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It’s a new era for the NBA: The time of the unicorn

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/5/2020 Jerry Brewer
Giannis Antetokounmpo with a football ball: Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are the standard bearers of the NBA's latest era. (Mark J. Terrill/AP) © Mark J. Terrill/AP Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are the standard bearers of the NBA's latest era. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

A few years ago, Isiah Thomas made an astute point that somehow didn’t connect. The basketball legend was a panelist on the very underrated NBA TV series “Open Court,” during which noteworthy former players share their most honest insights and reflections. This particular conversation was about the evolution of the sport. Thomas referenced his longtime friend and rival Magic Johnson.

If Johnson were playing today, he would “redefine the center position,” Thomas said. The other panelists kind of blew it off because they couldn’t imagine Johnson as anything other than a game-changing, 6-foot-9 point guard. Thomas insisted he would be the same Magic, but in the current positionless NBA, he might be the tallest player on the floor and have the freedom to do whatever he wanted without his brilliance needing a clear label.

In essence, he would always play like he did in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, when the rookie started at center in place of an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played all five positions throughout the game and clinched the title for the Los Angeles Lakers with perhaps his most memorable stat line: 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.

Nah, the other panelists decided. They didn’t want to think so deeply on that day. But with the NBA on pause and nothing but time to ponder what we have seen of the 2019-20 season, my mind keeps going back to Thomas’s assertion. He was right. For evidence, refer to the captivating MVP race that LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo were engaged in before the novel coronavirus pandemic so rudely interrupted.

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The dominance of King James and the Greek Freak underscores that we’re in a new era in the NBA: the time of the unicorn. There are varying definitions of the basketball unicorn, but here’s my simple one: an extraordinarily skilled big man who can do whatever he wants on the court, with no regard to position. Even though superstars such as James and Kevin Durant are well into their second NBA decades and the versatile Kevin Garnett is about to enter the Hall of Fame, the prevalence of the unicorn — and a widespread understanding of how to use him — is still relatively new.

Four years ago, I worked on a project detailing why the NBA had become a point guard’s game. But a shift was occurring then. Now it should be obvious. Guards are still dominant figures, but versatile size is the most coveted commodity. I don’t think the game will ever go back to when centers controlled the paint. Nevertheless, height always will matter in basketball, and with the current rules liberating the talent and creativity of perimeter players, the tallest athletes are adjusting and evolving more rapidly than imagined.

When we talk about positionless basketball, we often frame it with one question: What’s a center now? Well, what’s a point guard? The line is blurring there, too. From both ends, you can see the labels disappearing. That’s my favorite part about the modern game, though I wish there was more physical play. Instead of positions, there should be job descriptions.

This is the new starting five: playmaker, secondary playmaker, shooter, perimeter defender and rim protector. The more players in your lineup who can do most or all of those things, the better the team will be. In terms of rebounding, it’s best to have as many players as possible averaging five to eight boards per game.

Consider a few mind-blowing facts. A true center hasn’t won the MVP award since Shaquille O’Neal 20 years ago. A true low-post player hasn’t captured it since Tim Duncan claimed back-to-back honors 17 years ago. A true point guard hasn’t hoisted that trophy since Steve Nash’s repeat 14 years ago. And a true wing scorer hasn’t won since Kobe Bryant 12 years ago.

Who has been dominating the past dozen seasons? James — whose career stats make the case that he’s the greatest and physically the biggest combo scorer/facilitator the game has ever seen — has been the MVP four times. Four attacking, lead-guard types (Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden) have combined to win five MVP awards while both putting up big scoring numbers and serving as their team’s primary playmaker. Durant, the most skilled 7-footer ever to pretend to be 6-9, won in 2013-14. Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP, and before the hiatus, he seemingly had the edge over James to repeat.

So every MVP since Kobe is a product of the modern NBA, in which rules supporting freedom of movement and philosophies encouraging greater individuality outweigh traditional thinking. With the Greek Freak chasing a title in Milwaukee, with James and Anthony Davis leading the Lakers, with young stars such as Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis (whom Durant nicknamed The Unicorn) adding their own twists, the unicorn-ish superstar is here to stay for a good while. The point guard had about a 12-year run as the premier position in the NBA. This version of a versatile big man may roam for as long as he wants.

Thomas was right. Magic would fit right in, and his 19.5-point career scoring average probably would jump six to nine points in this era without needing to sacrifice his assist totals.

Before this season went on hold, James was leading the league in assists. A player standing taller than 6-5 hasn’t led the NBA in that category since Johnson in 1987.

Thirty-three years ago, Johnson was such a deviation from the norm. It’s still mesmerizing to watch old footage of him, at his size, running the show. Back then, you thought there would never be another like him.

But while Magic remains historically unique, there is no more novelty to seeing the largest players on the court express themselves fully. The time of the unicorn has arrived. They are the new center, and like those old big men of the past, they are becoming essential to championship contention.

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