The NBA’s New Age Is on Full Display

Inspired by the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, a new generation of superstars-to-be looks to unseat them—sooner or later.

The New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala (9) and forward Kevon Looney (5) in a May 1 game
New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala (9) and forward Kevon Looney (5) during the second quarter in game two of the second round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on May 1 (Kyle Terada / USA TODAY Sports / Reuters)

The tetralogy is still in play. Thanks largely to LeBron James’s heroics during a first-round series against the Indiana Pacers—averages of 34.4 points, 10 rebounds, and 7.7 assists, including a 45-point effort in Game 7—the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors could meet for a fourth consecutive year in the NBA Finals. That would confirm what hardly needs confirming: that these two clubs define the present era of professional basketball to an unprecedented degree. Never before had a pair of NBA teams met in the championship round even three times in a row, but James’s Cavaliers and the Stephen Curry– and Kevin Durant–led Warriors now have something of a standing appointment.

If in years past this sense of predetermination dampened the early rounds of the playoffs—just wait for the Finals, the chorus went—this year’s postseason has been shot through with possibility from the start. It’s not just that both conference favorites look vulnerable for the first time since their runs began, the Warriors to the point-piling Houston Rockets and the Cavaliers due to their remarkably thin roster. It’s that across the spectrum of playoff teams, from fringe contenders to also-rans, young players are flashing the skills and gumption necessary to shake the league loose from its status quo. Whether it arrives this June or not, the NBA’s future is starting to come for its present.

Here’s an abridged rundown of the playoffs’ first round: A Boston Celtics team missing its two best players to injury—and led instead by the second-year forward Jaylen Brown and the rookie Jayson Tatum—beat the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games. The All-Star-less Utah Jazz, with the rookie guard Donovan Mitchell at the helm, disassembled an Oklahoma City roster featuring the defending MVP and a combined 22 All-Star appearances. The Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who a year ago had played only 31 professional games between them, cruised past the veteran Miami Heat. The sci-fi center Anthony Davis, 25 years old and without a playoff win to his credit, willed the New Orleans Pelicans to a sweep of the heavily favored Portland Trail Blazers.

It’s the basketball equivalent of a desert-wildflower super bloom, as stunning and as rare. Arguably not since the mid–2000s—when a 2003 draft class that included James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony began to assert itself on the postseason stage—has the NBA seen such a concentrated rush of young talent. “It’s a great class,” the Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said of this year’s rookies back in January, going as far as to invoke the 1984 group that included Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. “And over the next two, three, or four years, that will really tell the story of how great.” But they, along with players slightly their senior, haven’t made fans wait that long.

There’s no shortage of statistics emphasizing the early accomplishments. Mitchell, this season, was the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Anthony did so 14 years ago. Simmons, in Game 4 of the Miami series, became the first rookie to record a playoff triple-double since Magic Johnson. Tatum was the first rookie to score 1,000 points while shooting over 40 percent from the three-point line since Curry in 2009. And while Davis is a few years removed from his rookie season, those years have been spent with a New Orleans team that’s only just now emerging from an extended purgatory; Davis’s 33 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game during the Pelicans’ opening-round victory made for a charming introduction to casual fans.

Beyond numbers, though, this generation sets itself apart in how fully it has internalized the lessons of the one it aims to supplant. Watching Simmons—a 6-foot-10 and functionally ambidextrous point guard equally ready to flick a no-look pass or throw down a two-handed jam—cannot help but bring James to mind, and Mitchell’s madcap drives to the rim would evoke Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook even if the two hadn’t shared a court in Round 1. “Beating a guy I looked up to [Westbrook] and I model my game after is special,” Mitchell admitted after his 38-point effort helped the Jazz seal that series.

The Warriors may have provided the best schooling of all. They have become the toast of the NBA in large part by prioritizing creativity over doctrine, refusing positional norms, and stretching the court’s geometry in new and unusual ways. To today’s up-and-comers, that mindset is the doctrine, established by the Golden State’s string of playoff runs and titles. Its influence is now visible whenever the 7-foot Embiid steps out to hoist a triple or Tatum runs through a thicket of elaborate screens. And what is Davis—whose only playoff appearance prior to this year ended in a sweep at the hands of those Warriors—but a player as capable of reordering the space around the rim as Curry did the far reaches beyond the three-point line? Davis combines arms the length of ladders with a dancer’s agility and an inventor’s intuition; it’s not hard to picture basketball’s coming era coalescing around him.

It’d be premature to suggest that era has fully arrived. At the moment, the Pelicans trail the Warriors, 0–2, in their Western Conference semifinal series, though the matchup has a good deal more competitive fire than the last version, and the Jazz, despite tying the Rockets, 1–1, Wednesday night, remain substantial underdogs to the team that amassed the league’s best regular-season record. Some set of youngsters will emerge from the Celtics–Sixers series, but that team may well run into James, who has spent the past seven years denying all other Eastern Conference hopefuls a shot at the Finals.

Still, even if Cavs–Warriors Part 4 comes to pass, that main event finally has a worthy undercard. The tedium of recent years—predictable victims falling in predictable order en route to the awaited matchup—is now replaced with an extended preview. The teams that have dominated this generation have inspired the next one, and sooner or later, that next one will catch up.