Bringing Back the Big Man


Joel Embiid’s (above) stellar numbers this season have catapulted him to the top of the early MVP race (Courtesy of Twitter)

There was a time, not too long ago, where the NBA was seen as a guard-dominant league. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double, Stephen Curry led the Warriors to the NBA Finals and Kyrie Irving hit a notorious shot over Curry to win a trophy himself.

In many ways, that sentiment is still true. Bradley Beal leads the NBA with 32.9 points per game, and the rest of the list is rounded out by Damian Lillard, Curry and Luka Doncic, all seen to be some of the most exciting players in the game today.

There is a name wedged in between those though, whose team sits atop the East with a 20-10 record, averaging over 30 points per game himself. That is Joel Embiid. Switch over to the assist column and closing out the top five is another unfamiliar face, Nikola Jokic.

In the Most Valuable Player race, Embiid and Jokic would likely sit near the top in a league that is more diverse than any time in recent memory. To say that centers would be dictating the game and being talked about in this way would have been unthinkable years ago. 

So what has sparked the change? It may be a product of the game that tried to push the big man away.

In a league that has continually shifted in the smaller direction, a new opportunity has opened up for players dominating the inside. The 76ers sit atop the ranks in two-point and free throw attempts, with Embiid shooting nearly a dozen a game himself.

But the modern big man also has to be distinctly different than those of previous generations. The floor has widened, and they need to be able to shoot the ball from deep at each position on the floor. Embiid is shooting a career-high 40% from the perimeter, and Jokic is at slightly above that mark.

Speaking of Jokic, he adds 8.6 assists per game as well, something that is an impressive mark not just this season but in NBA history. Another example, albeit at a different scale, is right here in New York with Julius Randle, a forward who is contributing 5.5 assists.

The trend here clearly shows players reinventing themselves, whether filling a need to score, distribute or become a focal point of a team in need of one. And none of these names are the same as those of a few years ago.

If you had asked me for the league’s best big man, I would have quickly said DeMarcus Cousins or in more recent years, Andre Drummond. The former just parted ways with the Rockets as he struggles to find a home after an injury, while the latter is currently being pushed to the sideline as his team actively searches for a trade.

These are traditional big men, isolated to an inside game that pales in comparison to what others are showing today. Many pundits, myself included, have often doubted this new style of play, but it is clearly showing its payoff.

Jokic and Embiid, as the two leading examples, are having some of the best individual seasons the NBA has seen in a long time. When it comes to the playoffs, when shots may stop to drop, the rim becomes a bit smaller and the game a bit tougher, I have to like my chances with either of these guys on my side.

Earlier signs of this evolution started to show in last year’s playoffs. The Miami Heat ultimately stopped the Milwaukee Bucks as they forced Giannis Antetokounmpo outside of the paint and he lacked enough improvisation to find ways to score or distribute. 

The Los Angeles Clippers, one of the preseason favorites to compete in the Finals, was manhandled by Jokic and the Nuggets on the inside of the paint. 

Similarly, the Lakers made short order of a team that lost any semblance of size in the Houston Rockets. There is also the massive void left by Anthony Davis. Without question, he was the crucial key that LeBron James and the Lakers needed to win the NBA Finals. What I remember most is how he dominated teams that could not match up with him, paired with his ability to step outside and hit a game-winning three on the Nuggets when necessary.

All of this is not to say that small ball is not a means to success, but it requires a distinct formula to succeed. The Golden State Warriors found it, in no small part, with two of the best shooters in NBA history in the backcourt. That is not an easy thing to replicate.

At a time when it has become far too common to abandon the big man, the 76ers and Nuggets are showing that the center position is still alive and well. The game does not look the same as it once did, but that is for the better in today’s NBA. 

The question, though, is just how sustainable can this be? Particularly for a player such as Embiid who has faced the challenges of injury before. It is a fair concern, but right now, I am just focused on enjoying the ride and hopefully there is an MVP trophy to show for it.