Hakeem’s quotes illustrate the way Embiid is disrespected originally appeared on NBC SportsPhiladelphia
When the greats talk, fans like to listen. It’s earned reverence, and sports fans from all leagues and levels should absolutely give the games’ greats time and space to impart wisdom.
But when a great says something that needs correction, we should be ready and willing to let them know.
Which is why I would like to talk about Hakeem Olajuwon’s recent quotes in a Sports Illustrated feature story about the death of post play in the NBA.
Olajuwon, one of the greatest big men in NBA history and the namesake of the Dream Shake, doesn’t seem terribly impressed by Embiid’s game… yet he loves Nikola Jokic’s game. Here we go again.
Here are Olajuwon’s quotes about the respective players.
“He’s got all the moves, but leveraging the moves is different. Why would he be shooting threes? He has the advantage every night, and if I have the advantage, I’m going to wear you out.
“[Shooting threes is] settling! When I’m tired, I settle. You don’t settle when you’re trying to win. You don’t start the game settling!”
“He’s playing the game, and you think he’s not serious, but he’s so effective. He doesn’t look strong, but I see he gets such deep post position. I think maybe it’s the mismatch, but then he does the same thing against bigger guys. His shot, his fakes, they are very difficult to time. You don’t know when he’s faking and when it’s real. He has tricks!”
These quotes from Olajuwon make it feel like he sees these two players in different tiers, when they’re probably two of the three or four most complete basketball players in the world. Kind of disrespectful.
But is Olajuwon right?
Let’s look at some stats dating back to the beginning of the 2020-21 season, Jokic’s first MVP year, and see if the main points of Olajuwon’s arguments hold up.
“Why would he be shooting threes?”
Olajuwon criticizes Embiid for shooting three-pointers, straight-up. It’s a bizarre argument in the modern NBA, but if you don’t like big men shooting threes, you just don’t like it. Olajuwon wouldn’t cherry-pick something like that, right?
Well, here are Embiid and Jokic’s per game three-point shooting numbers since the start of 2020-21:
Embiid: 3.4 3PA | 36.9%
jokic: 3.3 3PA | 36.2%
Oh. Well, nevertheless.
“If I have the advantage, I’m going to wear you out.”
Olajuwon makes it sound like Embiid is constantly flitting about the perimeter and hanging out near the top of the key, while Jokic (“I see he gets such deep post position”) is banging down low like he’s vintage Shaquille O’Neal.
Is that the story the numbers tell? Let’s look at their field goal attempts inside 10 feet over the past three years:
Embiid: 7.0 FGA
jokic: 10.3 FGA
Embiid: 7.6 FGA
jokic: 11.4 FGA
Embiid: 9.3 FGA
If Olajuwon had made these comments two and a half years ago, or even during last season he would’ve had a point! But Embiid has been adding closer shots to his game each year, and this season it’s just a one-shot gap.
Is that one shot per game really the reason Jokic is a pillar of pure post play and Embiid is some contact-adverse jump shooter? Or are we just running and gunning with preconceived notions at this point? Hmm.
“You don’t start the game settling!”
Olajuwon strangely goes after Embiid’s decision to shoot threes in the first quarter here, which belies a clear misunderstanding of Embiid’s game. He’s one of the most dominant first-quarter players in the NBA, and he often makes that living by getting to the line early. Embiid has been criticized by Sixers fans for not being as aggressive inside later in games, when he’s tired. So this is just a fundamentally wrong observation.
But putting that aside, is Embiid really firing a ton of first-quarter threes from the hip while Jokic is ignoring those silly circus shots for Real Basketball(TM)?
To the numbers we go, to explore how often these two players have shot first-quarter three-pointers since the start of 2020-21:
Embiid: 1.0 3PA | 38.0%
jokic: 0.6 EPA | 46.7%
Embiid: 0.9 3PA | 33.9%
jokic: 0.9 3PA | 43.1%
Embiid: 0.8 3PA | 50%
Jokic: 0.5 3PA | 36.8%
So what you’re telling me is they’ve either been separated by less than 0.5 three-point attempts per quarter or tied over the last three seasons?
I can’t believe it!
Look. I don’t think Olajuwon is coming out here and lying about these two players on purpose. What I do think he’s doing, and what I think a lot of basketball analysts do, is making arguments that are rooted more in a long-held belief about a player’s game than in reality.
Embiid and Jokic are two staggeringly talented players, who more often than not are great at the same things. We don’t need to pretend one is an infallible icon while the other is some lesser-than, overhyped hooper. They both rule.
So let’s start acting like it, and stop peddling storylines that simply aren’t true.