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Which NBA Contenders Have the Biggest Windows to Win?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 18, 2015

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We call them windows, and everybody in the NBA wants theirs.

The only thing harder than the years of focused work it takes to prop one open is keeping it that way. Aging curves are brutal, and the strictures of the league's collective bargaining agreement make it difficult to keep multiple impact players under contract through their prime years.

Which current contender has the best chance to keep its window open for a while? Whose projected production is most stable and certain?

One way to answer those questions is to count up the combined win shares of a team's most important players, and then figure out how sustainable that total is.

Here, we've isolated seven teams. With one exception, the Oklahoma City Thunder, their eight-man cores posted the highest combined number of win shares last season. OKC gets a seat at the table because of Kevin Durant, who missed a ton of time last year but appears ready to return at full strength.

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 11:  Kevin Durant #29 and Russell Westbrook #31 of the 2015 USA Basketball Men's National Team attend a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on August 11, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Based on their cores' win shares, these seven teams are the league's current elite.

But how long will they stay that way?

We've used age-regression models from Dave Berri and Martin Schmidt's Stumbling on Wins to project the expected win shares for each team's core players. We also factored in the length of each player's contract with his current team, peeling the player and his win shares away from the total once he hit free agency.

Here's how the winning windows of those top seven teams look when they're spread over the next three seasons:

The most striking point of this visualization is the abruptness of each team's decline in 2017-18. Remember that we're dealing with absolutes here, though. The steep drops are mostly the result of key players hitting free agency. Many of those players will re-sign, adding their win shares back into the team total. And even if they don't, these teams will replace those players with others.

Certainty is important, though, and teams that can't be sure how they'll look in two or three years also can't be sure their winning windows will still be open. Take one player away like, say, Durant from the Thunder in 2016-17, and the outlook changes dramatically.

It should come as no surprise that the reigning champion Golden State Warriors are in the best position in each of the next two seasons. Their entire core is under contract through 2016-17, and the youth of key pieces like Klay Thompson and Draymond Green help offset the projected declines of Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala and even Stephen Curry, who, according to Berri and Schmidt's model, should not be expected to top his 2014-15 season.

Important disclaimer on statistical models: Nobody is suggesting Curry will definitely suffer a 6 percent decline between his age-27 and age-28 seasons, as Berri and Schmidt's model predicts. Chances are he won't. And there are plenty of players who continue improving well into their late 20s instead of peaking at 24 or 25 as the model shows.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

The aging curve used here is based on years of data and hundreds of players. It represents an average that helps us make projections. It's not the be-all, end-all declaration that applies in every case.

The teams best equipped to compete in 2015-16 along with the Warriors are the Los Angeles Clippers, Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets. In 2016-17, Golden State is the only team that will still look like a contender if it doesn't make any changes. The rest of the field will either age out of the winning window or see enough of its key players hit free agency to remove any certainty.

By 2017-18, all bets are off for everybody.

A few more points of interest:

  • Watch out for those player options. Notables include LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in 2016-17, plus Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in 2017-18. We know players commonly opt out when they can, but we're considering those players under contract in their option seasons for purposes of our analysis.
  • Houston, like the Warriors, has its entire eight-man core locked up through the 2016-17 season. That organization is rock-solid stable, which is kind of surprising given the Rockets' reputation as a free-wheeling, asset-flipping outfit.
  • The Grizzlies' championship window slams shut after the upcoming 2015-16 season, mainly because Zach Randolph and Mike Conley will no longer be under contract. Also a problem: Marc Gasol is already on the wrong side of 30, and the regression model projects accelerated decline once that 30th birthday comes and goes.
  • The Clippers' core of Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are all under contract through the 2017-18 season, which is why they grade out highest in that year. As is the case with every team we projected that far into the future, the rest of the roster needs filling out. But in terms of star pillars who'll be in place, the Clips are in great long-term shape.
  • As you'd expect, age cripples the Spurs. Berri and Schmidt's model is particularly low on players older than 34, projecting massive drops in win-share production. To keep things from getting out of hand, I fudged the details a little, cutting a consistent 50 percent from players' projected win share totals each year after they passed age 34. It was the only way to be fair to Duncan, but even that less dramatic approach resulted in a smaller title window this season (with LaMarcus Aldridge!) than last season. Father Time is a beast.
  • For purposes of this exercise, Cleveland loses James in 2017-18. Assuming he returns and avoids the kind of decline the model projects for most 33-year-olds, the Cavs will be right there with the Clippers in terms of locked-in future stability.

Don't Forget the Upstarts

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The teams above have already demonstrated their worthiness as contenders, but there are a few others whose youth and blossoming star power suggests they'll be ready to step into the conversation and stay there.

For example, the Utah Jazz's top eight players are projected to combine for 38.8 win shares next season, more than either the Grizzlies or Spurs. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone willing to call the Jazz a bigger contender than either of those established teams, but the numbers sure like Utah.

Even more encouraging for Jazz fans, the team's core is locked in through the 2017-18 season (except for Trevor Booker), and the calculations used here don't even include Dante Exum, who is still ridiculously young and could recover from his torn ACL to become a major contributor.

And of course, we haven't even mentioned the New Orleans Pelicans yet. Anthony Davis posted 14 win shares as a 21-year-old beginning last season, and he did it in 68 games. The aging curve projects him to improve that total each year for the next four years, and if he stays a bit healthier, we could see a season of 20 win shares from him. That's only happened 18 times in league history, and James was the last to do it in 2008-09.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 15:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans is defended by Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center on April 15, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: Use
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

With Davis as the foundation, it won't matter when Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson come off the books. And it won't be an issue if Jrue Holiday can't stay healthy, or if Omer Asik ages poorly. This is a statistical study, but Davis is the one case where we can toss all of the other numbers aside.

He's under contract through the 2020-21 season, which means the Pelicans' winning window is wide open until then.

Current contenders, you've been warned.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

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