The unintended consequence of the new collective bargaining agreement has been the emphasis on asset collection: draft picks, cap space and youth. Players under the age of 25 are coveted more than ever, mostly for their artificially low rookie-scale salaries, but also for the promise of potential yet to be realized.
During my time as an assistant director of basketball operations in the NBA, I considered it a priority to be as knowledgeable as possible about young players on rosters, particularly those in their "First Four" years in the league (you might have read about these types of players during the Vegas Summer League). The under-25 list is a bit more expansive in that it includes players well into their second contracts, but nevertheless is still a good measure of young talent on a roster.
While an inventory of talent under the age of 25 on a roster is not predictive of a franchise's future success (the quality of management decision-making, financial resources, team chemistry, coaching and, of course, luck all play major roles), you'd rather your team have the assets in hand than not have them, all else being equal.
Given the select nature of those players eligible for an under-25 team ranking, here's an overview of guidelines and some brief rules of thumb:
• In order to be eligible for this list, a player must be 24 years old or younger (born on or after Aug. 8, 1988).
• Teams with established superstars get an edge, due to a greater likelihood of return on investment, over teams with multiple "solid" talents (as the adage goes, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"). However, teams with a lot of bushes (a full cupboard of solid talents) may trump teams with a solitary star.
With the ground rules established, here's our ranking of the top 15 teams in the league based on under-25 talent. Note that player ages are indicated in parentheses. (To view the bottom 15 rankings, click here.)
Players: Steven Adams (20), Kevin Durant (24), Serge Ibaka (23), Reggie Jackson (23), Grant Jerrett (20), Perry Jones III (21), Jeremy Lamb (21), Daniel Orton (23), Andre Roberson (21), Russell Westbrook (24)
The Thunder were the only team to place three players in the top 25 under 25 list last January, and as of this writing, all three of those players are still under 25 and still fantastic. Durant's firmly entrenched at No. 1 of the "Best Player Not Named LeBron James" list, Westbrook is probably the most dynamic player at the point guard position and Ibaka continues to improve his skill set and range to make him more than a defensive specialist.
However, what makes the Thunder No. 1 on my ranking is their stable of young prospects and track record for developing talent. Jackson is a shining example of this, going from hardly playing in his rookie season to being a major contributor (and a starter in the playoffs once Westbrook went down). Elsewhere, Lamb is a silky-smooth shooting guard with excellent length and athleticism, Jones III has the chance to be a "Durant-lite" with his size and skill set, and rookies Adams and Roberson bring a different dynamic to the front line.
Oklahoma City is the rare team that is legitimately contending for a championship while simultaneously stockpiling real talent in its youth pipeline.