[h3]1. Oklahoma City Thunder | Future Power Rating: 692[/h3]
[table][tr][th=""]PLAYERS[/th][th=""]MANAGEMENT[/th][th=""]MONEY[/th][th=""]MARKET[/th][th=""]DRAFT[/th][/tr][tr][td]310 (4th)[/td][td]161 (3rd)[/td][td]123 (8th)[/td][td]37 (21th)[/td][td]60 (12th)[/td][/tr][/table]
TheThunder have ascended to the top of the rankings thanks to thecontinued development of their young core and yet another astute trade.This one filched rookie point guard Eric Maynorfrom Utah, basically for free, and filled a rotation spot where theThunder had previously been sorely lacking. Up front, meanwhile, theemergence of shot-blocking forward Serge Ibaka adds another piece to their rapidly expanding talent base.
That base still has only two true stars -- emerging MVP candidate and possible scoring champ Kevin Durant and his steadily improving sidekick Russell Westbrook.Fortunately, everything is in place for the Thunder to surround themwith even more talent. General manager Sam Presti has preserved his capspace and hoarded draft picks, allowing him to trade from a position ofstrength to build the roster going forward, and the team draws so wellthat its small-market status shouldn't be an overwhelming concern.
(Previous rank: 3) [h3]2. Los Angeles Lakers | Future Power Rating: 686[/h3]
[table][tr][th=""]PLAYERS[/th][th=""]MANAGEMENT[/th][th=""]MONEY[/th][th=""]MARKET[/th][th=""]DRAFT[/th][/tr][tr][td]342 (2nd)[/td][td]149 (5th)[/td][td]91 (15th)[/td][td]96 (1st)[/td][td]8 (29th)[/td][/tr][/table]
TheLakers seem to have everything going for them -- they are the defendingchamps, have the league's second-best record, and seem set for the nextfew seasons, with a nucleus of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.And while the Lakers won't have salary cap space this summer to jointhe superstar free-agent chase, the game remains rigged in their favor,money-wise: L.A. produces the most revenue of any team and can easilystomach paying luxury tax to keep the likes of Gasol and Lamar Odom.
Still,they're only second overall in our rankings because of the uncertaintyabout coach Phil Jackson's future and how that might relate toBryant's. Jackson has yet to re-up for next year, and the smoke signalscoming from L.A. make one wonder whether the team will look for a lessexpensive replacement. If so, Bryant could play the ultimate trump cardby opting out of his contract and signing elsewhere. Is thatfar-fetched? Perhaps, but as long as it's in play, it's a risk thatwarrants mentioning.
The other concern is a paucity of qualityyoung talent. Bynum is the only starter who is likely to get better,rather than worse, over the next three years, and the bench doesn'tappear to hold any future stars. With no first-round pick this year,the Lakers will have to hope the current core ages well as they lookfor opportunities to make trades and sign inexpensive free agents.
TheMagic dropped from first to third in our latest poll, as the specter ofeating the back end of several large contracts looms ever larger intheir future. While Vince Carter has increased his production of late, neither he nor several other well-compensated teammates (Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Marcin Gortat, Brandon Bass, Mickael Pietrus)have delivered at anywhere near the level at which they're paid. Allthose players still have years to go on their contracts, meaning thesmall-market Magic could be in a very precarious salary position inanother year or two.
That said, Orlando still rated No. 1 in the players category. With a building block center in Dwight Howardwho is a virtual certainty to stay with his team (as opposed to theuncertainty surrounding some of the game's other top stars at themoment), the Magic have the foundation of a great team. And whileHoward's expensive supporting cast isn't fully earning its pay, there'sno doubt that impressive talent surrounds him. With such assets, acouple of the players who haven't seen as much burn, such as Bass andGortat, could make for great trade chips this summer.
TheHeat held on to the No. 4 position, but the one thing that might worrythem is how much competition they'll have for free agents this summerbecause of what happened at the trade deadline. Miami was hoping tohave more salary-cap room than any other team, but New York blew upthat plan by trading Jared Jeffries to Houston. Additionally, Chicago's creation of enough cap space to lure away Dwyane Wade presents a significant risk to the Heat's future plans.
Nonetheless,the positives far outweigh the negatives right now. Most signs point tothe Heat keeping Wade in South Beach and luring another star to joinhim, especially given the appeal of the Miami market (No. 2 behind L.A.on our list). Though owner Micky Arison hasn't been willing to outspendother teams, the Heat are a well-run franchise from president Pat Rileyon down, and they've made creative use of their salary cap options inthe past.
Hence the high ranking. We'd be very surprised if theycan't unite Wade with another star to form an Eastern Conference forcefor the next three seasons.
Portlandmoves up a spot from the last edition of the Future Power Rankings,mostly because the news on its young players has been largely positive.Second-year guard Jerryd Bayless has emerged as an offensive force off the bench, rookies Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph have shown they can contribute, and second-year forward Nic Batum returned from injury with a vengeance.
The Blazers did cash in one chip, trading Travis Outlaw for veteran Marcus Camby,but we had already discounted the likelihood of Outlaw returning. Ofgreater concern going forward is the uneven second season from Rudy Fernandez and the stalled development of forward LaMarcus Aldridge -- and, of course, our continued questions about Greg Oden's ability to stay healthy.