Welcome to Basketball News' 10-part mini-series, Blazing the
Trail, where Mat Issa breaks down the most revolutionary players of
the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout this series, we'll examine how
these players changed basketball and pioneered their respective
In this sixth installment, Mat goes in-depth on the two-way
brilliance of Shawn Kemp. He explains what made "The Reign Man"
special on both ends of the floor, with insights from former
Seattle SuperSonics head coach George Karl, current Atlanta Hawks
head coach Nate McMillan (who played with Kemp) and former Sonics
scout Yvan Kelly.
Arguably the most salient feature of a 1990s NBA roster was the
presence of a low-post brute. The Utah Jazz had Karl Malone. The
Houston Rockets had Hakeem Olajuwon. The Orlando Magic (and then
later the Los Angeles Lakers) had Shaquille O’Neal.
And, of course, the Seattle SuperSonics had Shawn Kemp.
Did the Sonics lean on Kemp's unique athleticism and mobility
enough? While Kemp thrived in the golden era of big men, one could
also argue that he's the precursor to the modern-day center.
WHAT MADE KEMP SPECIAL
To interpret Kemp’s revolutionary impact, one needs to
understand the customary tactics of the era.
At the time, a staple play in many playbooks was an empty corner
post-up with three players spaced out on the opposite side. Here’s
a look at how the Jazz orchestrated that action:
The alignment was effective because of the illegal-defense rules
in place before 2001. The restrictions
outlawed zone defense and made it so that when ancillary defenders
wanted to double team, they had to completely commit to the
endeavor, which left one offensive player unaccounted for.
This means that teams had to watch idly as superstar players
cooked defenders in isolation (first clip in above montage) or
offer supplementary resistance and risk the chance that said
superstar dimes up an open shooter (second clip).
The SuperSonics were no strangers to these practices, but as
former Sonics head coach George Karl notes, they sprinkled in a lot
more pick-and-roll than the rest of their contemporaries.
“We probably ran as much [pick-and-roll] as anybody in the
league,” Karl told Basketball News.
In fact, their pet action — a play called "two-out" — was an
empty corner pick-and-roll with three shooters spaced out on the
Here’s a demonstration of the play in theory and in
Visual diagram courtesy of Luceo
The inner workings of the play are best described by former
Sonics scout Yvan Kelly.
“[Gary] Payton would have the ball on the left wing, about
free-throw line extended. Shawn would come set a pick on Gary’s
right side, and away they would go," Kelly told Basketball News.
"The weak side was spaced with the big in the right corner. The
spacing is what made defending it so hard. It was really hard to
double team or trap it."
The reason they could handle this ball-screen-laden attack was
because of Kemp. Where Malone was limited as a finisher because of
his low release point, Kemp feasted
thanks to his verticality and wide catch radius.
“Some of the lobs that Gary would throw, I thought they were
gonna go way out of bounds, and somehow [Kemp] found and caught
them,” Karl marveled.
“We just killed people with a simple side pick-and-roll!” Kelly
This distinction matters because pick-and-rolls are more
efficient than post-ups. For instance, during the 2021-22 season,
the average post-up yielded 0.9 points per possession (PPP).
Meanwhile, the average pick-and-roll roll man produced 1.25 PPP,
While Seattle's gameplan was ahead of its time, Karl regrets not
turning to the pick-and-roll more.
“Kemp’s post-up game was good, but his face-up game was probably
what he was more confident in," Karl said.
Kemp was a cataclysmic force, the likes of which the league had
"At the time that Shawn [Kemp] came into the game, his position
was called the power forward, and that's how he played the game,"
said his former teammate Nate McMillan, who is now the head coach
of the Atlanta Hawks. "He brought that athleticism. The things that
you saw Blake Griffin do... Shawn Kemp was doing all that [long]
before Blake Griffin. Just explosive, athletic, powerful."
On offense, he functioned more like an Amar’e Stoudemire than a
Karl Malone. His God-given gifts weren't meant to be wasted on dull
isolations. Kemp was best served as the punctuating force on an
egalitarian attack — a play-finisher rather than an independent
scorer. He would be the perfect player to pair next to the
high-usage, on-ball creators of today.
Unfortunately, societal expectations for big men forced Kemp to
focus on post-ups instead of the rim-runs, putbacks,
catch-and-shoot jumpers and transition forays he excelled at.
His proficiency in that last component — transition — is what
influenced their unique defense.
“We played our best when we created our offense from our
defense,” Karl explained.
And to acquire more fastbreak opportunities, Karl leaned heavily
on his assistant coach Bob Kloppenburg’s SOS pressure defense.
“George Karl wanted us to run, so we forced the issue,” McMillan
said. “We pressured, we trapped, [and] we switched."
In its simplest form, the SOS pressure defense was a barrage of
hostile tactics designed to create turnovers and get the
SuperSonics' athletic personnel out and running. Seattle was first
in opponent turnovers every season from 1992 to 1997, except in
1994-95 (when they finished second). The Sonics were
uber-aggressive on defense — double-teaming, trapping, fronting,
The scheme was so aggressive that Karl joked that Kloppenburg
"wanted to double the Coke machine.”
Kemp’s versatile skillset was essential to fulfilling
Kloppenburg's vision. As McMillan alluded to, where many teams
would have their bigs hedge on ball-screens, Seattle
trusted Kemp to switch pick-and-rolls.
“[Kemp] was what we all want now in today’s game,” Karl said.
“We switched a lot — switching the pick-and-rolls, switching onto
guards. Kemp was ahead of his time there.”
Watch as Kemp forces Scottie Pippen to give up the ball (and
then later break up a lob):
Along with his positional versatility, the SOS pressure
defense’s success was contingent on Kemp’s ability to trap the
ball-handler, deny the ball to teammates, full front in the post
and, most importantly, protect the interior with his roaming brand
of rim protection.
“If we didn’t get the steal, [Kemp] was so athletic that he was
blocking shots and protecting the rim,” McMillan explained. “We
didn’t have big centers like Olajuwon and [Patrick] Ewing. Kemp was
our guy. He was our leading shot-blocker.
“When you thought you had something easy, he was erasing that
The Sonics — featuring McMillan, Gary Payton and Sam Perkins —
were not bereft of defensive talent. Still, Kemp’s multi-faceted
appeal on that end of the court helped them put the pieces together
and become a top-three defense three times from 1992 to 1997.
In his prime, Kemp was a near 20-and-10 player, earning six
All-Star nods and three All-NBA selections. Kemp and Payton formed
one of the most electrifying one-two punches in the NBA.
If a team didn't have an athletic big man, Kemp was going to
destroy them. Kemp’s ideal offensive context is best illustrated by
looking at his varying outputs against his different playoff
Visual created by Mark
All players struggle against opponents who counter their
strengths and exploit their weaknesses. But dependent scorers who
lean heavily on athleticism (like Kemp) have an especially hard
time adapting to players who can negate their superhuman
In Kemp’s case, his kryptonite was athletic paint protectors who
touted extraordinary length. During his prime years, his worst
postseason outing came at the elongated hands of Dikembe
“[Denver] didn’t have to double-team/trap him... because Mutombo
could guard him [1-on-1] with his length,” McMillan explained.
“Kemp had to get to the rim, and Mutombo was right there at the rim.”
Another example of this can be seen with our old friends in
Utah. In 1992, against defensive titan Mark Eaton, Kemp was
relegated to 13.8 points per game on 49.6% True Shooting. When the
two teams faced off again the following season (when Eaton fell off
production-wise) and later in 1996 (when he retired), the depleted
Jazz frontline was no match for the basketball adonis.
The dynastic Chicago Bulls fielded a pugnacious defense
throughout their 1990s run, but even they were slightly vulnerable
to elite offensive big men. When Kemp faced off against the Bulls,
he turned in one of the best six-game runs of his career.
“He was the best player on the floor that year," Karl said.
"Michael Jordan got the MVP, but the best player on the floor...
was Shawn Kemp.”
And despite never winning a championship or hoisting a Finals
MVP award of his own, Kemp was a massive contributor to a
contending team for half of the decade.
Visual diagram courtesy of Luceo
As we established in
Part I of this series, teams that make the NBA Finals either
have a great deal of balance on both ends of the court or are
outlier-level elite at one end of the floor.
The SuperSonics fall in the former category, leaning on two-way
excellence to stand out in a loaded Western Conference. From 1992
to 1997, Seattle finished top-three in the NBA in Simple Rating
System (SRS) — a metric that ranks teams based on their point
differential and strength of schedule. All five of those seasons
rank among the top-100 SRS seasons in NBA history.
However, team excellence is not the only factor that determines
who will be the last squad standing. Luck is also a variable, and
that resource was scarce in Seattle.
In addition to being a poor matchup for Kemp, the Denver
Nuggets' egalitarian offense was also the perfect counter to the
SOS pressure defense. Unlike the Rockets with Olajuwon (whom
Seattle bested in two of their three playoff bouts during that
era), the Nuggets didn’t have a low-post warrior they could key
their aggressive scheme in on.
“They were able to take away our strength... We couldn’t get our
traps against them because there was no one to trap," McMillan
explained. "It was hard for us to establish our tempo because of
Denver’s style of play.”
In 1995, the SuperSonics outscored the Lakers in the totality of
the series, but lost the five-game series. Los Angeles eked out
three wins by less than five points, and Nick Van Exel went on a
playoff heater that he wouldn’t replicate for the rest of the
decade (24.8 PPG on 64.5% TS).
Lastly, in 1995-96, Seattle posted a 64-18 record and the
55th-best SRS season in NBA history, only to be vanquished by the
team with the second-best SRS score ever: the 72-win Chicago
"In a normal year, that was a championship team," Kelly
WEAVING THE THREAD
Ironically, Kemp's progenitor was also his mentor.
“Of any basketball player in the world [who] has helped me the
most on the court, I would say Xavier McDaniel, without a doubt,”
Kemp said on the Iconic Sonics podcast. “Everywhere he
would go, I would sit behind him because I was [always] learning
Like Reign Man, X-Man was a slash-and-crash bandit who was
capable of submitting thunderous jams from the
However, while McDaniel was an incredible athlete in his own
right, he was not Kemp’s equal.
“They did have similar games, but they were different players,”
McMillan explained. “They were both power players. X-Man was
athletic, but he wasn’t the high-flier [that Kemp] was.”
Kemp was a souped-up version of McDaniel.
Where McDaniel’s career scoring efficiency was below league
average, Kemp’s was nearly four points ahead of it. Where
McDaniel’s block percentage hovered around 1%, Kemp juiced his
total up over 3%. And where McDaniel’s teams in Seattle
consistently made the playoffs, Kemp elevated the franchise to a
perennial Finals contender.
IMPACT ON TODAY'S GAME
Kemp’s chapter in NBA history helped usher in a new standard for
Nowadays, if your team doesn't have an offensive supernova like
Nikola Jokic or Karl-Anthony Towns, you want the center position to
be occupied by someone like Kemp — a relatively low-usage offensive
star who can also fill multiple roles on defense.
Coincidentally, this player synopsis matches the description of
one of the best players in the world today.
“The current version [of Kemp] is the fellow in Milwaukee,”
Kelly pointed out. “The Greek Freak.”
Karl agrees with Kelly’s observation: “When I first saw
[Antetokounmpo], he reminded me athletically [of Kemp]."
Like Kemp, Antetokounmpo is at his best on defense when he can
roam around the paint and use his length and athleticism to create
havoc off the ball. Offensively, I once described him as the ultimate
scavenger of low-hanging fruit (rim-runs, putbacks, transition
surges, etc.). In fact, the Milwaukee Bucks even utilize the same
empty-corner actions for him.
McMillan sees a lot of similarities between the SOS pressure
defense and the aggressive, gaping scheme currently being deployed
in Miami (one he witnessed firsthand in the first
round of last year’s playoffs).
And, of course, he credits Bam Adebayo with anchoring the unit
in the same way Kemp once did in Seattle.
“[Adebayo] would probably be one of those guys that I would
compare to [Kemp]," McMillan said.
More grounded observations, like those comparing Kemp to Robert Williams III (a
ferocious lob finisher with a penchant for paint protection), paint
Kemp as having impressed his value on some of the premier young
talents in the league.
And that's how it should be because at the apex of the big-man
dynasty, Kemp not only found a way to keep the SuperSonics
relevant, but at the forefront of the title chase every year of his
And he did so by being something more, something different,
Check back on September 15th for Part VII of Blazing the
Trail, which focuses on Dirk Nowitzki, the unicorn that became a
Click Here to read Part V:
Andrei Kirilenko, the five-tool defender
Click here to read Part IV:
Reggie Miller, the moving target
Click here to read Part III:
Shane Battier, the data-ball defender
Click here to read Part II:
Rashard Lewis, the All-Star stretch 4
Click here to read Part I: Steve
Nash, the magician who danced in the paint