Kings of Continuity: The NBA's Leaders in the Overlooked Title Ingredient

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 12, 2015

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Without maintaining any semblance of continuity, it's hard for NBA teams to make a significant amount of noise. Keeping the same squad together for multiple years isn't always advisable, but blowing things up and starting from scratch doesn't exactly lead to success on a regular basis. 

On the flip side, continuity is a difficult ideal to achieve in a league where immediate success is so coveted year in and year out. 

Each offseason, teams face plenty of tough decisions. They must choose new players in the NBA draft (assuming they have any picks), navigate the free-agent pool while attempting to land studs from the open market and simultaneously retain their own key contributors, fill out a coaching staff and handle any trade talks from opposing general managers trying to swing deals. Is it any wonder that few franchises actually manage to run it back without any new pieces?

Still, the difficulty shouldn't belie the importance. 

Throughout the history of this league, continuity has been one of the ingredients so often overlooked in the recipe for building toward a championship. Chemistry is a critical topic, one constantly under the microscope in the NBA world, and continuity is a great way to achieve it at an early stage. 

"If you've played basketball, you know there is a hard-to-quantify element of continuity," Bob Myers, the general manager of the Golden State Warriors, told Grantland's Zach Lowe before the start of the 2014-15 campaign. "Playing together with the same group of people for a long time makes you better. It just does."

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Nine months later, Myers was hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy after his team had ended the franchise's 40-year title drought. Think that's mere happenstance after he and the Warriors practiced what they preached? 

Heading into this past season, the Warriors weren't viewed as a potentially transcendent team. They were solid contenders in the Western Conference, but those who expected historical greatness were few and far between. Tweets like this one from Bleacher Report's Ethan Norof were exceedingly rare:

Ethan Norof @Ethan_Norof

I don’t understand or agree with the #Clippers winning the title bandwagon. Not even best team in Western Conference. That’s the #Warriors.

In the other half of the NBA, the Atlanta Hawks rose to the top of the heap with the franchise's first 60-win season. They excelled during the regular season, sweeping through the January portion of their schedule and emerging as the No. 1 seed after they failed to inspire unanimous preseason confidence that they'd exceed their traditional middling spot in the weak Eastern Conference. 

What did these teams have in common? I'm guessing you already know the answer. 

For each team above, you can see the percentage of 2014-15 minutes recorded by players who were also on the roster at the close of the 2013-14 campaign, according to Basketball-Reference.com. This is how we're objectively defining continuity, and it's worth noting that the roster at the start of the season isn't all that matters; midseason trades and free-agent signings can affect things as well, though we can't project those for seasons that haven't yet begun. 

With the exception of the Phoenix Suns, who traded away Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic at the deadline, the Association's continuity leaders enjoyed strong seasons and advanced to the playoffs, which shouldn't really be a surprise. After all, there's been a positive correlation between continuity and success throughout all of NBA history. 

Below, you can see that relationship for every team to ever step on the floor in the Association, excluding those who took the court in their franchise's inaugural year: 

The correlation isn't perfect, which is to be expected. Continuity isn't a predictor of success; it's merely one factor among many. If the Philadelphia 76ers, for example, had retained every player on their roster from the previous season, they wouldn't suddenly become one of the league's best squads, even while breaking the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets' record for the highest single-season score. 

But this is still telling. After all, it's unrealistic to expect a team such as last year's Sixers to go about its business without making any changes, seeing as it was so bad to begin with. A failure to alter the structure of the roster would be nonsensical, so we'd never see the league's worst teams attempting to achieve continuity until they had made significant roster improvements. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the squads that have boasted the highest scores in NBA history have tended to perform fairly well, even if they haven't all won championships. Plus, it's nearly impossible to enjoy a legendary season while experiencing too much roster upheaval. 

CHICAGO - DECEMBER 04: Carlos Boozer #5 of the Chicago Bulls Luis Scola #4 and Jordan Hill #27 of the Houston Rockets during the NBA game on December 4, 2010 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Throughout the annals of this league, only the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls have managed to win 60 games—or the equivalent in a season with a shortened schedule—without retaining at least half of their minutes from the previous season. That's literally one out of 1,298 data points, and even those Bulls checked in at 49 percent. 

Now that we've firmly established how important continuity has been in the past, it's time to look forward to the 2015-16 season and see how the Association's 30 teams should fare. 

Trades, injuries and unexpected shifts in the depth chart will allow for continuity scores to change during the upcoming campaign, but by projecting the minutes played for all new pieces on every roster, we can look at an initial prediction for each franchise: 

Teams with the most continuity are in green. Those with the least are in red.
Teams with the most continuity are in green. Those with the least are in red..

Let's focus in on the worst, then the best. 

The Caboose: New York Knicks (23.98 percent)

The New York Knicks enjoyed a strong offseason. They made solid picks and decisions during the 2015 NBA draft, resisted the urge to spend money for the sake of spending money and added a number of high-quality rotation players to their roster. 

Still, progress might be slower than some expect. Even though Derek Fisher will still be manning the sidelines, the Knicks are inundated with players who didn't have an opportunity to learn the triangle offense during the 2014-15 campaign. And that's not limited to the bench contributors. 

Right now, the likely starting five seems to be composed of Jose Calderon, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez—a lineup that features three new pieces. Even if Derrick Williams, Kyle O'Quinn or Kevin Seraphin take over at the 4, that will remain true, and the number could jump to four if Jerian Grant gets the nod from day one. 

Jul 13, 2015; Las Vegas, NV, USA; New York Knicks guard Jerian Grant (13) passes the ball as Los Angeles Lakers guard D'angelo Russell (1) defends during an NBA Summer League game at Thomas & Mack Center. The Knicks won 76-66. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The sole incumbents are Anthony, Calderon, Langston Galloway, Cleanthony Early and Lou Amundson. That's it. 

New York may be significantly more talented than it's been in the last few seasons, but the 2015-16 campaign will still feature plenty of growing pains. The 1997-98 Cleveland Cavaliers are the only team in NBA history with less than 25 percent continuity to win more than half of their games. 

The Trio at the Top

  • Chicago Bulls (97.97 percent)
  • Oklahoma City Thunder (96.19 percent)
  • New Orleans Pelicans (92.89 percent)

The Chicago Bulls are not the Knicks. 

No one can match the team from the Windy City in this conversation. Though Cristiano Felicio could throw a wrench in this analysis, the depth of the Chicago frontcourt makes it unlikely that the Brazilian big man will receive any minutes of note.

To a lesser extent, that's also true for incoming rookie Bobby Portis, who will likely spend a significant portion of the season in the Developmental League. That's not a knock on the Arkansas product, but rather a testament to how strong the players in front of him are. Most teams don't have the luxury of already rostering Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. 

Beyond Portis, there's simply no one new on this roster. Every other piece is returning from last year's iteration, allowing for plenty of established chemistry from the very beginning. 

But while the Bulls rely on their roster continuity in the quest for a top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves in a similar situation out West. 

Sure, this team had to deal with plenty of injuries during last year's disappointing lottery finish, but players who wore suits and spent the season riding the pine still counted as roster members. It's not as if Kevin Durant will suddenly have to relearn how he can work with players such as Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. 

The only new face will be Cameron Payne, the rookie point guard on whom OKC spent the final pick of the draft lottery. 

No matter how impressive Payne might have been at Murray State, and no matter how much he shines in practice once his fractured ring finger heals, it's going to be rather difficult for him to earn major minutes. After all, Westbrook is one of the league's biggest consumers of minutes—he's averaged at least 34 per game during five of the last six seasons—and D.J. Augustin also figures to start the year ahead of the first-year floor general on the depth chart. 

Chances are Payne will spend much of his inaugural season as a professional bouncing between the D-League and the NBA squad's bench, playing sparse minutes with the Thunder as they attempt to make up for the injury-plagued campaign they suffered through in 2014-15. 

And the team that beat them out for the final playoff spot? They also figure to feature plenty of continuity. 

It's not a rookie who will keep the New Orleans Pelicans from becoming the first team in NBA history to experience perfect levels of roster harmony. In fact, it's a pair of veterans. 

First, we have Alonzo Gee, a swingman coming off a season in which he averaged just 12.3 minutes per game in 54 appearances for the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers. Now 28 years old, he can capably knock down shots from the perimeter and provide some infectious defensive intensity, but he'll likely be relegated to the bench for much of each game as long as Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Quincy Pondexter remain healthy. 

The other new addition is Kendrick Perkins, a center who doesn't really provide much at this stage of his career. He was likely signed more for his ability to play the role of enforcer and provide a boost in the locker room than anything he can do on the court. Unless the injury imp strikes the bayou in a big way, it's tough to see him receiving many minutes over Omer Asik, Jeff Withey and Alexis Ajinca. 

The Pelicans earned the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference last season, and they'll have their targets set on an even more lofty goal in 2015-16. Essentially running it back and letting Anthony Davis grow while surrounded by familiarity should only benefit them. 

Still, we're not quite ready to anoint the Pelicans—or the Knicks or Thunder—as the true continuity kings this year, even if they have the highest projected percentages. 

The True Favorite: Utah Jazz (85.52 percent)

The Utah Jazz might "only" have a continuity projection that falls slightly below 90 percent, but that's still an incredibly high figure. Throughout all of NBA history, only 7.78 percent of teams have finished a season with an actual mark in the 90s.

But even though the Jazz's percentage is a bit lower, it's important to note that the three aforementioned squads from the previous section have one thing in common that doesn't apply to Utah: Each of them will feature a new head coach pacing the sidelines, with Fred Hoiberg taking over in Chicago, Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City and Alvin Gentry in New Orleans. 

Enjoying roster continuity is great, but it's not quite as relevant when everyone is forced to learn an entirely new set of strategies, as will be the case in each of those three locations. The Jazz aren't so far behind them in terms of incumbents on the roster, which allows Quin Snyder's enduring presence to push them up into the position of true continuity favorites. 

Were it not for Dante Exum's unfortunate ACL tear while playing for the Australian national team against Slovenia, Raul Neto wouldn't figure to play such a large role during his rookie season in the NBA. But now he joins two other first-year contributors as the lone players expected to take minutes away from the returning members. 

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - June 28:  Raul Neto of the Utah Jazz poses for a photo after a press conference at the Zions Bank Basketball Center on June 28, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Joining him are Trey Lyles, a raw 19-year-old out of Kentucky who should spend much of the year developing instead of contributing, and Tibor Pleiss, a 7'1" behemoth from Germany who could make an immediate impact as a backup center. As Aaron Falk explained for the Salt Lake Tribune, "Pleiss will split time at center with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. And early on, offense is expected to be his calling card."

Beyond those three, the Jazz boast one returning player after another, which should bode well for their attempt to end a playoff drought that stretches back to 2012. 

Continuity isn't the sole factor that determines on-court success. But when the right pieces are in place, as seems to be the case in Salt Lake City, it can be a big one in the quest to exceed expectations.

For that very reason, don't be shocked when the Jazz overcome the Exum injury and follow up their dominant second half last year by emerging as the biggest surprising success story in 2015-16. 

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com.

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.


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