Unpredictability Returns to the NBA

For the first time in years, nobody really knows what to expect.

Jeff Chiu / AP

Back in 2012, the basketball writer Zach Lowe advanced what he called “The 5 Percent Theory.” It addressed the question of whether NBA teams, during the peak of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat squad, should wait out the superteam to acquire young players and time an upswing with Miami’s eventual decline. Lowe’s answer, sourced in part from leading NBA minds, was no. “If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title—and that group includes a very small number of teams every year—you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title,” Daryl Morey, then known simply as the Houston Rockets’ bold and analytical general manager, told Lowe.

Over the course of the decade, the question became central to the league. By signing Kevin Durant in 2016, the Golden State Warriors morphed from a recurring championship favorite to arguably the most dominant team in NBA history. They played basketball that teetered between beautiful and dull: reams of three-pointers from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, buckets on demand from Durant, 30-point victory margins, and two straight titles. Only injury could stop them, and only injury did. When the Toronto Raptors beat the Warriors in last year’s finals, Durant and Thompson were on the sideline. It was a fitting end to an era in which underdogs needed whatever help they could get.

The season that opens tonight will be different. A spate of offseason player movement—Durant and Kyrie Irving to the Brooklyn Nets, the finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and the All-Star swingman Paul George to the L.A. Clippers, Anthony Davis to James’s L.A. Lakers, Russell Westbrook to James Harden’s Rockets—produced an assortment of viable contenders. Before this summer’s free-agency period, Golden State was the betting favorite for the next championship; five teams have since overtaken them. Basketball fans may not see a stretch like the Warriors’ recent one again for a long while, but the start of this season is a reminder of what their dominance cost: the intrigue of something less than perfection.

After a preseason game between the Lakers and Warriors last week, James laid out the possibilities a player like Davis presents. “There are not many guys in our league that can affect the game the way AD does,” James told ESPN. “He can score, rebound, and pass. He just does it at a high level.” It was the sort of praise James might have given to a new All-NBA teammate at any moment, but this year it felt loaded with renewed relevance. The primacy of Golden State in recent seasons had the secondary effect of helping to codify a kind of basketball dogma: the prioritization of long-range shooting above all else. The Warriors buried opponents in three-pointers, the Rockets tried to take the practice even further, and teams built around slashing scorers or big men—such as Davis’s former New Orleans Pelicans—struggled to keep up.

Now, that ideology is set to be tested. Will the Warriors’ way remain the post-Warriors standard? Toronto’s championship offered an insight. The lasting image was of Leonard muscling his way inside the arc and canning mid-range jumpers, an old-school approach that drew comparisons to Michael Jordan. Other teams in the league’s top tier similarly favor the triple less than the recent trendsetters. The best players on the Philadelphia 76ers, a favorite to emerge from the Eastern Conference, are the 6-foot-10-inch point guard Ben Simmons and the almost-7-foot center Joel Embiid, each of whom does his best work in the interior. Neither James nor Davis shoots a particularly high percentage of three-pointers.

The burliest teams understand the necessity of outside shooting, of course. But the new class of contenders also reflects the rise of the unicorns: retro-futuristic big men who can alternately hammer home dunks, block shots, fling crosscourt passes out of the post, and step outside to initiate the offense. Embiid, Davis, and the rookie Zion Williamson typify the trend, but Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are its standard-bearers. Jokic is something like the Denver Nuggets’ point-center, pairing instruction-manual post moves with oracular passing. Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, is a 6-foot-11-inch blur of lengthy strides and ferocious jams. His Milwaukee Bucks team has built an approach that seems like a kind of corrective, a way to resolve the Golden State influence with more traditional at-the-rim physicality. Antetokounmpo drives and undoes a defense; the four shooters stationed around him hoist the open threes he creates.

This season also presents the opportunity to see a generation of NBA principals in a new light. For the now 34-year-old James, last season was a rare failure, one in which he sat out 27 games with injury while the Lakers missed the playoffs. For the first time in his career, the four-time MVP can convincingly pursue a comeback narrative. Curry, meanwhile, faces a challenge he hasn’t since his early days in the league. With Durant moving on and Thompson scheduled to miss at least the majority of the season, he’ll have to assume the role of go-to scorer, his shooting no longer part of a broader system but its engine. The presumptive central role has also given him the third-best odds to win this year’s MVP, an award he hasn’t won since prior to Durant’s arrival.

Hard as it is to recall after the tumult of recent weeks, the NBA’s offseason began with a subtler scandal: League powers were concerned about the rising influence and self-direction of players, their increasing use of leverage to team up when and where they like. “I suppose we all have to get used to the NBA reality that stars are free agents even when they’re not,” Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt tweeted after George engineered a trade to the Clippers with three years left on his contract with the Thunder. There is fear of a growing mercenary aspect, of individual teams being little more than temporary landing spots for hastily arranged partnerships.

But this year, at least, the shake-up is welcome. The NBA had fallen into a pattern of narrow variations on a familiar theme: a heavy favorite and outmatched challengers. Now nobody knows what to expect. The season’s theme might come to be generational turnover (Antetokounmpo and Embiid forming the league’s central rivalry), veterans reasserting themselves (James versus Leonard), or unpredictability itself—the night-to-night differences in a suddenly wide-open sport.