Big men have always had a special place in the NBA and in the hearts of fans. You could argue that the league was initially built on true big men, giants who dominated the game and, fitting to the position they played, were always the centre of attention.
From Mikan to Russell and Wilt, to Walton and Kareem, to the golden age of big men in the NBA, during which almost every team not employing a shooting guard named Michael Jordan that wanted to contend in the playoffs, had to have a skilled big man in the lineup.
Ewing. Mutombo. Hakeem. Alonzo. Robinson. Shaq. Even the less dominant ones, Smits, Seikaly, Daugherty, Divac, were skilled and capable of changing the course of a game. Back in the day, the rule of the draft was – pick giant seven foot giants first, even the infamous Bowie before Jordan draft didn’t change that. GMs dreamed of building championship teams around the foundation of a solid centre. Fans demanded their teams dump the ball inside so they could watch their superstar centre go to work.
The demise of the NBA centre has been well documented. With the changing pace and style of the game, slow plodding giants became less in demand as more and more the league focused on athletic, versatile wings and flashy quick guards. Entering the new millennium, teams that featured a dominant centre as their star player became less and less. At one point, the league tried its best to tout Dwight Howard as the new generation of dominant big men.
As the years went by, the big man continued to evolve. Young tall kids weren’t just forced to park themselves in the paint to rebound and block shots. They were asked to shoot the ball, to throw a nice pass every now and then, and to know how to handle the ball. Another thing that happened was that young kids who grew up idolizing Jordan, Iverson and Kobe naturally wanted the ball in their hands, to beat their man off the dribble, and eventually, to be able to sink three pointers.
Hybrid centre-power forwards were the new in thing in the NBA. Now GMs and scouts were everywhere looking out for seven footers who could drain jumpers from outside the paint. Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony Towns are the epitome of such bigs, and it just so happens they both are likely to be among the top 5 centres, if not overall players, in the league for the next decade. An even more complete centre is Demarcus Cousins, who has the size, bulk and strength of traditional giants, but at the same time the agility, ball skills and shooting ability that could beat some starting point guards in the league. Even traditional bigs with solid post games decided to expand their game outside. Al Horford, Brook Lopez were a few of the more traditional centres in the league for the first half of their careers. Both have been shooting the three at ten times the rate they did versus the last six years. Big guys once considered dominant, who focused their efforts in the paint, rebounding, blocking shots and scoring over their opponents via dunks, hooks and post moves, have somehow gotten lost in the conversation of the’elite’ centres. That is why most consider Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond a tier below AD, Cousins and KAT.
And this year we are witnessing another unique, potentially game changing centre surface in the league. He is aptly nicknamed The Process, which could not only stand for the rebuilding efforts in Philadelphia, but also the culmination of the past two decades of evolution of NBA centres. I’m of course, taking about Joel Embiid.
Embiid has surprised even the most optimistic of Sixers fans. He’s been nothing but awe inspiring In whatever minutes he’s been given this season. Embiid has the prototype body that resembles those from the top 90s centres, somewhere between a Dikembe Mutombo but with the agility of a David Robinson. He can score in the post with an array of smooth post moves even guys like KAT and AD have not shown. We’ve already seen him bust out Hakeem-like dream shakes a couple of times. He can also shoot it anywhere all the way out to the three point line with consistency. He has a superb rebounding rate, and is among the league leaders in blocks while playing not more than 25 minutes in games. All this while night in night out, looking clearly the best player on his team by a mile, if not the best player on the floor.
Sixers have finally struck gold, after all their tanking and draft picks. It Matt have taken two seasons longer than expected, but Embiid is clearly the franchise changing pick they were looking for. And now that’s he’s finally healthy, and embarrassing opposing centres trying to guard him on most nights, the Sixers must find a way the stop the rest of the team getting embarrassed at the end of games, which means not losing by 20 after Embiid just put up 20 and 10 with multiple blocked shots on defense. It means making the necessary moves and trades to complement their franchise building block. No more random free agents, no more draft pick hoarding.
Get Embiid a true NBA starting caliber point guard who knows how to run the pick and roll and can get his centre the ball in the paint. The Suns could afford to lose Brandon Knight or maybe Eric Bledsoe and just so happen to really need a defensive power forward like Nerlens Noel.
Get him a complementary power forward who can cover him in tough situations. Who can capitalize inside or some mid range from all the attention Embiid will draw from the defense. Greg Monroe is stuck in the dog house on the Bucks and might be available for cap space and maybe second round draft picks.
Then just fill the lineup with decent shooters and floor spacers. Sixers might actually have a couple such guys on the team, they just need to be given clear defined roles moving forward to build their confidence and develop consistency. Nik Stauskas has shown clear improvement this season and Robert Covington could always shoot it.
Surrounding Embiid with the right supporting talent will maximize his crazy potential. It’ll open things up for him to dominate inside, and he’s also good enough to create and get open shots for his teammates. If the Sixers pull off some right moves year or in the off season, I think we are going to see, finally, the next great ‘true’centre in the NBA. And finally the ghost of Greg Oden will be laid to rest.