The Year of the Unicorn
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis lead the MVP charge through 10 games. There have never been two European players among the top three of the MVP voting. Another unique trait the two share that differentiate them from previous MVP candidates is their status as NBA unicorns.
What is an NBA unicorn? The NBA unicorn possesses height (nearly seven feet tall), ball handling, and shooting ability out to the three point line. Andrew Sharp beautifully broke down the term and Kevin Durant’s explanation in his article from 2016.
Throw away the zodiac calendars because this is the year of the unicorn.
The Greek Freak
Antetokounmpo has a stranglehold on the MVP race to start the season. First, he has been utterly unguardable. Tuesday night against the Cavaliers, he spun, drove, and mauled his way to the rim at will. When he is unable to slam dunks home, he takes a couple enormous strides, extends his go-go gadget arms, and flicks the ball gently into the basket. His penchant for finishing around the rim has rendered discussion about the rest of his offensive game moot. No one would want to see Shaquille O’Neal move out to the perimeter. Neither should anyone want Giannis to move further out when he is already impossible to keep out of the paint. If his strong play continues and Bucks get at least a middle seed, he should be the MVP.
With all due respect to LeBron James, Kristaps Porzingis is currently Antetokounmpo’x stiffest competition for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. All he has done this season is drag a moribund and listless Knicks team to a 6-4 record out of the gate. Giannis might be the best finisher in the league but Porzingis has been doing it from all over the court. He is shooting over 65 percent from 10-14 feet and 50 percent from 15-19 feet. Meanwhile, he is shooting nearly 39 percent from beyond the arc. He is only shooting about 60 percent near the rim but his ability to score from any place on the court has transformed New York’s offense.
That success has helped pull the Knicks up to 11th in offensive rating up from 18th a year ago. Defensively, the Knicks continue to be a train wreck but do not blame Porzingis. His defensive rating has improved from a year ago and he ranks third in the NBA in blocks. If Porzingis can drag the Knicks to the playoffs, it would be awfully hard for voters to ignore his impact in their improvement.
Joel Embiid rounds out our young unicorns. While he is not an MVP candidate, he has been a focal point of the 76ers. Ben Simmons may have grabbed more headlines but Embiid has been the best player on the court. He has the second highest offensive rating on the team (106.8) and the third best defensive rating (97.8). Those numbers would put the 76ers as the ninth best offense and third best defense in the league. Essentially, Philadelphia looks like a title contender when Embiid plays and turns into a fringe playoff team when he sits. His defensive impact and ability to space the floor from the center position has done wonders for the rest of the team.
Simmons has been pushing the ball in transition off of opponent misses. That has led the 76ers to increase their pace and generate over four more possessions a game than last year. The offense has improved this year but they are actually scoring few points off the fast break. The reason the offense has improved despite less effective offense in transition has been Embiid. He has shot over 62 percent on all shots within 14 feet where he generates most of his offense. His three point shooting needs to pick up so he can continue to demand attention from outside. Embiid’s ability to get to the line and score from the post has drastically improved Philadelphia’s offense from a year ago.
Karl Anthony Towns
Karl Anthony-Towns has continued to flounder on defense but is sporting a PER of 25 and has been one of the better offensive players in the league to start the season. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves seem ready to finally make the jump into the playoffs behind a talent-laden squad.
The Original Unicorn
Kevin Durant coined the unicorn term for the NBA. As the originator of the unicorn, it only seems right that he has been among the most productive. The Warriors remain the clear cut title favorites and he has been his usual efficient self. His 53/46/86 shooting splits (Field goals, three pointers, and free throws) would be historic if they continue. His shooting efficiency is unfair when combined with his playmaking (five assists/game), rebounding (eight/game), and defense (2.5 blocks/game). The original unicorn has cemented himself as one of the top five players in the league.
Nikola Jokic apparently just needed to face the Nets to return to form. His slow start had many wondering if he would have trouble matching his numbers from last year. Jokic answered that question by posting 41 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, two blocks, two steals, and hitting four of nine from beyond the arc against Brooklyn. He is in the 50/40/90 shooting club, averaging a double-double, and has over four assists a game. Nikola Jokic will be just fine.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the New Orleans Pelicans have been entirely dependent on the transcendent play of their two frontcourt stars. The bad news for the rest of the league is that Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins may have finally learned to play together.
Cousins has been rampaging over opposing big men to start the season. He is averaging almost 30 points a game, shooting over seven (!) threes a game, and doing everything else for this team. Jrue Holiday edges him for the assist lead on the team but Cousins is leading the squad in scoring, three pointers made, rebounds, steals, and is just behind Davis for the lead in blocks. His start to the season has been nothing short of remarkable.
Davis has been no slouch either. The Brow is just behind Cousins in almost every statistical category and has had the higher PER to start the season. He has shot over 40 percent from three to start the season and has been a defensive menace. Davis has been second on the team among qualified players in defensive rating. His play on that end has spurred the Pelicans’ resurgent defense and kept them in the playoff hunt.
The death of the NBA center has been proclaimed so many times in NBA history. As evidenced in the NBA finals last year, the NBA center continually evolves as the rest of the league does. Once upon a time, seven footers who dared drift to the perimeter were admonished for being “soft”. Now, Timofey Mozgov and Dewayne Dedmon work on their three pointers to assure their own survival. The old archetype for centers is dying but the new breed of NBA centers is thriving.
All of the NBA unicorns can defend traditional big men but opposing coaches loathe putting their slow footed behemoths on them. Those mismatches mean that the rise of the NBA unicorn will continue as the league shifts to greater skill at greater size.
Contrary to popular belief, the league is not getting smaller. In fact, it is probably getting longer. The primary change is the expansion of skillsets for larger players. As the players above show, NBA teams need to find a unicorn or they may find themselves extinct.