The role post up may be diminished, but certainly still impacts the way teams play
It may not be the oldest play in basketball, but the post-up has been around since the conception of organized play. If you look at the history of the sport, you’ll find legendary pivot men in every era, and they often include some of the most dominant players of their time. Whether it be George Mikan dominating throughout the 40’s and 50’s, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain battling in the 60’s, or Kareem Abdul-Jabaar sky-hooking for nearly two decades after that. Moses Malone rode a punishing style to a 20-year career while Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon dazzled us with their footwork and shot fakes. Shaquille O’Neal used his strength on the block to become perhaps the most dominant force of all time, and Tim Duncan rode bank shots and fundamentals to five championships.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Kevin Garnett, David Robinson, Yao Ming, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Chris Webber — the list of players who dominated the low block is endless. The great behemoths of NBA history make up some of the most physical, talented, and intimidating players we will ever see. The question now is, where have they all gone?
There are still plenty of great big men scattered throughout the league, but nowadays they are valued more for their versatility than their ability to make a hook shot or execute a drop-step. I’m not saying it is a bad thing, but the rise of the analytics era has phased out the “traditional” big man faster than it has any other player archetype. There are still players who are capable of scoring from the post, but their true value now comes from their ability to step outside the arc and hit perimeter shots.
This past season, the top 26 players with the most post up volume also accounted for over four thousand three point shots. That is a huge difference from where the league was just six years ago when the top post options did not even account for one three point attempt per game.
Post Ups vs 3PA
Indeed, the guards and wings who reign supreme in the league today have made their larger counterparts adapt to their game much more than they ever had to adapt to great centers and power forwards of the past. It’s gone so far that a game tailor-made for tall men to excel has seen the center spot removed as a position in the all-star game.
And as three point shots continue to be hoisted at a record pace it is only natural that the number of post-ups we see continues to fall. At this rate, it is more likely we witness five more Stephen Currys before we ever see another McHale or Olajuwon.
Is the post-up in danger of being ousted from the game for good? Of course not. There were still over 18,000 possessions committed to it last season, and while that is the lowest such number in a decade, teams also enjoyed the most efficient scoring season from the post in that same time span.
Post-Up Points Per Possession
This is not meant to imply that today’s big men are as skilled down low as the legends we revere for their ability to fadeaway, drop-step, and spin their way through traffic down on the block. What it does show, perhaps, is how the rule changes we have seen in this era may allow for a sort of post-up renaissance sometime in the future.
As big men become more proficient shooters, their defensive counterparts will get dragged out of the paint, and as we know those taller defenders are often the biggest deterrents to guards and wings attempting to find their way to the rim. With this newfound space, the smaller players will have more room to operate for their post-ups and isolations. Putting a large guard such as Demar DeRozan or Jimmy Butler down on the block against a smaller or like-sized defender without the threat of a weak-side shot blocker is good offense no matter how you look at it. At times these players are often able to simply bull their way to the rim for easy finishes. It may not be as visually appealing as a Dream Shake, but it is just as effective.
It is possible we have already seen this phenomenon starting to take place. Last season, 13 of the 26 most efficient post scorers (with a minimum of 100 possessions) could be classified as guards or wings. This was the only time in the last 10 seasons that you would be as likely to find such players as you were a big man.
Who’s Dominating Down Low? How Teams Distribute Post-Ups by Position
Besides three point shooting, teams are also putting a premium on back court players with size as the league shifts towards a brand of position-less basketball. Being able to put as many 6’6-6’9 players on the court as possible has suddenly become an advantage. These players also happen to be the perfect size to take advantage of defenders in the post. It would not shock me if we see more wings and guards among the most efficient post players in the coming seasons.
Will it lead to an increased amount of post-up plays? As I’ve mentioned, the rise of three point shooting probably will not allow that to happen. Think of it this way; even for the best post-up teams, it is rare to average even one point per possession on such plays. The league average for three point shooting last year was 35.8%. That comes out to about 1.07 points per possession. The trade-off is simply too great. Even with the highest post efficiency in over a decade, posting up still garnered a whole .1 point per possession less than the other play types on average. That may not seem like a lot, but over tens of thousands of possession, it is an enormous difference.
But if we entertain the notion, we should see if it is at all possible to build a high powered offense around a post presence. Beginning in the 2006-2007 season and looking at the top 10 teams in terms of post-up volume, it is unclear. Those teams do typically outperform the league average when it comes to post efficiency, but as of late the overall success of post-up centered teams has taken a hit.
Win % and Efficiency of the Top Post Teams (By Volume)
More bad teams are posting up now, but they are bad, because they commit so much time to an inefficient scoring method, or if they would be bad no matter how they designed their offense. In the past two seasons, only three teams under .500, who also landed in the top 10 in post-up volume scored over 0.96 points per possession overall on plays excluding post-ups. Given the lack of talent on those teams, it is likely they would not find much success regardless of offensive scheme.
What we can see is that good or bad, teams will try and design their offensive around the abilities of their players. In Detroit, top 10 in volume the past four seasons, Andre Drummond (and Greg Monroe previously) is going to command a fair share of touches on the block. Even if they don’t find much success doing so, teams have to incorporate their best players.
The Denver Nuggets had two post-up powerhouses last season in Danilo Gallinari and Nikola Jokic, and not only did they score 0.96 points per possession on post-ups, they were second in the league in offense overall, averaging 1.01 points per possession on all other play types.
To me, this represents the idea that there is still value in being able to operate effectively on the block. The best offenses in the league may not be down there as much, but they are still efficient when they do decide to throw it down low. Every season dating back to 2006-2007, the top five offenses have, on average, outperformed the league average in post-up scoring.
Even if ball movement and three point shooting dominate the league for years to come, having a player who can score with his back to the basket will always be a sought after commodity. I don’t want to discredit all the number because understanding the math behind the sport is key to understanding the shift in how the game is played, but it is also true that the sport is not played in a vacuum. Even if a player does not score at an efficient rate in the post (relative to the league average), if he can score well enough to be perceived as a threat he will add value to his team.
I mentioned how guards and wings who can post-up could be the next evolution of NBA basketball, but to highlight my aforementioned point about value, we can look at three of the most promising big men in the league; Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, and Kristaps Porzingis. All three are great players regardless of their ability in the post, but we hear it all the time, especially in regards to Davis and Porizingis, that if they truly want to reach the next level they must develop a back to the basket game.
We subscribe to this notion because, throughout history, every top flight big man has had this in their game. Each will be the best player on their respective teams for years to come, and a team’s best player must be able to create when the play breaks down. For guards and wings, this typically manifests itself in perimeter isolations. For a big, they must be able to manufacture a good look on the block. Creating shots is a skill in and of itself, and you don’t have to score a point per possession to be worth posting up. As long as the defense believes you can score one on one, you will open up other scoring avenues for your team. On these plays, Towns is doubled almost immediately and is subsequently able to create good looks for his team.
That ability to score one on one and handle double teams is why Towns is viewed as perhaps the most valuable young asset in basketball. Not only can he shoot from deep, he scored nearly 1.03 points per possession on his scoring opportunities in the post and no player saw a higher volume of such plays. As the Timberwolves continue to grow and get better, he could single-handedly deter teams from going small against them.
Davis and Porzingis are trying to reach that level. Davis made great strides this year and Porzingis still has years before he reaches his physical peak.
Again, looking at the numbers, it’s hard to see the game ever shifting from the spread-them-out motion offenses that lead to high volume three point shooting, but as those types of players, mobile big men with guard skills, continue to progress and refine their post-game and more players like them enter the league, we could see a change in how teams defend. With an increase in big men who can score down low, teams will be more hesitant to switch smaller players onto them. If those same bigs can knock down jumpers and hang defensively on the perimeter, there will be no drawback to playing them heavy minutes. The three-point shooting may not subside, but the arrival of such players could shift lineup dynamics back to a more traditional look.
Five years ago, no one could have predicted the league would look as it does now. The talent that was produced dictated where the league went. We can’t know for certain, despite all of the data at our disposal, how it will look in another five years. Rule changes could occur and trends usually come out of nowhere to reshape the league. The art of posting-up has evolved as greatly as the game itself, and as much as basketball purists want to claim it dead or a lost art, it is far from either. It is just being utilized in a different way.