Locked-In: The NBA’s Five Best Foundations For The Future

There is nothing more fun than playing fantasy GM. Everyone does it. The fact is that it’s a lot harder than it seems (off my 2K “Association” success, in my mind, I’m the next Jerry West). The term “core” is thrown around so much now that it has lost it’s value. What’s the point of creating a young group of talented players if two or three of them are going to leave? Only about a third of the league has a legit core, which in this case equals three or more guys locked up under contract for the next three years (through 2013-14). Some foundations will just take time. For example, while there are some chemistry issues, there aren’t too many teams with the potential star power that Sacramento has. Will they be winners or stat-munchers? Some others are still up in the air.

For Portland, a core of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews could be brutal…except no one knows where Roy’s career is headed. Then, you have other foundations, like the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe, that could be included just from the presence of one superstar. Overall, here are the five best cores that are contractually locked up for the next three years (that is under contract/current team owns their rights through 2013-14:

5. L.A. Lakers (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Blake)
Before you see Steve Blake’s name and start laughing, think for a second. Every year they’ve been together, the “Black Swamba” has led the Lakers to the NBA Finals and they have a great chance this summer at winning another title. In fact, I could’ve just written Kobe and Pau and it would’ve worked as a two-man core. Blake is irrelevant for the most part. Throw in the seventh man on Bucknell and this core still deserves a spot in the top five.

Even if they are getting older, the wheels haven’t fallen off yet. Bryant’s one special gift is his relentlessness, a refusal to allow his body to fail him. Gasol lacks that survival instinct, but his game is perfectly suited to keep him playing at an All-Star level.

4. New York (Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Toney Douglas)
This trio is another that is dangerously close to a two-man foundation. Douglas, if you happened to miss it in all of the Knicks’ issues, has quietly improved to the point where he is nearly outplaying Chauncey Billups. Douglas’ contract has a team option in 2012-13 and then a qualifying offer the following year. If New York wants him, they can keep him for the next three years. And while the hate for ‘Melo/Amar’e is strong right now, it’s a good start.

Despite being great at many of the same things, Anthony and Stoudemire could become a terrorizing offensive force if the Knicks can just spend wisely and surround them with a few defensive players. Right now it’s ugly. But I don’t think it’ll stay that way.

3. Chicago (Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng)
You know you’re in good shape when your locked-up core doesn’t even include arguably the MVP of the league. Derrick Rose obviously isn’t thinking of anything other than signing an extension with Chicago, but he’s not on this list because his contract runs up in 2012-13. Once he does sign that inevitable extension, this group immediately becomes the best four-man crew in the game (along with OKC once Russell Westbrook does the same).

Boozer is a great second or third wheel, and realizes he needs the help. He has it on both ends now with players who can mask his defensive shortcomings while getting him open shots on offense. Deng is the perfect off-the-ball scorer. And Noah does things that are extremely rare, and does them with an intensity that never wavers. Basically, the Bulls have created a core of players that perfectly complement each other and their all-world star.

2. Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka)
As mentioned above, Westbrook’s contract runs to 2012-13 with a qualifying offer that year so while he is obviously, at worst, the second most important player on the Thunder, he isn’t a part of this list’s core. It must be fun knowing that your beast of a point guard will be given a long deal and turn this core into a four-person monster. For right now, Durant is the best scorer in the league. But the inside tandem of Perkins and Ibaka is underrated. Defensively, they’re as good as any frontcourt: Perkins, the solid, low-post defender who relies on positioning, strength and a hatred of every player not on his team, and Ibaka, the athletic, off-ball force who can impact plays in his area and out of it.

In fact, Ibaka is one of my favorite young players in the whole league. I’ve had more than a few people gawk at me for this, but as Oklahoma City grows into the best team in the West, I could see him making a few All-Star games.

1. Miami (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh)
Sorry, but according to this list’s criteria, this group is by far the best core of any team in the League. No one else even comes close. Whether they win a title this year or not doesn’t really matter. As long as the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t completely screw their cap space, the Heat will be able to add decent veteran role players almost every summer to surround these pillars. Even if it does take away their remaining money, I don’t doubt Pat Riley.

From this list, you can see how few teams, even at the top, have a legit three-player core locked up for the next three years. But Miami has one. Can they win a championship with these guys? If you don’t think they can, then I don’t know what to tell you. The next time you hear someone really go in on how disappointing Miami is, just think to yourself: this isn’t a one-year thing. These guys will be playing together for a long time. People too often forget that.

What do you think?

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