A few days before the start of the basketball season, Chris Paul met Victor Wembanyama.
Paul is 38 years old and headed for the Hall of Fame. He could win a championship this year with Golden State.
Wembanyama is 19 years old and has never appeared in an NBA game. It would be a miracle if he wins 30 games for the San Antonio Spurs this season.
But the two together make for a nice visual reminder of the league’s continuity across generations. So they agreed to a post-match photo shoot.
Wembanyama is 7 feet 4 inches tall. Paul is six feet tall, although that’s a goal.
You’d think they would arrange the photo in a way that doesn’t make it look like it’s “bring your kid to work” day. But no. Paul was left hanging. A wide-angle shot caught him standing on tiptoe, straining to grab a few extra inches. Since then, he has become a figure in online entertainment.
This is how the NBA works: one day you are the center of the universe; blink, and you’re a human prop in the marketing of the next big thing.
That’s the theme of the season that begins Tuesday night — the old and reliable versus the new and shiny.
Wembanyama is the newest, shiniest thing in the league since Zion Williamson and his naturally stressed ligaments appeared four years ago.
Wembanyama is a new arrival from France. He probably lives in boxes. But thanks to some high-rotation highlights, he’s immediately expected to be Michael Jordan but a foot taller. The trend in basketball over the past 20 years is both bigger and more agile. Wembanyama functions like a science experiment in this regard, his head bobbing above the crowd as he takes huge steps toward the basket.
He will disappoint. Not because he won’t be good, but because the NBA hype is like no other hype and no one can measure up to him. At best, Wembanyama will survive this season without being singled out as a potential fiasco. Williamson couldn’t do it.
Wembanyama is No. 1 on a short list of names the NBA wants you to be excited about. Scoot Henderson is Wembanyama, but normal size. Although he already looks like he’s 40, Luka Doncic is still on the roster. Anthony Edwards is the next big sleeper. He could become very important if he came up with a sticky nickname. Every time I hear “Anthony Edwards,” I think, “The guy on emergency?’
Toronto’s Scottie Barnes is somewhere on the list. After a disjointed second season, he went from “can’t miss” to “probably might miss.” But it still has enough charm and edge to make the long list.
Barnes’ biggest drawback? He plays in Toronto. The Raptors haven’t been going anywhere since the pandemic bubble season, but that’s never been more apparent. They have a new head coach (Darko Rajakovic) and a new vision (“Let’s learn some basketball!”).
Will they make the playoffs? I hope not.
There are two types of teams in the NBA: bad ones with young, exciting players; and good ones with older, boring players.
Not everyone needs to fit into this dynamic, but no one can escape it.
The Raptors are a neither/nor team. They have players, but they are neither good nor exciting. A few of them are old, but not in a useful way.
Toronto takes up space in the middle. Like that chair you shouldn’t have bought, that no one ever sits on, but you can’t bring yourself to get rid of. With their current roster, the Raptors are surplus to requirements in the NBA.
There are only two ways for them to solve this problem: get really bad and recruit the next Wembanyama or Edwards; or buy an aging superstar and hope he can make you relevant.
A few weeks ago, the Raptors tried to go the second route with Damian Lillard. He instead ended up in Milwaukee, reducing Toronto’s chances of playoff success from infinitesimal to negative.
The Raptors are now one of those visiting teams. You can stick with them, but if you’re spending tickets, it’s to see a member of the visiting team.
Golden State is still a team everyone wants to see, even if its five starters demographically fit the definition of middle-aged. They’re not as exciting anymore, but they have a pedigree.
The two Los Angeles teams are as old as time. Defending champion Denver isn’t old, but its players aren’t young either. Same with Boston. There is no such thing as a great NBA team led by someone under 25 years old.
Modern sport is obsessed with youth and newness for obvious reasons. They want to sell you something. There are only so many teams good enough to convince you to win. Others have to sell you something new.
Most of these newcomers will not succeed. Doncic was the next Jordan, but now he seems buried under 40 feet of shit in Dallas. Ja Morant was the next Jordan until he started waving a gun around every time someone recorded on his phone. Williamson was the next Jordan until his knees gave out.
The next big thing rarely works. The guy who’s been a big thing for a long time and everyone is getting a little tired of (Steph Curry stands out in this regard) is a better bet.
But you can’t do anything useful until you have one or the other.
This season, it’s about which veteran winner (Curry, Leonard, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, et al) will win, and which rookie (all those listed above) can show they have some hope of becoming a veteran winner.
And then, like in Toronto, there is everyone. All they’re doing is wasting time between now and when they’ll be worried enough to start taking big swings again.