Wow! What a clickbait headline! But, honestly, it’s true. The NBA has systematically diminished the role of the Center position over the past 70 years. Joel Embiid is the face of the modern NBA big man. But, when looking at the rules and officiating, you must wonder if the league even wants diversity of playing styles.
So why would the NBA need Joel Embiid? Why would Embiid not need the NBA? Well let’s take it down a notch and get into it.
Joel Embiid The Human Being
It’s 2020, the twitterverse has made everyone a shot doctor, a psychologist and a pundit. In reality, the lives of professional athletes are part routine, part high pressure, and part downtime. Joel Embiid was not raised to be a professional athlete from the age of 6 (or 3, if you are in the Simmons or Woods family). So much of our identity as human beings is developed between the crucial ages of 9-12. These are the wonder years, the years that you lay in bed and dream. What might it be like to grow up to be a heroic astronaut, center fielder, or any number of other adolescent fantasy lives?
It Wasn’t Always About Basketball
Prior to age 15, basketball was not even an afterthought for Joel Embiid. Joel has written and spoken many times about his youth. He loved playing soccer (when he was supposed to be doing homework while his mom was at work) or volleyball. Then, it was 2010. Joel watched Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals, and a life in the USA playing in the NBA entered his radar. He comes from a good family, raised by professional parents. They did not raise him to glorify the one-in-a-million chance at a career as a professional athlete.
So, why does that matter? Because Joel was raised to be respectful, thoughtful, and well-rounded. Anyone who has spent any time with this person one-on-one will tell you he is very intelligent and introspective. We are talking about a special person here, regardless of his size. Embiid has famously bristled at the very notion that his stature should reduce his potential to the statue role of a classic NBA center. In his mind, he is part Kobe, part Hakeem, and all his mother’s child. He had a comfortable upbringing and now has secured a comfortable lifestyle for the rest of his life.
Simply put, this is a dream, but this isn’t necessarily THE dream.
The NBA Needs Joel Embiid
The Houston Rockets traded Clint Capela before the 2020 trade deadline for Robert Covington. The Rockets’ General Manager, Darryl Morey, who leads the competition committee, essentially doubled down on a 5-out offensive philosophy. He opted to spread the game out to an extreme degree in order to create open three-pointers and to create driving lanes to the hoop. The philosophy is that, with shooters at all 5 perimeter positions, the opposing team will be forced to go small as well. There is merit in this strategy. However, it creates a brand of basketball that is almost unrecognizable to any type of basketball previously known.
But why does this work? Well part of it boils down to 3>2 basic analytics. The average shooting percentage of 2-point field goals when removing layups and attempts at the rim is roughly 42-45%. Considering that a mid-range jumper is far less likely to draw a foul than a shot at the rim, the points per shot (PPS) ranges between .84 and .9. A shot at the rim ranges from 55-to-70%, depending on who is protecting the rim. It carries a far higher probability for a foul. So, the PPS on those shots is more like 1.1-1.4. When a team can spread the opponent out and force a rim protector away from the rim, those shots become far easier to generate. The league average for three-pointers usually runs about 36%, which translates into roughly 1.18.
Essentially, all of the analytics support a 5-out offense. But why?
The Dying Post
Prior to 1964, the NBA lane was just 12 feet wide. Because of Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds per game in 1962, the NBA felt like the league was too dominated by big men. In fact, from 1956-1983, the Most Valuable Player was awarded to a power forward or center 24 times. In the 36 years since, just 5 MVPs have been won by Centers.
The three seconds rule (also referred to as the three-second rule or three-in-the-key, often termed a lane violation) requires that in basketball, a player shall not remain in the opponents’ restricted area for more than three consecutive seconds while that player’s team is in control of a live ball in the frontcourt and the game clock is running. The countdown starts when one foot enters the restricted area and resets when both feet leave the area.
The three-second rule was introduced in 1936 and was expressed as such: no offensive player, with or without the ball, could remain in the key, for three seconds or more – Per Wikipedia
This was necessary to prevent big men from “camping” in the paint, where they establish deep post position and patiently await a pass for an easy lay in. Totally necessary. When implemented, the restricted area was 6 feet wide, total, and centered on the rim leading up to the free throw line.
1944 – Goaltending
In basketball, goaltending is the violation of interfering with the ball while it is on its way to the basket and it is (a) in a downward flight, (b) above the basket ring and within the imaginary cylinder, and (c) not touching the rim. In NCAA, NBA and WNBA basketball, goaltending is also called if the ball has already touched the backboard while being above the height of the rim in its flight, regardless of it being in an upward or downward flight or whether it is directly above the rim. – Wikipedia
Prior to George Mikan, it was thought to be physically impossible to block a shot that was above the 10′ rim. Mikan began swatting shots on their way down into the rim.
The lane was changed from 6′ to 12′ wide because of the dominance of Mikan, the sport’s first big man. Mikan was so much bigger and stronger that three feet on either side of the rim was essentially a layup.
The NBA widened the lane by 33%, from 12 to 16 feet wide. This has had a number of effects, all impacting big men dominance and helping guard play. It was a direct result of Wilt Chamberlain and his dominance in the first part of the 1960s.
1979-80 – Illegal Defense and the 3 Point Line
This season is what essentially created the modern era of NBA basketball. Technical fouls were assessed to teams for illegal defenses, the three-point field goal was added. For all intents and purposes, this eliminated zone defense. Prior to this, a center could literally “patrol the paint” and dissuade any drives into the lane. Dominant big men like Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabar, and Moses Malone had long created a no-go zone for opponents.
The three-point line was another response to the condensed nature of the game of basketball. The NBA incentivized spacing and created the expected points per shot as highlighted above. It took nearly 30 years for the league to get an influx of athletes raised to learn to shoot from long distance.
Prior to the Steph Curry era, the three-point shooter was primarily a specialist role for players such as Dell Curry, Dennis Scott and Steve Kerr. The Chicago Bulls dynasty was able to get away with having three-point specialists, as they had the immense ball-handling and ball dominance of Michael Jordan. The league had created an incentive model that took teams and players decades to truly unlock.
As we head into All-Star Weekend, the seeds of what the NBA values are clear. Since the late 1980s, the highlights of the All-Star Weekend have been less game-oriented and more oriented around the three-point contest and dunk contest. The fans spoke and the league listened. Small incentives have been implemented in subtle ways when it comes to officiating. This is done to create as many spectacular moments within the game as possible. The simple fact is that dunks and long-range shots create spectacle much more than jump hooks and post moves.
But, the downside has been in a game full of so many spectacles that the beauty and nuance of the sport is too easy to ignore. The game is homogenized now by the “Wings = Rings” mentality. Basketball is officiated in totally different ways when it comes to contact on the perimeter versus in the post. Players like Joel Embiid will get double-teamed in ways that are simply inconceivable for most guards or wings in the league.
Additionally, as the chorus of 50-something NBA legends look at Embiid they use terms like “soft”. In reality, it’s not so simple for players like Embiid or Andre Drummond, who fell from all-star to salary dump faster than I’ve written this sentence. If they so much as lower a shoulder or extend an elbow, they are called for offensive fouls.
The Bottom Line
All of the headwinds are trending against the modern big man in the NBA and the league will ultimately suffer. The fans don’t see it yet because of the enormity of the talents of Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who are as big as centers but can handle the ball like guards. What the game is losing is diversity. There is a real question if fans will continue to show up every night for eternity to see the same things–threes and dunks.
As long as the PPS favors those shots, and foul calls gently nudge players into that mode, it will be more of the same. The league will become a less diverse and interesting product for season-ticket holders. Major league sports already lament the challenge of dealing with the secondary market for tickets. The NBA is best when there are unique talents and marketable stars coming into all 30 cities each night.
In the 1990s, the league had a range of unique players and personalities, ranging from 7’7″ Manute Bol to 5’3″ Spud Webb. On any given night you, might get the Round Mound of Rebounds, or Michael Jordan’s Jumpman. What we have now is as commercially successful as a packaged and repeatable product. But the sheer lack of diversity creates massive divisions between the haves and the have-not franchises.
It’s not good enough to be smart as a front office anymore. The modern NBA leaves the oddities and fringe talents to go play in the smaller markets, creating essentially a caste system for the league.
In Defense of Unicorns
Someone with the enormity of talent that Joel Embiid has should be celebrated. The league needs to understand that it should have true superstars at all five positions. Ideally, those superstars should have a wide array of skillsets. The officiating and the rules should create an environment that creates the right incentive structures for teams to invest in and develop talent at all positions. No more trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Joel Embiid can shoot, but should the nature of the game dictate that a top of the arc three is analytically better than a post up? In my opinion, it should not.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about Joel Embiid at all. He has earned over 100 million dollars already. He is a person who likely would have been a success in whatever walk of life he had chosen in whatever country he chose. This question is really about the product, the game that fans deserve to see.