When the Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Pelicans meet Tuesday night, they will both be very much focused on the present. However, this clash between teams from two of the NBA's five smallest markets might be a harbinger of the league's future.
To the surprise of some, the Pelicans have hung in during their battle with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the final playoff spot in the West. New Orleans is only a half-game back of the Thunder, and since the All-Star break the Pelicans have the sixth-best point differential in their conference. While the Thunder wait on the return of Kevin Durant and face the indefinite absence of Serge Ibaka, New Orleans has a lot on the line the rest of the way. Meanwhile, the Bucks have floundered since the trade deadline, posting the league's worst offensive rating during that time frame, but remain solidly in the sixth spot in the East.
In Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Pelicans and Bucks also happen to feature two of the league's best young players. Davis already has reached elite status, ranking third in wins above replacement player (WARP) and sixth in real plus-minus (RPM) in just his third season. Few players in league history have gotten this good this fast, yet consider this: Somewhere out there in the multiverse, there is an Anthony Davis who decided to stay in college for four seasons and is just now finishing up his senior season with the Kentucky Wildcats.
Of course, in our universe, where Davis is a budding MVP candidate in the NBA, the undefeated Wildcats have survived just fine without him. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo is well behind Davis in production, and even if the Greek native reaches his ceiling, he'll probably never get to where Davis already is, if only because so few players do. But Antetokounmpo is one the league's most improved performers and one of the most exciting players around. He's not yet 21 years old.
Allow me to make an observation about something Davis and Antetokounmpo have in common: They're both tall -- and no, this column is not sponsored by Captain Obvious. Davis is listed at 6-foot-10 and Antetokounmpo at 6-9, but both have grown since entering the league and now hover around the 7-0 mark. But like Kevin Durant, neither player has a game that really resembles that of the 7-footers of yesteryear.
And even as post-up basketball continues its long death rattle, Davis and Antetokounmpo might represent an evolution in big-man play that will enable teams to extract offensive value from 7-footers while continuing to benefit from the defensive impact that comes with players of size.