KAT or Embiid, Who Ya Got? NBA's 'Best Big Man' Conversation Just Got Ugly

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistOctober 31, 2019

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers fights with Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves in the third quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on October 30, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 76ers defeated the Wolves 117-95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

There are NBA fights. You know, the "hold me back" variety that don't offer much chance of actual physical contact. And then there are NBA fights.

Wednesday's head-to-head matchup between Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid led to the second variety, and it overshadowed the game's final result: a 117-95 Philadelphia 76ers victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

What started as two big men crashing into each other—as they often do in basketball—quickly escalated to Embiid putting a hand to Towns' throat, KAT throwing a punch, the two getting locked up and both going to the ground.

Ben Simmons, who initially seemed like he was trying to break things up, even wound up putting a sleeper hold on Towns.

It was a wild scene, and both the bigs were predictably ejected after the skirmish:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

💪 https://t.co/RVpaprIh1m

Before he left the floor, Embiid played to the home crowd, shadowboxing and pumping up the Philly faithful. It was exactly the kind of bravado you might expect in the wake of such an event:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Embiid was laughing at KAT after they got separated 😬 https://t.co/SesNb0VBKF

Later, Embiid upped the ante again on Instagram:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

No mercy from @JoelEmbiid 👀 https://t.co/hGMb1uKxAV

The fight itself probably shouldn't be condoned (unless you ask Mike Scott), but the underlying motivation is something worth paying attention to.

Towns, Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert are leading a revolution. And the ongoing battle for the crown of "NBA's best center" is reminiscent of earlier eras. Only now, these players aren't just confined to the low block.

Towns and Embiid hoist threes and take guys off the dribble. Jokic is the Denver Nuggets' de facto point guard (or point center, if you prefer). Gobert's screening may well be the engine of Utah's offense. Just when it looked like guards, wings, positionless basketball and three-point shooting might eradicate centers, an incoming wave of big men adapted the position for today's game.

And whenever the leaders of that wave match up, it's something of an event.

Two years ago, when Embiid was more active on social media, he and Towns had a dust-up on Instagram:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

😂😂😂 https://t.co/QQe62ltvjV

As Embiid wrote, "Euro stepping our way through Minnesota and we ended up raising the cat last night #TheProcess."

Towns replied, "That caption was as trash as your picture quality."

And Embiid effectively ended the conversation with, "Better quality than your defense."

Or, at least he ended it in that setting.

The bigger conversation—who's the game's best center?—is one both these players will be involved in for the next several years.

"It's a game about trying to find a [way] to win," Towns said, trying to downplay the significance of the matchup prior to Wednesday's game, per Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune. "I know everyone wants to hype it up; that's what sells papers. But I ain't in the business of making y'all money. I'm in the business of getting Ws, that's what I am."

Well, KAT: Whether you realize it or not, you are in that business. And Wednesday's skirmish will absolutely ratchet up the intensity in what is now a personal rivalry.

Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns: Career Numbers
Joel EmbiidKarl-Anthony Towns
PTS per 75 possessions28.424.2
REB per 75 possessions13.412.9
AST per 75 possessions3.72.8
BLK per 75 possessions2.31.6
STL per 75 possessions0.80.8
TOV per 75 possessions4.32.7
3P per 75 possessions1.31.4
Box Plus/Minus3.55.1
Win Shares per 48 Minutes0.1680.198
Net Rating Swing11.35.8
True Shooting Percentage58.462.0
Basketball Reference

Embiid's Instagram shot at Towns' defense highlights the strongest point in his favor, at least for now.

The Philadelphia center made each of the last two All-Defensive teams. In 2017-18, he finished second to Gobert in Defensive Player of the Year votingHe's one of five qualified players in NBA history with career averages of at least 10 defensive rebounds and two blocks per 75 possessions. 

Over the course of his career, Philadelphia's defensive rating is 5.7 points per 100 possessions better when Embiid is on the floor, per PBP Stats.

Simply put, he's one of the game's best defensive anchors.

Towns, meanwhile, hasn't had nearly as positive an impact on his team's defense. During his time in the NBA, Minnesota has allowed 2.0 fewer points per 100 possessions when Towns is off the floor.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers handles the ball against Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves on October 30, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

That said, things are looking up for him this season. He seems more engaged on that end, and the missed rotations are fewer and further between. But in terms of pure defense, there isn't much of an argument for Towns over Embiid.

On the other end, though, Towns' advantage might actually outweigh Embiid's edge on the preventing side.

KAT's scoring efficiency is staggering. Even as a 7-footer, he boasts a career average of 1.3 threes per game and shoots 39.5 percent from beyond the arc. His career two-point percentage of 57.2 is nearly five points higher than Embiid's. He averages more offensive rebounds per 75 possessions, as well.

And the biggest differentiation on that end might come in the form of ball security. Towns' career average of 2.7 turnovers per 75 possessions is well shy of Embiid's 4.3 (the seventh-highest mark in NBA history among those who have logged at least 3,000 career minutes).

Add everything up and it's not terribly difficult to see why Towns' career box plus/minus is comfortably higher than Embiid's.

That's just one number, though. And it's one in which they both trail Jokic and Gobert. There's a lot more to this debate than the statistics posted here or Wednesday's brouhaha in Philadelphia. After all, we're still at the outset of this revolution.

The oldest of the big men mentioned here is the 27-year-old Gobert. Towns is just shy of his 24th birthday. Jokic will turn 25 in February. Embiid hit that mark in March. And we haven't even brought up Anthony Davis, who insists he's a power forward.

Deandre Ayton, Bam Adebayo, Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Domantas Sabonis, Marvin Bagley III and more may look to throw their hats in this ring soon.

The NBA has never had more talent than it does right now, and the big men are absolutely going to have their say about where all that talent takes the game.

They may even fight for it.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering games on Wednesday.