Charles Barkley is not a role model. He drove a Hyundai Sonata and killed a referee in a Sevillan opera in 1993. He was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player that year, wreaking havoc and turning the hardwood into a boxing ring. At the beginning of an interview with Charlie Rose in ’93, Rose repeated back to Barkley’s face what Chuck had once said about himself: “There has never been anyone like me, and there will never be anyone like me.” If 1993 wasn’t the best year of his life, it was at least the year that triangulated Barkley’s style, candor, and impact on and off the floor for the world to see. Barkley’s identity was distilled to the masses, 30 seconds at a time — the best commercials can do that. The works he starred in were part of a larger wave of avant-garde athletic sponsorships, arguably the golden age of sports adverts. Barkley would still be Barkley if “I Am Not a Role Model” was never filmed, but imagine not having that shorthand to frame our perception of him.
We can never truly know an athlete through their on-court exploits, but basketball, compared with all other professional sports, offers the clearest window into a player’s soul. There is a level of intimacy, transparency, and freedom of motion that doesn’t exist in other sports. Style is more readily apparent; persona is more easily projected. That’s part of the reason the 2016–17 season has been so interesting. The first half (which Barkley has asserted is the worst the NBA has ever produced) has housed some of the most expressive individual basketball we’ve seen in a long time; what has made this moment so rare is how seamlessly artistry and data have converged to confirm these notions.
Last fall, James Harden and Russell Westbrook starred in commercials that have more or less served as mission statements for their respective seasons, which, in case you needed a reminder, have been historically impressive. They were also windows into what drives the two as athletes. Over Lil Uzi Vert’s “Do What I Want,” Westbrook dances triumphantly as the song’s mantra repeats; the sense of personal liberation is palpable, and it’s at the core of Westbrook’s chase to be the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson. In his spot, Harden plays a game of 21 Questions with the viewer, deconstructing all of his perceived flaws until we get to the heart of the matter: Everything we’ve ever hated about Harden is also what makes him one of the most creative offensive players ever. Harden, the front-runner for MVP this season, sees dominance not as a militant endeavor, but an artistic one.
The Warriors are pulling away from the field in the league standings, but they aren’t the story of the first half of the regular season. Golden State’s ostentatiously team-oriented brand of basketball has, if anything, only reinforced how remarkable the sheer volume of game-breaking individual performances has been this season. The profile of the ball-dominant superstar has shifted dramatically: Truly singular individual success can no longer be measured in isolation plays called or post touches fielded, but in how bounteous — altruistic, even — one player can be for the good of his team.
There have been 59 triple-doubles this season, and we’re still weeks from the All-Star break. The 1988–89 season currently holds the record for most triple-doubles (78) in any one season since steals and blocks were officially included in the box score. This year, we’re on pace for more than 100. The rate at which players are accumulating triple-doubles becomes more astounding with every passing day. According to Kevin Pelton’s projections system on ESPN.com, Westbrook (who has 24 triple-doubles on the season) has a 57 percent chance of reaching Oscar Robertson’s milestone. Of course, the significance of a triple-double is a construct. Does that one extra assist or one extra rebound matter in the grand scheme of things? But we imbue a round stat line with meaning for the same reasons we imbue all athletic achievement with meaning: We’re in constant search of the line that separates good from great, great from greatest — even if the construction is never quite as black and white as we’d hope it would be.
One thing, however, is clear: With the record-setting triple-double pace, and the single-season record for most 50-point games from different players (nine) already in the books, we have now reached the zenith of the pace-and-space era.
High screens are being set farther and farther behind the arc, and with more teams employing perimeter threats at all positions, the wide-open space between the 3-point line and the rim has become Eden for playmakers. Steph Curry explored the depths of his gravitational pull last season to staggering effect, but even players who don’t share his genius from the perimeter have begun to embrace the idea of opening the court up by jacking up 3-pointers.
Westbrook, for instance, is taking nearly three more 3-pointers per 100 possessions than in the past two seasons, and while his percentage is still below league average, he’s drilling them at a career-high mark of 33.2 percent. His 3-point attempt rate out of the pick-and-roll has increased by roughly 20 percent compared with last year. But taking cues from his rivals doesn’t mean sacrificing his trademark style, it just means adapting said style to a new reality. Westbrook’s classic pull-up jumper (artfully described in a recent New York Times feature), which is typically shot from midrange, has now found its mark from the great beyond. In shots characterized by NBA.com as a “pull-up jump shot” from behind the 3-point line, Westbrook is shooting 44.7 percent (47-of-105); he’s hitting 27.5 percent of all other 3s. On a team without a bounty of marksmen, Westbrook has taken it upon himself to create better spacing for his team, by any means necessary. That is, and has always been, his wont.
Westbrook plays basketball as though it were a hero’s fantasy, though “hero” and “fantasy” aren’t necessarily weighted equally. Everything that Westbrook has ever said about his job description, everything that he’s ever exuded on the court, it all points in one direction. Westbrook’s logical conclusion isn’t heroball; it’s actualizing fantasy basketball — a state of play where it is possible to do everything and be everything to everyone in a way that isn’t feasible in life off the floor. Is he hunting stats? That’s one way of processing all of this. So is the idea that he’s pushing the limits of control, inarguably a point guard’s most defining characteristic.
In that sense, he is triple-doubling down on the basic truths of the position. The point guard is the only position in basketball that comes with its own immutable subtext outside of sports: It is a military allusion to the “point man,” or the leading soldier at the head of a formation. A point guard directs his troop, but ultimately, a point guard leads by example. A point guard is more than a walking display of one’s assist-to-turnover ratio; a point guard is himself a clear direction. And as seen through Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s a direction that can shift an entire franchise’s trajectory. As the size, shape, and breadth of the position continues to mutate, Westbrook serves as magnetic north. The atypical point guard has become prototypical — as good a reminder as any of just how much things have changed since 2008.
When talking about the pace-and-space era, we no longer use terms like “revolution.” The numbers are astounding, but they are no longer much of a surprise. We’ve entertained these tactical concepts for more than a decade now; a revolution doesn’t need to persist for too long to accomplish its goals, it just needs to linger long enough to slightly tweak what we consider normal. But it isn’t hard to find that kind of insurgent language in ancient texts, and it doesn’t take long to realize how dated once-fresh ideas are now. What follows are two passages from Jack McCallum’s 2006 book, Seven Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns:
Would any of that lead you to believe that a player like James Harden could go on to carry Nash’s torch in the D’Antoni system? The same Harden that developed a reputation as something of a slacker. The same Harden that, prior to the summer, had seldom if ever been referred to as anything other than a shooting guard. But what ties Nash and Harden together, and what D’Antoni has been able to harness in both, is how their power stems from their perceived slights. Nash’s superpower was that he looked like he didn’t have any: His endurance and conditioning flew under the radar, even though, at his peak, he was averaging over 35 minutes per game on the wrong side of 30; Harden’s lack of high-end acceleration cloaks a world-class ability to stop on a dime. They both mastered the art of controlling a fast-paced team and playing synaptic basketball without having to actually play fast. But Nash could never pull off a 50-point triple-double, let alone two.
Harden averages just under 100 touches per game, and Westbrook is right behind him at just under 99. No one else in the league averages more than 90. Those two players are entrusted as central hubs, as one-man sharing economies. Old heads would be championing Harden and Westbrook as a complete rebuke of superteam culture if they weren’t also threatening other institutions held dear.
By Basketball-Reference’s estimations, the NBA is being played at the fastest pace since the 1992–93 season, conveniently the year when Charles Barkley was the Most Valuable Player of the league. It was a time when dinosaurs (Barkley, Larry Johnson) cohabitated with rodents (Muggsy Bogues, Tim Hardaway, Mark Price). When games are free-flowing, it’s easier to accommodate players of all shapes and sizes. The spacing wasn’t quite as ideal as it is today (the league averaged nine 3-point attempts per game in ’92–93; both Curry and Eric Gordon average more than that by themselves this season), but when games are in a continuous up-and-down, a power player like Barkley, generously listed at 6-foot-6, could play a proto–Draymond Green role, pulling defenders in and finding open teammates in motion. The game was even faster in the ’80s, the last time 6-foot-9 point guards were an actual thing.
Thus, with spacing on the court at full optimization these days, both David and Goliath can thrive as point guards. It’s happening now. Seriously, there is no bigger physical disparity between two players at one position in the four major professional sports leagues than Isaiah Thomas and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Someone as anomalous as Giannis would have found a way to succeed in any era, but the natural flow and pace of this season has been particularly conducive to his galloping dominance through 48 games. No primary option in the NBA uses a higher percentage of their possessions in transition than Antetokounmpo, and among players who have used at least 100 possessions in transition, only Jimmy Butler gets fouled more frequently. On the fast break, the game slows down for Giannis. That’s important for a player who, despite emerging as a superstar this season, is still somehow in the rudiments of understanding the game.
Where Giannis takes the space he’s afforded and envelops it with his limbs, Thomas uses it as a sanctuary — a way to elude the trees that surround him. At 5-foot-9, his options on offense are more limited than others, but within those restrictions, he’s become one of the league’s modern marvels. Only 11 percent of his field goal attempts come from the midrange, which is a smaller fraction of attempts than the generation’s defining offensive players, Harden and Curry. He doesn’t have the size to get his shot off in the congested areas inside the arc, so he doesn’t bother — especially when he can get all the way to the rim so easily. NBA.com defines a “drive” as a touch that begins from at least 20 feet out and is dribbled to within 10 feet of the rim; only Butler generates more free throw attempts when driving into the lane.
Whether Thomas is the recipient of one of Brad Stevens’s patented out-of-bounds plays or he’s dribbling the ball into oblivion, the rate in which the ball goes through the net doesn’t vary as much as it does for other players who shoulder a comparable offensive load. Thomas’s stature hampers his overall versatility, but considering teams already know how he likes to get his buckets, he seems to have an endless array of moves and countermoves to get exactly what he wants. He’s been one of the most entertaining players to watch in the first half of the season by somehow marrying the Moreyball efficiency blueprint with the retro stylings of Kobe Bryant heroball magic.
That’s really been the story of the season in a nutshell: It’s a glorious time to witness the beauty of overexertion. Thomas has four 20-point fourth quarters on the season; Butler has a couple of 50-point explosions; Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are putting up fantasy-basketball gold on a nightly basis. The league is as good as it’s ever been, and arguably as talented as it’s ever been. Teams are scoring more efficiently than ever before, and turning the ball over at all-time low rates. In a season that has felt preordained before tipoff on opening night, it’s been easier to ignore the inevitable destination and simply ride the historic wave.
It’s worth savoring, because for all we know, it may have already crested: Giannis and the Bucks have lost nine of their past 10; after ringing in the new year in the midst of a nine-game winning streak, the Rockets have lost seven of their past 12; the Thunder haven’t won a game since Enes Kanter fractured his forearm. With so many teams so reliant on a single star to carry the load, it’s fair to wonder how we’ll remember the season come April. So far, it’s been the season that broke the statistics. It could very well end up being the season that broke the camel’s back.