In retrospect, the most surprising thing about Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors was that it was surprising at all. Great players like playing together, a rather obvious-seeming revelation that nonetheless required a few bold, unpopular decisions to be made plain. Durant’s move, broadly perceived at the time as an act of cowardice, precipitated a wave of similar ones from his peers in the NBA’s inner circle the following offseason. Chris Paul left nearly a quarter-billion dollars of guaranteed money on the table in Los Angeles to join James Harden in the Rockets backcourt; Carmelo Anthony and Paul George forced their way into a hydra with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City; Gordon Hayward ditched an upstart five-seed for the reigning Eastern Conference champs. Really, the only thing that’s keeping all-All-NBA NBA teams from facing each other on Christmas Day is the salary cap.
Beyond the perennial hand-wringing over the inevitability of the NBA Finals, the second wave of superteams led by Golden State has been an unequivocal success. The Association is a better place when its stars are happy, and the recently rehomed one-percenters seem to be. With nothing left to prove as alphas on middling teams, assuming the role of super-teammate on competitive squads has given them new purpose, and it’s forcing them to reinvent themselves on the court in interesting, productive ways. (A challenge that at the moment looks tougher for Anthony and George, but they don’t appear to have soured on it.) There’s intrigue for fans, too, in seeing previously unthinkable combinations of their favorite players in the same starting lineup.
But a separate, equally wonderful payoff of the Durant-era superteams is cropping up in the fallow ground left by those departed stars, where the next generation of hoops heroes has rushed into the vacant spotlight. It doesn’t take advanced logic to realize that someone would occupy the usage vacuum left by, say, Hayward on the Jazz, but thankfully it hasn’t been Marcus Thornton-grade mercenaries scoring the points. Instead, with the pressure to win in the near term greatly diminished on these teams, a youth movement getting lots of touches and room to make mistakes is just beginning to realize its potential. And while in some cities the old stars were just getting in the way, even the emptiest plots—Utah, Indiana, Chicago—have proved fertile.
What has been stunning is how quickly and convincingly the replacements have exceeded their promise. Kristaps Porzingis, pouring in 27 points per game in just his third NBA season, took about a dozen games to evolve from quixotic fantasy into living nightmare. Victor Oladipo, thrust into a headline role with the Pacers as the supposedly nominal return for Paul George, has increased his scoring average by seven points over last season via a newfound marksmanship and penchant for getting to the line. He looks like an All-Star. That Blake Griffin was launching threes off the bounce was remarkable enough on its own—as if he could have even toyed with the idea with Paul on the team—but he was drilling them, too. (He was one of only three players who had made one in every game this season before Monday’s freak injury.)
Elsewhere, rookies are impressing around the league. Donovan Mitchell has already parlayed his precocious offensive game into a starting role with the Jazz, Hayward’s old gig. Given how brilliantly Jayson Tatum (and second-year Jaylen Brown) have played in Hayward’s absence, that grisly opening-night injury is beginning to look almost fortuitous for the Celtics. And hey, Lauri Markkanen is pretty fun!
This isn’t all to say that Carmelo Anthony was a bad teammate—he was trapped in the same Triangle as the rest of the Knicks—but he wasn’t giving up the keys to the offense as long as he was in New York. Likewise, Chris Paul is about as close to a perfect basketball player as we will ever see, and yet the Point God wearing a Clipper uniform precluded Juggernaut Blake Griffin, who is objectively way cooler than Paul and probably more suited to lead, too. Eric Bledsoe put up 21/5/6 for the Suns last year, but you couldn’t come up with a worse use of possessions on the youngest team in the league than getting Eric Bledsoe his numbers. What was Jimmy Butler doing on that Bulls team? And on it goes.
An unprecedented depth of talent in the NBA underpins this rash of breakout seasons as much as the clustering of superstars does. The 2017 draft, touted as one of the best of the decade, somehow now looks underhyped; next year’s promises another handful of franchise players. And how many damn unicorns are there in the league already? Towns, Kristaps, Giannis, Embiid…hell, Anthony Davis is still just 24! If the basketball singularity isn’t already here, it’s rapidly approaching.
With gobs of potential still yet to be realized, an avalanche of biometric data and health trends keeping the best players productive well into their thirties, and the continued growth of basketball as a global sport, the talent pool could be deep enough to make expansion feasible. But why go in that direction when this system is working so well? The stacked teams are bringing the game of basketball to new heights, and most of the non-contenders have reasons to be excited about their roster (and all are profiting from the league’s increased popularity through the revenue-sharing agreement). Even historically tortured Knicks fans can hardly contain themselves these days; even the draft-averse Clippers are finding gems in the second round.
And maybe the downstream effect of the league’s top-heaviness means the Warriors’ grip on the O’Brien trophy isn’t as strong as it looks. Today’s fallow ground is tomorrow’s bumper crop. It might not even take that long.