Start, Bench, Cut: B/R Ends the AD, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic Debate

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) covers Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

NBA Twitter has given us plenty of torturous exercises over the years. On Tuesday, it was the age-old "start, bench, cut" hypothetical.

The subjects were three of the game's premier bigs: Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic.

The debate was tipped off by Hoop Central, and the replies yielded a wide variety of answers and explanations. One can hardly justify any ranking of those three in a mere 280 characters, though. Heck, 280 words, minutes or games might not even be enough.

There are strong arguments for any order. Jokic is an all-time great offensive hub, the best passing big man of all time and an underrated defender. Embiid is a foul-drawing machine who can anchor a defense and occasionally stretch the floor to the three-point line. AD has Defensive Player of the Year-level versatility on one end and No. 1 option chops on the other.

The choice would depend on who else was on the roster, the kind of team you're hoping to build and whether this is a long- or short-term project.

For our purposes, let's assume that the big is the first player on the team. He's the foundation. The rest of the roster depends on him. Ideally, you're hoping to build a team that's elite on both ends. Sacrificing a bit on one end for greater net gains isn't off the table, though. And we aren't jumping into this hypothetical for a single season. You have to pick a player who'll lead you for the length of a five-year max deal.

And finally, let's break down the definition of "start, bench, cut" just a bit. You can't take it literally, since the idea of starting AD alongside either Jokic or Embiid is terrifying. Instead, think of those words as stand-ins for first, second and third (gold, silver and bronze, etc.).

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With the background out of the way, let's dive into a few categories: scoring, offense, defense and a combination of numbers and intangibles.

         

Scoring

Troy Taormina/Associated Press

All three of these players check a number of boxes as scorers. They put up points efficiently, in volume and in a variety of ways.

AD has averaged at least 20 points in every season he's played since his rookie year. He's never had a below-average effective field-goal percentage (weighted for threes). He can score as a rim roller, in the mid-range and lately, from three (he's well above average from deep in the early going of 2020-21).

Last season, he was particularly efficient in transition, isolation and as a roll man. His numbers over the last season and change have to be read in context, though. He's playing with LeBron James, who is one of the greatest passers of all time and is deferring more than ever before. Davis is being set up for easier opportunities than his competitors in this exercise.

However, he's proved his ability to carry an offense in the past. With the New Orleans Pelicans in 2016-17 and 2017-18, Davis averaged 28.1 points with a 53.5 effective field-goal percentage. He was a force pretty much everywhere but three-point range. And he's still in the middle of his prime, so he'd likely be fine if thrust back into that role.

Jokic, on the other hand, has never reached AD's volume as a scorer, but he gets his points with a skill level and scoring repertoire the other two can't match. His pump fakes, pivots, high release and patience all over the floor are reminiscent of prime Larry Bird.

His three-point percentage isn't quite up to that legendary standard, but he's statistically one of the greatest mid-range shooters of all time.

And for the first time in his career, he looks keen on truly embracing the role of a top scorer. Through the Nuggets' first 11 games, Jokic is averaging 24.3 points while shooting 41.2 percent from three.

Finally, there's Embiid. Over the course of their respective careers, he has the lowest effective field-goal percentage and two-point percentage of the three bigs. He's sometimes over-reliant on his not-so-reliable jumper. But as a pure scorer, he can reach the loftiest heights.

Last season, he led the league in possessions used out of post-ups and ranked in the 91st percentile as a post scorer (Jokic was second in post-ups and in the 86th percentile as a scorer). He's second all time in career points per 75 possessions, trailing only Michael Jordan.

What really sets him apart is the rate at which he gets to the stripe. Embiid's free-throw rate is James Harden-esque. That means that even when his shot isn't falling (he's posted a sub-50 field-goal percentage in well over half his career games), Embiid can score efficiently.

And the context of Embiid's scoring deserves a mention, too. This season, he's enjoying far better spacing than the Philadelphia 76ers gave him in 2019-20. In that campaign, he essentially shared the floor with two other bigs in Ben Simmons and Al Horford. His gaudy numbers arising out of possessions that are so often cramped makes them even more impressive.

Jokic is more skilled. Davis is more explosive. But Embiid is close to both of them in those categories, and the sheer force he plays with gives him the edge here.

Tally: Davis (0), Embiid (1), Jokic (0)

            

Offense

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The goal of the game is putting the ball through the hoop, but the actual bucket is the culmination of plenty of other actions that lead up to that point.

Embiid and Davis aren't close to Jokic's level on that front.

Both can create their own offense. When possessions bog down, the Sixers or Los Angeles Lakers can confidently dump it down to either and expect a decent look to come out of the play. But Jokic brings that while also being the best passing big man of all time.

His 7.2 career assists per 75 possessions is by far the best mark for a 7-footer in league history. In 2020-21, he's averaging 10.5 dimes. But this is about far more than the assists. That number can only measure so much about a passer.

Watch just about any stretch of Denver Nuggets basketball and you'll see Jokic picking apart a defense from the high post, elbow, low post or short corner. He seems to see openings before they're even there. He creates openings with passes to spots his teammates aren't even at yet. His bag has it all: handoffs, no-looks, behind-the-backs, skip passes, full-court passes, hook passes, drop-offs. You name it, he does it.

Jokic can handle the ball, too. Denver doesn't use him as a mediator between guards and finishers. He often brings the ball up the floor, both in transition and off makes. He creates extra possessions as an offensive rebounder as well (though only slightly more than Davis and Embiid).

All of that combines with the scoring to make Jokic one of the best offensive players in league history. He's ninth all time in career offensive box plus/minus, and there isn't a single center with a better mark in that catch-all metric.

Over the course of his career, the Nuggets have scored 7.5 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. As a modern, jumbo Larry Legend, Jokic gets the nod for offense.

Tally: Davis (0), Embiid (1), Jokic (1)

              

Defense

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Jokic is underrated on this end of the floor. We'll get that out of the way at the outset. Across his career, Denver has allowed fewer points per 100 possessions when he plays. He's huge, usually in the right spot, cleans the glass and has much quicker hands than most bigs.

He clearly isn't on the level of Embiid or Davis on defense, though.

Philly's star is a top-tier anchor on that end. During his career, the Sixers have allowed 6.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when he plays. In those same seasons, he's seventh in block percentage (Jokic is 61st). And though he isn't the most nimble on perimeter switches, he certainly stands more of a chance against guards and wings than Jokic.

AD has the edge over both in terms of versatility, though. He's higher than Embiid on the aforementioned leaderboard for block percentage (fifth, to be exact). He isn't fully positionless on defense, but he's the most trustworthy of these three on switches. And his career steal percentage almost doubles Embiid's.

If you're hoping to build a modern defense, Davis, who finished second in DPOY voting last season, can provide both the rim protection and switchability that are critical.

Tally: Davis (1), Embiid (1), Jokic (1)

           

Numbers and Intangibles

It's impossible to boil a debate like this down to numbers that will convince everyone, but that won't stop us from trying.

Jokic is sixth in NBA history in career box plus/minus, trailing only MJ, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Chris Paul and David Robinson. In a blind poll posted Tuesday, his numbers over the last two-plus seasons were picked over those of Embiid and Davis.

As an all-time great offensive engine who actually helps on defense as well, Jokic's overall statistical impact is tough to match.

As for the intangibles, this one's tough to measure (or disprove), but there seems to be an unspoken joy that comes with playing alongside a historic passer. When you know your best player will find you, you tend to cut harder. You're more ready on the catch.

Playing with someone like Jokic, Magic, LeBron or Bird brings an infectiousness. Suddenly, everyone wants to move the ball more. They seem to want to move off the ball. The Nuggets have oozed that energy throughout Jokic's tenure.

And finally, a word on availability. It isn't the end-all, be-all, but it's important. Not counting 2020-21, Embiid has averaged 52.3 appearances per season for his career (34.8 if you count the two full seasons he missed coming out of the gate). For Davis, that number is 66. And for Jokic, it's 76.2.

Cliches become popular for a reason, and availability is one of the game's most important abilities.

Tally: Davis (1), Embiid (1), Jokic (2)

         

Again, there may not be a definitive, written-in-stone, undeniable answer here. Passionate supporters of Davis and Embiid are sure to offer rebuttals.

But for now, we're starting Jokic, benching AD and cutting Embiid (it's hard to even type that).

           

All statistics via Basketball Reference, NBA.com or PBPStats.com unless otherwise noted.