In this season of newfound NBA parity, more stars than ever have a chance to thrill. Or to disappoint. Level the playing field; reveal the truth about the game’s greatest players. Anticipation of an epic 2019-20 campaign doesn’t merely involve the optimistic side of possibility. As the balanced teams compete, there will be a parsing of individual greatness as well, and some of the scrutiny will lead to difficult revelations.
Will the real NBA superstars please stand up? The super team era seems over, or at least delayed. LeBron James is two years removed from his domination of the Eastern Conference, and with Kevin Durant now in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson on the mend, Golden State won’t own the entire league. If you hate dynasties, this is great. But there’s also a convenience to having a single alpha team that few are willing to admit.
For most of the past five seasons, especially the past three with Durant, the Warriors were unstoppable when healthy. For the opponents, it caused great angst and jealousy. But it created comfort, too. Yes, comfort. If James couldn’t overtake the Warriors while averaging a triple-double in the NBA Finals, it gave all competition, all aspiring great players, an excuse for their shortcomings.
You could appreciate the phenomenal statistics of James Harden or Russell Westbrook without getting too carried away with criticism of their postseason failures. You could blame the New Orleans Pelicans, not Anthony Davis, for being unable to build a consistent winner. You could be patient with young stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Nikola Jokic.
But now? While there could be a squad or two that places three players on the all-star team, the new season begins with no one having more than two perennial top 20 players on their active roster. In lieu of the super team, this is the year of the dynamic duo.
Over the past decade, you’ve seen what the Miami Heat and even James’s Cavaliers accomplished when three high-level stars join forces. The Warriors took it to another level in 2016 when they added a fourth in Durant, the game’s most versatile scorer. Such star conglomerates are impossible to handle, and it requires extraordinary team-building acumen — and luck — to create that kind of force. But teams built around a two-headed monster are easier to form. At the same time, even if the combination is as potent as James and Davis coming together with the Los Angeles Lakers, the duo isn’t enough to guarantee a title. There’s still a need for a solid roster overall.
So despite their best efforts, the Lakers will have a challenging time. They are competing against the Clippers, who have two new all-stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to go with quality depth. And as great as the Clippers could be, they must overcome the fact that they don’t have the continuity of the Denver Nuggets or the established identity of the Utah Jazz or the long history of the Portland Trail Blazers’ core.
This newfound parity is an accidental gift. It wasn’t the grand strategic plan of numerous stars to reset the league. They were just enjoying their freedom of movement. Some made decisions with a championship purely in mind. Some wanted, most of all, to play with a friend. Others sought change for the sake of change. Heck, Durant got tired of playing with one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
Throw all of these mismatched intentions and expressions of independence into the air, and somehow it resulted in what seems, on paper, to be the greatest opportunity for parity since Michael Jordan’s 21-month sabbatical to play baseball 25 years ago.
During that period, the Houston Rockets won both the 1994 and 1995 titles before Jordan was fully back. But they were more of a gritty champion than an indomitable force, and there were plenty of teams with realistic championship hopes.
Then Jordan returned, shook off the rust and reclaimed the league. After he left Chicago, the San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty began. Then Shaq and Kobe learned to win. The Spurs dynasty’ continued. The Boston Celtics built the first modern-day Big Three. Kobe Bryant took over again. James figured out all the cheat codes. The Spurs’ dynasty continued. The Warriors figured out even more potent cheat codes. And here we are today, a quarter century later, at a rare moment in which no single team truly runs things. Considering NBA history, it’s certain to be a brief period.
The real intrigue comes back to the stars, of course. There are a few with a chance to further their greatness: James in the twilight of his career; Steph Curry as the Warriors transition; Leonard as he vies to add durability and longevity to his résumé; Durant, in a year, once he recovers from his torn Achilles tendon. But those are players who are competing to elevate their all-time status, not validate their careers in the present. The true pressure is on some of the others who could define themselves as either transcendent or flawed despite their stats and highlights: Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Antetokounmpo, Davis, Embiid, Harden, Jokic, Westbrook.
It’s a season of opportunity. But it’s also a season of separation. Who’s greater? The NBA is typically a league in which the biggest stars win. Without a super team, without a clear got-next contender in line to wear the crown, the division of star power will be even easier to determine.
The super team era was a burden for many stars with championship aspirations. But those overpowering squads absolved them of intense scrutiny. Not anymore. There’s no such thing as hopeless.
Who are the superstars? Who are the stat-padding frauds? Who’s willing to adapt and sacrifice when the ultimate prize is finally attainable?
Bless the parity, if you can handle it.