March 12, 2017

2017: The Year of the Unicorn


Aaron Lavitsky ‘19
To understand this year’s National Basketball Association season, you must first know what a unicorn is.
No, not the majestic beasts with horns and rainbows trailing behind them, but rather the “majestic beasts” of the NBA. A unicorn, in basketball terms, is something that no NBA fan has seen before – something so new and different that may be imitated, but will never replicated.
In context, some all time NBA greats like Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas or Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade are not unicorns. Although they have achieved immeasurable greatness and success in their careers, their games were not so unique that players could not replicate them.
Examples of NBA greats that can be considered “unicorns” are Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (the sky hook), Charles Barkley (6’6” 250 pound point forward who ran like a guard) and Magic Johnson (a 6’8” point guard and leader). These players’ games may be imitated – one might say that Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is the new, Greek version of Johnson and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green is a more modern version of Barkley – but never replicated.
It is easy to miss out on all the unicorn-esque nuances in this year’s NBA season watching from a distance. Even in a season in which the inevitable Warriors-Cavaliers Finals rematch dominates headlines, there are so many interesting storylines that NBA fans have never seen before.
The James Harden point guard experiment, which has now been deemed a game-changing success, is one of these nuances in the league this year. The Houston Rockets guard shifted positions under the same coach, Mike D’Antoni, that helped legend Steve Nash win two MVP trophies in Phoenix and the Rockets haven’t looked back since. The Rockets have the third best record in the entire league.
The D’Antoni system has served as the prime example of the “pace and space” era of basketball, and both the Rockets and Harden have thrived because of it. Harden is currently third in points per game (29.1) and first in assists per game (11.3). The emergence of this system in this year’s NBA season has been unicorn-esque – like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
There have been many other unicorn-ish talents and performances around the league this season. Antetokounmpo, Philadelphia 76ers rookie center Joel Embiid, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis and New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis highlight the list of young players bridging the gap between the old era of basketball and the new.
Embiid, Porzingis, Towns and Davis are the new mold of big men – players who can finish in the paint, shoot the basketball and play defense.
Antetokounmpo, however, is the definitive unicorn of this generation. His ability to play all positions, including point guard, while standing at 6’11”, is something that no one has seen before.
The Greek Freak is also a great example for foreign players everywhere. Most people can undisputedly say that Antetokounmpo is the best Greek player ever. He was passed up on by many teams in the draft and was considered too raw of a prospect to succeed in the NBA. He is now one of the best all around players in the league and could dominate the NBA for the next 10 years.
One of the most exciting storylines this season has been the triple double. The most triple doubles ever recorded in a single NBA season before this year was 48; there have already been 66 this season and we have only just returned from the All Star break.
The main reason for this is guard Russell Westbrook. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard has a chance to be the first player since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson to average a triple double. His current per game averages are 31.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.2 assists.
Westbrook also leads the league in scoring and is having one of the greatest individual seasons anyone has ever seen, thrusting him into MVP honors contention alongside Harden, his former Thunder backcourt mate. By carrying his team every night, he has elevated the Kevin Durant-less Thunder into playoff contention. Westbrook exemplifies the nature of this NBA season – like nothing we have ever seen before and something we may never see again.
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