We Interrupt This Eulogy for the NBA Post-Up Game to Bring You Its Rebirth

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These playoffs resemble new-age basketball’s death blow to the old-school. The final four ranked first, second, fourth, and seventh in 3-point attempts, and the overwhelming championship favorite is a revolutionary modern basketball machine launching godless triples while racing up and down at a turbo pace. Meanwhile, Phil Jackson is shouting at those meddling kids.

Even in a league moving away from the post-up as a vehicle for scoring, these four stood out in the regular season as relatively post-averse.1 This is the NBA’s engineered crescendo — the culmination of rule changes that made the drive-and-kick game unguardable, and the hand-in-hand rise of analytics-oriented teams that understood how to exploit that new ecosystem. The ban on hand-checking unleashed speedy ball-handlers. Legalizing zone-style defense has made every post entry pass an adventure in needle-threading.

The game looks gorgeous, but there is a nostalgia tugging at a generation raised on the shoulder-shaking artistry of Kevin McHale, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Michael Jordan: Has the league inadvertently killed the back-to-the-basket game?

“We are losing a part of our sport,” Jason Kidd says.

“The game is getting out of balance,” says George Karl, now coaching perhaps the league’s preeminent post-up brute. “But until we figure out a way to make the post-up more efficient, we’re not going back. You just can’t win throwing the ball into the post 60 times per game.”

This evokes both wistfulness for the past and a fear that the NBA is heading toward a homogeneity in which every team drives for corner 3s, layups, and free throws. What happens if we all play Rocketball? “It is healthy for the league when teams play different styles,” Jeff Van Gundy says.

There is no debate that post-ups make up a shrinking portion of the scoring pie, though there is some debate about why that is. Only eight teams this season finished even 10 percent of their possessions2 with a post-up, per Synergy Sports. A decade ago, 22 teams hit that mark, and every team ended at least 7.5 percent of its trips with some kind of post-up. One-third of teams finished with a lower post-up share than that this season.

Just about everyone agrees that fewer players are entering the league with any clue of how to operate with their back to the basket. “There are maybe two handfuls of guys who can post up anymore,” Kidd says. Players who don’t learn post skills at a lower level won’t get the leeway or practice time to develop them in the NBA, coaches say. “It’s probably the hardest part of offense to get good at,” says Steve Clifford, the Hornets coach.

“You need to work on your post game against Vanderbilt, not against the Spurs,” Steve Kerr says. “If you come into this league, try to post up, and some 10-year vet swats your shot into the fifth row — that’s hard to deal with.”

League higher-ups point to the one-and-done system and AAU coaching, but they also recognize that youth teams are aping what they see in NBA games. “Go to any AAU game, and no one wants to play in the post,” says Kiki Vandeweghe, the league’s senior vice-president for basketball operations. “Everyone wants to dribble and shoot jumpers. But at the same time, NBA coaches have looked at the numbers and found that 3-pointers are efficient, the pick-and-roll is efficient, that it’s more efficient to shoot early in the shot clock.”

Post-ups take time to set up, and they lead to tough 2-point shots in traffic. Referees let point guards flit around unfettered, but the paint remains a war zone where brutality can trump skill. Legalized zone frees help defenders to sandwich dangerous post-up threats. “The reason the post-up doesn’t work anymore is that teams just front now,”  Karl says. Help defenders can drift from their assignments to prevent a lob pass over that front, forcing the defense to whip the ball elsewhere.3

Post-ups appear to be dying, and on the surface, these playoffs read like their obituary.

But no basketball skill ever goes extinct, and if you view these playoffs as a window into the league’s future, you can see a world in which the post-up makes a comeback — especially in the hothouse of the postseason.

Draymond Green remembers Indiana trying to defend him with Victor Oladipo, a guard, during one college game. “I mean, come on,” Green says with a laugh. “You’re not gonna guard me with Victor Oladipo. I took him right to the block and scored like eight straight.”

Green hasn’t used those skills much in the NBA, but he hasn’t let them atrophy, either, and they came in handy during the first four games of the conference finals. Stephen Curry is a basketball panic attack — a one-man game-plan eraser. With time to scout, postseason opponents break out nutty strategies to contain him, and the Rockets have spent much of the conference finals switching every Curry pick-and-roll. It’s a simple adjustment, easy to digest on the fly, that keeps a body in front of Curry — even if that body is a lumbering big man who can’t track Curry’s twitchy drives.

Switching a Curry-Green pick-and-roll also leaves a smaller player to deal with Green on the block. Green attempted just 23 shots out of post-ups all season, but he has gone 5-of-13 already in four games against the Rockets, per Synergy. That’s not good, but it would look much tidier had Green resisted a lazy jumper over Jason Terry and some one-on-one battles against Smith — his physical equal.

Green let Houston know right away that he could hurt Terry, Pablo Prigioni, and Corey Brewer on the block:

“They don’t want Steph or Klay [Thompson] to beat them,” Green says. “And that’s fine. But you can’t just continue to switch Jason Terry and Corey Brewer on me, and not have me take you down to the block.”

“Sometimes you need to forget the analytics,” says Kidd, who has watched and admired Green’s play in this series, “and remember the best shot is the one closest to the goal.” That’s actually Analytics 101 — a sure 2-pointer is the best shot — but it’s a useful reminder that an old-fashioned back-down can get you all the way to the hoop.

Green can’t bully his fellow power forwards, but with the Rockets switching, he doesn’t have to. The muscle memory from thousands of pre-NBA post-ups was enough for Green to overpower little guys. And with the scoring threat established, Green could do what he does best: read help defense and fling smart passes all over the floor:

All four conference finalists have switched a bunch during the playoffs, though nobody can do it like the Warriors can, with their army of 6-foot-6 types. Coaches get more daring in the playoffs, switching on the ball to stall out a specific pick-and-roll ace, and away from it to engulf shooters like Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick.

Every fundamental offensive play is about drawing two defenders to the guy with the ball, opening up a 4-on-3 across the rest of the floor. That’s the whole point of a pick-and-roll, but switching defenses stubbornly leave exactly one defender for each offensive player. As switching becomes more common, teams will have to find another way of sucking two defenders toward the ball: posting up, especially against size mismatches.

“Teams are switching more,” says Danny Ainge, the Celtics GM. “And that means the post-up is still relevant.” Brutalize the switch, and a team may ditch the idea — unshackling the pick-and-roll again.

Posting up against mismatches isn’t just for big guys, either. The Rockets know Terry can’t stick with Curry, but they can’t slide him over to Thompson or Harrison Barnes, either. Those guys aren’t high-volume post-up killers, but they’ve shown they’re just polished enough to do back-to-the-basket damage against shrimps. You don’t have to be great. You just have to be competent. That competence has been a crucial ingredient for Golden State in this series against Terry, and in past playoff series against Tony Parker and Ty Lawson.

Wes Matthews, one of the league’s meanest post-up wings, experienced his back-to-the-basket flashbulb moment during his rookie year in Utah; the Suns didn’t want Steve Nash battling Deron Williams, and they tried to hide Nash on Utah’s no-name undrafted rookie. “That’s when it hit me,” Matthews says. “No disrespect to Steve Nash. He’s a Hall of Famer. But I felt disrespected. I decided that would never happen again. I love it if you switch your point guard onto me now.” He probably didn’t love seeing Kawhi Leonard abuse Damian Lillard in the post after Portland experimented with that same kind of switch to try to contain Parker during last season’s playoffs.

Guards who can post up are especially valuable because they are natural passers. Smart post passing is a necessity now that defenses can bait post-up threats with all kinds of tricky help coverages. Fifteen years ago, Charles Barkley could back his man down and know the defense really had only two options: leave him in single coverage or send a hard double-team.

When the league scrapped the old illegal-defense rules, it freed coaches to get funky. Players can hover in open spaces; pretend they are going to help; swipe at the ball, and then recover back out to shooters; and emerge unannounced from almost anywhere.

Post-up scorers have to see two and three rotations ahead to create the most productive shots. If they go into a scoring move, they have to keep their head up, ready to improvise a pass if the defense sends help from an unexpected place. Post scorers who can’t think on their feet don’t present the same threat level they once did.

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Smart teams wait to spring traps until the moment a post scorer puts the ball on the floor, knowing he’ll get tunnel vision. That is Golden State’s rule for DeMarcus Cousins. Double him before he starts his move, and he has the vision to “tear you apart,” Green says. But once he barrels to the rim, “you know he’s going to try and score,” and it’s safe to take an opportunistic swipe at the ball.

They’ve treated Dwight Howard, a so-so post passer, the same way:

Multiple front-office gurus have whispered that post passing might become the NBA’s next great undervalued skill, even as the league appears to veer away from post-ups. “The thing I am sold on completely,” Karl says, “is that today, you need as much passing on the court as possible.” If Tom Thibodeau–style defenses can strangle one side of the floor, offenses have to swing the ball until they find something good.

Posting up may never again be an efficient direct path to buckets — at least for everyone outside the rare truly gifted post scorers. But as an indirect draw-and-kick strategy, it can be as deadly as anything else.

That post passing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The more shooting around a post-up threat, the clearer the passing lanes get. The Hornets learned this the hard way in a couple of games in which opponents, trailing badly, went super-small against Al Jefferson, double-teamed him, and defied Jefferson to beat them with his passing. He couldn’t, in part because the Hornets had so little shooting around him. “They just said, ‘Anybody but Al Jefferson is going to score,’” Clifford recalls.

There’s a flip side to this that also bodes well for a post-up comeback: Coaches are getting smarter about exploiting bigs who can’t post up, especially in the playoffs. More coaches go small and send an extra shooter onto the floor, the second they see an opposing big who can’t hurt smaller defenders on the block. A few coaches dipped into small ball against Rudy Gobert late in the season, yanking the French Rejection out of his lair near the rim. The Heat in both Finals series against San Antonio dared Tiago Splitter to post up smaller players.

And in this season’s playoffs, Kidd invited a hobbled Joakim Noah to post up any of his wing players. “We tried to get them to go to that mismatch,” Kidd says. “We’d live with that over Pau Gasol, Jimmy Butler, or Derrick Rose getting the ball.”

Going small-against-big risks murder on the glass, but there are ways to minimize that risk, and coaches are getting aggressive at turning an enemy’s lack of post-up skill into more of a liability. The adaptation has been cruelest for stretch power forwards who can’t really do anything but shoot. Coaches have basically played the Matt Bonner/Steve Novak/Mike Scott types off the floor by going small and sticking speedier wings on them — guys who can close fast on 3-pointers and dribble by them on the other end.

“If you’re a stretch 4 today, you’d better have a lightning-quick release,” says Daryl Morey, the Rockets GM.

Guys like Ryan Anderson, Ersan Ilyasova, and Channing Frye are more multidimensional, but they aren’t as lethal as they were two or three years ago, and they can only thrive in specific environments. If they had better post games, they could beat up smaller defenders and force opponents into uncomfortable readjustments. But they can’t — at least not consistently.

A few executives have dumped the term “stretch 4” altogether and replaced it with “playmaking 4” — a term I’m officially stealing right now. Shooting is nice, but it’s not enough anymore as defenses get smarter, faster, and more flexible working within the loosened rules. Spot-up guys have to be able to catch the ball, pump-fake a defender rushing out at them, drive into the lane, and make some sort of play. If they can’t manage that, a possession dies with them.

“In a playoff series, you can figure out shooting,” Karl says. “You just cover Kyle Korver. All that cute stuff they ran for him all year long — they only get that once in a while now. The shooters who have playmaking ability — those are the guys that are really kicking ass.”4

When everyone has to cut, move, and defend, having a hole in your game becomes almost untenable — especially in the playoffs. Tony Allen was essential to Memphis — right until the Warriors schemed him off the court by ignoring him to load up on the strong side.

“When I played, you had a lot of players who could just do one thing,” Vandeweghe says. “That’s much harder today.”

We think of “playmaking” as driving into the teeth of the defense, drawing help, and finding an open teammate. But a post-up is a form of playmaking, too, and it could become a more precious skill as the league evolves — provided coaches at all levels emphasize teaching it again. “People talk about player development all the time,” Van Gundy says. “Well, player development now has to include being able to post up somebody smaller than you. Take a look at pregame workouts: Is there anyone ever doing anything like that in the post?”

Green is a playmaking 4. Boris Diaw is a playmaking 4, and the Spurs have leaned on Diaw’s post skills to smash teams who stick a smaller player against him. That kind of mismatch-milking becomes more valuable in the playoffs. Coaches cycle through every possible strategy, and teams need players who can punish all those adjustments. When the pace slows, a fail-safe who can bump his way to a workable jump hook late in the shot clock becomes critical.

“The Spurs don’t win the championship last year without the ability to throw the ball in to Tim Duncan and Diaw,” Kerr says.

“I’ve always felt that in the playoffs, the more ways you can score, the better chance you have,” Van Gundy says.

Even the Spurs had to get un-Spursy to win the title. The league has rushed to copy San Antonio’s exquisite system of ball movement, cutting, and passing, but it took San Antonio years to learn that style and craft a roster capable of thriving in it. The NBA moves in cycles. If you can’t out-Spurs the Spurs, you have to find other ways, and amping up the number of post-up threats on the roster should become an effective counter to lots of trends sweeping the league now.

That’s one reason the hand-wringing over converging styles is overwrought. Finite roster sizes mean that some teams will always do some things better than others — and lean more on those strengths when the going gets tough. There are only a small handful of franchise superstars, and the teams lucky enough to land them will always look a little different.5

But to survive four playoffs series, at some point you’ll need just about every tool in the NBA toolbox — including the ability to post up at multiple positions. That might become a more useful tool — especially if its against-the-grain status means it comes cheaper in free agency. Hell, the potential no. 1 pick, Jahlil Okafor, is as old-school as it gets.

“I think the post-up makes a comeback,” Kidd says. “Sometimes it feels like we are making the game harder than it should be. The bottom line is this: The closer you get to the basket, the bigger a threat you are.”

Filed Under: 2015 NBA Playoffs

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA