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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

LeBron-Curry-Durant torch has passed to a new generation

The Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James on his way to the locker room at halftime of Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals against the Golden State Warriors, at the Chase Center in San Francisco, May 4, 2023. (Clara Mokri for The New York Times)

By John Hollinger / The Athletic

In Game 1 of the Suns-Timberwolves series, Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards sized up Kevin Durant on a switch, easily maneuvered himself open for a 3-pointer, splashed it down and yapped about it to Durant all the way to the other end of the court.

For three more games, it happened over and over again, until Durant’s team was unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs last Sunday.

Those moments were part of a larger theme. Minnesota’s clincher happened just 24 hours before the Denver Nuggets unceremoniously ejected LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers from the postseason. At least they made it that far; Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors didn’t even make the playoffs, torpedoed by the Sacramento Kings in the play-in tournament.

With that, the sun has just about set on a run of dominance for these three players that began two decades ago when James joined the league. Durant is 35, Curry is 36, and James is 39. At least one of them had made the second round of the playoffs every year since 2005; in 2017 and 2018, all three were in the NBA Finals. This season, they combined for one playoff win.

You can turn the triangle into a square by adding Kawhi Leonard; the two-time most valuable player of the NBA Finals turns 33 in June and is once again out with knee problems. He has operated at full strength in exactly three of the past 17 Los Angeles Clippers playoff games and hasn’t finished a season healthy since the 2020 bubble.

Minus those four, we’re witnessing a full-on rout of the generation that carried the NBA through the past decade-plus. One of James, Curry, Durant or Leonard was the best player on nine of the 10 NBA champions from 2011 to 2020 — and those four were so good that they also managed to represent the best player on eight of the 10 teams that lost the finals in that decade. That’s 20 conference champions, 17 of them fronted by one of these four. (Your exceptions being Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 and Jimmy Butler in 2020, while 2013 Leonard wasn’t quite yet what we would see in the following finals.)

Now, they can’t even scratch the second round, except for perhaps Leonard making it as an observer. You wonder if any of the four will ever get that far again as leading men; things might only get worse given their age and team situations, with Curry and James facing second-tier status with the Warriors and Lakers in a crowded Western Conference, and the expensive, flawed and asset-mined Phoenix Suns leaving Durant unlikely to contend.

Of course, we’ve been undergoing a mini-transition from that gilded age for some time. The past five MVP awards have been won by three other gentlemen — Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid — and that streak should hit six years when Jokic is bestowed the honor for the third time in the coming weeks.

Even so, for that last half-decade, James, Curry, Leonard and Durant were always there, always a massive part of the conversation. As recently as last year, three of them made the second round of the playoffs, and we weren’t that far away from James versus Durant in the West finals.

Thus, this feels like a seminal moment for the NBA, and perhaps for how it markets itself. Truthfully, this date has been delayed far beyond reasonable expectation by repeated last gasps, such as when James’ and Curry’s teams won in the first round last season as seventh and sixth seeds and guaranteed that at least one would make the conference finals.

This postseason, however, feels like the true turning point. The league now belongs to Jokic, the reigning champion; besides the Joker, there are a cohort of young stars making their case to join the pedestal: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum, most notably, with Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton and Victor Wembanyama close behind.

Yes, Antetokounmpo and Embiid are around, too, as are some other prime-age drawing cards (Anthony Davis, Jalen Brunson, Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell, for instance). Nonetheless, it feels like, other than Jokic and Giannis, we’re skipping right past this generation to the next one. Think of how many Shai vs. Luka Red River battles we might get over the next decade, starting perhaps a week from now.

It’s a brave new world where the league’s best players not only are new (and thus much less familiar) faces, but are mostly in non-glamour markets. Make a list of the 15 to 20 guys you think will be running the league in 2027; now count how many play for the seven teams in California, New York or Chicago. Depending on your thoughts on Brunson, the answer is either one or none.

That can change, of course — once upon a time, James played in Cleveland, Leonard played in San Antonio and Durant played in Oklahoma City. But most of the players I listed above are on good teams in great situations, and the more favorable rules on contract extensions mean few will hit free agency before their 30th birthday. In all likelihood, few of the next generation’s stars are moving anytime soon.

This is ultimately good for the long-term health of the NBA, especially with James and Curry so far executing a gentle fade-out while the kids grab the torch; they’re still good enough to keep us entertained on a Tuesday night in January, if nothing else, and turn out some extra casuals on Christmas.

But this spring’s results have taken us beyond plausible doubt about what’s happening; Edwards, Gilgeous-Alexander, Jokic and Doncic are your likely leading men for the West’s semifinals, after each of their teams won at least 50 games in the regular season.

Those Edwards-Durant face-offs this past week signified a larger generational shift, that this moment is about much more than the Nuggets. After nearly two decades, a much broader changing of the guard is underway.

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