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.