Let me just say that I like Joel Embiid.
I’ve always enjoyed watching big men play, and anytime one comes around with some fantastic skills, I always make sure to check them out as much as I can (when I’m not watching the Rockets, of course). And some of what Embiid is doing is ridiculous.
He’s practically impossible to guard, he’s got skills close to and away from the bucket, and he’ll be a building block for the Philadelphia 76ers for years to come.
But as seems to be the norm in these harrowing days of NBA Twitter, social media is dripping with knee-jerk hyperbole and conjecture.
The morning after Embiid’s 46-15-7-7 line, my Twitter timeline was filled with hot takes calling Embiid the next Olajuwon, some declaring Embiid already as good as Olajuwon, and there were a few somewhat saner folks saying he could be as good as The Dream.
I mean, I guess he could be the next Olajuwon. In the greater scheme of universal possibilities, it lies somewhere between James Harden getting robbed of another MVP award (pretty likely, Marc Stein, who has a vote, is already on the Kyrie Irving train) and monkeys flying out of my butt (not very likely). And that box line last week was undeniably Olajuwon-esque, that much is true. But can we all slow our roll on already placing Embiid on the level of one of the 10 greatest to ever lace up some sneakers?
Players have great games all the time. They have great stretches. They even have great seasons, or great careers. But there’s barely two handfuls of human beings on the planet that have had the type of career Olajuwon did. There’s even fewer that played the type of defense we saw from Hakeem, and that’s the particular aspect of his game that often gets overlooked when discussing Olajuwon in a historical context.
Lost in all the fancy footwork, Dream Shake Youtube videos, and Western Conference Finals clips versus David Robinson, is that Olajuwon was (and still is) the single most dominant defensive force the NBA has seen since the days of Bill Russell.
And while one can point to Embiid’s seven blocks a few night’s ago and his +2.72 defensive RPM (fourth in the NBA), and say, “See, Joel is good at defense too,” you then have to really understand the full scope of what Hakeem was doing from a defensive standpoint in the ‘80s and ‘90s before understanding how truly a long way Embiid has to go before coming anywhere close to Olajuwon’s stunning defensive production.
I know it’s not really considered cool anymore to quote Bill Simmons, but if you go back to his The Book of Basketball, he comes up with “stocks” as a defensive statistic, which is quite simply blocks plus steals. For an 11-year stretch from his rookie season through 1996, Hakeem never had less than 319 stocks in any one year. From 1985 through 1995, he averaged 424.7 stocks per season. He had highs of 495 and an incredible 550 in the 1989 and 1990 seasons back-to-back.
As a comparison, this season, Embiid is on pace for 190 stocks. Even if you average that out on his per-36s (“Hey, look at his per-36s,” being the main fallback argument for the Embiid = Olajuwon crowd), if Embiid was playing 36 minutes a night for the rest of the season and putting up the same defensive production he is now, he would finish the year with 270 stocks. Olajuwon wouldn’t hit that low of a number until the 1998 season, well past his prime as a player.
It’s well known that Olajuwon is the all-time NBA leader in blocked shots. What isn’t well known is the full context of what exactly that means. For a six-season stretch from 1989 - 1995, Olajuwon averaged over 4 blocks (4.03) per game. To put that into perspective, the last time a player averaged over 4 blocks per game in any one season, was Dikembe Mutombo in 1996, or over two decades ago.
Might Embiid eventually get there? Again, I guess he technically could. History repeatedly tells us otherwise however.
In all of recorded NBA history in which we have the complete data, there are only seven seasons in which any one player averaged at least 2 steals and 2 blocks per game. David Robinson did it once. Gerald Wallace did it once. The other five? They all belong to Hakeem, first in 1986 and then a four season run from 1988 - 1991.
Lastly from a statistical perspective, Olajuwon led the league four different times in defensive win shares and four different times in defensive plus-minus. He won two Defensive Player of the Year Awards, was named First Team All Defense five different times and Second Team All Defense four times. He was twice the league’s rebounding champion.
He’s also one of the few players to single-handedly anchor his squad to elite defensive team status. From 1989 to 1994, the Rockets were a top-10 defensive squad each and every season without a single other elite defender on the roster. In ‘89-’90, they finished best in the league in defensive rating. In the following seasons, they finished 2, 10, 3 and 2. The closest to a secondary elite defender on any of those squads was one-time All-Star Otis Thorpe.
Olajuwon carried those squads to their elite status through otherworldly defensive production and mental intimidation. Players were simply afraid of being completely erased when they came inside.
So while Embiid has adopted some of Olajuwon’s gracefully athletic moves, including spin moves and even added a little Dream Shake to his repertoire, and he’s great at feeding teammates, averaging 3.4 assists per game this season, that’s only one part of basketball and one part of what made Dream so incredible to watch.
Looking solely and only at Embiid’s skills as a scorer and passer, it is a valid comparison. But there’s two facets in a basketball game, both equally as important as the other. And while it’s Hakeem’s moves and skill in the post that’s gotten remembered through highlight videos on Youtube, it’s actually his defense that propelled him to legendary status as player. It’s often overlooked when analyzing Hakeem against other all-timers, and it’s why I’ll still to this day demand that Olajuwon is often underrated historically and why the Embiid-is-already-Olajuwon hot takers are currently driving me nuts.
There are players out there before and since that can score better than Olajuwon. Offensively, he was great, but not unprecedented. Defensively, Hakeem has no equal.
From a production standpoint, there’s not just a gap, but a chasm, between what Embiid is currently doing and what Dream did defensively. And Dream did it not just for a short run or for a season, but repeatedly over the decade plus he was considered one of the League’s top players. And he did it in the golden age of centers for the NBA, against some of the greatest names ever to patrol the paint.
I’ll repeat again that I really enjoy watching Embiid. I love that his offensive game also includes some three-point shooting, and I love that he’s most likely (not always a given) going to get better. He’s got a fun personality that’s good for the game, and he has a chance to be part of a Philadelphia 76ers team that should be good for years to come.
But be careful what you’re getting into if you’re anointing Embiid the next Hakeem Olajuwon, however. The young man’s got a long way to go before he even sniffs the basement of Hakeem’s historic defensive production.
Praise Embiid all you want. He deserves it. But let’s hold the Dream comparisons for a while, shall we? Because defensively, with Hakeem Olajuwon, there is no comparison.