The National Basketball Association (NBA) has seen the playing field change throughout the course of its 76-year existence. Team offenses drift further away from the traditional post up game that dominated previous eras, popularizing a playstyle that showcased big men who established their position near the basket. Organizations and their coaches now focus more and more on the modernized “pace-and-space” playstyle, an offensive strategy that utilizes smaller, more agile players to outrun the opposing team.
In the up-tempo game of today, many teams that previously struggled to find success now sit atop their conferences. Players who were considered to be among the best in the league have embraced smaller roles, still hoping to contribute for a chance to win a ring or straddling to a roster spot while on the brink of retirement.
After all, change is what gives the NBA its identity, with each of its eras being defined by different playstyles, winning franchises, and—most importantly—generational talents who put themselves in the history books and redefine the way the sport is played for years to come.
In the league’s history, talent has always come and gone. Each decade has always featured its own share of stars as eventual greats burst onto the scene while others were on the tail-end of their careers. The 80s had Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the 90s had Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, and the 2000s had Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
The current generation of NBA fans has been blessed enough to witness the multiple battles of LeBron James and Stephen Curry, marking them as the two biggest superstars who defined the modern game. Fans have also grown accustomed to the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, and their fair share of historic moments. These players have earned the respect they deserve, with fans viewing them as active legends for withstanding time with persistent dominance in the league.
However, as the old saying goes, father time is undefeated. The biggest names of the 2010s, like all other great players before them, may have already reached the twilight years of their careers. Some of them now struggle to replicate the stats they used to put up while some are benched for younger talent. With injuries and age becoming factors for the older stars’ setbacks, the thrones they sit on will inevitably be vacated soon. But who has what it takes to wear the crowns as the new kings of the NBA?
Meet the heirs
It surely takes a special talent to debut as a professional basketball player at the age of 16—and Luka Dončić is more than just proving that he is that. In his younger years, Dončić was already eyed by the big leagues in the world of European basketball. He signed a five-year contract for Spain’s Real Madrid as early as 13 years old. Even before he was drafted into the NBA, Dončić was already one to watch in the basketball world for being the youngest EuroLeague and EuroLeague Final Four Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 2018, where he led Real Madrid to the EuroLeague title.
In his rookie season alone, he averaged 21.2 points per game (PPG), 7.8 rebounds per game (RPG), and six assists per game (APG)—a performance that won him the Kia Rookie of the Year of the 2018-2019 NBA season.
There is no doubt that he is a one-of-a-kind franchise player. Dončić’s basketball campaign got teams to the winning column and even the playoffs. In just five seasons, Dončić has been dominating and taking the league by storm, currently averaging 33.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, and 8.7 APG. Recently, Dončić manufactured a 60-point triple-double in a historical performance against the New York Knicks. This display made him the first NBA player in history to record a 60-20-10 stat line and earned him the record for the highest-scoring triple-double in history. With a promising career ahead of him, Dončić has been consistent in putting on a show for the fans every game he plays and, who knows, in just a few years, he could be shattering every NBA record across the board.
After being drafted third in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, fans and analysts alike were not quite sure of what to make of Jayson Tatum—finishing only third overall in the rookie of the year race while averaging 13.9 PPG, five RPG, and 1.6 APG. However, Tatum showed flashes of becoming the face of the Boston Celtics during their unexpected deep playoff run in 2018 that forced the Cleveland Cavaliers to a seven-game series, originating Tatum’s iconic poster dunk on LeBron James. Since then, the Celtics struggled to replicate their Playoff success—up until last season.
In their previous 2021-2022 campaign, Tatum managed to lead the Boston Celtics to their first NBA Finals appearance since losing to the Los Angeles Lakers back in 2010, ultimately losing out to the Golden State Warriors in a hard-fought battle between the teams. Earlier this season, the Celtics ran into management drama with the controversy surrounding former head coach Ime Udoka. But, this didn’t stop the 24-year-old wing from elevating his game even further and making a resounding leap into superstardom—averaging career-highs in points, blocks, and rebounds. Subsequently, the Boston Celtics stand atop the Eastern Conference standings and his consistency at an elite level combined with his ability to stay relatively healthy has made him one of the favorites in the league MVP race for the first time in his promising career.
With a Championship, a Finals MVP, two MVPs, and a Defensive Player of the Year Award to his name at just 28 years old, Antetokounmpo has proven himself worthy to be mentioned alongside some of the NBA’s greatest. The six-time All-Star and All-NBA selection is known for his ability to single-handedly take games over, dominating the paint while pulling defensive stops. Being a lottery pick and averaging just 12.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 2.9 APG in his first three
seasons did not stop Antetokounmpo from unlocking new heights that only a few have reached. After winning the Most Improved Player Award in 2017, he was handed the keys to the Milwaukee Bucks, a franchise that had seen little success in the Playoffs since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1970s.
Antetokounmpo is now the very definition of what a “unicorn” is in the sport. As a freak of nature carrying the arsenals of a guard, a wing, and a big man, all at once, the term is only fitting as most franchises could only fantasize about having a player of his caliber. There are two sides to the basketball court, and players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James have proved themselves as bonafide two-way superstars in the league for their superb ability to both score and defend. Antetokounmpo’s play and accolades speak for themselves; he is one of the living legends of today’s era still in his prime, ready to take the mantle of the best in the NBA.
Watch the throne
The NBA will always produce the world’s best in the sport. However, not everyone is destined to stand alongside Hall of Famers. No matter how many points, rebounds, and assists a player gets, statistics will never be enough to solidify one’s status to be legendary. The well-deserved hardware will always speak louder than anything else. Bill Russell had his championships, Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar had their MVPs, and James and Bryant took the All-Star Game to new heights. Dončić, Tatum, and Antetokounmpo would have to compete against each other to collect rings, trophies, and signature plays to take the throne.
As the league pushes for the All-Star Break, both fans and players look forward to seeing who has what it takes to replicate or surpass what the legends accomplished in the past. The next torchbearers of the NBA will have their time soon, but while the aging stars are still here, fans will have to sit back and appreciate the players we grew up watching as they pave the way for the future legends of basketball.