November 9, 2018

Skyscrapers have defined the New York landscape for more than a century, reaching towards the heavens to form the famous skyline that is the city’s identity.

Building upwards opened new possibilities for a bustling city crammed into limited space. It also created new obstacles to consider in city planning, designing around the need for sunlight and air to flow through the streets freely.

In 1982, New York City passed the nation’s first ordinance limiting the amount of sky a building can block.

For decades, skyscrapers also ruled the NBA, consuming the resources and flow of a game until the league passed its own zoning rules, so to speak.

The advent of defensive zone principles cluttered the prime real estate near the rim, pushing teams to opt for open schemes manned by smaller, quicker personnel.

It took some time to adjust, but coaches and large players have adapted to the new realities. If the Christmas Day showcase between the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks was a curious call for what’s considered the first premier day for NBA television, it did manage to showcase the resurgence of the NBA big man.

Kristaps Porzingis, Enes Kanter, and Joel Embiid are massive human beings. Constructing schemes and lineups around these monuments requires some planning.

Porzingis and Kanter have been an interesting pair in New York, charging the Knicks’ offense to a 107.2 offensive rating when on the court together. For perspective, the Denver Nuggets, the ninth ranked offense, has the same rating as a team.

Porzingis is a Nowitzki-like weapon whose shot holds up on all areas of the floor, running off any types of action, and remains steady through any duress. The most direct deployment of his game is to force a switch and simply shoot over the top of the defender with a high release in airspace few can reach.

With Porzingis pulling opposing big men out of the paint, Kanter works against an inverted defense, feasting on the offensive glass.

In many ways, Kanter is the perfect offensive big man for the modern game, showing enough range to keep driving lanes clear, a credible threat on dives in pick and roll, and capable of working one-on-one for a few touches each game:

But he also works well without dominating the ball.

The Knicks often split their big men high and low, taking advantage of their length, swinging the ball looking for the quick seal and lay in.

This is simple basketball, made easy or difficult by the ability of the big man at the top of the key to make quick decisions. Against a fronting defense, Kanter’s combination of nimble feet and powerful frame are enough to punish even the slightest moment of hesitation from Embiid.

Normally, playing two traditional big men is a tradeoff of defense for offense, but the Knicks’ defensive rating holds up stronger with the duo (104.8) than without (105.1, 15th in the NBA).

All of this remains rather mediocre, but even that shows promise of building towards something considering the limitations of both heading into the season. A lot of a team’s defensive structure depends on the ability of its 5 and 4 to pass off assignments between each other, getting in position before any given action unfolds:

The Knicks and 76ers throw the ball in the post for 18.9 touches per game each, tied for second behind the San Antonio Spurs; something the Knicks’ duo is at least prepared to handle.

Kanter struggles tracking movement, but post opportunities are straight forward, attacking a defender at a standstill from a standstill—something Kanter can manage, holding up Embiid at the point of attack long enough for Porzingis to bring help.

In 30 minutes together, Porzingis (22 points, seven rebounds, five blocks) and Kanter (31 points, 22 rebounds) led the Knicks’ defense to a 92.7 rating, outscoring the 76ers by two points.

If this seems like a lot of ink spilled on the losing team, it’s because the analysis on the 76ers is far simpler.

Joel Embiid is a monster.

Where Porzingis and Kanter have a burgeoning push-pull dynamic as a duo, Embiid is this by himself, scoring 25 points and pulling down 16 rebounds while blocking three shots and hitting 2-for-3 from the three-point line.

Embiid’s dunks come from a man who finds joy in ill intent.

Embiid’s first turn into the lane creates separation, the step through gathers the power and explosion to remove any thoughts of challenging the shot. The NBA hasn’t seen this combination of size, coordination, grace and power since Shaq.

The 76ers’ big man worked Knicks’ backup center Kyle O’Quinn, nudging with the shoulder on an outside turn then stepping into the space created for the soft hook.

These spurts of dominance on both sides of the ball rally the 76ers in ways typically reserved for a Stephen Curry three-point barrage or Kawhi Leonard steal and dunk—putting extra purpose into his teammates’ actions.

First two buckets two-man game with Embiid

Actions are simplified by Embiid’s gravity, allowing even less dynamic ball handlers like J.J. Redick to step into easy jumpers, freeing him for three of his first four baskets in the two-man game with Embiid setting screens.

On a day where the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, and Cleveland Cavaliers showcased what the NBA has become, the Knicks and 76ers offered a look at what lies ahead.

The NBA landscape will eventually change. You can track it by looking towards the skyline.

Russell Westbrook Owns NBA Christmas

Thunder, Russell Westbrook

‘Twas the night of NBA Christmas,
And all throughout Twitter,
No Rockets’ MVP talk
for which Houston’s still bitter.

Relentless, Westbrook was, as he drove through paint,
while Roberson stayed grounded on Harden,
not falling for feints.

Two-for-five in the fourth,
For the Beard, that’s 40 percent.
But no free throw attempts,
No fourth quarter dent.

With 24 points, Paul George
found his groove as second fiddle.
And with 20 of his own,
Melo might be solving the riddle.

Last year’s MVP has long since been given,
but the fury abides,
while Westbrook took Harden on a fourth quarter ride.

No triple-double tonight,
but no Russell Westbrook chagrin.
“I don’t give a f— about stats,
I’m just here for the win.”

 

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Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and ESPNsa.com. Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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