The 'Prime' Window for Each Top-5 Player in the NBA Right Now
There is nothing permanent about NBA superstardom.
Certain players inhabit the league's topmost echelon for years, sometimes for more than a decade, sustaining a reign that often feels like it won't ever end.
But it will end.
No matter the player, no matter his level of fame, there is no eschewing decline. Bowing out of the superstar ranks is not a matter of if, but when. And, specifically for the association's top five talents, we're here to forecast that date.
Career trajectory isn't an exact science, so initial rankings will reflect where a player stands entering the 2015-16 season. Last season's performance plays a prominent part in exact placement, but so too does reputation. Recent injuries will not result in exclusion.
Determining how much longer these top-five windows will remain open is a different beast. Age along with wear and tear will be our primary guides. Upcoming megastars angling for entry into this top-five clique will have an impact on the tenure of incumbents as well.
None of what follows is meant to serve as a superstar death warrant. Rather, it's a reminder that top-five acclaim, while sustainable over the long haul, is not forever.
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Having just turned 26 years old, James Harden isn't in any imminent danger of losing his top-five superpowers. The runner-up for league MVP is only just entering his prime and continues to mirror the future of NBA offenses.
More than 81.2 percent of Harden's shot attempts came inside the paint and restricted area or beyond the three-point line last season. He is, in many ways, the author of the obituary for mid-range jumpers.
That will serve him well in the coming years. So too will the memory of a 2014-15 campaign in which Harden carried the injury-infested Houston Rockets to the Western Conference's second-best record.
In doing so, Harden became just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 27 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game. The other four: Larry Bird, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Russell Westbrook. Bird and Jordan were the only players to outpace Harden's true shooting percentage during their respective per-game feats.
It's difficult to believe Harden is only three years into his tenure as a No. 1 option. He was supposed to remain the Oklahoma City Thunder's third wheel through at least 2012-13, and there he was in 2014-15, representing more wins on his own (16.4) than the entire Minnesota Timberwolves team (16).
Almost everything is working in Harden's individual favor, making it likely his rise with the Rockets props up top-five placement for perhaps the next half-decade. Only two roadblocks loom in the immediate future.
Harden just makes the top-five cut as of now. There are other players who could have been slotted here, from Chris Paul and Westbrook to Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins. They, among others, will all be vying for top-five recognition next season, threatening to displace Harden, even if only temporarily.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey also isn't one to let the team stand pat. Harden's climb through the bigwig ranks has come amid a dramatic uptick in volume—especially last season, when he finished fifth in usage rate.
Like so many other franchises, the Rockets have the means to carve out max-contract room next summer, and ESPN.com's Marc Stein expects them to make an aggressive, as well as legitimate, run at Kevin Durant.
Playing beside another ball-dominant alpha would limit Harden's touches and shot opportunities, ushering him outside top-five territory by default. And if it's someone who, like Durant, is higher up on the totem pole, forget about it.
Still, barring serious injury or a dramatic shift in pecking order, Harden has all the tools to remain right here, as one of the five best players in the league, for the foreseeable future.
Predicted Window for Top-Five Status: Through 2018-19
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Earning MVP honors is a good way to gain entry into the top-five club. But even if the Maurice Podoloff Trophy had been handed to Harden, Stephen Curry would still be a staple in this discussion. And that's because, in 2014-15, he showed the NBA something it has never seen before.
Curry used his lightning-quick touch to enhance the rest of his game. The threat of his three-point shot became a means to reach the rim or find circling teammates, and his defense improved to where Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr didn't stash him elsewhere when facing other elite floor generals.
Volume has never met such efficiency, either. James is the only other player to ever average 35.5 points and 11.5 assists per 100 possessions while logging at least 2,500 minutes—and his effective field-goal percentage was nearly five points lower than Curry's.
A spot-up-friendly play style will ensure Curry, now 27, ages well. He stops on a dime and weaves in and outside the paint, over and around screens, in a way that can be brutal on the ankles. But more than 25 percent of his shot attempts came as catch-and-shoot looks, of which he drilled 45.7 percent (47.9 percent from three).
Age will still force him to adjust as he nears 30. Kerr also monitors minutes with the meticulousness of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. The Warriors were one of just two Western Conference playoff squads (Spurs) to not have someone rank in the top 15 of minutes played.
Minutes caps will only become a bigger part of Curry's career arc with time. And, on top of that, he plays an incredibly deep point guard position headlined by interchangeable superstars. Any one of Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Paul, John Wall and Westbrook could usurp him in the near future.
Couple that with Curry's own running mates—Draymond Green and Klay Thompson—who are only beginning to realize their own star ceilings, and the reigning MVP's top-five tenure will be relatively short-lived.
Fortunately, on some level, it will be by design, all but guaranteeing that when Curry first falls, it won't be far.
Predicted Window for Top-Five Status: Through 2017-18
3. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
One injury-marred campaign does not turn Durant into a top-five castoff. He's barely a year removed from breaking up James' MVP party, and the 27.6 player efficiency rating he posted through 27 games last season would have ranked fourth in the entire league.
"I'm still the best player in the world," he said during a Nike event in Spain, per Ruptly TV, a statement befitting someone who is aware of surrounding doubt, but who is also too self-assured to accept it.
Three foot surgeries in seven months is no joke, to be sure. After firmly establishing himself as a serial MVP contender, the onus is now on Durant, almost 27, to prove his status hasn't changed.
And Durant doesn't just know this; he's obsessed with it. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding explained:
The fact that he is unflinching about his confidence is the only way he avoids lowering his expectations.
That's what this is about: his selling himself on what he can still be—not convincing fans, reporters, peers. This is not about his convincing even general managers eyeing his coming contract expiration that will make for the greatest non-LeBron free agency the NBA has ever seen.
Aside from the possibility that Durant's right foot could become a chronic problem, there's no reason to suspect he'll drop out of the running anytime soon.
For much of the last half-decade, he has been James' only rival, winning four scoring titles since 2009-10, to go along with brain-bending averages of 38.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks per 100 possessions. And he remains a yearly threat to register 50/40/90 shooting slashes, even though he routinely records usage rates north of 30.
That player isn't gone. Not yet. Durant's minutes might be limited this side of last season's surgeries, and there's no telling what could happen if he leaves Oklahoma City in free agency. But he has always been someone driven by the burden of proof—the need to win MVP, the innate desire to separate himself from James.
Now that he's no longer universally recognized as the NBA's second in command, the next few years of Durant's career could be among the best of his career.
Predicted Window for Top-Five Status: Through 2019-20
2. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Substantial change is coming to the NBA's superstar hierarchy. You can feel it. You can sense it. You've spent the last year or so watching it gradually unfold, perhaps even resisting it, only to realize you can't anymore.
The era of Anthony Davis is upon us.
To some extent, his eventual rule became a formality in 2013-14, when he was a sophomore. But it was his 2014-15 efforts that eradicated any lingering doubt.
En route to leading the New Orleans Pelicans to their first playoff berth since 2011, Davis notched the highest PER in league history of anyone age 22 or younger. He also joined David Robinson as just the second player to ever average at least 35 points, 14 rebounds, two steals and four blocks per 100 possessions. Robinson was 28 when he first did it; Davis was seven years younger.
Scarier still, Davis isn't done developing. He only just mastered the face-up game, and in 2015-16, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry plans on expanding his offensive arsenal to include regular three-point attempts.
As a shot-blocker who will soon score from anywhere on the floor, Davis is very much the future of NBA big men. But he's also the future of this league in general.
Already a fixture of the MVP fray, Davis has obliterated enough box scores to stretch his top-five credentials beyond debate. And where he was once chasing Durant, it's now the other way around.
For some, the absence of a deep playoff push, even this early into Davis' career, is enough to hold off on going that far. But when Davis was on the floor last season, the Pelicans posted a better net rating (plus-5.4) than the Cleveland Cavaliers. So while Davis hasn't yet led New Orleans out of the first round, he still holds the value of someone who has.
Soon enough, he will be the association's best player, bar none. And at only 22, still younger than some incoming rookies, Davis' top-five window isn't on the verge of closing.
It's only just opened.
Predicted Window for Top-Five Status: Through 2024-25
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Although no player supersedes the impermanence of superstardom, James continues to come pretty close.
His entire career has played out like one giant exception. He will turn 31 in December, and yet, in so many ways, he remains at the top of his game.
We marvel at the way he stepped up with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the shelf for much of the NBA Finals, almost single-handedly lugging the Cavaliers within two victories of their first title. But that series, that playoff run, was just a microcosm of James' season-long importance:
|Cavaliers...||Off. Rtg.||Rank||Def. Rtg.||Rank||Net Rtg.||Rank|
Last season also saw James average at least 25 points, six rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 steals for the seventh time in his career. No other player in NBA history has matched that line more than once.
Nevertheless, James' stronghold on the league's best-player throne is loosening, in large part because of Davis' immeasurable ascension, but mostly because it's just time. And while he has spent most of his career residing among the game's five best players, that streak will soon reach its conclusion as well.
As Rob Mahoney wrote for SI.com, the process by which James will slip is already underway:
It was also the first time James looked physically mortal: midseason back and knee injuries sidelined James for two weeks, the longest stretch of his 12-year career, and he eventually appeared in just 69 games, the first time he had ever missed more than seven in a season. Simultaneously, James averaged a career-low 36.1 minutes per game, meaning that his 2,493 minutes played were nearly 500 fewer than in any of his previous seasons (aside from the 66-game lockout season). Those gaps, coupled with the feel-out nature of the new-look Cavaliers’ first half of the season, produced openings for younger stars like Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Anthony Davis to squeeze onto center stage alongside him.
Those openings are only going to get more inviting. James won't flirt with 3,000-minute seasons in his 30s the way that Jordan did. Resting older players is more of a priority these days. The Cavaliers will want James fresh for the playoffs, limiting his regular-season minutes and appearances accordingly.
James, of course, can and will slow down. His PER and win share totals have dropped in each of the last two seasons, and last year's true shooting percentage was his lowest since 2007-08.
Playing with two superstar teammates, both of whom are significantly younger, suggests there will also come a point where James is asked to do less for both his own sake and the sake of Cleveland. And that doesn't mean he will fall off the face of Superstar Mountain next season, the season after that or even the season after that.
Think of him as the next Tim Duncan instead: someone who will play and produce like a megastar well past his prime in modest, calculated doses, while at the same time backing off and letting the next generation run its course.
Predicted Window for Top-Five Status: Through 2018-19
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.