Clash of the Titans: Davis or Embiid?
Writer: Kyle Wheelock
At the time of writing, every NBA team is at least twenty games into the season, some already closer to thirty. So, with roughly a quarter of the NBA regular season done, I believe it’s time we had a talk about who the true best big in the league is.
To be successful in this space-and-pace, offense-heavy NBA, bigs (Power Forwards and Centers, since they’re pretty interchangeable now) have to be a lot more skilled than before. They have to be defensive anchors, they have to be athletic and able to switch, grab rebounds, shoot the 3, etc. Teams ask a lot of their bigs now, and as time goes on, more and more are actually evolving. Guys like Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic are the names that come to mind when talking about the cream of the crop, especially with them all being so young (Davis is the oldest of the bunch at 25).
However, each of these guys all have their pitfalls: Davis and Embiid have both had their careers so far plagued with injuries, Towns may or may not be mentally tough enough to carry a championship team depending on who you ask, and Jokic has a tendency to defer to his teammates too often. So with no clear, “alpha” big dominating the league the way Shaq did in the 2000s, people (like founder of The Drive, Marcus Carr) have resorted to spouting blasphemous statements about who is better than who.
Of course, you could make a case for just about any of those guys being better than the others, but objectively when it comes down to it, Anthony Davis right now is the best big man in the NBA, and I would personally argue that once Lebron and Kevin Durant begin their respective declines, he just might be the best player in the league.
At the time of writing, Anthony Davis is averaging 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists a game while shooting 50% from the floor, including 32% from behind the three-point line. As eye popping as these numbers might look, they still don't even tell the whole story; Davis is the kind of talent to go off for 40 points and 15 rebounds on any given night (sometimes multiple times per week), yet it gets buried because typically the Pelicans still lose those games. At just 25 years old, Davis is just entering his prime (in NBA years), and he's already consistently having monster games. Truly, Davis is a generational bigman, but injuries and an already lackluster supporting cast in a tough conference have resulted in his achievements not getting the recognition they deserve.
Look at any team in NBA history, and you'd be hard pressed to find a time where a lone superstar putting up monster numbers has been a winning formula. The closest things to this the league has seen were the Kobe led 2009-10 Lakers, and the Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks the following year, but even in both of those cases each of those guys still had better teams than what AD has had up to this point. When the Lakers won, Pau Gasol was an all-star, and Lamar Odom wasn't exactly a slouch, meanwhile Dirk had a defensive stalwart in Tyson Chandler and the still serviceable corpse of Jason Kidd during his run (it's worth noting that Kidd had just made the all-star game the year before the Mavericks won as well).
The closest semblance to real help Davis has had was last season when the Pelicans had Rondo and Cousins on the court alongside him, and even then they were 27-21 when Cousins went down with an achilles injury (although, after the injury, Davis and the Pelicans surged into the 7th seed and upset the 2 seeded TrailBlazers in a sweep). Though Davis posts these monster numbers night in and night out, it’s not a winning formula, he can’t do it all on his own, and to suggest that he isn’t the best big in the league because of it is unfair.
On the flipside of this lies arguably the second best big man in the league, 24 year old Joel Embiid up in Philadelphia. After being drafted in the 2014 draft, several injuries and surgeries robbed Embiid of two years of his NBA career and caused him not to step foot into an actual NBA game until part way through the 2016-17 season. But, when Embiid finally made his debut, it was wonderful, In 25 minutes, he recorded 20 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in a loss. He would end up playing only 31 games that season, averaging 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists on shooting splits of 46/36/78. The potential was definitely there and the league was on notice.
His footwork drew comparisons to that of Hakeem, his finishing ability was remarkable for someone who missed two seasons due to injuries, he could shoot the three-pointer at a decent clip, and he even shot his shot at Rihanna; Embiid’s “rookie” year was captivating. Since then, he’s upped his averages to 26/13/3 on splits of 47/27/79 this season. With numbers similar to Davis’, but with less experience on his belt, Embiid is already becoming a force to be reckoned with in the league. However, because of factors such as an entertaining social media presence and a young team with potential, Embiid’s game has garnered more exposure than Davis’, and some fans (i.e. Marcus) have let this convince them that he is the alpha big man in the league.
Reality check, Embiid is good, really good actually. If his development continues to trend upwards while the 76ers figure out their roster issues, he’ll definitely find himself in MVP conversations for years to come. But those are two big ifs for later on down the road, while Davis already has himself positioned to take the throne after Lebron and Durant (and can maybe even leapfrog KD if/when he gets out of New Orleans and goes to a competitive team that allows him to shine in the playoffs). While both are impressive defensively, Davis is 6’11” but can shoot and handle the ball like a guard - Embiid is more of a bruiser without the athleticism that Davis has, which renders him less of a threat (especially when his teammates can’t space the floor).
Night in and night out, Davis has to give it all on both ends of the court just to drag his team into the perpetual Western Conference playoff race, while in the East, Embiid can comfortably conserve his energy until it’s necessary. Joel Embiid is a really good bigman, undoubtedly the second best in the league. But that’s the thing, he’s second best while Anthony Davis is around, a guy who has to do so much on both offense and defense. He has to be able to post up, dribble, shoot the three, turn around and get a stop on defense and grab the rebound only to do it all again and again. Embiid, because of circumstance, is asked to do the things Davis does, but his team’s success doesn’t depend on it the way the Pelicans’ has since 2012. If you asked the other GMs in the NBA, no doubt they would all love to have either one of these two on their teams, but if push came to shove, I believe that Davis would be the obvious first choice, players like him don’t come around often but when they do, everyone knows.