For me, it’s the most perplexing thing in basketball today – that is, why a good post player rarely plays/is rarely used in the post.
Two things about post play: one, when you set up in the post you’re closer to the basket which should therefore create an easier shot; and two, a good post player almost always demands a double team in the post, which creates open looks for teammates. So, more often than not good things come from post play. So why then is it rarely used in today’s NBA?
Has it become unfashionable? Possibly, but then why would something that is so crucial to success be seen as ‘uncool’? Personally, I am old school so I love this style of play, but today’s generation of players (and coaches for that matter) have gone away from it and seemingly only learn the skills when they’re browbeaten into it (often by the media/talking heads etc.).
Here’s the facts – if you don’t have an elite post player on your team then you aren’t winning an NBA title. But don’t take my word for it; let’s go back in history and examine the recent NBA champions, in terms of their post players:
2012 title – Miami Heat. LeBron James finally found a post game; he lived in the post for the majority of the series and absolutely brutalised the Thunder this way.
2011 title – Dallas Mavericks. Dirk Nowitzki played out of his skin, with a lot of work in the post. For Miami, LeBron had zero post game at that point (which makes last year’s run even more amazing).
2010 title – Los Angeles Lakers. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Kobe.
2009 title – Los Angeles Lakers. Ditto.
2008 title – Boston Celtics. Kevin Garnett in his prime and Paul Pierce.
2007 title – San Antonio Spurs. The best power forward in the history of the game and post player extrodiare, Tim Duncan.
2006 title – Miami Heat. Shaquille O’Neal.
2005 title – San Antonio Spurs. As above.
2004 title – Detroit Pistons. Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups.
2003 title – San Antonio Spurs. Timmy D and David Robinson.
2000-02 titles – Los Angeles Lakers. Shaq in his prime.
1999 title – San Antonio Spurs. As above.
Ok, so for the last 14 NBA titles each winning team had an elite post player, and in the majority of cases, the team also played predominately through that player.
Which leads us to the conclusion – to win an NBA title you need an elite post player, and you ultimately need to play through the post to win.
So why then do so few teams do it in this day and age, even those with good to great post players?
The rules allowing zone defense (prohibited prior to the 2001/02 season) have played a role here because it allows you to pack the paint, but I don’t buy that as a legitimate reason for ignoring post play; you can still play in the post if you have the system to facilitate it and the players to execute it (ex. look at the way LeBron played in the 2012 Finals). Phil Jackson touched on this in a recent interview: “I think people forgot that there are still ways you can get the ball inside rather than just standing there and throwing the ball in. You have to have a system that makes all things work. Pop [San Antonio's Gregg Popovich] has that…..You want the ball 10 feet away from the basket. Throw it into the post, make them double-team and have everybody around to make shots. That’s what Shaq could do. That’s where you have the Robert Horrys, the Derek Fishers and the Rick Foxes sitting out there getting wide-open jumpers.”
From the same interview, this is what Phil had to say about the Lakers: “They just don’t put the ball in the post. They’ll use a screen-roll to get the guy in the post. But there’s no consistent plan to do it. Yes, Kobe will go in there. But Dwight [Howard] just doesn’t get any touches. They’ve basically eliminated his assets.” As the all-time winningest coach in the NBA when Phil speaks, you listen, and he’s right on the money with these comments – whilst today’s rules make it more challenging to play in the post, it can still be done, you just need a sound strategy and willingness to implement it.
Let’s take a look at LeBron James. We all know the story; he didn’t win a title until he developed a post game, and holy hell, did he develop a post game. He destroyed the Thunder from the post in last year’s Finals, and it’s now widely acknowledged that the LeBron James post up is the single most unstoppable play in the NBA.
He’s playing at an insane level this season and he’s doing it in a lot different ways, but he too has gone away from the post. His shot distribution for the season breaks down like this:
|Play Type||% of Time (Season)|
|Pick & Roll||19.6%|
(Note: These figures were sourced one week ago, so the numbers may have changed slightly)
Considering that LeBron is just so damn unguardable in the post, the fact he has the size/strength advantage over his opponent every single night, and that he also vowed in the offseason to “live in the post” this year, this 12.2% on post-ups is pretty shocking to me. So, in 10 trips down the floor he basically only posts up once? That’s pretty indicative of this general movement in the NBA away from post play.
Despite LeBron’s brilliance the Miami Heat had some pretty ordinary moments during the first half of the season (considering their talent and pedigree), as they lost quite a few games that they really should have won. I am not too concerned with that, but it was how they played, or didn’t play, that struck me. In the majority of games that they lost or struggled in they didn’t go to LeBron in the post, even when they were in desperate need of offense late in the fourth quarter. And that seemed odd to me.
(Note: In the 5 games prior to the All-Star break where both LeBron and the Heat played near flawless basketball, his post-ups increased to 26%. They didn’t lose a game in that stretch)
But Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is a bloody sharp dude so I suspect they may be withholding the entirety of LeBron’s post game for the playoffs, and that they’ll unleash it when it matters most. And that may very well be a good idea, but in the meantime they’ve made it harder on themselves and lost some games unnecessarily, and that may ultimately cost them home court in the Finals (not that they really need it, but it would help).
In my opinion the following players are vastly underutilised in the post by their respective teams – Josh Smith, Al Horford, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony, Joe Johnson, Dwayne Wade, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrew Bogut, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Favors and of course, LeBron James.
To me, not utilising the skills of a good post player in the game of basketball is like going war with the best weapon, and then not using it. I can’t work it out. Perhaps I’m missing something?