Sports Championship Windows That Are Slamming Shut Soon
The Oklahoma City Thunder might very well win the 2016 NBA title, but what if they don't?
Kevin Durant's impending free agency leaves the future in the air. If OKC can't reach the pinnacle this year, the window of opportunity might slam shut—and soon.
There are other teams and athletes across sports facing the same dilemma—if they don't win soon, then it might never happen for them as currently structured.
How many good years does Ben Roethlisberger have left? Can the Los Angeles Dodgers, sans Zack Greinke, finally get to a World Series with the current core?
These are unanswerable questions, but they sure are interesting to examine.
Here are 10 painfully tight championship windows in sports, ranked in order of who should feel the most urgency.
This is a tricky one, because it's not as if the Washington Capitals look to get worse this offseason. It's more a question of—did the 2016 postseason prove this team just doesn't have what it takes?
The team, bolstered by offseason additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, ran away with the President's Trophy, only to bow out early yet again. The Caps haven't made it out of the second round since the 1997-98 season, and they have never won a Stanley Cup.
If ever there were a year to make it happen, this was it. Their 4-2 series loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins has left some wondering—if not now, when? Are the Caps missing some sort of intangible quality necessary to win it all?
"The biggest thing you hear people allude to is killer instinct," defenseman Brooks Orpik said, per Ben Raby of the Washington Post. "Game 3, when you outplay a team that badly [Washington outshot Pittsburgh 49-23], you've got to find a way to win."
Alexander Ovechkin is 30, which doesn't necessarily mean his team's window is slamming shut, but it's something to consider—the fact that his prime is not getting closer but farther away with each passing season.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers have won the National League West three years in a row but have failed to even reach the World Series despite having two Cy Young winners and the highest payroll in baseball for two of those seasons.
Now, one of those Cy Young winners (Greinke) is gone, and the team has a new manager in Dave Roberts, which could be good, bad or neither. The jury's still out. The Dodgers did have a decent offseason if you ask Dave Cameron of FanGraphs, and their payroll is sky-high again.
Yet how long can this team maintain its regular-season greatness?
"You understand the window is starting to close each and every year for this particular group," catcher A.J. Ellis said in February, per Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today. "I know individually, hopefully collectively, for that core group, the sense of urgency might intensify a little bit to help create maybe that added edge we need to push it over the top."
Given the ability for golfers to excel well beyond what is considered "old" in most professional sports, the door on Tiger Woods isn't quite closed yet, despite how things might look, but it could get there soon.
Woods hasn't won a major since 2008, and a series of injuries have plagued him in the years since.
In May, Woods referred to back issues. "It's brutal. Do I want to go through that whole process again, of getting back? Some part of me said yes. Some part of me said no, because it is hard," he said, according to Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post.
Yet, Woods also said, "I think [Jack Nicklaus'] major championship record I think is certainly still attainable."
Woods has accepted his invitation to play at the U.S. Open in June, but that doesn't mean he actually will. His former coach, Hank Haney, spoke to SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio (h/t Kyle Porter of CBS Sports) about Woods' future. He said he doesn't think Woods will return at all in 2016 but also added, "I have a hard time believing that we won't still see greatness."
Championship windows are a little tougher to define in world football given high turnover and the fact that the biggest clubs are always going to have money. Still, Arsenal provides an interesting example.
The club hasn't won the Premier League since 2003-04, and after a disappointing season that saw them finish 10 points behind winners Leicester City, uncertainty looms.
Manager Arsene Wenger's contract is set to expire in 2017, and an extension has yet to get done. Amy Lawrence of the Guardian reported Wenger's future likely won't be decided until closer to the expiration of his current deal.
A serious knee injury to Danny Welbeck means Arsenal is in need of a striker, and midfielder Mesut Ozil has also failed to commit to an extension with the club. According to Chris Davie of Goal.com, "Ozil has admitted he was left frustrated by Arsenal's season and has urged the club to sign 'stronger players' during the transfer window."
Uncertainty with the players and manager might leave fans wondering just what the future holds and if the possibility of a Premier League title is only getting farther away.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Super Bowls, more than any other NFL franchise, but the current window for a seventh could close soon.
Much of their immediate future will likely hinge on the health of their 34-year-old quarterback, Roethlisberger. Big Ben is the heart and soul of the team, but injuries kept him off the field for four games in 2015.
Looking ahead offensively, wide receiver Martavis Bryant was suspended for one season, tight end Heath Miller retired and Le'Veon Bell is coming off a serious knee injury. Defensively, the 2015 pass defense ranked No. 30 in the league with 271.9 passing yards allowed per game.
The Steelers drafted cornerback Artie Burns in the first round to help remedy that. Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter wrote, "For a team that has an aging quarterback and a championship window that is closing in the next few years, it will be interesting to see how quickly Burns can get onto the field."
The Steelers' division isn't doing them any favors, either. The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals both graded well at the draft, and who knows what's in store for the Cleveland Browns after the addition of a new coach and 14 draft picks?
The Cleveland Cavaliers have looked dominant in the 2016 NBA playoffs, and they could bring home a title come June. But if they don't—what do the odds look like for 2016-17 and beyond?
Injuries depleted the team that lost to the Golden State Warriors in last year's Finals. And the 2015-16 Cavs have dealt with all of the following in some way: a midseason coach firing, their unequivocal leader (probably) subtweeting his teammates and two regular-season defeats at the hands of the Warriors.
And worst of all: speculation about a return to Miami for LeBron James. (He can opt out after 2015-16.)
In late March, Zach Lowe of ESPN.com wrote:
People who know James see a 31-year-old facing his basketball mortality -- watching a rival in Oakland seize the league and shorten James' championship window.
If LeBron thinks he's running out of time, this specific group of stars has two months left to prove it can win at the highest level. These Cavs should make the Finals, but can they do more?
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer had a resurgent season in 2015, throwing for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns after missing much of 2014 with an ACL injury. Still, he's 36 years old and only under contract through 2017.
All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald also broke the age mold in 2015, catching for over 1,000 yards for the first time since 2011. Yet he is 32 years old and only under contract through the 2016 season.
Despite some aging stars, the Cards look well-positioned to compete again in 2016, particularly after the acquisition of defensive end Chandler Jones from the New England Patriots. Danny Kelly of SB Nation called the addition of Jones "huge for a team whose championship window may be limited to the next couple of seasons."
The Cardinals have won 10-plus games three season in a row, but if they fail to win the next Super Bowl, it could be the end, at least for Palmer and Fitzgerald.
And once Palmer is gone, the Cardinals will find themselves in an all-too-familiar, not-easily-resolved situation in the NFL these days: in need of a reliable QB.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder are all tied up, 1-1, with the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals and are in the hunt for a title.
The Thunder have been consistently good, pretty much since their move to Oklahoma City (since 2008-09). They have made six playoff appearances in those eight years but only reached the Finals once, losing to the Miami Heat in 2012.
But after the 2015-16 season reaches its conclusion, all bets are off. Kevin Durant is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent, and Russell Westbrook has just one year left on his contract. The rumor mill is absolutely lit with possible destinations for each, individually and as a pair.
It's entirely possible the duo could win a title this year. And if not, they could sign with OKC long term, but even that doesn't guarantee a ring. On the 27-year-old Durant, Jen Floyd Engel of the Sporting News wrote in April, "To pretend his window has not shrunk is to ignore reality."
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers either have a ton of urgency or none at all, so it's tough to know where to rank them.
Justin Tasch of the New York Daily News wrote, "the championship window for these Rangers as constructed may very well have closed on Saturday, a reality 34-year-old Henrik Lundqvist certainly hopes isn't true."
Larry Brooks of the New York Post put it more bluntly: "The icy road has come to a dead end."
The Pittsburgh Penguins bounced the Rangers in the first round of the 2016 NHL playoffs, leaving many New York fans to wonder if they had witnessed the end of an era. The Penguins outscored the Rangers, 21-10, in the 4-1 series loss, and Lundqvist was pulled early in the final two games.
Count the franchise goalie, defenseman Dan Girardi and left winger Rick Nash as part of an aging core that might have seen its last chance at a Cup slip away.
But! For those of the optimistic variety, there could be a sliver of hope for Lundqvist. Brandon Cohen of Today's Slapshot opined the window could still be open a crack, given the Rangers make a few savvy offseason moves.
Los Angeles Clippers
The championship window for the current Los Angeles Clippers might already be shut. Injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin effectively ended their 2016 playoff run, and the team is staring down the possibility of a rebuild.
In October, head coach Doc Rivers told Zach Lowe, then with Grantland (via Ken Berger of CBS Sports), "I'm a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don't win. It just doesn't work. We're right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it."
(He was right about the Memphis Grizzlies, by the way.)
The core of Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have been together for five seasons now and never made it past the Western Conference Semifinals. And it's not as if things are getting less competitive out west or anything.
Yet in early May, Rivers said the Clippers will not trade any of those three guys, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). OK, but if this core is to stay together, the urgency to win a title is pretty much at a boiling point.