What are the questions that will define the next decade?
As the calendar flipped from 2019 to 2020 so too did the focus on what's coming next.
Think about how much changed over the last 10 years...
LeBron James cementing his legacy, the Spurs remaining The Spurs, the 3-point revolution, the rise of the Golden State Warriors, the proliferation of international talent, the advent of streaming, #NBAtwitter, the age of analytics and player tracking... the NBA in 2020 looks nothing like the NBA in 2010.
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So where do we go from here? What is the elephant in the room? What is bubbling beneath the surface? What is hidden in plain sight? How will 2030 look compared to 2020?
We certainly don't have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and neither crystal balls nor time machines exist... at least not yet! But we can take stock of the lessons we've learned up to this point and use them as a guide to help predict what's in store for the next 10 years.
Here's Part 1 of the 20 biggest questions that will define the 2020s.
1. How long will LeBron James play?
Let's start with the player who defined the last decade, the one who won more games than anyone else and reached a whopping eight straight NBA Finals.
As long as he's playing, James will stand in the spotlight. Even if he's no longer the best player in the league, he will remain the brightest star in the sky.
He just turned 35 so even if he has more mileage on the treads than any player in NBA history at his age, it's not crazy to suggest he'll hang around until he's 40. And if he does that, then what?
MORE: LeBron's still at the top of his game
Will he become the all-time leading scorer? Will he play with his son? Will he play more seasons than any player in history? How many more titles can he win? How many players will he stand in the way of finally winning? Could he catch Michael Jordan in rings?
Speaking of Jordan...
2. Who rules the post-LeBron era?
When Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls following the 1997-98 season, there was no real heir apparent. Kobe Bryant wasn't quite ready and as great as Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett were, none could truly captivate and succeed consistently in the mould of MJ. The post-Jordan era brought with it a void that would have been difficult to fill even without the abbreviated season that caused a false-start to the next chapter.
Whenever James does call it quits it will signal the biggest changing of the guard since Jordan.
This time, the next generation is ready.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is already an MVP and just turned 25. Luka Doncic is in the midst of delivering the greatest season ever by a 20-year-old. And Zion Williamson is waiting in the wings to unleash his bull in a China shop routine.
Those aren't the only candidates but they are the three most likely successors to assume the title as the unofficial face of the league.
3. Will Kawhi Leonard become the most unique star ever?
If Kawhi Leonard actually pulls off winning titles and a Finals MVP with three different teams, he'll make history.
But it's not just that.
Leonard's propensity to miss games in the regular season means there's a very real chance that he'll never win a league MVP even if he's unanimously considered the best player in the NBA.
MORE: Is Kawhi or Giannis the NBA's best player?
When it comes to debating Leonard's legacy in the grand scheme of things, we'll collectively need to reshape and reframe how we talk about weighing the significance of various individual achievements.
4. How will analytics change the game?
Honestly, this question is broad enough that there could be 20 questions about this on its own. Teams and fans know far more about what happens on the floor than ever before and it goes way beyond the trivial "3s and layups vs midrange" arguments.
We're more enlightened about player health and rest. We're more in tune with role players who impact the game far beyond the box score. We're more synced up with how fans consume the sport which will invariably change how it's presented. We're more exposed to it on grassroots levels that will change how the next generations play and train and think about the sport.
Seth Partnow, formerly in the analytics department of the Milwaukee Bucks and now an NBA writer with the Athletic, wrote a fantastic piece earlier this season on how analytics is mostly about "the art of being less wrong." Over the next decade, analytics will uncover so many hidden truths and we'll all be better for it. Analytics is the next frontier to the point where the slogan for the 2020s could simply be "the art of being less wrong."
5. How will the age limit impact the NBA?
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard.
All of them came straight to the NBA from high school prior to the age limit being imposed prior to the 2006 NBA Draft. The rule, part of the collective bargaining agreement, stated that players must be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school to enter the NBA.
Commissioner Adam Silver has stated that rule will likely go away and could potentially as soon as the 2022 draft. The NBA draft will once again get younger as will NBA lockerrooms. The ripple effects could impact anything from roster construction to G-League to Summer League to trading future draft picks and who knows what else.
6. What will Masai Ujiri do?
The architect of the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors, Ujiri will become arguably the most sought after front office free agent in league history when his current contract runs out following the 2020-21 season.
In a league brimming with brilliant executives, none pull the strings quite like Ujiri who not only delivered a championship to the Raptors but also won Executive of the Year in 2012-13 with the Denver Nuggets. Ujiri's legend continues to grow with every win, every unearthed draft gem, every passionate speech and every effort outside of an NBA arena.
MORE: The defining moments of Toronto's title run
Will he stay in Toronto where Ujiri has become as beloved as any player and where he's been fully empowered by ownership to do as he wants with no second-guessing?
Will he flirt with the idea of winning big in New York and the allure of restoring the Knicks?
Will he go all-in on the NBA's efforts in Africa and choose to take on a new role altogether with that endeavour?
Will his legend expand beyond basketball and perhaps draw the attention of an ownership group in another sport?
Masai Ujiri has all of the leverage to do whatever he wants and his decision will have a profound impact that's felt around the entire league for years to come.
7. Will James Harden win a title?
Harden is in the midst of a third straight scoring title and is perhaps the most polarizing star in the league. He's creeping up in the larger discourse as well and he's a player that will be forever talked about long after he's done playing.
While the Golden State Warriors may have been a standard-bearer for the age of analytics during their run of five straight Finals, James Harden and the Houston Rockets have undoubtedly become the poster children.
It's incredibly unfair and almost assuredly inaccurate, but there is some chatter among influential voices in and around the game that Harden's ability (or inability) to win serves as a referendum on analytics. That train is coming regardless of whether or not Harden gets the proverbial monkey off the back, but the cacophony will only grow louder the longer he goes without getting a ring.
Will Harden enter the conversation alongside Karl Malone and Charles Barkley and Elgin Baylor among the greats to never win? Or will he finally hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy atop the summit?
8. What happens with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons?
There's no pairing currently set up to dominate the next decade quite like Philadelphia's perplexing duo.
And yet there's no guarantee they'll ever figure it out.
MORE: Simmons evolving into defensive powerhouse
By the end of the decade, Embiid and Simmons will be 35 and 33, respectively. In that time, they could win five titles while staying together for the entirety of the decade or split up and go their separate ways in the blink of an eye.
The degree to which Embiid and Simmons co-exist and what the 76ers ultimately decide to proceed with them moving forward could have a larger on-court impact than anything else in the 2020s.
9. Is load management here to stay?
As it stands right now, gone are the days of every star playing in all 82 games. Healthy scratches have become the norm with teams and players prioritizing rest in the regular season to preserve peak performance come playoff time.
Will that always be the case?
What if the season was significantly reduced to increase the importance of each game? What if the number of teams to qualify for the playoffs is reduced? What if other measures are put into place to help ensure players suit up for as many games as possible? What if none of that happens and this is just the new norm? Will we even keep calling it load management?
10. Will the Warriors mount a comeback?
The Golden State Warriors unleashed a five-year run of dominance that rivals the greatest stretches by any teams.
The 50s Celtics. The 80s Lakers. The 90s Bulls. The 2010s Warriors. (Can we just call it the 10s? Who decides the rules here? I don't know, but I'd love some clarity.)
Injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry and the departure of Kevin Durant have put at least a one-year hold on Golden State's run atop the league. Teams are getting their shots in now as cathartic revenge, but the Warriors won't be down for long.
The question isn't whether the Splash Brothers will return to run amok next to Draymond Green.
The question is what that return looks like. Will it be a return to championships and banners or a return to 55-win respectability and a few trips to the Conference Finals?
We're just getting started and there's far more that's at stake.
Is the greatest player in NBA history hiding in plain sight? What does Kevin Durant's third chapter entail? What will happen with the midseason tournament? Is post-play dead? Will the Spurs ever stop being the Spurs? What's the next on-court change?
All of that and so much more coming later this week in Part 2.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.