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August 30, 2012
Big 3s
Projecting the Future

by Bradford Doolittle


EDITOR'S NOTE: Recently, ESPN Insider ran a series about the "Big 3" model of constructing an NBA roster. Bradford's piece ranked the top 10 teams in terms of potential future Big 3 value. Here, Bradford unveils his complete rankings and updates them to reflect the most recent transactions, including Dwight Howard moving on to the Lakers.

A lot is going to change in the next four years, and that's as true in the NBA as it is in real life. By 2016, teams will be discussing whether to extend the contracts of the most recent draft class. Some kid will be finishing his freshman year of college, earning the attention and drool of NBA scouts targeting the next big lottery prize. Heck, by then Seattle might have a team again and some other town will be left in the lurch.

As part of our "Big 3" series, I was asked to identify groups who have the potential to grow into the equivalent of what we are seeing now in Oklahoma City and Miami. I thought projecting current rosters out to 2016 -- the length of a first-round rookie's contract -- would be the way to go.

This accomplishes a couple of things. It gives you a glimpse of the relative ages of each team's building blocks. The younger, the better. It also shows just how the league can change in a relatively short period of time, even in a theoretical world in which teams hang onto the same players year after year.

Using a basic aging pattern table, I forecast the playing time and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for every player who will play or might play in the league this season. If a player is currently unattached, I placed him with his most recent NBA team.

Remember the 20/50 rule of thumb we established the other day to identify possible championship-caliber teams following a "Big 3" model? That was based on the percentage of scoring those teams tend to get from the top of their roster. Since I'm using WAR here, I'll offer you a new standard: 25/13. If a team has a combined projected WAR of 25 for its top three players and has a 13-WAR player on top of the heap, it has the kind of big three construction we've been talking about all week.

This is important to note, because the more interesting teams down the list have that potential 13-win player in hand. That, of course, is the most difficult piece to acquire, so those teams have a leg up in the rebuilding process, even if they are missing a key piece or two.

Keep in mind that projecting the value of players four years from now is great fodder for discussion, but these same projections could look much different a year from now. To claim that these values are precise would be the height of hubris.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (54.3 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Kevin Durant (22.6), Russell Westbrook, James Harden

No surprise that league's youngest and most exciting core projects to lap the field in a few years.

2. New Orleans Hornets (43.5 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Anthony Davis (18.4), Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon

If Davis is as good as his projection, the Hornets have made the vital first step towards big-time contention, especially if Anderson proves to be a good fit alongside him. And don't forget about Austin Rivers, who currently doesn't project well but is loaded with potential.

3. Los Angeles Clippers (42.9 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Chris Paul (18.4), Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan

You'd like to see Jordan replaced as the third guy but even so, the Clippers have the pieces to go places you never thought this franchise would go. Of course, they'll screw it up because, after all, they're the Clippers.

4. Miami Heat (38.1 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: LeBron James (24.0), Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh

Will the Heat keep its Big 3 intact past their current deals? They will be getting long in the tooth by 2016 but still awfully good.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (34.4 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Kevin Love (19.9), Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic

The upside of the Wolves' young core isn't exactly Thunder-like, but it's close enough to be really exciting if you're a Minnesota fan.

6. Atlanta Hawks (31.4 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Josh Smith (14.1), Louis Williams, Al Horford

This is a team in flux, though Al Horford's projection is held down by his injury-married 2011-12 season. Louis Williams may not be a true core piece, but he'll help.

7. Detroit Pistons (31.1 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Greg Monroe (17.9), Brandon Knight, Andre Drummond

This assumes that our optimistic rookie projection pans out for Drummond and that Monroe continues his development into a franchise player, but it sure looks like the Pistons are positioned to take a leap in the next few years.

8. Utah Jazz (29.8 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Paul Millsap (11.5), Al Jefferson, Gordon Hayward

The Jazz have a growing collection of shiny pieces, but it's a mystery how all these redundant parts will get onto the court at the same time. Still, it's better to have talent than not.

9. Sacramento Kings (29.5 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: DeMarcus Cousins (13.8), Thomas Robinson, Isaiah Thomas

This age-based method of production is probably too optimistic for Thomas, but the Kings have plenty of time to find a perimeter stud to go with a promising pair of big men.

10. Denver Nuggets (29.3 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Ty Lawson (10.5), Kenneth Faried, Andre Iguodala

For things to be any different for Denver than they are now, it's got to find a higher-upside top scorer. However, the addition of Iguodala moved them up a few spots.

11. Cleveland Cavaliers (29.3 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Kyrie Irving (17.8), Tyler Zeller, Dion Waiters

Like New Orleans, Cleveland has jump started its rebuilding project by acquiring the cornerstone. It's also encouraging that the other top projections are generated by rookies-to-be.

12. Philadelphia 76ers (28.9 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Andrew Bynum (14.6), Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young

The acquisiton of Bynum jumped the Sixers up six spots in these rankings but for that to come to pass, Philly will have to re-sign him before he hits the open market next summer.

13. Indiana Pacers (28.7 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Paul George (12.6), Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger

If the Pacers don't uncover that superstar scorer, it remains to be seen how far theyy can go with a roster full of second and third options.

14. Milwaukee Bucks (28.5 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Brandon Jennings (13.1), Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson

This looks like a pretty good projection for the Bucks but if Jennings tops out at 13.5 WARP, he's not the franchise centerpiece you typically find on championship team.

15. Memphis Grizzlies (26.2 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Marc Gasol (9.4), Mike Conley, Rudy Gay

Zach Randolph has been around for awhile now, a fact that is reflected in his dropping out of the Grizzlies' long-term Big 3.

16. Chicago Bulls (24.7 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Derrick Rose (10.3), Joakim Noah, Nate Robinson

A disappointing outlook for a team that is going to have to make some hard choices over the next few years, but remember this is a team built on balance, not a big three model. But, still -- Nate Robinson?

17. Portland Trail Blazers (24.5 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Nicolas Batum (9.8), LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard

Why would a presumably cultured Frenchman rather live in Minneapolis than Portland when the money and playing time would all be the same? Batum, if he's happy, has All-Star potential and it's possible Meyers Leonard proves to be better than his iffy projection.

18. Houston Rockets (22.8 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Jeremy Lin (11.0), Terrence Jones, Chandler Parsons

The Rockets are in media res right now, but the roster looks kind of grim as constituted, though it's loaded with young players who could emerge.

19. Golden State Warriors (22.4 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Stephen Curry (10.8), Harrison Barnes, Brandon Rush

The Warriors are hoping that names like Klay Thompson and Festus Ezeli will emerge as Big 3 members and perhaps they will.

20. Toronto Raptors (22.1 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Jonas Valanciunas (9.5), Kyle Lowry, Ed Davis

Valanciunas immediately projects as Raptors' top player, but our system doesn't care much for Andrea Bargnani's future.

21. San Antonio Spurs (21.9 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Kawhi Leonard (10.5), Daniel Green, DeJuan Blair

Great organization that is going to have to come up with high-caliber replacements for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

22. Los Angeles Lakers (21.7 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Dwight Howard (15.7), Pau Gasol, Jodie Meeks

It just flat out isn't going to get better from here, but of course by 2016, Howard will have a new set of high-paid running mates.

23. Phoenix Suns (20.2 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Marcin Gortat (8.5), Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley

With a poor season at just the right time, maybe the Suns could land the piece that would make Gortat and Dragic palatable Nos. 2 and 3 options, plus you never know what might happen with Michael Beasley. You might now want to know.

24. Boston Celtics (19.2 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Jared Sullinger (9.9), Rajon Rondo, Courtney Lee

It's doubtful that Sullinger will pan out to be the top player on a contender, but this still may be a glimpse at what a post-Pierce Celtics core might look like.

25. Washington Wizards (18.1 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: John Wall (10.6), Bradley Beal, Kevin Seraphin

Hey, I like the Wizards' base of Wall and Beal and think their projections will improve greatly over the next year; however, the presence of Seraphin in this group underscores the folly of trying to shortcut past bonafide rebuilding by acquiring the likes of Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza.

26. Brooklyn Nets (17.2 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Deron Williams (8.5), Kris Humphries, Joe Johnson

Chances are, in four years Williams will be no better than a third wheel on a good team, Johnson will be a massive financial sinkhole and Humphries, he likely won't even be in Brooklyn by then.

27. New York Knicks (16.3 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Carmelo Anthony (7.4), Tyson Chandler, Steve Novak

The little-discussed fact about the Knicks' hodge-podge of a rebuilding effort: Not only are the pieces ill-fitting, but they aren't even that young.

28. Charlotte Bobcats (14.6 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Kemba Walker (7.2), Ramon Sessions, Bismack Biyombo

The real depressing part of this for Bobcats fans is that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist doesn't even register as a future core piece. That's probably wrong. In fact, it almost certainly is. Still, there is no other fan base I feel more sorry for than the good folks in Charlotte.

29. Dallas Mavericks (14.1 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: O.J. Mayo (5.6), Brandan Wright, Rodrigue Beaubois

Nowitzki will probably quit before he gets this bad, which only amplifies how bare the Dallas cupboard is at the moment. Don't expect it to last, though, not with Mark Cuban at the helm.

30. Orlando Magic (14.1 Big3 WARP)
Projected core: Andrew Nicholson (7.9), Gustavo Ayon, Nikola Vucevic

This projection is what is left after Superman flies the coop -- three uninspiring "core" pieces that pretty much play the same position. But this will change.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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