Why Luka Doncic and Trae Young represent the next generation of NBA superstars

STEPHEN CURRY'S AUDACITY that night is such a familiar hallmark of NBA basketball that it's hard to believe it was ever new. There he was, at high speed in the open court, pulling up for quick-fire 3 in transition. There he was, navigating the tightest spaces with the tightest of handles, then somehow softly kissing the top of the glass with a lurching scoop shot. And there he was, shimmying as he backpedaled to the confusion and awe of 20,000 New Yorkers in basketball's most hallowed cathedral.

Superstardom isn't born in a single night, but there are moments when it first reveals itself with a bright incandescence. The performance wasn't just transcendent -- as Curry's 54-point outburst was on Feb. 27, 2013 -- but the conditions were ripe. The game was broadcast nationally, and it occurred in Madison Square Garden, where basketball legends are codified for the ages.

The previous month, Curry had finished outside the top 10 backcourt players for All-Star consideration with fewer than 80,00 votes. But within a year, he would lead all guards in balloting with more than a million votes and make his debut on the list of top-selling NBA player jerseys worldwide at No. 5, despite never having advanced past a conference semifinal series.

By the time his Golden State Warriors vaulted to the top of the NBA standings less than two years later, Curry ranked second in sales to only LeBron James, and Curry would pass James during the 2015-16 season. Arena bowls filled up hours before tipoff with fans eager to witness Curry's pregame warm-up routine. And he would lead all NBA players in Celebrity DBI, a metric that measures appeal, aspiration, awareness, breakthrough, endorsement, influence, trendsetter and trust.

Ask the executives in the league who track revenue and they'll tell you: There have been only three superstars in the past 15 years who, as individual brands, materially drive the engine of NBA commerce: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

Now, for the first time since 2005, the conference semifinals are without such an icon (and at least one of the three appeared in every NBA Finals from 2007 to 2020). The NBA and its partners -- who have relied on selling the tenacity of Bryant's will, the intrigue of James' narrative and the improbability of Curry's exploits -- must turn to a crop of relative unknowns to capture the public.

No LeBron or Steph. No Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Miami Heat or Warriors. No natural rivalries or redemption stories to peddle. It's a precarious moment for a league that loves a brand name, but an opportune moment to create some new ones.