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The Story Lines That Could Define the 2020s in the NBA

LeBron James’s twilight, changes to gameplay, and slumping TV ratings await in basketball’s future

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As we enter the 2020s, I can’t help but reflect on my formative years as a basketball fan, because those days remind me so much of the present. At the turn of the century, Michael Jordan was in the twilight of his career, retiring in 1999 after winning six titles with the Bulls and then making a two-year comeback with the Wizards in 2001. People asked about the marketability and future of the league without Jordan, questions that LeBron James helped answer with his entrance into the league in 2003, just as Jordan was saying farewell. Today, LeBron is 35 and those same types of concerns are being raised—TV ratings are dipping; a generation of stars are aging or retiring; and new faces of the league are emerging. The 2020s will undeniably see the NBA undergo significant changes, much like it did two decades ago. Here’s a look at the state of the league and the story lines to watch for over the coming months and years.

Will the Game Change?

LeBron has been a cause of and a witness to the league’s evolving style over the years—most of which stem from rule changes at the end of Jordan’s era. In the 1990s, isolations and a slower pace were prominent. But the NBA has made a number of changes over the years to make the game more entertaining—including banning hand-checking, reducing the midcourt violation from 10 seconds to eight seconds, and adding a five-second rule that forced post players to make quicker decisions. All of these adjustments helped shape the perimeter-based, positionless league that we see today with more movement and creativity than ever before.

If you’re reading, odds are you love basketball. Or you’re my dad. But not everybody does. Despite all of that movement and creativity on the court, national TV ratings are down, and no one is sure why. Is it because of cord-cutters? Is it because so many stars are injured? Will ratings plummet when LeBron retires? Or is the game simply not appealing to the masses? The modern style—more 3-point shooting, fewer post-ups, and a tendency to treat midrange jumpers as sinful—is bemoaned by some old-school critics as if analytics are a satanic influence on the game. Mark Jackson famously said Steph Curry “hurt the game.” Charles Barkley blasts analytics on a near-weekly basis on Inside the NBA. It’s not just curmudgeon former players either; it might be your local sports talk radio host or your close friend.

Taste-makers gripe, but complaints about the lack of midrange play are misleading. Three-pointers are on the rise; teams are attempting 37.9 percent of their shots from 3 this season, a meteoric rise from 22.2 percent in 2009-10. Meanwhile, post play is absolutely dying: Only 7.3 percent of offensive possessions have ended in a post-up this season, compared with 14.8 percent in 2009-10, according to Synergy Sports. But criticism of midrange habits has been misconstrued. High-usage players are still taking a comparable amount of unassisted midrange shots as they have in the past, as The Athletic’s Seth Partnow recently detailed. Not everyone is playing like James Harden by taking mostly 3s and layups, yet the discourse can sometimes sound like that’s the case. It’s actually just low-usage players who are taking more assisted 3s and fewer midrange attempts. Role players are simply spacing the floor from higher-value areas. Stars are still scoring from everywhere.

There is also a significant amount of stylistic diversity across the league. We have high pick-and-roll offense in Portland and an iso-heavy offense in Houston. There’s bully-ball offense in Philadelphia and high-post offense in Denver. Other teams like Golden State use motion-based offenses by leaning on perimeter-oriented players. Teams have always used a range of different philosophies, but the spacing in today’s league has stretched the possibilities. Take two of the game’s brightest young players for example: Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo have contrasting but equally captivating styles. Doncic’s Mavericks attempt the second-most 3s in the league while Antetokounmpo’s Bucks try the fourth-most, according to Cleaning the Glass. But their teams play drastically differently—Luka is a ball-dominant pick-and-roll playmaker of a slower-paced offense, while the Bucks race the ball up the floor and run a fast-paced motion system that orbits around Giannis. It’ll be to the league’s benefit if they both lead powerhouses, because it will show off the various paths to success in today’s game.

But perception is reality for a lot of fans. Most recently, Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal said on Inside the NBA that Doncic’s teammate Kristaps Porzingis is “frustrating” and “passive” because he doesn’t often play in the post. Or, as Shaq put it: “Get your big ass in the post.” The truth is that Porzingis has been a poor post player this season, scoring just 0.6 points per attempt, and he was average at best with the Knicks. Porzingis helps his team more by shooting 3s, spacing the floor, and attacking rotating defenses off the dribble. He is more effective dribbling into midrange space instead of occupying that same space. “We really don’t post anybody up,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said in response to the comments on TNT about Porzingis. “We’ve got to realize this game has changed. It’s just a fact.”

Carlisle is right, but I can also see the frustration that Barkley, Shaq, and others have in a 7-foot-3 player being used as a shooter. As beautiful as the game is today, I am empathetic to concerns of the game becoming monotonous without more variety in shot selection. The post has indeed become a lost art. There is no Shaq or Kevin McHale or Hakeem Olajuwon. Sixers big man Joel Embiid logs a higher frequency of post-ups than any other starter in the NBA, but he’d rank only 24th in frequency 10 seasons ago. Some teams log a post-up only by accident; the Nets have logged only 13 post-ups all season, on pace for the fewest in recorded history. Barkley and Shaq might have an extreme and possibly misinformed stance on the importance of the post-up in today’s game, but more balance on the floor wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

I wonder if, in the 2020s, we will discuss how rule changes could best balance the game and tailor it to appeal to as many viewers as possible, just like we did at the end of Jordan’s playing career with the aforementioned rule changes that generated more scoring and freedom of movement. At ESPN writer Kirk Goldsberry’s presentation at the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and in his book, SprawlBall, Goldsberry wondered how removing the corner 3 would change the game, or whether simply making the line deeper would curtail the shot’s rise. Most interestingly, he pondered whether the paint should be narrowed. The key is 16 feet wide, but it wasn’t in the past. In the early days of basketball, it was 6 feet wide and shaped like an actual key.

Players were able to post up much closer to the rim in those days. But in 1951, George Mikan’s dominance caused the league to widen the key from 6 feet to 12 feet to push his post-ups further away from the rim. Then Wilt Chamberlain eventually forced them to widen it to 16 feet, where it remains today. Could narrowing the paint allow players to post up closer to the rim and thus increase the play’s efficiency, which would lead more teams to use it and players to invest in their skills?

Tweaking the size of the key could balance shot distribution and appeal to those fans and pundits who want more post play, while also maintaining modern trends with spacing. It could increase the value of bigs like Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns, while also creating incentive for tall young players to work on their post moves. I sure would love if Shaq or Barkley brought up potential solutions to spark discussion, but if the 3-pointers keep skyrocketing, the conversation could be inevitable in the new decade.

Will TV Ratings Continue to Decline?

The NBA would obviously prefer national television ratings to be rising like they are for the NFL, and of course they’d prefer to have higher local RSN viewership than MLB. But the league doesn’t seem too worried. “I’m not surprised that our ratings are down thus far,” Silver told The Washington Post last week. “I’m not concerned, either. In terms of every other key indicator that we look at that measures the popularity of the league, we’re up. We’re up in attendance over a record-setting high from last year. Social media engagement remains in the magnitude of 1.6 billion people on a global basis. Our League Pass viewership is up. Our merchandising sales are up. The issue then, for me, is that we’re going through a transition in terms of how [the league] is distributed to our fans, particularly our young fans.”

The league has faced a similar issue before. In 1992, when Larry Bird was battling back issues and Magic Johnson had been diagnosed as HIV-positive, legendary basketball journalist Jack McCallum wrote in SI, “With no such compelling plot lines involving either individuals or teams evident for the ‘90s, the question that concerns the league is: Will the departure of Bird and Magic seriously hurt the game?” But then Jordan became Jordan, and then LeBron took the baton from Jordan. Maybe Luka or Giannis will take over for LeBron as face of the NBA—and the first international face of the league, as I wrote about recently—but considering a new TV contract will likely come in 2024 and a long history of people worrying about the future of the game, the odds are that ratings will remain a discussion even if the league is thriving in every other metric.

So what’s the NBA doing about it? As Silver noted, the league does have a younger demographic, and many psychological studies suggest younger people are typically more open to change. So maybe as an attempt to boost interest, the NBA is more willing to gamble with dramatic changes to the schedule, including an in-season and postseason play-in tournament. The in-season tournament has had success in overseas basketball and soccer leagues, and the play-in tournament has worked in baseball. In April, at the Board of Governors meeting, the NBA wants owners to vote on whether to install those two tournaments, plus a reseeding of the conference finalists, for the 2021-22 season. Would these changes increase ratings? Who knows, but I hope they get approved so the NBA can experiment with something new. The league hasn’t been afraid to be progressive—from adding the 3-point line to instituting a draft lottery to playing games overseas. Bold changes are part of the NBA’s tradition.

If a tournament isn’t enough, they could also start the season in December, as NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh recently wrote. A schedule that started on Christmas would avoid overlap with the NFL regular season, which dominates the fall. Potential changes in revenue would need to be accounted for, but it makes sense in theory. There is growing support in team front offices to move free agency ahead of the draft, according to multiple prominent front office executives I’ve spoken with this season. If calls for an offseason change grow louder, maybe, someday, a conversation about the league’s entire calendar will be warranted.

Which Team Will Rule the Decade?

The Warriors juggernaut dissolved this offseason, and now there’s parity. I would give 12 teams a nonzero percent chance of winning it all this season. The Lakers and Bucks have the best records in the league, but plenty of challengers loom that could ruin LeBron’s bid for a fourth title or Milwaukee’s odds of keeping Giannis. In the West, the Clippers are neck and neck with the Lakers; the Rockets, Nuggets, Jazz, and Mavs stand out too. In the East, the Sixers and Celtics remain major threats to the Bucks, and the Heat, Raptors, and Pacers shouldn’t be overlooked either.

But juggernauts always seem to emerge from the pack. After Jordan retired, the Spurs dynasty began and the Lakers three-peated. The Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks are the three favorites now; but the gap just doesn’t seem as wide as it was in the 2010s with the Heatles and Warriors. As a result, teams not currently in contention should feel optimistic. The Thunder are already a good team and have gathered a pile of trade assets that could be used to acquire the next star player to appear on the block. The Grizzlies have made impressive progress this season around their young stars. Even the Hawks, with the league’s worst record, could be an appealing free-agent destination since they project to have over $70 million in cap space and are led by a promising young point guard in Trae Young.

Most intriguing of all is the Pelicans, who haven’t seen Zion Williamson suit up this season while he recovers from surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Williamson could return in January and slide right into a feature role with the support of Brandon Ingram—who is emerging as an excellent scorer—and wily veterans like Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick. Zion might soon join Giannis and Luka as a candidate to take the throne from LeBron, and he could also serve as a key figure in some of the more prominent potential rule changes. Would the Pelicans post up Zion more often if the key were narrowed to 12 feet? Wouldn’t it make sense to give more of a spotlight to a bright young player like Zion during an in-season tournament, or a play-in tournament should the Pelicans continue to finish outside the top eight in the West?

The Warriors, without Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, don’t have a play-in tournament to save this season. But this could wind up being a gap year for their dynasty. Next season, Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, and D’Angelo Russell could all be back, and Golden State will also acquire more help using their first-round pick (whether it’s a draft selection or via trade). The Warriors are the league’s true sleeping giants.

Golden State’s departed teammate, Kevin Durant, could also make the Nets a contender next season alongside Kyrie Irving. The 2020 calendar year is full of fascinating players and teams aside from LeBron, who isn’t even close to being finished.

How Will LeBron’s Historic Career End?

LeBron’s first appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated came in 2002. He was a 17-year-old junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. In the cover story, Grant Wahl wrote, “Above the television in the Jameses’ modest west Akron apartment, LeBron keeps an ersatz SI cover featuring his photograph and the cover line IS HE THE NEXT MICHAEL JORDAN? It’s preposterously too early to answer, of course, yet judging from young LeBron’s unprecedented rise, it’s a question that is at least worth asking.”

No one could have known just how much LeBron would shatter expectations off the court as a leader, political activist, and philanthropist, while also reaching the pinnacle of his craft on the court. LeBron has made the Finals nine times, won three, and been named MVP four times and All-NBA 15 times. He’s the only player in NBA history to record at least 33,000 points, 9,000 assists, and 9,000 rebounds. With three or four more successful seasons, he could move into second behind John Stockton on the all-time assists list and surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabaar as the all-time scoring leader. LeBron’s rise on the all-time statistical leaderboard will be one of the stories of the decade, even though he could already retire today and be on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. All that LeBron has accomplished is truly amazing given the expectations put on him as a teenager.

Now in his 17th season, we’re in the overtime stage of LeBron’s career. He doesn’t need to play anymore, just like Jordan never had to come back a second time. LeBron still has more left in the tank but he’s undeniably closer to the end than the beginning. The big difference between LeBron with the Lakers and Jordan with the Wizards is that LeBron is still beasting; he’s an MVP candidate this season averaging 25.3 points, 10.9 assists, and 7.7 rebounds playing alongside Anthony Davis on the team with the best record in the Western Conference. LeBron’s chapter with the Lakers could bear a resemblance to Jordan’s first comeback with the Bulls, as I pondered before the season. Jordan was doubted when he came back to basketball in 1995 after retiring to play baseball in 1993, but he went on to win three straight titles. LeBron’s future is unwritten as he ages into his late 30s and his sustained greatness shouldn’t be taken for granted.

No story has been better this century than LeBron’s journey. It’s possible, despite what we’ve seen so far, that there will be many more stories to come in LeBron’s career. I will savor every chapter to come from his bid to win more titles with the Lakers to the distant possibility that his son, Bronny James, can reach the NBA and play with or against his father. But sometime in the 2020s, Father Time will catch him and his playing career will end.

Jordan’s twilight years taught me that the game is always changing. Players come and go. Coaches change. Styles evolve. For kids today, LeBron should offer the same lesson. No matter what happens this decade, there will always be something special to follow, always something to look forward to. After all, the stories are what make this game so great.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there is growing support to move the draft ahead of free agency; it is the opposite.