Blazing the Trail: Shawn Kemp, the aerial artist

Blazing the Trail: Shawn Kemp, the aerial artist

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 skills.

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.


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 opposite side.

Here’s a demonstration of the play in theory and in practice:

                                                    Visual diagram courtesy of Luceo Sports


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 added gleefully.

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, per InStat.

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 seldomly seen.

"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, switching, etc.

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 stuff.”

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 matchups.

Visual created by Mark Cheung

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 abilities. 

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 Mutombo. 

“[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 Sports

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 Bulls.

"In a normal year, that was a championship team," Kelly summarized.


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 from him.”

Like Reign Man, X-Man was a slash-and-crash bandit who was capable of submitting thunderous jams from the heavens. 

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. 


Kemp’s chapter in NBA history helped usher in a new standard for big men. 

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 prime. 

And he did so by being something more, something different, something revolutionary.

Check back on September 15th for Part VII of Blazing the Trail, which focuses on Dirk Nowitzki, the unicorn that became a world champion.

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

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