Somehow and somewhere among the world of shooting 3-pointers and abandoning the lane, there’s a nostalgic development taking place in the NBA: Goliath hath returned with a jealous vengeance.
Specifically speaking, two centers are currently engaged in an arm-wrestle over the league’s most cherished individual award if we are right to assume the 2020-21 Kia MVP will be decided by Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.
This is indeed a throwbackalicious moment for a league that long celebrated the tallest of men, only to see them recently demoted to being pick-setters and, ahem, stretch-fives. But: Jokic and Embiid have been brilliant all season with big-boy performances that harkened back to big-man glory, when centers were the centers of attention and the word “dominant” was almost exclusively reserved for them and their work in the paint.
Jokic, the perceived frontrunner for MVP, is a tricky big man with a soft touch at the rim and Tom Brady-like accuracy whenever he looks to toss a pocket pass to a Nuggets teammate. Embiid has become an inside force for the Sixers who uses his heft for bully-ball and is an elite defender with a furious knack for shot-blocking.
Should Jokic get the award as expected, Embiid will certainly finish in the top three in votes, and conventional wisdom says he’ll win MVP at some point in his career. For sure, the league hasn’t seen this steep level of dueling centers since the mid-1990s, when David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon ruled and swapped turns winning MVPs.
Actually, there is nobody more curious and thrilled at the prospect of a center winning MVP than a former center who is somewhat of an expert on the subject.
Olajuwon is particularly invested in Embiid, who learned the game as a teenager in Cameroon by watching old VHS tapes of Olajuwon, and also connects with Jokic, whose footwork is most reminiscent of Olajuwon’s. When the former two-time champion is informed the league has had only one MVP center — Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 — in the last 25 years, there’s a groan heard over the phone.
“Wow,” Olajuwon said. “I did not know that.”
“Well, one of them needs to change that, you know?”
The shift in style and emphasis on the 3-point shot have conspired to diminish the low-post big man. This process, fueled by the analytics boom, began last decade and took teams by storm. When the NBA suddenly placed great value on spacing the floor, the ripple-down effect was predictable, and teenaged seven-footers with NBA dreams were suddenly being trained to stray away from the rim. The nuances required for low-post play — crafty footwork, a jump-hook, a mid-range shot and backing your man down — became outdated and centers became third options or afterthoughts. Ask any coach or GM about this, and their blame-shifting, rationalized reply is: “Well, that’s just the way the game is now.”
Olajuwon isn’t a staunch critic of 3-point shooting at all. He doesn’t believe the shot has hurt the game. He just wonders why the game can’t have both — long-distance shooters and big men who control the paint.
“A lot of big men now have been playing outside,” he said, “so they don’t really develop as a post player. The post is still there. It hasn’t gone away. The opportunities that were there for them before are still there now. They just don’t capitalize on them. Why?”
One reason is the league’s infatuation with isolation play, where the floor is spread to provide ample space. When that happens, though, the center is sacrificed and told to leave the block.
There’s also a talent shortage — meaning, there aren’t many Embiids flooding the league and forcing teams to rethink their strategy. Those factors are combining to showcase a game that leans toward athletic shooters.
Curiously, Embiid’s ascension to MVP-caliber status coincided with his decision to resist the urge to shoot 3s this season. Two years ago Embiid averaged four per game and made just 30%; now it’s three per game and 37%.
Shaq, who is pushing Embiid for MVP, said recently: “He’s playing the game like he’s supposed to play.”
This is the most efficient season of Embiid’s career; he’s at 29.3 points and 10.8 rebounds. The only drawback are his 19 missed games, mainly while recovering from a knee injury. That hasn’t deterred his idol. Olajuwon first became fixated on Embiid when the Sixers center was in college at Kansas and developing quickly.
“I was amazed,” Olajuwon said of those early impressions, “because I worked with a lot of big men, and I saw someone moving comfortably, naturally and gracefully. To do that as a big man, I was very impressed. He had all the moves.”
Olajuwon sees a direct relationship between Embiid’s breakout season and the success of the Sixers, currently in a dogfight for the top seed in the East.
“I think it’s proof that having a dominant big man is always a treasure,” Olajuwon said. “His dedication, his movement, his focus is right. And I guess when you see the (chance for) MVP, that’s also motivation for him that he can do this on a consistent basis. It’s phenomenal what he’s doing this year.”
One of Doc Rivers’ goals after becoming the Sixers’ coach was selling Embiid on the idea of concentrating his game near the rim, and it has paid off. Olajuwon said the Sixers teammates had to buy into that as well, especially whenever Embiid established inside position and raised a hand for the ball.
“You don’t ask for it, you demand it,” Olajuwon said. “There’s a difference. Different mentality.”
Olajuwon added: “He didn’t capitalize (in the post) as much in the previous years, even though he has all the post moves. And he’s still not maximizing it, and yet he’s already in the MVP race. Can you imagine how great he’ll be when he starts to maximize it all the time? He can be MVP for the next 3-4 years.”
Olajuwon has similar praise for the unconventional skills of Jokic. While Jokic spends ample time at the perimeter, it’s mainly because the Nuggets’ offense runs through him. Yet Olajuwon mentions how Jokic doesn’t abandon the paint, where he is most dangerous.
“He’s very agile with great skill for his size,” Olajuwon said. “And he’s very smart in the post. He has all the package.”
Jokic is averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds and 8.5 assists. He’s the most dangerous big man in terms of range; his 3-point shooting is 41%. What he’s doing for a Nuggets team that recently lost Jamal Murray for the year is crucial.
“He brings a whole new dimension because of his style of play,” Olajuwon said. “He makes great passes, scores down low, from outside. I like the mobility along with the court vision. You cannot let him shoot off screens; he’ll kill you there. A complete player. That’s an MVP candidate, no question. If he wins, it would be well deserved.”
Embiid and Jokic are exceptions to the rule in today’s NBA, though. For the big man, the paint has gone dry, for the most part, and Olajuwon notices the players who are taking advantage of the void are guards.
“You know who’s in the post? Who’s playing the position? Kyrie (Irving) and (Russell) Westbrook. They’re posting up all the little guys. When they position themselves there, they’re playing like a center. It also makes them more versatile, more dangerous to defend, because now they can score multiple ways.”
Olajuwon and other big men who worked in the paint, such as Shaq, are coming to the rescue of the fraternity, if only to bring more balance to the sport.
“The game is still made for big men to dominate,” Olajuwon said. “Only the big man can block shots, rebound, score inside, draw the double team and intimidate. It’s harder for small guys to dominate so many different ways because they mainly just bring skills. A good big man brings more to the table. He has size and skills.”
The league can be trendy and cyclical; what’s true today may not be true tomorrow. So perhaps the game might drift back toward size. And it certainly helps that Embiid and Jokic are making a strong case for that.
But the vast majority of centers playing today will need more convincing to embrace a more conventional way of playing, if only because teams and coaches aren’t stressing or teaching that, at least not right now.
Which raises a question: Suppose a coach told a young Hakeem Olajuwon playing today to suddenly switch up and start shooting more 3s?
An older Olajuwon was amused by that thought the other day.
“I don’t think a coach would tell me that.”
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