I've been thinking about how stacked the west has been the last few years and decided to start looking at teams that are currently on a championship push. I wanted to know when current teams would fade or have to make significant changes. I started by narrowing the league down to those teams that are on pace for a 50+ win season (or were when I started pulling the numbers), and then I added in a few teams that would likely be on that pace if it weren't for injury (Indiana & OKC)... then I added Cleveland, because reasons.
I was surprised to see 14 teams on my list. I know that not all of them are truly contenders this season, but 50 wins means they're solidly in their championship window and only need a roster tweak or a lucky break to make it to the conference finals. From that point I wanted to see how many of those windows were closing and how many were likely to stay open for a while. I looked at 2 main things: age and payroll. I'm looking at age because a few teams rely on generational players that won't be around forever (I'm looking at you Dallas), and payroll to see which teams can continue to afford to keep their successful roster together.
Surprisingly, when looking at the entire roster, the Spurs aren't the oldest contender, they're not even top 5. The Bulls, Mavs, Cavs, Clippers, and Wizards all have an older roster. Of course, that changes when you start looking at core players rather than the entire roster. In that case the Grizzlies have the oldest core, and the Mavs are tied with the Spurs at number 2. In order to have a somewhat consistent basis for comparison, I mostly looked for players over 30. I know that's not really an age risk from a retirement standpoint, but it's a nice round number to start from.
These teams don't have any rotation players that are likely to retire or significantly decline due to age.
Here are the teams that may slip a bit in the next year or two, but will still be playoff threats
Los Angeles Clippers Losing Jamal Crawford will cause problems. He's 34 this season and is (practically) their only weapon off their thin bench. (Their next 2 bench players are Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar, who, combined, have played fewer minutes than Crawford has) If Crawford starts to lose effectiveness, retires once his contract is up, or can't be re-signed, the Clippers will lose the only depth they have.
Washington Wizards Both Paul Pierce and Nene that are playing big minutes and they are closer to retirement than they are to their prime. They each put up about 10/4/2 per game with solid defense as well. I think the Wizards could stand to lose one (likely Pierce), but both would set them back a bit. Otto Porter is looking much better this year and may be able to step into Pierce's role, but I don't see a big capable of filling Nene's spot on the roster.
Indiana Pacers On the whole, the Pacers are young. They have a nice core of Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and George Hill all in their prime, but David West has always seemed like the primary leader on the team and he's getting old. If he drops off or retires when his contract is up, they don't have someone to fill the gap.
Cleveland Cavaliers The Cavs are playing Shawn Marion heavy minutes and he's openly stated he's going to retire soon. Their other age risk is Anderson Varejao, who has become increasingly injury prone as he's aged. Overall, the Cavs have a pretty young core, but losing these two would seriously impact their depth.
Chicago Bulls The Bulls play two old guys big minutes. Pau Gasol and Kirk Hinrich are both 34. There are no indications that they're slipping, so I'd expect them to stay solid through their current deals, after that... who knows.
Golden State Warriors Bogut and Iguodala are both over 30, as is David Lee (who isn't playing much this season). Iguodala's defense has already started to slip, and I doubt that will change over the next few seasons. Bogut is fantastic when healthy, but age isn't going to make him less injury prone.
And lastly we have the teams that will be seriously impacted going forward as their rotation ages
Dallas Mavericks Dallas' big concern is Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk is likely on his last contract (he'll be 38 when it ends), and when he's done, so are Dallas' championship aspirations.
Memphis Grizzlies Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, and Beno Udrih are all rotation players over the age of 32. If either of those first 2 lose a significant step, then Memphis will be in serious trouble. Marc Gasol hit 30 this year too, though I don't think he'll even start to slip for another few years.
San Antonio Spurs Duncan and Ginobili are both over 35 and may retire when their contracts are up (though they could also play for another 3 years based on their production this season). Tony Parker will also be 35 by the time his contract is up. Even Tiago Splitter isn't young. He's 30 this year.
This is where it gets interesting. The cap will go up the next few seasons, and the luxury tax will follow suit. I've based my cap predictions off of a $6M per year increase (thanks for the info lajazzfan), and the luxury tax has held steady the past few seasons at about 21% higher than the cap, so I've kept with that. Of course all of these numbers could change drastically over the next couple of seasons, but this should work as a decent baseline. If the cap increases faster than I'm guessing, then teams will have more breathing room. If it doesn't increase this fast, then more teams will struggle.
These teams don't have any money problems in the forseeable future. Their books are clean and contracts are reasonable
Spurs The Spurs are fine. When they rebuild it will be because of age, not finances.
Grizzlies I don't see the Grizzlies having any financial problems over the next few years. Marc Gasol will be a free agent this year, but Memphis has more than enough room under the tax to give him the max and keep anyone else they want.
Wizards Washington is over the cap next year, but aren't losing any rotation players either, so they're fine. In 2016 they'll need to resign Beal and Nene, but look like they'll have the room to give them whatever they need to. Overall, their books are clean and they're set financially for quite a while.
Raptors The Raptors look fine. They should be able to keep their core players around for the next 3-4 years without much difficulty.
Pacers Next season may be a little rough for the Pacers, but after that they should be fine. Their core of George, Hibbert, West, and G. Hill are signed through next season (with Hibbert having a player option). They'll have room under the tax to bring back anyone they currently have, but may struggle to find new free agents, since they'll only have the mid-level exception. In 2016, however, their books are clean. Hibbert and West will be free agents, but the Pacers will have over $35M to spend. George Hill also has a player option that year, so his $8M salary may come off the books too. Indiana will be able to completely rebuild their roster around Paul George at that point.
A Tough Year or Two
It may be tough for these teams to keep everyone in their rotation, but the main core should stick around. They may pay the luxury tax for a year or two
Hawks The Hawks shouldn't have any trouble until the 2017/2018 season. This offseason, the only rotation players the Hawks will need to resign/replace are Millsap and Carroll, but they'll have $21M to do so before they hit the cap. Millsap could command $18M+ and Carroll could get $10M on their next contracts and the Hawks would still be under the luxury tax with essentially the same team they have this year. The following year, Horford is the only player that they'll need to resign and they'll have close to $20M available for him.
2017-18 will be tough for them. Provided that Millsap, Carroll, and Horford all resign for more than their current deals, the Hawks will be losing 6 players to free agency, including Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. This is also when Dennis Schroder will be a restricted free agent. I think the Hawks could hang on to everyone, but will need to find solid replacements for some of their fringe players.
Clippers For the most part, the Clippers are set for a decent run with their current group. If they decline Austin River's option, they'll have about $16M to offer DeAndre Jordan and still be under the tax. They'll likely have to pay the luxury tax anyway in order to fill out their roster, but if they stock up on minimum/rookie contracts, it will only be for one year, and even then it won't be too bad. After they get Jordan sorted out, their books are pretty clean until 2018. The only rotation players that will be up for new deals before then are Crawford, Redick, and Barnes, and all of them are past their primes and will likely be willing to take good deals (if they're not replaced).
Blazers This offseason will be the biggest challenge for Portland. They have 3 starters entering free agency and a rotation guy with a player option. Aldridge is the most likely get a max worth about $20M, and Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews will also be looking for raises. Those 3 alone could get close to $40M. If the Blazers can stay close to that $40M amount, they'll stay out of the luxury tax for a season. After that they'll drop a bunch of small contracts which should give them the room to extend Lillard and resign/replace Batum. Depending on how much money those two get, the Blazers will have their starting five locked up and will just be looking for depth.
Thunder The only rotation player that OKC needs to keep next year is Reggie Jackson, and they'll have $11M to offer him if they want to stay under the tax. After that, it gets trickier. Kevin Durant needs a new contract in 2016, and while the Thunder will have more than enough to give him a max, Westbrook, Ibaka, Lamb, and Waiters are due for new deals the following year. I think the Thunder will be able to keep Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka without too much difficulty, but filling in a competitive roster around them will just keep getting harder. Should the Thunder decide to let Jackson walk and find a new backup for Westbrook, they could gain a nice amount of breathing room.
These teams are spending big and spending now. Without some big changes, they'll be paying the tax for a while
Rockets Houston is right up against the cap for next year, but the only player they really need to worry about is Patrick Beverley, and they have plenty of room under the tax to resign him. After that, things get rough. Howard, Harden, and Ariza are all under contract for the 16-17 season (Howard has a player option), and we can assume that Beverley will be back, but that's it. Don't get me wrong, that's a solid core to build around, but they'll need to find 9+ players to fill out their roster and they'll have less than $13M in cap space to do it (that's if Beverley gets $6M+). Motiejunas will want to take a good chunk of that money, and that leaves Houston with 5 players and 0 cap room.
Mavericks It's a good thing that Mark Cuban is willing to spend a lot of money, because he may need to next year. Tyson Chandler and Rajon Rondo will both be free agents, and Monta Ellis has a player option that he will likely exercise after his great play this year. Chandler may take a discount to stick around, but he'll still get at least $10M. The others will be looking for raises. The Mavs will have about $45M to offer before hitting the tax, but I could easily see them going over that amount after filling in the rest of the roster. After that, it all comes down to Dirk. He has a player option in 2016, so if he decides he's done, the Mavs will be spending somewhere around $55M for a team headlined by Chandler Parsons, Monta Ellis, and Rajon Rondo.
Cavaliers Next season is the killer for the Cavs. James, Love, J.R. Smith, and Mike Miller all have player options. Not only that, but Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert will be restricted free agents, and Kyrie Irving's extension kicks in. The only thing that will keep them out of the luxury tax is waiving Brendan Haywood's unguaranteed $10.5M contract. The bad news is that waiving Haywood's contract puts them less than $2M below the tax line, and they'll have at least 3 roster spots to fill. If they bring back Thompson or Shumpert, they'll be well over the tax next season, and won't get any relief the next few years. If the Cavs are looking to win a title with this group, they only have this year and maybe next year to do it. In 2016 Love and James are free agents, and both will be asking north of $20M per season. If the Cavs shell that out, they'd be paying $65M (that's about 90% of the cap) for James, Love, Irving, and Varejao.
Warriors This is the one I was most interested in because we own their pick. The Warriors are already set to pay the luxury tax next season with only 10 players on the roster and Draymond Green needing a new contract. My guess is that Golden State will look to move David Lee at the draft to try and get some room to pay Green. With the way Green has been playing, a $10M+ contract isn't out of the question. If that's all he gets, then the Warriors will be right up against the cap again in 2016, but this time with only 6 players under contract and Harrison Barnes needing an extension. Basically, unless the Warriors are willing to pay a significant luxury tax for 3+ years, they'll have to move one of their big contracts soon. I think Lee is the most likely, with Iguodala not far behind.
Looking even further, if Curry gets a max deal (projected to be worth ~$23M), then the Warriors backcourt alone will cost them about $40M in 2017 and $45M in 2018. Also, they won't have anyone else on the roster except for a couple of late draft picks.
Bulls If the Bulls are going to push for a championship, they'll have until next season to do it with their current group. Jimmy Butler will get a big raise, and the Bulls only have $14M to spend before going into the luxury tax. Butler's played well enough to get close to that amount, which would mean the Bulls would have to fill in the rest of their roster with minimum salaries.
The following season they'll still be tight and Joakim Noah will be a free agent. (Pau Gasol also has an option). If Gasol or Noah wants a raise, the Bulls will have to pay the luxury tax to keep their core intact. To make things even worse, in the 2017 offseason Rose and Gibson will need new contracts. So will Pau Gasol if he didn't opt out previously. Mirotic, their rookie who's playing quite well, will be due for an extension, and they'll have to plan for extensions for Snell and McDermott. Basically, unless the Bulls are willing to pay the luxury tax for at least 3 straight season, they'll be breaking up their core.
Who Drops Off When
They Have Time
The Raptors and Wizards are the two teams most likely to stick around for a while, with the Grizzlies and Hawks right behind them. Those 4 teams look like they'll stay highly competitive for the next 3 or 4 years if they keep their current rosters. If the Blazers can withstand this coming offseason without losing any key players, they'll also be in the running for a while.
Could Stick Around
The Thunder look to be good for at least another year or two before they need an overhaul. Provided they resign Durant in 2016, the 2017 offseason will be their biggest challenge as they try to keep Westbrook and Ibaka. The Clippers are in a similar situation. If they can keep DeAndre Jordan this offseason, they'll have the players to contend until 2018 when Paul and Griffin come off the books. The Rockets could keep Harden and Howard around for quite a while, but they don't have the depth to stay competitive for long. However, if they retool their roster right, those two may be enough. I'll also put the Pacers with this group too. Their books are tight but clean, and they've got a solid group. If they survive West's departure (whenever that may be), they'll be a force for a while.
Better Move Fast
The Cavs are hoping to win it all this season because otherwise they'll struggle to retain James and Love long-term. Even if they do keep those two, they'll lose a good portion of their rotation or end up paying a Nets level luxury tax. The Bulls also have to push now before the tax becomes crippling. Jimmy Butler will prevent them from keeping all of their other prospects, and finding a replacement for the aging Gasol won't be easy. The Warriors just plain can't afford to stay this good for very long. They're paying the tax this year and almost guaranteed to next year, and look likely to pay it again the year after that (even after dumping Lee's $15M salary in 2016).
Practically Gone Already
This group is more about age than money. The Mavericks are the primary name here, though, because they'll have issues with both. Nowitzki is on a really team friendly contract, so when he retires the Mavs won't get much cap relief. The Spurs also fit here because the currently don't have the talent to replace Duncan and Ginobili. Parker and Leonard will keep them afloat, but not at a championship level.<
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I'm not sure how this will affect the Jazz's plans, but my guess is that, without significant changes, a conference finals window will open for the Jazz around 2017 or 2018. That may be too soon for our current group, or it could be about right.