The blueprint for success in today’s NBA has a heavy emphasis on spacing, penetration and three-point shooting. Ever since Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni created and orchestrated the famous Seven Seconds or Less offense, teams have seen the value of creating extra possessions and dribble penetration to create better three-point opportunities. After all, a three-point basket is more valuable than a two-point basket, and attributing the importance of the three-point basket places emphasis on creating better three-point opportunities. The Golden State Warriors just won a title with this philosophy and a lot of small ball, and many other analytic organizations are trying to follow suit.
The problem with always playing by the numbers is that not all possessions are created equal. There’s a huge difference between a contested three coming off two dribbles at the top of the key and a kick-out three in the left corner. There’s a huge difference between an open three in the first quarter of the preseason and an open three in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It’s also common sense that as players get more and more fatigued, shots get more difficult to convert the further the attempt is from the basket. It’s hard to put a number value on shots in different situations, because each situation is so unique. One thing that won’t change is the absolute fact that the easiest baskets to convert are the ones closer to the target.
There was a great emphasis in the past in cultivating and training the next great big man, because executives realized that the game began and ended with your big man. The big man in the past was what point guards are today: the cream of the crop, the engine that made the car run. Nowadays, success goes hand-in-hand with having an elite penetrator who can create for themselves and others, having deadly 3-and-D guys spacing the floor and having an athletic center who focuses on cleaning up the glass and setting screens.
The new crop of big men making their way into the NBA landscape look to shift the trend back to the days of dominant bigs. The trio of Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor excite me as few big men have in the past decade. The last time I was this excited for what I thought would be a game-changing big man was Greg Oden, who had his potential cut by unfortunate injuries. (Hopefully Embiid doesn’t go the way of Oden, but more on that later.)
The basic idea remains the same – a dominant big man is the easiest way to propel a team into playoff contention. A dominant big man will get his, getting 20-30 points efficiently, all the while collapsing the defense and opening up looks for his teammates on the perimeter. A dominant big man is the foundation of a championship team, and Embiid, Towns and Okafor all look like they can help bring the trend back to an inside-out gameplan, given good health of course.
Out of the three, Embiid and Towns excite me the most due to their ability to be game-changers on both ends of the court. Embiid has excellent athleticism and has shown innate ability to cover on the weakside; it really looks like defense is natural to him, understanding when to come off the strong side and when to stay home. Embiid has a natural feel for the game on the offensive end, with a variety of moves that even the most veteran of players would love in their repertoire, and he has a soft touch especially for someone relatively new to the game.
Towns proved to be a very physical big at Kentucky, liking to establish himself down low and not shying away from contact. Towns has a very soft touch around the rim, and he loves to use his size to rise up on a deep post to basically drop the ball in the basket. He can also do work from the high post, and what excites scouts the most is his ability to shoot from anywhere on the court. With his shooting touch and size, he’s downright deadly in any ball-screen situations, as he has the dual threat of spacing on a ‘Pop’ or the ability to finish on the ‘Roll.’ He was actually known for being a good three-point shooter in high school, but we didn’t get to see that at Kentucky because that’s not what John Calipari needed from him.
While there are still plenty of rumors going around, it seems likely that the Timberwolves will take Towns first and the Lakers will take Okafor second. The Wolves will have three No. 1 picks on the roster, and they may make some trades before it’s all said and done. Having the one-two punch of Towns and Andrew Wiggins as building blocks would be great, with a dominant big man and a perimeter player able to penetrate, create and play defense on the wing.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wolves try to ship out Ricky Rubio despite his elite playmaking ability, because his atrocious shooting can sometimes make him a liability. Add in Rubio’s $14 million per year contract, and Zach LaVine looks very enticing as the point guard of the future. Moving out Rubio and perhaps Anthony Bennett for a perimeter defender and shooter would leave the starting lineup with LaVine at the point, Wiggins and Player X on the wings, and Towns and Nikola Pekovic in the frontcourt. With Towns’s ability to play from the high post and space the floor, the Wolves could run a four-out offense and be one big piece away from playoff contention.
The Lakers’ situation is a little murkier, as the storyline for next season will predominantly be the Farewell Tour of Kobe Bryant, but the franchise might not be in as dire situation as one might think. With the young duo of Okafor and Julius Randle, the franchise would only look even more promising once 2016 and the big cap explosion hits, especially if they can get some nice pieces in free agency this summer. Los Angeles is in a position to bounce back in a big way, especially now that it has the ability to draft a game-changing big.
Now back to the Embiid situation. A setback in the healing process of the foot injury that kept him out his entire rookie season has some people worried, and the hope is Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers are just being especially cautious. Thankfully, the entirety of the summer can be dedicated to nursing Embiid back to health, but that’ll cause some setbacks in the learning curve for the big man.
Embiid’s learning curve will be steeper than his fellow rookies because of his injuries and the fact that he only has a few years of organized basketball under his belt. Expect him to make mistakes early and often, but the great thing about playing for the Sixers is that they’re not looking for immediate success. This blessing will do wonders — especially for Embiid as he can play crunch-time minutes and make mistakes — as in the grand scheme of things the plan for success is focused on the long term. Mistakes are the easiest way to learn in the NBA, but typically there’s not too much room for error — a couple of mistakes and the short leash gets even shorter, and the time on the bench gets longer. Playing for Philly offers a great opportunity to have a crash course in the NBA and really learn.
Embiid’s short-term future is still unclear, but being conservative and figuring that Embiid may miss training camp will negatively impact his development. He’s completed what amounts to a redshirt season, watching from the sidelines, traveling with the team, talking with coaches and overall getting a feel for the rigors of an NBA schedule. With that said, absolutely nothing compares to real game experience, and no matter the drills Embiid goes through when he’s back to full health, the best teacher will be his first couple of months in the NBA. The key for him is to trust his body and not be intimidated by the bigger and faster men in the NBA. Sometimes, even the biggest bodies look timid out on the court, but once Embiid starts asserting his size and will, the game will come easier to him.
Embiid, Okafor and Towns may never bring back basketball to the style it was back in the 90s, but damn if it won’t be exciting to watch these post players go to work every night. There may never be days of the dominant big men of the past, but there looks to be a more stable shift in the equilibrium with these talented youngsters.