Who Is the Face of the NBA?

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Who Is the Face of the NBA?

Looking across the NBA landscape right now is a bit jarring. We had all become so inured to the era of LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant that it’s a little hard to know where to turn next as all these new championship contenders emerge. We are in the second-round of the NBA Playoffs, and it’s becoming pretty clear that the NBA’s highest profile stars all play for third-tier contenders at best as father time gains ground on them every day.

I have already cemented myself as one of the foremost Nikola Jokic stans on the internet, but even I could not bring myself to make this request on the three-time MVPs behalf, as being the face of the NBA is about the last thing the league’s preeminent horse enjoyer would ever want. The NBA for a while looked like they were hoping that Ja Morant would be that next guy up, but, well…yeah…

The newest investment in the future of the NBA is in Anthony Edwards, who both looks and plays enough like Michael Jordan to invite not unreasonable comparisons, but he’s currently fighting for his life against the defending champs and he’s only twenty-two years old. Even by the Jordan standard of winning their first title at twenty-seven met by most greats like LeBron and Jokic, Edwards likely needs five more years of seasoning to really reach those heights. Even he thinks he’s only 40% of the way to his ultimate potential.

The basketball portion of this answer is probably Jokic right now just given how much he lives rent-free in a certain kind of hater’s mind, but being the face of the NBA requires cultural crossover that he has only begun to dip his Despicable toe into. At best Jokic shares the stage with someone else(s) more famous than him, but who?

Again, Edwards looks to be built for that role and he has the charisma and elite two-way game to shove his way to the front of this line, but this is his first real playoff challenge, and there are a lot of people out there likely reading his name for the first time now. If he beats the Nuggets and gets the Wolves to the NBA Finals, he probably will reach that level of crossover appeal, but he would have competition from guys like Jayson Tatum in Boston, who many have had pegged as the next man up since his Celtics lost in the NBA Finals to Steph’s Warriors in 2022.

On the MJ schedule, Tatum is far closer to ready than Edwards is, but his more reserved personality compared to Edwards’ classic outgoing team captain persona puts him at a disadvantage in front of the NBA’s corporate sponsors. Ultimately this is a que$tion about their preference$, the level of basketball skill you need to demonstrate to get on their radar is just table stakes, but they are very high.

Shai-Gilgeous Alexander finished second to Jokic in MVP voting this year, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have proven that a small market like Oklahoma City is not a hindrance to being at the top of the league’s cultural zeitgeist. But like Edwards, this is his first real test in the playoffs, and if he did reach those heights he would be ahead of schedule. He also doesn’t have Edwards’ magnetic charisma, hence why he is not being pushed by the NBA’s media partners as the “possible” future face of the league in his series which is being given the Western Conference undercard treatment to the Nuggets vs. Wolves slugfest.

If the Knicks win the title, the city of New York might make Jalen Brunson the new NBA logo by sheer force of will alone. We joke about athletes becoming mayors, but I can easily envision a world where the Knicks win a title, and a motivated group of New Yorkers stage a coup to throw Eric Adams out of office and usher in the eternal reign of New York City’s new basketball god Jalen Brunson. If you’re looking for a longshot bet, this is the guy. I would not put anything past those people when they are Knicks-level motivated, especially since if they win the title it would mean that an injured Jalen Brunson dragged one of the most injured teams in the NBA across the finish line, cementing his status as eternal demigod of NYC.

Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton and Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell are really good players, but neither of their teams is winning the championship, and they wouldn’t be the third-best player on the Nuggets (Aaron Gordon imo), let alone the face of the league at this point.

Dallas’s Luka Doncic has the kind of exhilarating game and amiable personality to be the guy. He’s been playing among men since he was a teenager and making them look like boys, and there aren’t many six-foot-seven point guards in the world, let alone point guards who can do all the things he can do. He might be the best offensive player in the NBA, which pains my Jokic-coated heart to even consider, let alone speak into the world, but it’s true.

But as Giannis Antetokounmpo has proven, becoming the permanent face of the league for an international player is difficult. He was definitely the answer to this question a couple years ago after his Milwaukee Bucks won the championship after his back-to-back MVPs, but look at how his star has faded along with his team’s ever since.

Now compare Giannis’s largely injury-driven setback to LeBron’s litany of lower-seeded full-strength squads and each one’s relative status in the NBA’s cultural order. It’s clear that team brand degradation does not translate to everyone’s personal brand uniformly. Americans root for Americans, as the first Remembering a Play in Splinter sports’s history demonstrates. This is the nut corporate America will be looking to crack in a sport that is truly global now.

Being the face of the NBA is an entirely different question from being the best player in the league, even though the more the latter is true the more it helps reinforce the former. We’re in a weird moment where the best players in the league coming into this year were guys named Giannis, Nikola, Luka and Joel. Embiid absolutely could be the face of the league and has enough humor and charisma to break through the glass capitalist ceiling placed on top of every foreign NBA player, but he needs to focus on playing the minimum games required to qualify for MVP consideration first, let alone find a way to get out of the second round in his quest to summit the NBA’s mountaintop.

This is pretty wild. I’ve never lived in a world where there has not been a clear face or two of the league. Starting with Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson, the NBA realized that unlike other sports, its economic incentives lied in empowering the players to tap into America’s celebrity culture, and that is how they have differentiated themselves from the monotony of the NFL’s beloved “shield” en route to becoming America’s second-favorite sport.

After those two changed the paradigm, Jordan changed the whole damn game, which gave way to the Shaq and then Kobe era, which brought us up to LeBron. Steph passed him for a moment during the Warriors dynasty as he redefined the basic physical parameters of the sport unlike anyone since Wilt Chamberlain, but now that dynasty is history and LeBron’s daddy has demonstrated the wide basketball gulf between the Lakers and a team actually giving his daddy trouble, and the role of the face of the NBA is more up for grabs than it has ever been.

It’s still LeBron James, but only because all the possible replacements are too young, and all the current best players in the league are from overseas. These NBA Playoffs will have a big say in who’s up next, and it definitely won’t be LeBron, Steph or KD.

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