How many more shots at a title does Miami's Big Three have?
The best of the best remaining in the NBA playoffs are gunning for a championship while they still can.
So much of a superstar's title prospects is circumstantial. As much as an individual's greatness can tip the balance in an NBA game, factors like supporting casts, matchup issues, health and straight-up luck can undo a star's best efforts. That's how guys like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley go their entire careers without winning a ring.
The great players shooting for the 2013 title know there's no guarantee of another shot. It's that fleetingness that causes superteams to form and dynasties to stick together.
Whether they have a ring or not, these stars share the same ultimate goal. The only thing that might (or might not) vary is how long they have to chase it.
The league's newest superstar also has the narrowest title window.
Paul George has catapulted into the pantheon of current NBA greats with his two-way athleticism, disrupting opponents on defense before blowing by and leaping over them on the other end of the floor.
That said, the Indiana Pacers' salary-cap situation could create some difficulties for George if he and his teammates don't win the title in 2013.
Unless Indy is able to dump Danny Granger's salary, this team is going to be pressed for cash in the coming offseason. After re-signing David West (who will surely inspire a bidding war), the Pacers won't have a lot of resources to allocate toward their shallow bench.
Further confounding matters is George himself. The Pacers must look past 2013-14 when determining their financial situation, putting aside enough money to give George the max deal necessary to keep him in town.
With the team on the brink of the NBA Finals and George on his rookie contract, anything is possible for Indy and its star. However, once George and Roy Hibbert start making $30 million just between the two of them, the small-market Pacers' title prospects won't be as bright.
That's not the same as saying Paul George won't ever have a chance to win a title after that. A new window may open for George as his star power attracts talent to him sometime down the line. For now, Indy's finances are causing this current window to shut faster than you might expect.
Tim Duncan is under contract for two more seasons after 2012-13, so why does his title window close after just one?
Predicting Duncan's downfall is a fool's errand.
He's set to play in his fifth career NBA Finals—14 years removed from his first Finals appearance, a record for a player with a single team. In addition, his per-36-minute numbers have barely shifted over the course of his career, let alone decline.
So Duncan could very well keep that pace and lead the San Antonio Spurs to a title in 2014-15. But keep in mind that this consistency is already unprecedented; for him to stay at this high level at age 39 would just be bonkers.
Assuming Duncan's inevitable slippage doesn't happen overnight, expect him to remain at the forefront of the Spurs' juggernaut in 2013-14. If San Antonio competes for the 2014-15 title, it won't feature a 39-year-old power forward putting forth a star performance.
At 31, Tony Parker should be able to sustain his stardom as Duncan's ability fades.
Dropping 37 points and six assists to finish off a sweep of the staunch Memphis Grizzlies is the stuff of a truly great point guard. After the most stellar season of his accomplished career and his fantastic playoff performance, there's a very strong case for Parker as the best point guard on the planet.
Even though his greatness is by no means entirely predicated on Gregg Popovich's system, it will be a lot harder for Parker to lead a title-caliber team without Pop. Per Spurs Nation, Popovich will go when Duncan goes, which will surely be no later than when the big man's contract expires in two years.
Yet Parker has the ability to lead his team even when Duncan can't help him carry the load. As long as Duncan is still in the paint, his smarts will be enough to supplement Parker's star power even if his physical talent is lacking.
Perhaps Parker will attempt the same trick Steve Nash did with the Los Angeles Lakers and hunt for a title elsewhere when he enters the twilight of his career. Yet his title window as a star is inextricably linked with the state of the San Antonio Spurs.
Regardless of what his superior teammates do (each member of the Big Three has an early termination option after the 2014-15 season), Bosh would close his title window if he leaves the Heat.
Herein lies the difference between winning a ring and staking a claim to a title. Bosh has distinctly been the third-best player in Miami, but he wants to be "the guy" and win a championship with his team.
Yet don't expect a 31-year-old Bosh to be a star on a contender. The 22-and-10 days of his Toronto Raptors tenure will be a half-decade past by the time he hits free agency again. Bosh's star has fallen since he joined the Heat; by the time he leaves, his status as a go-to guy will be finished.
Dwyane Wade's title window won't be shut due to nagging injuries or declining ability; it will be due to the loss of a certain four-time MVP.
If we're talking about chasing titles, LeBron James won't stay in Miami when he gets the chance to opt out in 2015. He'd still have the opportunity to get a max deal if he stays with the Heat through the 2015-16 season, but his best shot at winning won't be with an aging Wade and Bosh.
Wade carried Miami to a title back in 2006, but he has already fallen from that apex. Twenty-one points, five rebounds and five assists per game is nothing to sneeze at and is still star-caliber, but Wade is not going to lead a champion by himself anymore.
So if James is better served leaving and Bosh is ready to move on, Wade is left alone in South Beach again.
Since he has never played for another team, it will be tougher for him to opt out and move on. And so the task for Wade becomes either attracting premium talent to the Heat yet again or spurning his fanbase and rolling the dice with another team. Either way, his odds are greatly decreased without LBJ as the first option.
LeBron James is so multifaceted that his title window is nearly indefinite.
He is one of the best post scorers in the league, he is a dead-eye shooter and he has the technique to defend both inside and out. Even when his otherworldly athleticism begins to fade, LeBron has developed the fundamentals to keep thriving at the highest level.
In that regard, this projection puts him on the same career arc as Duncan—who, as mentioned earlier, has been consistently great for an unparalleled span of time. But there has never been a player like LeBron either—a physical specimen who has developed the ability to play any position on the court.
James' versatility will carry him for as long as he is willing to keep playing. And as long as he is willing to play, the league's greatest superstar will be a title threat.