By Adam Spinella
Now a decade into the run-and-gun renaissance of the NBA, the game looks vastly different than it did 20 years ago, when giants ruled the hardwood court.
The battle for positioning at the front of the rim is now secondary to the one that plays out in open space.
Post play has been diminished, in part, because the elimination of the NBA’s illegal defense rules made running an offense through the block too slow and arduous a task. Simultaneously, the emphasis on calling contact on the perimeter and the subsequent emphasis on the three-pointer increased the value of such plays, tipping the scales away from big men even more.
Still, the coach within me lies restless.
The post-up, while minimized, is still an effective, important weapon. The math supporting jacking threes makes sense, but it doesn’t quite replace the value of high-percentage shots at the rim. And, ultimately, the shift in NBA trends was a response to an influx of talented point guards and playmaking wings as it was the rules.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, featuring Karl-Anthony Towns and a capable post wing in Andrew Wiggins, were one of the top three teams in the league in post-up frequency, doing so on more than 10 percent of their possessions. They were also in the top three in points per possession from the post, scoring 0.96 points per possession. For the season, they finished 10th in offensive efficiency, scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions.
So, what does that tell all you Pythagorean Theorem believers out there? Frequency combined with effectiveness equals buckets.
Towns and Wiggins were big factors into the Timberwolves style of play, and they’re not alone. In recent years, the NBA has seen an influx of talented big men, including Towns, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, and Joel Embiid, along with veterans Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. Beyond that, several sturdy wings have reclaimed the space around the block, exploiting one-on-one physical advantages to find efficient shots for themselves or others.
To keep the ball out of the post would be to deprive these franchise cornerstones of one of their biggest advantages. Schemes adapt to situations and personnel, so with big men and post wings reemerging, it’s time to update the playbook and examine the best means of deploying them.
The Sneak Attack
Lower post-up frequency across the board means defenses and scout teams spend less time thinking about post-up plays. Sure, they’re still keyed into those sets designed to get the ball inside, but NBA coaches are getting better at blending their sets together so defenses can’t always anticipate what comes next.
The Horns formation is one of the most versatile, well-used basketball alignments in the world. A defense can see Horns and think a dozen different things are about to happen. The same goes for a Philly set, where both big men are at the elbows and one player cuts atop them.
That’s where the post-up sneak attack comes in.
LeBron James is a 6-foot-9 forward who routinely gets quicker, smaller players defending him. Part of that is placing him in lineups with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love, and part of it is his own unique skill set. By playing him off the ball and elevating Thompson and Love, James can make cuts to the front of the hoop, disguising them as a simple jog through the lane to keep his defender off balance, allowing LeBron to set up for a nasty post-up:
Bully guards get a lot of mileage out of duck-ins, allowing them to still isolate and get low post position when paired with shooting big men.
The element of surprise added by clever sets and improved spacing makes the post-up a highly valuable tool around the league. When a team needs a quick bucket, this quick-hitting duck-ins are still a reliable source of scoring.
There are too many elements of surprise a defense can throw out in a pick-and-roll when multiple defenders are brought into an action. These seemingly mundane but quick-hitting sets that turn into quick lay-ins or free throw attempts for a bully wing or big man are gold for a coach.
The Snug Pick and Roll
Our pick-and-roll league isn’t going away. Embrace it! Learn to love it! Incorporate it in innovative ways!
The snug pick-and-roll has risen in frequency recentlyl. Guards or ball handlers will get the ball with their back to the basket in an isolation situation, about 10 feet from the hoop while his teammate plods along from the opposite side of the court to screen his defender’s hip. An unorthodox back-to-the-basket pick-and-roll is wildly effective because of the angles it is set at.
Teaching screeners and ball handlers to read the defense out of a PnR is complex and takes years to master. Often, the most effective screeners are the ones who can make contact, sustain it and force a switch. Doing so would either throw off the defense’s design (meaning they didn’t want to switch and now must out of necessity) or give the screener inside position (meaning his new defender is not standing between him and the basket).
You can see how this type of action freezes Dwight Howard as Zaza Pachulia’s defender. Notice how Pachulia sets the screen, Kent Bazemore is trapped outside and how Dwight now must drop back and concede the open mid-range pull-up.
Pachulia sets a brutal (and probably illegal) screen, and now Howard is trapped. He could step up and go at Durant, but then risks leaving the rim unoccupied. Pachulia would then seal and get an easy lob over the top from K.D. for a layup. Bazemore could do nothing against his size.
Coach Spinella loves the illegal screen from Pachulia as the minutia that makes this type of play so effective, but teams can score anyway. An anticipated hard-hedge can lead to a slip to the rim, as Blake Griffin demonstrates below:
Chris Paul is one of the best at manipulating the Snug PnR while isolating on the logo. Again, the angles are so important. When Blake Griffin cuts from the elbow directly above the ball to set the screen, it’s difficult for his defender to stick his head beneath the rim and drop back to protect the lane. That helps open the slip as much as anything.
Today’s NBA still has one crucial element of the old illegal defense rules: the defensive three-seconds rule. It prevents the Sacramento Kings from just bringing someone from the opposite side of the floor to take up space for Griffin’s roll. The action occurs too quick for the defenders outside the lane to jump in and contest Blake at the rim. It’s a lose-lose situation, which is exactly what every offensive coach wants.
Paul is patient and surveys the rest of the floor from his perch on that logo, ready to pounce quickly while not operating in a hurry. Expect the Rockets to run a few of these for him this season with Harden as a decoy on the weak side so teams can offer little help.
The Designed Pass
Think of defense on the basketball court like sitting around a bonfire for a moment. Winds frequently change, and as they do, you have to adjust where you stand around the fire so smoke doesn’t blow into you. The best way to position yourself in that regard is to have your back to the wind with the fire in front of you, so your face isn’t exposed to the whiplash of the wind and the smoke isn’t being directed into your eyes.
Basketball has roughly the same concept. Keeping your back to the basket allows defenders to see the action while they move around on the court based on where the ball is. Either way, the actions become predictable as defenders try to stay between their man, the ball and the basket.
Throwing the ball into the post creates an interesting effect on that front. Defenders who are above the level of the ball cannot accomplish all three intuitive defensive tasks (back towards the hoop they defend, see the ball and see their man). Many of them sink in, try to dig their hands into the ball or stand in the lane to create space and force the ball farther from the rim for a lower percentage shot. But the effectiveness of the three-point shot has all but ruined that concept, and off-ball defenders must stay closer to their man.
Some wise coach once thought about what happens if a screen is set above that level of the ball. The defender has almost no choice but to go underneath said screen, as going over would violate the key principle of staying between man and the ball. In theory it should guarantee an open shot from deep. With a little finagling of cutting off the ball and player movement to distract the eye this theory becomes a reality:
Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens drew this up as a three for Avery Bradley out of the timeout, and it didn’t fail to execute. Getting Smart the ball in the mid-post guaranteed every Grizzlies defender would stay between their man, the ball and the rim. But as Bradley veers back towards the sideline above the level of the ball, his defender Andrew Harrison is caught in a pickle.
Go under it and Olynyk pins you inside so you can’t contest. Go over the top and if, you’re lucky enough to discourage Bradley from shooting, he still has a step to get into the lane.
Designed passes from the post aren’t a new revelation. The Triangle Offense routinely utilizes such actions, with swirling cuts taking place in and out of the lane. Sets like this can be used to leverage the three-point line as a huge strength of today’s game. That’s where the biggest difference comes from: instead of using the three-point line as a threat to open the post, more teams are doing the opposite and using the post as a way to create open shots from deep.
Most of the aforementioned examples are impactful with guards or wings at their spots since they can act quickly or handle the ball. So, what happened to the good ole’ big boy post-up? It’s still alive and leads to points just as efficiently as ever with just some slight tweaks and the right talent.
Today’s game is much more fluid, with less of a battering ram feel within 10 feet of the basket. Still, as offenses come up with imaginative ways to draw defenders away from the hoop, those easy lay-ins and isolations on the block still have some value. Post-ups aren’t dying, they’re just evolving.