The NBA is currently garnering more attention than it has in quite some time. Superstars, super-teams, and up-and-coming prospects have been on full display in the league’s first week, and if things continue, 201 could be one of the wildest seasons of basketball we’ve ever seen. Brian Hall and Alex Schubauer discuss the state of the league and more:
Brian: Alex, the NBA season isn’t even a week old yet and already we’ve got some of the best basketball we’ve seen in a long time.
Alex: I must restrain myself, as I love all NBA basketball too much, even the parts most would consider bad. But you’re right. The number of talented players and teams putting up incredible performances is at least close to an all-time high.
B: It’s more top-to-bottom loaded as well. On the top end you’ve got the Cavs and their big three looking solid early. The Spurs look to really challenge the Warriors as alpha dog in the West, Russ is averaging a triple-double for OKC, and poor, poor Anthony Davis is putting up incredible stat lines with little help. But on the bottom end too you’ve got some really fun teams. The 76ers are at least watchable this season, the Lakers are fun again, and even teams like the Bucks and Hornets can play an entertaining game as well.
A: I don’t think any other league can make the worst of its teams as interesting as the NBA is doing right now. The Sixers and Lakers may get the first two picks in next year’s drafts, yet they have Ben Simmons and D’Angelo Russell, two of the most exciting players in the league. Davis’s Pelicans have no shot at the postseason and neither do DeMarcus Cousins’s Kings, counting out two of the league’s best big men from the start. And yet nearly all their games will be worth watching. And Golden State’s (respectively) lackluster start even makes not meeting expectations a fascinating plot. There’s something interesting everywhere you look.
B: And it isn’t just the quality of play, but also the level of fun the league currently has. Part of this is, I think, very narrative driven. I hate narratives in most sports, but in basketball, I think they work so well because a player’s individuality is so well expressed. It’s fun to see LeBron get to play the role of returning hero this season. It’s fun to let Russ Westbrook go scorched earth on the rest of the league. It’s fun for the Warriors to be the villains. And what’s better, the NBA has done an excellent job of letting the players elevate the fun level on the court. In a year when the NFL has been heavily scrutinized for cracking down on any and all fun, the NBA seems to be doing the opposite, and it feels like it’s working to resounding success.
A: Basketball inherently brings out individual personalities. With so few players on each team one player can make a greater impact by himself, and without helmets or caps to wear the fans can see a player’s every move and expression the whole game. The league would be stupid to restrict that. It leads to inherent marketability as well. LeBron, Steph, Melo, Harden, and many others are creating personal brands, and not just because of their play; they have recognizable personalities. This leads to more economic opportunities for the players themselves and the league at large. The NBA and the player’s association are having no problem working together to finish a new Collective Bargaining Agreement as we type. That harmony just doesn’t exist in other leagues. And it leads to a better product on the court.
B: Speaking of the product on the court, what’s been the most interesting thing to come out of the season this first week? I think people expected things like Russ going off on a nightly basis, or the Warriors to have some early chemistry troubles, but those things are still very much in the spotlight, as well as others. What stands out to you?
A: I think the young talent from across the league making a case to become the new household names is happening quicker than most NBA junkies expected. Joel Embiid missed two years to injuries and looks to be the top Rookie of the Year candidate already. Devin Booker is improving on his breakout year last year for Phoenix. Karl-Anthony Towns is a monster. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Aaron Gordon makes highlight plays nightly. Russell with the Lakers and Kristaps Porzingis with the Knicks are standing out in the brightest of spotlights. Casual fans are going to know all of these guys real quick.
B: People like to talk about how this is LeBron’s league, and guys like LBJ, Westbrook, and the Warriors are certainly some of the marquee draws for the average fan, but this crop of young talent that has come up says a lot about the future of the league as well. The question is, do you think that, in five years when LeBron is in the twilight of his career, the Warriors are all in their early thirties, and the current young talent is hitting their primes, will there still be young talent coming in to sustain the overall level of play in the league?
A: In my mind, absolutely. It’s possible to see future NBA champions in Minnesota, Los Angeles or Philly. Each player I named above should be an All-Star in the not-so-distant future. And there are players and teams in between the veterans like LeBron and the rookies. John Wall and Brad Beal have plenty of time in front of them in Washington. The only real veteran on the Celtics is Al Horford. Utah has a stellar group of 20-somethings. On top of that, projections for the 2017 draft class are looking up as well. Obviously injuries or contract disputes can ruin the most promising players or teams. But the talent is there across the board to sustain the NBA for years in my eyes. Are you as optimistic as I am?
B: Absolutely. One thing beyond what you mentioned is the steadier stream of foreign-born players being brought into the league as well. The NBA is more of a global game than it was ten years ago, and guys like Porzingis coming in and having an immediate impact is really encouraging, along with everything else mentioned. But with the current level of young talent, and the amount of talent coming into, and currently in, the college game, I think that 2016 is just the beginning for this era of the NBA, and it looks to be incredibly fun.