Oct 22, 2019 - Sports

The year of the NBA unicorn

An NBA unicorn.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Unicorns have roamed NBA pastures for years, transforming the sport of basketball with their unique blend of size, skill and athleticism.

The intrigue: These generational big men have started to come of age, graduating from "he's going to be an MVP candidate one day" to, well, MVP candidates.

  • They're no longer the future of the league — they're the present. And now that their respective teams have had ample time to build rosters around them, these unicorns could define the 2019-20 season.

The unicorns:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Anthony Davis
  • Nikola Jokic
  • Joel Embiid
  • Kristaps Porzingis
  • Karl Anthony-Towns
  • Ben Simmons

By the numbers: In 2015-16, there were zero players 6-feet-10-inches or taller who were used as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at least 200 times. By 2017-18, there were 3 (Antetokounmpo, Simmons, Kevin Durant).

  • Heck, Blake Griffin was used in 300 such possessions last year — proof that this paradigm shift extends beyond even the unicorns, themselves (or perhaps Griffin should also be considered one now that he's transformed his game).
  • Jokic has recorded triple-doubles at a faster rate than any center in history, and after averaging 7.3 assists per game last season, he's closing in on Wilt Chamberlain's record for highest per-game average by a center (8.6).
  • Towns has been used as a primary ball handler and playmaker in summer workouts, per The Athletic, and is poised to become more Jokic-like now that Tom Thibodeau and his archaic philosophies are long gone.

The big picture: The rise of the unicorn is about far more than the talents of those individuals. Their versatility has changed the rules of the game, allowing teams to play "small-ball" with a slew of big men.

  • Judging by size, we'll see lineups this season that look like they belong in the 1990s, when basketball was dominated by physical, low-post play.
  • But judging by skill, the comparison falls flat. These 7-footers can shoot. They can dribble. They're gazelles. Heck, they're Monstars.
  • Prime examples: The Sixers will have 3 players 6-feet-10-inches or taller in their starting lineup (Simmons, Embiid, Al Horford), while the Lakers have discussed a "jumbo lineup" featuring LeBron James at the 2, Davis at the 3, JaVale McGee at the 4 and Dwight Howard at the 5.

The bottom line: The "Unicorn Era" has been defined by the players listed above, but it's ultimately a reimagining of what's possible for all players (and not just in the NBA) — a renewed sense of creativity in a sport that suddenly feels boundless.

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