Grantland logo

Is Hakeem Olajuwon's Post-Up Play Training All It's Cracked Up to Be?

With a dazzling array of spins, fakes, and graceful footwork, Hakeem Olajuwon was as unique as any player in league history. Though we still see bits and pieces of his game today — Kobe Bryant’s footwork and fadeaways, Rajon Rondo’s ball fakes — no one has ever come close to completely replicating Olajuwon’s shot-making genius. The former Houston great has leveraged his one-of-a-kind talent into a second-act career as a post-play guru. More and more often, NBA stars — from Bryant to the Lopez twins to Rudy Gay two weeks ago — are taking time out of their summers to make a pilgrimage to Houston to learn from the Dream (who isn’t bashful about what his influence could do for other stars).

The message from Olajuwon, the coach, seems pretty straightforward for every one of his pupils: These are my moves — take them, use them, and (hopefully) experience the success that I had. As great as this sounds in theory, the reality of the situation is that this may not be the right approach for every player who travels to Olajuwon’s ranch looking to expand his game.

It’s important to point out that Olajuwon was one of the most uniquely gifted athletes to ever put on an NBA jersey. Olajuwon played soccer as a youth in Nigeria, developing coordination, balance, agility, and impeccable footwork. This is why no big man in today’s NBA, most of whom solely play basketball from an early age, looks even remotely as fluid as Olajuwon once did.

Yet instead of tailoring his program to a player’s size, skill set, athleticism, and, maybe most importantly, the role he occupies on a team, Olajuwon attempts to teach only his signature post moves.

Take this video of Tyson Chandler for instance. In it, Olajuwon is working with the Knicks big man on a rip-through, one-dribble spin counter sequence that ends with a turnaround jumper.

Before we go any further into this analysis, let’s review some facts about Chandler:

• He will be 31 this October (and was 30 in the video).
• He plays on the same team as Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, the former possessing a usage rate (a metric used to track the number of possessions a player uses) of 32.2 last season while the latter’s was 22.8.
• According to Synergy Sports, he had just 18 post-up attempts last season.

This complicated move has value if you’re a high-volume scorer like Anthony, someone who by necessity may need a lot of moves, given the number of times he attacks a defense in a game. On some team (read: a bad one), Chandler may have been counted on to have a more varied offensive game, but on his current team, taking the time to install such a move seems wasteful — especially given how well the 7-foot-1 center manipulates opposing defenses by diving toward the rim after setting screens and moving off dribble penetration.

At this point, Chandler essentially is who he is. He won’t be asked to control games from the low block. Olajuwon should take that into account and adjust accordingly. The time spent learning complicated footwork sequences could be better used to focus more of his training on things that can directly benefit Chandler’s game, like pick-and-roll finishes that aren’t just dunks — something that will be increasingly vital if and when the Knicks big man can no longer finish athletically at the rim.

Chandler isn’t the only one being taught to play like Olajuwon (even if he doesn’t need it). Scroll through the video list and there are clips of Stoudemire and JaVale McGee working the Dream Shake into a jumper. Even in his prime, Stoudemire has always been somewhat mechanical with his movement and relied heavily on linear, explosive moves to dominate in isolation. Trying to have him copy moves originated by one of the most agile big men ever doesn’t seem like an approach that will ever yield great results.

In McGee’s case, teaching a complex array of moves and countermoves is recipe for disaster. This is a player with a long, documented history of poor on-court decision-making. With a wingspan of 7-6 and a standing reach of 9-6, McGee, like Chandler, doesn’t really need a lot of diversity other than simple jump hooks and counters. Simplicity keeps him out of trouble.

Expansive post repertoires like the ones Olajuwon, Kevin McHale, and even Luis Scola utilize(d) get romanticized, but players without a utility belt full of tricky post moves can do just fine. Al Jefferson and LaMarcus Aldridge have been two of the more effective, high-volume post players over the past few seasons, all by traditionally sticking to basically one move. For Jefferson, it’s turning over his left shoulder for a right-handed jump hook, while Aldridge prefers the turnaround jumper over either shoulder the vast majority of the time.

When Olajuwon played, the NBA was much more of a one-on-one league. The illegal defense rules in place during his era led to far more isolation play against less-sophisticated defenses. (Ethan Strauss of HoopSpeak has a good breakdown of how post play in that era was different.) Creativity was a little more vital because the games called for one player to try to beat his opponent, on an island, over and over again.

It was an era that stands in stark contrast to the current NBA. Teams rely more heavily on pick-and-rolls and ball movement on offense, while defenses deter isolation play with more aggressive schemes. Just this past year, the Spurs virtually ignored Tony Allen to shadow the Grizzlies big men in the Western Conference finals. A year before that, the Heat frustrated New York’s Anthony to no end by fronting him with aggressive weakside shading in a first-round playoff exit. The defensive three-second rule didn’t just change how teams attack opposing defenses, but it has made it harder for players to even operate in isolation.

Here’s an example from 2011 with LeBron James that shows why this topic matters in relation to Olajuwon’s training methods.

Transitioning this move to live action wouldn’t mesh well given the way defenses gear up to stop James. In today’s game, as soon as James reached that spot the entire defense would likely load up to his side of the floor. At the very least, there would be a help defender on the right elbow looking to clog up middle penetration, and a big man likely in or flashing across the lane to dissuade a drive baseline, forcing James to choose between a long jumper or skip pass across the paint. That just isn’t a defense Olajuwon ever saw in his playing days and, at least in this case, he’s not accounting for it when he’s teaching.

Now on a small scale, such an oversight only fails to completely maximize a training session, which happens even with the best of coaches. The worry is that a consistent disregard of such an issue ingrains a bad habit in James, Bryant, or whomever else is trying to expand their game when working with Olajuwon. In the offensive efficiency–obsessed culture of the league, the smallest of flaws are being picked apart by front-office staffs and passed along to coaches to give their teams a competitive advantage. Now that he’s a skills trainer, Olajuwon’s instructions should probably change with the times. Some slick moves look cool, but the new emphasis for NBA teams is having players create as many efficient looks as possible.

With such an accomplished career, Olajuwon has earned enormous credibility when it comes to basketball knowledge. It is perhaps why so many players come back as true believers in his methods after spending time working with him. James in particular has been on record praising his time with Olajuwon, which happened to coincide with the unveiling of a new (and since improved) post game. At the very least, Olajuwon is making his students feel like they’ve gotten better or gained insight during their time with him. Such a response certainly has value.

Still, it’s hard to find tangible evidence as to what exactly players receive when they (or their teams) fork over some serious cash — rumor says it’s anywhere from $15,000 a week to $100,000 a month — to learn the nuances operating in the post from an NBA legend. Simply put, being a transcendent player doesn’t automatically translate into being astute in all aspects surrounding the game.