One of the more interesting debates in the NBA is the state of big-man play in the NBA today. Many say that the level of post-play has declined horribly, or that it’s not really necessary in a guard driven league. Even while lamenting this evolution, old school types continue to insist that lack of a post threat is a serious limitation on the championship hopes of the likes of perimeter-oriented teams such as Miami and Oklahoma City. So what’s true? What is the role of the post game in today’s NBA and how important a role will it play in a league where none of the five best players operate mostly on the block?
The rise of drive and kick
The NBA has edged the game toward perimeter-oriented offense with a series of rule changes since 1990. First, the progressively more strict hand-check rules mean one on one defense is no longer possible against the quickest and most talented guards in the NBA. On offense, a beefy, post-oriented player frequently leaves his defender in the way of his driving teammate, causing more trouble than his post game is worth. That problem was compounded by the relaxation of illegal defense rules, which forces an offense to space the entire floor against increasingly complex help schemes. It now seems frequently the primary offensive role of a big man is to hit jump shots.
The geometric problem
While drive-and-kick is immediately more profitable than the post game, it suffers from a geometric problem. In a team with only drivers, the only real-estate they covet is the territory right at the rim. Between the time the driver takes his first step and the time he arrives at the cup, any shot he makes will result in a “win” for the defense. Further, the number of passes that can be thrown is limited by the driver’s momentum, making it easier for the defense to “wall the ball” and force a neutral or negative outcome to the drive. With highly athletic and disciplined help defenders and the aforementioned sophisticated help schemes, a predictable “drive and kick” scheme can be shut down in high-leverage situations even when the drivers are as devastating as the players possessed by the Heat.
While the post player is also trying to get a shot at the rim for either himself or a teammate, the geometry of his options is inherently different. A post player station 8 feet from the basket has two or three different paths to an at rim shot, and also can make a much higher number of passes to cutters who shoot for the rim, or to open three point shooters. Crucially, these options come at angles which are not easily diagnosed by a typical “wall the ball” strategy used against drivers or on pick and rolls. So while the post play is not as immediately gratifying as a drive and kick play, it provides needed variety and opens up the game for a post player’s teammates to drive against a defense which must prepare for a wider variety of threats.
That’s not to say a post player is necessary to win a title in the NBA. The Heat were a flurry of threes away from doing it this past summer. But a post threat provides balance that allows offense to come easier against dug-in defenses.
The other thing that always seems to come up is a preternatural longing for the sophisticated post moves of the greats of the 80s and 90s. Why won’t Dwight or Bynum work harder to develop that kind of array? The problem is again the aforementioned changes in defense. While it’s become harder to defend hard drivers like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, the illegal defense rules were instrumental in allowing the colossal battles between the great centers of the 90s.
In those days, a help defender either had to stay put or hard-double. That made it easy for a post player to take several seconds to survey the defense and decide what he wanted to do. He could then make multiple moves to create space or force help, then score or make a pass. This, however, is the era of Tom Thibodeau and Dwane Casey. In the time it takes to make the moves that Hakeem or Ewing would use to make a defender look foolish, today he would probably have been faced by a double team or fake double team from two or three different help defenders.
In light of the complexity of today’s defenses, a rudimentary assortment of 3-4 fast and unstoppable post moves is probably preferable to a vast arsenal of fancy footwork. That allows a player to become comfortable with each option available given the defense’s reactions. It also keeps the ball moving and the defense scrambling. Remember, even though it’s reminisced about constantly, a post player making moves and countermoves is still stopping ball movement just as much as a rock-pounder like Allen Iverson.