“Unicorn” is up there with “new normal” and “positionless basketball” as far as terms I would love to see removed from my brain. Any big man with guard skills is dubbed a unicorn, and we’re led to believe the NBA is a mythical universe populated by elves, dragons, and wizards. Well, technically the Wizards have a unicorn, but we’re never sure how long the glue will keep the horn attached.
This unicorn narrative is misleading. There’s a big difference between a big man with guard skills and a big man with guard skills who also moves like a guard. When you classify every tall guy who can shoot as a unicorn, the term loses its impact.
When the movement was just beginning, Kristaps Porziņģis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokuonmpo, and Nikola Jokić were all given the distinction. Today, there’s a unicorn on every block, and I’m having a hard time discerning why Starbucks coffee was so great in the first place.
We were in such a hurry to use the term unicorn that every 7-footer with a jumper fell automatically qualified, and I’m not positive how many of those original six still fit my definition of a unicorn.
That’s why I think we need to be more rigid when doling out roses because the league is seeing an influx of skilled big men, and lopping them all together is misleading and generates NBA groupthink (aka NBA Twitter). And if you’re following along, groupthink is largely a bad thing and destroys individuality, creativity, and NBA Twitter for that matter.
So entertain me as I try to explain this to you like you’re 5 years old while we take a look at who coined the term, who qualifies for this distinction, how unicorns fluctuate, and if we should just retire the term altogether.
The origin of the unicorn
My research points to Kevin Durant as the originator of the term unicorn (and of course, he takes full credit for it). KD used it to describe Porziņģis, and it not only stuck but blew up. The funny thing is, unicorns have been around for awhile, we just didn’t have a word for them, and ironically enough, I think Durant and Dirk Nowitzki were the godfathers of the movement.
Durant defined the term in broad strokes to convey that Zinger was unique. While I agree, I think we need to take it a step further, and look at unicorns as bigs who are guards but bigger.
Durant and Nowitzki are unicorns, in my mind, because of how fast and agile they are/were at their size. If you were to ask peak Dirk and Durant to emulate the quick, almost out-of-control stepback three that Damian Lillard shoots, they might not be able to do it at Dame’s pace, but the motion would be quick and fluid relative to their frame.
Now consider fadeaways from Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokić. It takes a perceptible tick longer to gather and get off those shots. They’re bigger guys obviously, but I would argue we’ve seen centers with similar body types in the NBA before. Embiid reminds me of a young Patrick Ewing, but even then I still think Ewing’s first step was a touch quicker.
I laugh whenever an announcer points out that Joker has developed the Dirk one-legged fadeaway. It’s not just lazy because both are European bigs, it’s extremely offensive to Dirk, who was a true unicorn. Young Dirk and even prime Dirk moved a lot better than Jokić ever has, and that stepback was institutional. The Mavericks put his damn silhouette on the court.
Jokić shoots that fadeaway so slow you could smoke a whole hog in the time it takes the Nuggets’ center to go from initiation to release.
Now, I know the main takeaway from the headline and art is, “Deadspin writer says Jokić isn’t a unicorn,” which is correct, but I never said he was bad. You can be an MVP and not be a unicorn.
So in an effort to not get fucking destroyed by NBA groupthink, allow me to further explain what I think a unicorn should be.
Eras have dictated who is, and is not, a unicorn
I mentioned it 15 million times, but I define a unicorn as a big man with guard skills who also moves like a guard. There are a couple of reasons why making that distinction is important. The first is for my mental health because hearing “unicorn” 17 million times in the lead-up to the draft is confusing as hell. The second reason is we’re about to be inundated with big men with guard skills, and the whole point of calling a player a unicorn is because the mythical beast is supposedly extremely rare and hard to find even in the realm of fantasy.
We didn’t stumble into the land of unicorns; we’re just in a different era of hoops. Positionless basketball is to thank for this, and it’s about time coaches figured out that any argument against building a versatile skill set is asinine.
While the NBA hasn’t always had unicorns because old-school systems were rigid in players’ roles, it has had guys who could’ve been unicorns with more progressive approaches. Hakeem Olajuwon, young David Robinson, and early Shaquille O’Neal were all one-of-a-kind athletes who moved like gazelles for their size.
We know about the Dream Shake. The Admiral scored 71 points in a game when it was really hard to do. Who knows if Shaq ever could’ve developed guard skills to initiate from the perimeter, but I think people who call Antetokounmpo a modern-day Shaq are onto something.
While Giannis might not be able to shoot with a guard’s efficiency, he damn sure moves like one. I mean, he jumped over a New York Knick in a game. Think about his block against Phoenix in the NBA Finals. How many players in the history of basketball could make those plays? The answer is like five guys, maybe.
We may have never seen a center who can pass like Jokić, but there have been comparable visionaries, and I don’t think I’m out of line when I say Jokić’s body type is not that unique for the NBA. There’s nothing physically hindering Antetokounmpo from passing the ball as well as Joker. The Greek is a pretty good distributor in his own right; he just doesn’t have the sixth sense like Jokić, Magic Johnson, or Larry Bird.
That said, Jokić and Embiid will never be able to do what Giannis does. I don’t even have to ask if Embiid or Jokić could leap over a player to finish a lob in transition. I know the answer. The only question is who gets hurt worse attempting it?
Speaking of injuries…
A unicorn can lose its luster with age or injury
This brings me back to Porziņģis, who was a unicorn during his apex in New York. The guy moved fluid for his size and was destructive on defense. Now, after a bunch of injuries, he’s simply a 7-footer with guard skills. Wizards fans (and probably KD) may protest when I say that, but after a few scotches, they’d admit that this Zinger is not the same guy who was king of New York for a short time.
Washington Porziņģis is reminiscent of late-ish stage Nowitzki when he couldn’t move his feet fast enough to stay in front of smaller players, but possessed the graceful footwork and length to be a bucket. Though Porziņģis remains effective as a scorer and is having his best production as a pro, he, like old Dirk, isn’t the awe-inspiring beast capable of altering league landscapes.
We’ve only seen a couple of unicorns age so the data is inconclusive. They can turn into big men with the skill set of a guard, like when Sam Perkins ran three-point line to three-point line at the end of his career, or defy Father Time like Durant has been able to do.
While KD has sustained injuries, too, he always picks up where he left off. There have been stretches this season when the Brow has shown how effective he can be when healthy, but people have noticed he’s not moving like New Orleans Davis. His unicorn-ness has been tarnished, and I’m not sure if he’s one of the five guys who could pull off the Giannis finals block anymore.
Earlier in the year, I wrote that Davis should be focused on remaining spry and agile as he gets older because bulky big men don’t age the greatest. Regardless of showing us that he can put on weight and still dominate, he hasn’t been able to do it consistently, and I think a few Kareem Abdul-Jabaar yoga sessions and diet would help more than chugging protein shakes.
That’s why I’m fascinated at the prospect of Antetokounmpo seven years from now. My guess is he’ll still be a world-class athlete by any measure, but will the physical dropoff be just enough to make his few weaknesses glaring? That’s where Jokić and Embiid hold the upper hand because their effectiveness isn’t predicated on quickness and explosiveness. So in theory, their games should age better. Their bodies? That I don’t know.
Embiid and Jokić are the next evolution of centers in the NBA, but they are not unicorns. They slot into their position because they’re not positionless. The only way they don’t occupy the middle is if Mike Malone or Doc Rivers super-size the lineup, are drunk, or both.
An argument to end the unicorn argument
My personal motivation for asking the art department to morph Jokić into a hippo was that I thought it would be hysterical and would make Nuggets fans piss vinegar/bong water. (Screw you, Dale!) The altruistic and more broad impetus is that labeling players in the NBA should be more fun than unicorn or not. Everyone deserves their own spirit animal.
He’s a GOAT, he’s a unicorn, he’s a tarantula, he’s an octopus (or is it a klaw?). Well, the Joker reminds me of one of those hippos that dance in Anastasia. He gives us artistry in an unassuming vehicle. He’s slow, but elegant. No movement is wasted because he can’t afford to expend the energy.
Also, hippos are one of the deadliest animals on the planet and will bite you in half if you don’t watch out. Pablo Escobar’s former pets are now considered an invasive species in Columbia, but that doesn’t really work for this analogy because you can’t call foreigners an “invasive species” even if they are gradually taking over the league. (Last hippo fact, apparently only a small percentage of males ever reproduce, so they could be ornery for other, more pent-up reasons.)
When a unicorn is on the floor, you know it. Giannis taking three dribbles to go from halfcourt to hoop is amazing even though he does it on a regular basis. He’s constantly blowing our minds because it’ll never be normalized. I feel the same way about watching KD crossover helpless wing defenders and rise up for a 17-footer like he’s a 7-foot Devin Booker.
That’s not the case for Embiid. Sure, he’s doing things not typically seen from big men, but his size and body type is an established cannon. It’s not inconceivable that a center with a similar frame could do what he does with an open-minded coaching staff.
I’ve never seen a player with Chet Holmgren’s body do what we think Chet can do. Now, Chet isn’t Giannis because no one is Giannis, but both are from the same intellectual property. Shit, upcoming No. 1 overall draft pick Victor Wembanyama is from outer space if LeBron James was to be believed.
I hesitate to give LeBron credit for anything, but kudos to him for not going straight to unicorn — even if his choice was kind of insulting. A little bit. That’s (mostly) the kind of leadership and forward-thinking we need. At least until NBA Groupthink co-opts “alien,” and I have to write another 2,000-word ambling research paper arguing that not every 8-foot center is an “alien” and that time really is on a never-ending loop.