In the previous edition of the NBA meta series, we talked about players who have an athletic build and basketball tool kit that allowed them to adjust their offensive or defensive play styles based on their matchups. Players like Paul Millsap and Harrison Barnes can play on the wing and use their speed to beat slower bigs, or go to the post to punish smaller defenders. On the defensive end, their jack-of-all-trades strength and quickness allow them to shape their game to their opponent.
Unicorns are different. Very different.
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) February 16, 2017
The earliest reference to a basketball unicorn I could find came when it was applied to Serge Ibaka during the 2014 season, then from a 2015 YouTube NBA Draft article from Grantland (long live Grantland) where Rafe Bartholomew examined some guy named Mouhammadou Jaiteh. A 6’11” center who shoots 3s, Jaiteh is the subject of Bartholomew’s musings about the big man’s potential for becoming a real-life hoops unicorn: an impossible, yet existent form of a basketballer.
The term “unicorn” has been used as an analogy across industries, but it caught in the NBA to identify genetic freaks like Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and others—6’10” and taller athletes who combine strength, length, agility, handle, shooting and theoretically anything else you could want from a player into one furiously fluid “human.” Where Millsap may have greater strength or speed than a given player, unicorns have a deadly combination of traits that makes them an overwhelming mismatch against every player.
These players encapsulate a limitless potential on the basketball court. The fact we never described LeBron James as a unicorn is astounding, but it speaks to the lengths that the shapes of these athletes have stretched our understanding of plausible ballers. The term has been thrown around a lot over the past four years, but it’s rarely identified, defined or explained in a way that explains how the uniqueness shapes a franchise’s future plans.
What Defines a Unicorn?
A unicorn is a player who has the athletic shape to play power forward or center, but also the technical skills resembling guard play.
Three-point shooting. Lateral agility. Ball-handling. Passing.
While Ibaka was considered the first unicorn, it was because he could rim-protect and play defense like a big man, but also spot up on the wing or rotate defensively on the perimeter like a guard. He is a unicorn. But he was the precursor, the prototype applied in the modern NBA, only to be outmatched by later iterations.
Enter Kristaps Porzingis:
Enter Anthony Davis:
Enter Giannis Antetokounmpo:
These are not mortal men. Add others like Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid to the list of unicorns, and it is clear that, while anomalous, these individuals’ simultaneous emergences mark an evolutionary step in the shape and fluidity of big men.
As of now, all the unicorns mentioned are incomplete projects yet to reach their primes. Towns isn’t a good defender. Embiid is injury prone. Antetokounmpo can’t shoot. Porzingis had only experienced some improvement in his sophomore year. Davis represents the closest thing to a finished product, and even he has struggled to carry a team to anything beyond the No. 8 seed.
But it’s their athletic structure that establishes a baseline expectation of how these kinds of future superstars can shape a team. It is their uniqueness that produces dreams of endless possibility.
What are Unicorns within the NBA Meta?
When we talked about forwards, we basically noted their functionality was in their ability to blend in with their team’s desired style and force an opposing team to change in response. With unicorns, teams cannot just change the shape of the player who’s guarding them. They are perpetual mismatches. Few players have the height to challenge the 7’3″ Porzingis. His handle and ability to move make him impossible for centers to challenge. As a defensive player looking into the eyes of the mighty Porzingod, you are either sacrificing size and strength, or quickness. Or both.
For all of these unicorns, that disadvantage is created regardless of who’s guarding them. They aren’t matchup nightmares. They’re blood-curdling matchup panic attacks.
We’ll talk about this in a future edition of NBA meta, but teams are transitioning away from set positions. Teams now have players function within certain roles: wing defenders, rim-protectors, three-and-D players, etc. These are all crucial roles that players on a successful NBA team are required to fill in order to compete. Typically, the rim-protector is a center, someone hovering around seven feet tall, with a long wingspan and a girth that allows them to alter interior shot attempts. Think Rudy Gobert. In the modern NBA, teams are wary of playing centers who neither have the foot speed to guard on the perimeter nor can call their ability to protect the rim a strength. For this reason, there is a glut in the center market, and players like Enes Kanter and Greg Monroe have merely niche roles on teams.
Few players can combine an ability to protect the rim on defense and create space on offense with their shooting stroke. Tall, physical players rarely have the light shooting touch necessary to threaten from three-point range.
— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) June 23, 2015
But the players that do?
They enable their team to be creative. Unicorns are Swiss Army Knives. They can operate as the building blocks of a franchise because they can, theoretically, play with anyone. Most teams are restricted in their secondary big-man slot after the rim-protector. Unicorns in the mold of Ibaka, Porzingis and Davis, with their ability to space the floor and protect the rim, enable teams to play any kind of secondary big alongside them. Post-up wizards like Zach Randolph? Sure. Three-and-D wings who play in a small-4 role? That works. Spread 4s like Ryan Anderson? Sounds fun.
Plenty of capable centers populate the NBA’s ranks, but no team wishes to pay them because the center who can’t shoot or protect the hoop doesn’t have a place in a modern lineup. But next to a unicorn? Such a center with elite offensive gifts can find a home.
Defensive points saved (DPS) is a key metric here at NBA Math, essentially charting the positive or negative contributions a player has on the defensive end. Generally, point guards score poorly. They’re typically the lightest, shortest and least lengthy players on the court, and thus are taken advantage of.
But some unicorns, like Antetokounmpo (and hopefully Ben Simmons), are being pitched as options at the point. With a unicorn in place of a traditional 1-guard, teams won’t be able to pick on short players like the Cleveland Cavaliers did against Isaiah Thomas or Stephen Curry in the 2017 playoffs. Teams can play more switch-heavy defenses and retain more length on the floor. This is also what made the Oklahoma City Thunder so dangerous in the playoffs from 2010 through 2015; they paired Russell Westbrook, unique in his own right due to supreme athleticism, with long, rangy defenders who happened to qualify as unicorns (Ibaka and Durant).
I use words like “Swiss Army Knife” to describe unicorns because how they operate is dependent on what kind of situation they enter. You can shape a team around them or plug them into an already established system. The future of the NBA rests in the palms of these mighty beasts. Antetokounmpo or Simmons may lead the league in assists one day. Embiid, if he can make a deal with Asclepius and stay healthy, may be the most complete unicorn yet, capable of dominating on defense and offense like peak Shaquille O’Neal with a three-point shot.
The league has become increasingly centered around mismatches and the exposure of an opposing team’s weaknesses. Teams like to attack these spots out of uncomfortable switches, like when a 7-footer is guarding a speedy point guard. The ability to punish them across the floor dictates offensive play. However, finding them takes time and coordination. The shot clock is only 24 seconds long, and that’s not a lot of time to look.
But what differentiates unicorns from many players throughout the rest of the league is the ease with which they find these overmatched defenders. Most players have to search for mismatches.
Unicorns just have to look in front of them.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @jarvrt14.