What Can We Expect Whenever the NBA Gets Back to Business?
Looking at Pt. 2 of LeBron, Giannis and the league's Gen Z movement
Without the Finals happening for the foreseeable future, this NBA season will lack, uh, finality. While this is stupidly obvious, the playoffs are also the truest barometer for the state of basketball. The regular season provides a massive summary of the league’s overarching philosophy, but the most informative developments occur when the very best teams are crammed together for two months without any social distance.
In 2015, the Warriors discovered their Death Lineup, ushering in a new wave of utter small-ball domination; in 2018, the Celtics fully exposed how Joel Embiid’s and Ben Simmons’s peccadillos can be weaponized against the 76ers; last year, the Raptors unveiled an array of unconventional zone defensive schemes that took down Giannis Antetokoumpo and Steph Curry, marking a fundamental reimagining of defense. This year, the month of March has revealed that it is now actually several dozen years long and your outerwear collection doesn’t hit as hard over Zoom. But in this boring new world where there’s nothing but time yet nothing to fill it, it’s worth considering what we still don’t know. I mean, it’s either this or the Iditarod. So let’s talk about the NBA’s biggest unanswered questions and some possible answers.
Who is the best player in the NBA?
It’s LeBron James, right? Doesn’t it have to be LeBron? After suffering the first serious injury of his career and seemingly passing Giannis Antetokounmpo the title of the NBA’s biggest kahuna, LeBron has amassed yet another MVP-caliber year. A point guard for the first time, he led the league in assists and spearheaded the big playmaker craze that’s sweeping the league; even at 35 years old, LeBron seems to be the most likely portent of the NBA’s future. And yet, he’s subtly showing the initial creep of decline: he’s dunking less frequently than he has at any point this decade (suggesting a minor drop in explosiveness) and he’s isolating less efficiently than he has over the last four years (suggesting that he’s relatively struggling to create his own shot).
Further obscuring the matter is that Antetokounmpo has somehow improved from last year, when he won MVP. Although it’s weird to say that Antetokounmpo isn’t the best player despite being the overwhelming favorite to be the repeat winner of the de facto Best Player Award, playoff defenses can safely socially distance themselves from him until he refines his perimeter shooting. Fans of Anthony Davis, James Harden and Luka Doncic could make arguments … but to quote Matilda Cuomo’s favorite son: you are wrong. Kawhi Leonard sidled his way into the NBA’s elitest during last year’s postseason and is probably the strongest non-Bron contender after growing considerably as a passer. With some combination of the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks primed to meet in the playoffs, the question will receive a definitive answer. Until then — and probably after then, honestly — it’s LeBron.
Is this LeBron’s last chance?
Two facts: 1. The Lakers can absolutely win the title this year; 2. The Lakers are an old team without potential for internal improvement. Last summer’s decision to trade for Anthony Davis was inarguably correct, but also emptied the cupboard of every promising player or draft pick. Kyle Kuzma, the solitary rotation player younger than 25 years old, is a crooked fit next to LeBron and AD on account of being a major hindrance to winning basketball games. More, the Lakers are threatened by the existential issue of a purportedly lowering salary cap — the regular season was bookended by two viral situations out of China, which will invariably cause the NBA’s revenues to drop after years of growth. This combo of pulled sponsorships and missed games could make retaining this roster prohibitively pricey, potentially leaving Lakers with holes that they can’t heal or even suture shut. Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are hardly elemental to LA’s success, but the Lakers wouldn’t have the means to truly replace them either.
There’s a certain precariousness in the Lakers’ current construction: namely, that LeBron James is the only playmaker who, and I cannot stress this enough, isn’t Rajon Rondo. Their success is directly tied to LeBron; his every minor slippage will reverberate through a roster consisting mostly of unidimensional offensive specialists. The addition of Davis has reenergized The King, but with every passing year the Lakers must find new ways to augment and not merely complement him.
When will the league’s Gen Z make its mark?
Millennials, once beacons of youthful disruption, are washed people who do washed things, like filing their taxes and listening to J. Cole. Now, Generation Z, evicted from their dorms and hoarding stockpiles of soon-to-be-banned Banana Ice Puff Bars, are coming for the crown. In the NBA too, a new wave of young talent is indelibly shaping the league. These playoffs, though, are the real test to see which of these future stars can drop that qualifying “future.” In the East, Jayson Tatum has emerged as the game’s next great scorer, alternately slinking through defenses and shooting over them. He’s the fulcrum of an underappreciated Celtics team and his continued improvement could catapult Boston into a Finals berth. For Miami, Bam Adebayo is an all-court defensive hellion who also dishes out more than five assists per game thanks to his mastery of the intricate choreography of a dribble-handoff.
Out west, Luka Doncic wrapped up the greatest first two seasons in NBA history. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC’s leading scorer, is an unguardable bundle of arms, legs and finesse. In Memphis, Ja Morant and Jarren Jackson prematurely ended years of rebuilding because they were too good to tank. Zion Williamson is approximately 300 pounds and walks like he’s failing a sobriety test and is utterly unstoppable. In the last three years, the NBA has been inundated by an unprecedented amount of talent, which is overhauling the league’s hegemony. Still, most of these young players haven’t been exposed to the playoffs, which bloodlessly expose and exploit each smallest imperfection. We know that their stocks — no, stonks — are rising, but only the playoffs can determine by how much.
Are point guards modern basketball’s next victim?
While downsizing and small-ball lineups defined the 2010s, the 2020s portend a new wave of wing-sized players with the skillsets of guards. Just as clodhopping centers were phased out in favor of more skilled wing, point guards could be marginalized by bigger players who can capably run the offense. Already, three of the top five assisters are taller than 6’7 (LeBron, Luka Doncic,and Ben Simmons). In this light, it’s notable that the three primary contenders — the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks — are all wing-driven enterprises. Conversely, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors are the only surefire playoff teams that are built around a traditional point guard. To be sure, point guards are too offensively significant to ever be totally disregarded, but it’s becoming obvious that, in the playoffs at least, small defenders will be ceaselessly targeted until they either acquit themselves well or get benched. Whereas point guards who are switchable (think: Kyle Lowry and his video-vixen butt) or pyromaniac scorers (think: Damian Lillard or Steph Curry) will always have their place, the value of the position’s upper-middle-class might require a total recalibration. Brad Stevens will have to conjure defensive schemes that adequately hide Kemba Walker; the Clippers have already resigned themselves to the fact that Lou Williams will be utterly unplayable in the fourth quarter in the playoffs; the Hawks’ ceiling is capped until Trae Young provides more defense than a colander in a flood. As such, every point guard must confront a common question: Can you produce enough offensive value to justify your defensive weakness?