This NBA postseason has been one of the most thrilling in years, primarily because of the transition we’re seeing towards the new, younger faces of the league who aren’t just playing well but winning – just like the NBA standard-bearers that they are replacing.
We all saw this coming years ago but didn’t want to acknowledge it – kind of like the eccentric auntie or the uncle involved in some shenanigans that we chalk up to as “Unc being Unc!” As we continue to be enthralled by some of the most exciting early rounds of NBA playoffs that we have seen in years, it’s easy to gravitate towards what we see and enjoy it. But it’s what we’re not seeing - or who we’re not seeing, rather - that is a painful but much-needed reminder that Father Time is on the call for several players we have come to love who are doing the same thing we are these days - watching the playoffs and not playing in them.
Indeed, this postseason in the NBA, more than any we have seen in recent years, will be the definitive “passing of the torch” from the greats. Icons, who will soon take their place among basketball immortals, to their modern-day replacements.
This is the life cycle of the NBA. An inevitable transference occurs from Magic to Bird to MJ to Lebron to KD, with new one-name wonders on the scene like Book (Devin Booker), JT (Jayson Tatum) and Ja Morant, who have done more than just deliver as All-Stars in each of their still-blossoming careers. They are doing what all the one-name greats do and that’s win at the highest level while taking up camp atop the NBA mountaintop.
But in order to be part of NBA royalty, you have to dethrone the King’s court, right?
LeBron James, the gold standard for greatness for the past couple decades, has been able to drag some of the worst teams to unprecedented heights that often included championship-title runs. But this year, as good as James was statistically, it wasn’t enough to get the Los Angeles Lakers into the play-in tournament. And Durant, who will be remembered someday as one of the all-time great scorers in league history, looked as mortal as we’ve ever seen when Durant’s Brooklyn Nets were swept by the Boston Celtics. In that series, JT (Jayson Tatum) took another step in his growth into being one of the game’s best in this moment, playing at a Top-5 Tatum level for the Celtics.
Even in playoff series, where the OG is still doing his thing, like Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, our focus isn’t nearly as much on his basketball wizardry as it has been in the past. In Golden State’s series against Memphis, all eyes are on Ja Morant, a player many liken to Hall of Famer Allen Iverson—but with a better jump shot.
Numbers are often the metric used to determine a player’s impact on the game. However, they are just part of the puzzle when it comes to being one of the in-the-moment greats in the NBA. At some point, the numbers will ring hollow if they don’t come in the process of winning games — playoff games to be precise.
That’s why some of the league’s really good players like Chicago’s Zach LaVine or Miami’s Jimmy Butler or Utah’s Donovan Mitchell don’t get the same kind of across-the-board love that Morant, Tatum or Dallas’ Luka Doncic, who are all on a trajectory to be Hall of Famers. There’s only so much room for the greats of the game to occupy. And as they continue to ascend, we find ourselves in a more reflective mindset when it comes to players that for many years, we’ve loved growing up admiring and others, we just learned to grow to love with time.
LeBron James has played the hero, the villain and every other character in the NBA narrative during his 20 seasons as a pro. But it’s clear that his best days are behind him, and that any success he enjoys on the court has more to do with those he’s playing with than it does what he brings to the game. Durant is still a top-tier player like James, but the series against the Celtics were the first real signs that the 33-year-old couldn’t deliver big-time stats – which he did in the Boston series – AND win.
There is no shame or shade that should come Durant or James’ way. They have been too good for the game for too long. But their respective reigns as standard bearers when it comes to NBA royalty, are coming to an end. A new crop of NBA greatness is ready to take over, which is the one thing that this year’s NBA playoffs have made abundantly clear to us all.