The last two decades have seen the perceived decline of the big man.
As the game moved farther away from the basket, teams started to put the ball more in the hands of smaller guards and faster wing players. These players absorbed more responsibility on offense, while big men are now regulated to being screeners, 3-point shooters, and defenders. This development allowed players like Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo to develop into big wing players with guard skills, instead of becoming traditional bigs.
This season, however, two players have challenged this narrative: Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Joel Embiid, Philly’s 6’10” center from Cameroon, has a skill set that resembles the traditional big men of the past with a modern touch. He uses a blend of strength, footwork, and skill to score in the post.
He has a collection of up-and-under moves, spins, jump hooks, and short jumpers at his disposal, and he is clearly effective. He finished number one in terms of post up frequency and scoring in the regular season. Aside from this, he’s making 37.7 percent of his 3-point attempts, which is good considering that it’s not his primary offensive weapon.
Embiid makes it difficult for any defender to stop him. Put a smaller wing player on him, and he’ll take them down low to the post. Put a bigger center on him, and he has the ability to put the ball on the floor or shoot from downtown.
Not only does Embiid command the offense, but he is also his team’s anchor on the defensive end. With a combination of his quickness, size, and length, he’s able to protect the paint, while also having the ability to switch to the perimeter at a moment’s notice.
A nightmare for opposing teams, he is a huge reason why the 76ers are second in defensive rating. Despite all the questions regarding his health and fitness, there’s no denying that when he puts his jersey on, Joel Embiid is one of the most dominant players in the league today.
Then there’s Nikola Jokic, a player that I can relate with. He isn’t the most athletic player in the league, but he makes up for it primarily with his vision and passing.
Back in the day, big men were not asked to create shots for their teammates. Their primary job was to score when they get the ball close to the rim or give it back to the guards when they weren't in a position to shoot -- but Jokic is different.
Being 6’11”, he sees over the defense and throws passes with such flare and accuracy that you would think he’s a point guard. This is why the Nuggets love to put him in the high post area where he is able to survey the floor and hit teammates for open shots.
If teams decide to start taking away his passing game, Jokic doesn’t shy away from scoring. He may look awkward at times, but it just makes him much harder to defend.
One of his favorite shots is coined the “sombor shuffle”, a one-legged, half sidestep, half fadeaway jumper toward his right. He’s the only one in the NBA who could create such a move, which is both extremely awkward and effective. I honestly don’t see anyone trying to copy that move in the foreseeable future.
Jokic may have started as a second round pick that franchises slept on, but he has now turned into one of the most valuable players in the NBA.
Is it fair to say that the big man position is dead? I don’t think so, especially now with two big men leading the MVP race for the first time in decades.
Over the years, their roles might have gotten simplified or reduced, but big men are still vital in any team. As they say in basketball, “height is might” and that’s still true to this day.
Teams are still constantly looking for the next big man superstar as the league is overflowing with talented guards and wings. While they might not be as popular as before, the transition into a more modern type of big man will kick them back into relevance.
Players will just keep adapting to better fit in the league, and it won’t be surprising if the game trends back toward big men in the future.