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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.

Go deeper

16 mins ago - Health

Treasury begins dispersing $350 billion in COVID relief funding to states and localities

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. Treasury on Monday began giving state and local governments access to $350 billion in emergency funding from the American Rescue Plan, the department announced Monday.

Why it matters: Though the money is aimed at helping state, local, territorial and tribal governments recover from the pandemic's economic fallout, the administration will generally give them wide latitude on how they can use the funds.

Game developers break silence around salaries

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Developers are sharing their salaries on Twitter under the hashtag #GameDevPaidMe to encourage pay transparency in their industry.

The big picture: The hashtag started circulating last year, but has returned periodically as developers fight for better working conditions. Salary sharing is a way to equalize the field. By removing the secrecy, as well as the stigma, around discussing pay, workers have more power to advocate for themselves when negotiating salaries and raises.

44 mins ago - World

Jerusalem crisis: Hamas fires rockets, Israel begins military campaign

Palestinian protesters and an Israeli police officer near the Damascus Gate. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Days of tensions in Jerusalem escalated into an exchange of fire on Monday, as Hamas fired dozens of rockets toward Israel and the Israeli military responded with strikes of its own and said it was preparing for a military operation that could last several days.

Why it matters: This is the first time Hamas has fired rockets at Jerusalem since 2014, and the most serious escalation between the Israelis and Palestinians in many months. It comes during the most sensitive days on the calendar — the last days of Ramadan and the Jerusalem Day commemoration on Monday — and amid political crises in both countries.

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