LOS ANGELES — The NBA’s past, present and future converged at Staples Center on Sunday night, when Kobe Bryant nabbed a courtside seat to watch the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks.
Bryant, a five-time champion, embraced LeBron James, his superstar successor in Los Angeles. Before Bryant headed home to Orange County, though, he sought out Luka Doncic for a quick chat.
“He was talking Slovenian,” Doncic said of Bryant, who is fluent in at least three languages. “I was like, ‘Who’s talking my language?’ and then I saw Kobe. I was truly surprised.”
If Bryant was one of basketball’s biggest names in the 2000s and James was the sport’s headliner throughout the 2010s, Doncic appears poised to carry the baton into the 2020s. Dallas’ 20-year-old phenom captains the NBA’s top offense and ranks third in scoring and assists, and he is poised to make his all-star debut in February. His age-20 stats rival those of James, modern basketball’s ultimate prodigy, and his rapid ascent will contribute to an unprecedented globalization of the sport’s superstar corps.
“We are entering the era of the international superstar,” one Western Conference executive predicted. “There have been international stars [since the 1980s], but not like this. A majority of the very best players, the guys winning the titles, will be internationals all at the same time.”
Indeed, the crop of 25-and-under franchise players who hail from outside the United States includes Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Nikola Jokic and Pascal Siakam. By contrast, the five major NBA figures of the 2010s — James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard — are all American.
This is welcome news for a league that has long sought to conquer the globe, but it’s hardly the only change to come over the next decade. In a survey of league executives, from front office personnel to Commissioner Adam Silver, a broad range of anticipated developments and evolutions were mentioned that could reshape the NBA by 2030.
‘A generation of Curry clones’
The NBA in 2020 bears little resemblance to the NBA in 2010. This season, teams averaged 110 points, 34 three-point attempts, 24 assists and 101 possessions per game. Ten years ago, they averaged 100 points, 18 three-point attempts, 21 assists and 93 possessions per game. In sum, the modern game is faster, higher-scoring and far more reliant upon the outside shot and ball movement.
Steve Kerr, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors are widely credited with launching the NBA’s “pace and space” era in 2014, and their influence shows no signs of abating.
“There’s a generation of Curry clones coming,” an Eastern Conference assistant coach said.
Scoring is slightly down this season compared to last, but the pace of play is up and the league is headed for another record three-point shooting season. The Warriors’ outside-in approach has quickly become standard. The four teams that made the most three-pointers per game in the 2019 playoffs — the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Warriors and Toronto Raptors — were the four conference finalists.
“The league found a better way to play,” the assistant coach said. “It took some time, but basically everyone agrees about that now. We haven’t reached the tipping point [with too many three-pointers] yet and I don’t think we will [for a few years].”
Fewer games, more rest for players
The Raptors claimed the 2019 title in part because they were the last men standing after injuries decimated the Warriors, and Toronto’s careful management of Leonard’s minutes was viewed by some rivals as a sign of what’s to come.
The length of the schedule was a hot topic throughout the 2010s, as critics charged that it was unnecessarily long and some coaches, including San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, began strategically resting players to compensate. The NBA shortened its preseason to space out its regular season and reduce back-to-back games, but many star players have suffered long-term injuries anyway.
In recent months, Silver has unveiled schedule reform proposals for the 2021-22 season that include shortening the season to 78 games, adding an in-season tournament, adding play-in games before the playoffs and reseeding the conference finalists. Taken together, they amount to a radical plan by NBA standards, given that the league has utilized an 82-game schedule since 1967-68 and a 16-team playoff format since 1983-84.
“I think stars will play fewer games and there will be less criticism when they miss games [in 2030],” one Eastern Conference executive said. “I also think the 78-game idea is just the first step. If [Silver] can replace the lost revenue, he will be free to cut more later. Keeping the stars as healthy as possible is the most important thing for the bottom line.”
A looming fight over player empowerment
The 2010s will be remembered as the dawn of the player empowerment era. James set the tone with “The Decision” in 2010 and subsequent free agency moves in 2014 and 2018, and Durant shook the league with his 2016 move to Golden State. The list of stars who skipped town in free agency or forced moves is long: Leonard, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Dwight Howard, among many others.
Changes to the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement and the league’s improving financial picture enabled this movement: Shorter contracts gave players more leverage, a max salary boom made it easier for superstars to bypass long-term contracts, and the salary cap’s upward spike allowed stars to team up.
The “superteam” era drew push back from many quarters, including from Silver, who has long championed the virtues of competitive balance. TNT commentator Charles Barkley has repeatedly predicted that the owners will explore hardball negotiation tactics when the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association can opt out of the current labor agreement, which was reached in 2016, at the end of the 2022-23 season.
“Our whole goal is built around stealing the next superstar,” Barkley told The Washington Post. “It’s really unfortunate. I think [the owners] are going to lock [the players] out. We can’t have players making trades for each other. It’s just not fair for the overall balance. If people think these owners aren’t going to do something, they’re crazy.”
This summer, Silver instituted harsher tampering penalties and an expanded oversight system. If the NBA owners were to pursue structural changes, they could angle for a harder salary cap that would make it more difficult to accumulate multiple superstars, a franchise tag to lock a player into a specific market, or longer contracts to cut down on the volume of free agency moves.
Preps-to-pros and possible expansion
The NBA is widely expected to allow high school players to directly enter the NBA draft as soon as 2022. Under the current “one-and-done” rule, which has been in place since 2005, players have been required to be 19 years old and at least one year removed from high school to be eligible.
Changing the rule will help top prospects like James Wiseman, who have encountered NCAA eligibility issues, and LaMelo Ball, who bypassed the NCAA entirely to play overseas. Many basketball observers believe the preps-to-pros system is more just for players, and that the NBA’s developmental infrastructure is better equipped to handle teenage prospects than it was in the early 2000s.
The G League, the NBA’s minor league, saw major changes over the past decade, adding 13 franchises to reach 28 total. The league will expand to Mexico City next season, and every NBA team is expected to have a designated minor league affiliate in the relatively near future. Meanwhile, the NBA has expanded the contractual options for G League players, increasing salaries and adding two-way contracts that enable minor league players to get called up.
“Most of the teams that we view as our top competitors have alignment [between the NBA team and the G League team],” said one executive of a perennial playoff team. “We’re not [Major League Baseball] but growing players with your own systems and coaches is more important today than it was five years ago. It will be even more important five years from now, especially if high schoolers are added.”
The Mexico City G League expansion could also be a harbinger for the NBA’s growth.
While there was no franchise relocation or expansion across the 2010s, and Silver has repeatedly said that there are no imminent plans to expand, some NBA executive believe that period of stability could end in the 2020s. Seattle, Las Vegas and Mexico City are all enticing markets without teams, and the average NBA franchise value has increased from $369 million in 2010 to $1.9 billion in 2019, per Forbes.com.
“Going to 32 teams is a matter of when, not if,” one team executive predicted. “The money is too big.”
Sports betting and an enhanced viewing experience
Silver began publicly campaigning for sports betting with an op-ed in 2014, arguing that legal, regulated gambling was preferable to illegal, unregulated gambling. In the years that followed, the NBA struck a deal with a daily fantasy company and the William Hill sportsbook. Meanwhile, numerous states have moved toward legalized betting and major media companies have increased their NBA gambling coverage and analysis.
ESPN reported last month that sports books are now operating legally in more than a dozen states, with others likely to follow. The NBA’s long-term goal, it seems, is to allow widespread mobile, in-game bets as an added layer of the viewing experience.
NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts sees where this is going, yet harbors concern on behalf of her players. If a player is a late scratch due to injury or suffers through an extended shooting slump, will he be accused of manipulating the gambling environment?
“I want to make sure we’re watching very carefully what the implications are for our game and any allegations regarding player misconduct,” Roberts told The Washington Post. “All you need to do is be accused. The implications to one’s brand and one’s career are significant.”
Beyond leaning into betting content, Silver has expressed an interest in overhauling the viewing experience, laying out his vision for the NBA’s future media deals in a recent interview: decreased reliance on cable television, greater mobile accessibility and comprehensive deals with media partners capable of delivering content in a wide variety of means.
NBA Entertainment has long prioritized immediacy and behind-the-scenes content, and the league’s hope is that technological advances will vastly increase its capabilities. Eventually, NBA fans should be able to enjoy a fully customized experience: They will be able to select their preferred camera angles and play-by-play feeds, or watch the action from virtual reality cameras mounted to the hoops or even from cameras worn by players on the court.
“Just like any other business, you innovate or die,” Silver said. “Each individual minute of every game [must be] more compelling in this day and age. [Viewers] have unlimited options to turn the channel. From a storytelling component, we will be able to present better narratives around our game.”
As for lulls during games, the league will continue to tinker with official reviews. The NBA dramatically expanded its replay review system during the 2010s, opening an off-site review center in New Jersey in 2014, issuing “last two minute” reports to acknowledge missed calls and adding a coach’s challenge this season. Those changes have been met with decidedly mixed reviews within the league and from fans.
Some critics hope that the desire to tighten up the length of games could lead the NBA to peel back some of its reviews, while others are counting on technological advancements to soften the blow.
“If we still have referees wearing headsets and staring at monitors 10 years from now,” one scout said, “we will have failed.”
NBA awards of the 2010s: LeBron James dominated the decade
The NBA isn’t surprised its TV ratings are way down. Radical change already was afoot.
With cannabis use an open secret in the NBA, this ex-player is pushing the league to allow CBD
Parity was supposed to make this NBA season exciting. We’re still waiting.
Sign up for our weekly NBA newsletter to get the best basketball coverage in your inbox