George Mikan. Bob Cousy. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. LeBron James.
What do all these players have in common? Each was the face of his era. Not necessarily the best, but the best marketed player in his decade. LeBron’s decade has come to a close despite his continued dominance, and these past few years have been a race to see who can receive the torch from LeBron.
At one point, it seemed the torch was gone from LeBron’s hands and was given to Stephen Curry. But I don’t believe he was ever the true face of the league. Two of his championships were dismissed as him not even being the best player on his team, with Kevin Durant winning Finals MVP. I don’t believe either of them has ever held the throne of face of the NBA. This was further driven home with LeBron’s 2020 championship run in the purest basketball scene imaginable, the Bubble. At this point that season feels more like an ending of an era than the beginning or middle of one. The question became, who will dominate the 2020s decade?
Giannis and Jokic
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic have each made extremely compelling cases as the face of this decade thus far. Antetokounmpo began his dominance without waiting for the turn of the decade, winning 2019 and 2020 MVP and the 2021 NBA championship and Finals MVP. His team has been a top seed ever since, but he hasn’t made it back to the Finals. In the meantime, Nikola Jokic has racked up the same set of accomplishments, winning 2021 and 2022 MVP and 2023 championship and Finals MVP. Jokic is currently seen as the greater player All-Time due to the teams more dominant Finals run this year and his unique style of play. Both are favorites to win the 2024 MVP. But they are already in their prime entering the decade. Who will be the king of the league in 2025? When we look back in 2030, who will be the most remembered player?
Giannis has a case, but his team is aging and will likely be in decline as the decade continues.
Jokic is the reigning Finals MVP and has a young dynasty built around him, but who else could steal his fire mid-decade?
The first candidate to examine is the most obvious: the reigning MVP Joel Embiid. He is known as a playoff choker, but so were Giannis and Jokic after winning their first and even second MVPs. Joel Embiid could follow the same footsteps as those two players: repeat as MVP with a better season and possibly even the 2025 championship. But I don’t see him ever being greater than either of the two players we’ve mentioned. So who else has a shot?
Let’s talk about the third MVP preseason front runner this year along with Jokic and Giannis: Luka Doncic. He plays like prime James Harden but he’s only 24 and has about 5 years before truly hitting his prime. If he’s Harden now, imagine who he’ll be with five more years of development. I imagine Luka will have to leave Dallas to do it though, because this Kyrie partnership won’t work. However, I think Luka is good enough to still be a championship player for many years to come and lead a potential dynasty, I just don’t think it will be with his current team.
Stephen Curry, believe it or not, has a chance at being the next generational talent, the future, of the NBA. The Warriors are set up for long-term success with Curry, Klay, Wiggins, Green, Looney, Kuminga, plenty of other young guys, and most of their own picks. Wiggins can be flipped and as Klay and Draymond age, Kuminga and the other young guys will rise up to take their place. However, Stephen Curry is showing no sign of decline and will still be the leader of the Warriors for years to come. This team remains a contender and Curry still plays at an MVP level, with one championship so far this decade in 2022. If he secures another in 2024, he may end up getting the best of a divided decade.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is in as good a setup as anyone for success this decade. He’s surrounded with young pieces whose growth is accelerating quicker than expected and a team with all the assets to bring in two additional superstars while developing plenty more. The Thunder were one game out of the playoffs this year with a lackluster center rotation that is already being fixed by incoming Rookie of the Year candidate Chet Holmgren. Nothing is stopping the Thunder from being a dynasty right now, and Shai can use this to his advantage to build a narrative as the player of this era.
Anthony Edwards’ performance in the playoffs and World Cup prove him to be perhaps the best United States candidate for generational talent of the 2020s. In the playoffs, he showed that he is willing and able to carry a mediocre team to not be swept by a potential dynasty. This World Cup, he continued to build his narrative as one of the best players in the world, and people are expecting a superstar breakout season from him. The Timberwolves are a terribly constructed roster, but a KAT trade could open up the possibility of a Kobe/Shaq comparison with Edwards and Gobert, albeit with a massive stretch on the Shaq part. However, people are already noticing similarities with Ant’s game to MJ and Kobe, so despite the Wolves’ lack of assets, they could pull off a dynasty in the 2020s.
The final player I consider a real candidate for generational talent is Jayson Tatum. The Celtics are insane and still have the assets to pull off another star trade while keeping Jaylen Brown and the rest of their core. However, this team is already great: Tatum has led them to a Finals appearance and plenty more Conference Finals appearances. He’s only 25 and the decade is still young. Tatum is in prime position to lead the league into a new era, but the only question is whether he can defeat the top few teams in the league.
Honorable mentions include the following players.
Evan Mobley: He has the ceiling for it, but he also has a floor of a limited offensive player that keeps me from putting him here.
Damian Lillard: He’s a bit too old and the Blazers and Heat situations aren’t optimal for long-term success with Lillard as leader.
Jimmy Butler: He’s older than a rising talent should be and his Heat don’t have enough assets long-term.
Zion Williamson: I don’t trust Zion to stay as healthy as he’d need to for this title.
Kevin Durant: He’s built a reputation as unloyal and a villain, and he’s older than a rising star should be.
Devin Booker: I’m high on Booker but he’s built a reputation of good but not great and a whiner.
Victor Wembanyama, Chet Holmgren, Scoot Henderson, Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero: I decided not to include players drafted in the 2020s on this list. They will probably reach their peak closer to 2030 than 2025 and have a chance to be generational talents next decade, but not this one in my opinion.
The league doesn’t want international stars to be the face of basketball. So, this eliminates Jokic, Giannis, Embiid, Doncic, and Shai. Wings are typically the best generational talents these days, leaving just Edwards and Tatum. I personally believe that between the two, Edwards will have the better career, leaving him as my pick for the generational talent of the 2020s. As an Edwards critic this is not my usual pick, but the recent playoffs and World Cup have me convinced that he could truly be the face of the league. Does this mean Minnesota is destined for greatness? Who knows? Edwards could leave the Timberwolves for a large market and be great. Or, the whole team could up and move to Seattle or Mexico City or Vancouver. But, barring injury, Anthony Edwards should be extremely successful in his career.
Thank you for reading this article and please let me know your opinions in the comments.