The “Big” isn’t extinct, they just evolved: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid are in a two man race for league MVP

Remember when the Warriors were at their peak powers, Steph Curry was pulling up from 35 feet and the notion was the big man was dead?

Yeah that was a cute little narrative that lasted a whole 5 minutes.

The big man isn’t extinct, they were just busy evolving while nobody paid them any attention. But they’re back to dominating the sport.

The first sign that maybe the big man profession wasn’t quite as endangered as we thought came in the 2020 playoffs, when dominating two-way postseason efforts from Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo fueled the NBA Finals collision between the Lakers and Heat.

Those two are still playing at an extremely high level and should waltz into the All-Star Game … and yet they aren’t even going to sniff the MVP race because of how two other big men have played.

Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are dominating the league right now. They are first and second in the NBA in PER, and, in fact, Jokic and Embiid are threatening the all-time PER record set by Giannis Antetokounmpo a year ago.

Can the bigs maintain this level of play throughout the course of the full season? Only time will tell. But the big-picture takeaway is it’s a two-way MVP race right now, and these two bigs are way ahead of the perimeter crowd.

Jokic had his most impressive outing of the season against the Utah Jazz on Sunday. He dominated Utah from the opening tip. He dropped a career high 47 points, including a 33-point first half. You’re probably wondering how Jokic dominated Rudy Gobert, a 2x DPOY.

Jokic dribbled himself into hook shots, crashed the offensive glass, bombed 3s and made his usual array of jaw-dropping passes. He leads the league in PER, BPM, Win Shares and every other nerd stat you probably don’t understand.

Embiid, meanwhile, has arguably been just as dominant when he’s been on the court. The “when he’s been on the court,” was a subtle jab at his lack of durability. Nonetheless Embiid has been playing the best basketball of his career thus far.

Philadelphia is 14-2 when Embiid plays, and one of those losses came when the roster was completely depleted by COVID-19 protocol absences. The Sixers have yet to lose with their starting five intact.

The key to Embiid’s success is that 1) teams can’t stop fouling him, and 2) he’s an awesome foul shooter. Between brute strength and harnessing the power of the rip move with almost Chris Paul-like scheming, Embiid has taken an absurd 85 free-throw attempts in just his past five games, including 13 in the Sixers’ signature win over the Lakers on Wednesday. Embiid is shooting 84.0 percent from the line this season and, for good measure, is at 40.4 percent from 3.

You can’t guard someone with the physicality of a 1990’s center, matched with the shooting of a guard, and the quickness of a 2021 big man. Hence his dominance of late.

Those shooting stats are important because I think they underscore what’s happening in the league right now. Big men haven’t gone away, but their functions have changed quite a bit. Just hammering your center in beastball post-ups against the other team’s center isn’t a great way to live, although Jokic and Embiid are good enough to occasionally score this way.

Instead, it’s the combination of size and skill that’s the killer. Yes, the size part still matters. But it’s irrelevant without the skill.

Jokic wrecks defenses in part because he can dribble himself into post-ups rather than wait for an entry pass. Nobody wants to double-team Jokic because he’s such a brilliant passer.

In fact, Jokic’s 8.6 assists per game are the most by a center ever, with Wilt Chamberlain’s 8.6 in 1967-68 the only other time a big man eclipsed 8.0.

Embiid, meanwhile, is a lot more physically imposing. His shooting ability is extra problematic for defenses because he has mastered the pump fake followed up with the blown by to the rim where nobody wants to step in the way with the exception of Kyle Lowry who enjoys risking his life for a charge call.

The thing that separates Embiid from Jokic is his defensive ability. Jokic been solid on that end, but far from a productive defender.

Embiid’s defense is a greater part of his value. The Sixers are fourth in Defensive Rating and a huge reason for that is Embiid’s inside presence and shot blocking ability. He also combines his elite shot blocking with agile quickness and good use of his feet to ensure he can cover the bigs who can shoot, while stopping the slashers.

So let’s tie this all together.

Davis and Adebayo showed the way for the current day big in the 2020 postseason, boasting inside-outside games that featured dribbling, passing a lot more than displays of raw power. This season, Embiid and Jokic are taking it to another level.

No, the big man hasn’t gone away. The game is just demanding different things from them, and we’re starting to see the best ones adapt and flourish.

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