Looking around the league, especially as the playoffs get knocked into 12th gear, it’s impossible not to notice that every team has at least one or two star players. There are legitimately 30+ players who fans would be comfortably calling their “franchise” player. You’ve got the all time greats in LeBron, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. The established superstars like Damian Lillard, Giannis, and Nikola Jokic. And then you have the young guns with Zion, Luka, and Trae Young leading the vanguard of the next generation with LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards nipping at their heals.
This type of breadth of talent has never happened before in the 75 year history of the NBA. There are currently 10 sure fire hall of famers playing at or near their peak (LeBron, KD, Steph, Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Giannis, and Lillard), with another five who need another couple of elite season to become locks for HOF induction (Jokic, Embiid, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Kyrie). When you account for the guys who are too young to be HOF locks but are well on their way towards enshrinement (Doncic, Zion, Trae Young, and Jayson Tatum), that’s now nearly 20 player who are potential hall of famers playing at the same time. This already leaves out young multi-time All-Stars like Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Breadley Beal who could still put together a great career.
The ’60s were dominated by Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson. Top line talent that could compete with any era. But the NBA only had a third of the amount of teams as it does now. The ’70s gave us Kareem, Dr. J, and a healthy group of stars, but with the advent of the ABA, the talent level plummeted. Then the NBA revitalization began in the ’80s with Magic, Bird, Jordan, Moses and Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, and Scottie Pippen. The only other period that could rival the current state of the league is the 1990s. During the mid-to-late ’90s NBA fans got to watch Jordan/Pippen/and Rodman dominate the league. Patrick Ewing made the Knicks relevant. Gary Payton, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, and Clyde Drexler were all privileged enough to lose to the Bulls in the finals. Reggie Miller was doing his thing. Young Shaq, Olajuwon, and David Robinson were dominating the paint. Grant Hill was the next chosen one before is injuries. And then the next generation of superstars: Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd and Chris Webber were on the rise. The caveat to the ’90s argument is that this was over the course of the entire decade. At any given year during the decade only probably half of these immortals were actually at their peaks at the same time. This is different. Every single year there seems to be another 2-5 stars who are poised to take over the league down the road. The last three drafts alone have netted Luka and Trae in 2018, Zion and Ja in 2019, and Ball and Edwards in 2020 with Cunningham, Mobley, Suggs, Green, and Kuminga waiting in the wings in 2021.
So why 2021? Why is this arbitrary year the unofficial deepest year in the 75 year history of the NBA? The answer is two fold. First, the players are just better. Basketball is far more popular today than it was 40 years ago, and there are more and better athletes in the league today. Donovan Mitchell is a better basketball player than Bob Cousy. It’s just the natural progression of athletic and technological advances. Secondly, players play longer than ever before. LeBron James just finished his 18th season. Chris Paul might win his first championship in year 16. And Durant is only 32 years old and in his 14th season. This level of dominance for two decades was nearly unheard of previously. It’s only a matter of time until we’re talking about Giannis or Zion or Trae Young the same way we talk about Tom Brady in the NFL, playing at an elite level well into their 40’s.
This is the deepest the league has ever been and if the playoffs have proven anything it’s that the league is in good hands when LeBron and co. inevitably do retire, however many years in that future that turns out to be.