobley, the probable Rookie of the Year. All three are 6-foot-11 or taller.
The Cavs came out on fire this year and hung around the top four in the east for the first few months of the season. They’ve seemed to hit a wall in the last six weeks and have fallen out of the top six and into the play-in tournament range. They’re currently seventh in the east but are only a game back of sixth-place Toronto. The Cavs have a ton of young talent with veteran leadership blended in with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, even though he’s missed significant time this year. Caris Levert recently returned from injury, and he’s another young (27) piece capable of dropping 20 points at any time.
The Pistons may be the longest shot here, but they might also have the young star with the most upside of all these teams. Cade Cunningham is going to be a big star in this league. As a rookie, he’s second in scoring for Detroit and will likely finish second in Rookie of the Year, voting behind Mobley.
Cleveland features seven players averaging double-digit points this year, and only two of those players are older than 23. Jerami Grant is the oldest of the bunch (27) and the leading scorer at 19.2 ppg. But he’s likely to be moved during the offseason. But the Pistons will still be stacked with young talent in the form of Saddiq Bey, Marvin Bagley III, Hamidou Diallo, Killian Hayes, and Cunningham, as mentioned above. They’ll need to add another piece or two, but if the Pistons can continue to acquire and keep the right pieces around Cunningham, they’ll be back in playoff contention very soon.