The downfall of the NBA’s back-to-the-basket big man has been well-documented.
In the span of two decades, the sport lost the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning. That, coupled with the league’s newfound hyperfocus on three-pointers and layups, expedited the untimely demise.
Plus, teams are just getting smarter, and post-ups are inefficient methods of scoring.
Mike D’Antoni’s younger brother—Dan D’Antoni, head coach of the Marshall Thundering Herd—went on a tirade about this very topic in late December, providing justification as to why his team shot 30 three-pointers in a game while failing to take the ball “into the paint” more:
The key line—for our purposes, at least—was, “[In regards to efficiency] do you know what a post-up is, with a guy standing over on top of you? It’s 0.78 [points-per-possession]…You don’t see anyone post up [anymore]. They just spread that thing out and go.”
D’Antoni is correct about the post-up nearing extinction, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few holdovers—guys who are still effective backing their man down and getting their ’90s on with a variation of hook shots and drop steps.
Furthermore, it’s impossible to note the influx of big-man talent in recent drafts and not think we’re in store for a resurgence. With Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner, potential is just oozing out of the paint.
Perhaps we should once again start to keep an eye on what’s transpiring in the land of the dinosaur—or, as it’s more commonly known, the low block.
The Enduring Virtuosos
Within NBA.com’s vast database, 291 players average a minimum of 10 minutes with at least 10 total post-ups this season. When we sum their total points scored (10,607) and divide it by the number of possessions used (11,802), we find that the league (with a few low-usage exceptions) is averaging 0.90 points per possession (PPP) on post-ups.
Next, we add two filters to further refine the results: a minimum of 100 possessions and a frequency of at least 15 percent.
Of the 31 remaining players, only 13 have an above-average PPP:
A couple things immediately jump out.
First and foremost, Jokic is a full-fledged unicorn. There is some discussion about whether he should be mentioned with the likes of Embiid, Towns and Porzingis, but his numbers make that a needless argument. He’s a freakish talent.
Meanwhile, Brook Lopez continues to be underrated.
He’s a full 0.11 points better than league average when posting up, and he has the volume necessary to negate any sample-size doubts. (Sidenote: Lopez is also shattering his career high in three-pointers, currently at 1.8 per game on 34.4 percent shooting. As the trade deadline nears, it will be intriguing to see if he finally gets dealt. He could be a nice fit playing alongside another guy on that list: Anthony Davis.)
Carmelo Anthony and Harrison Barnes making the cut may be somewhat surprising. But it shouldn’t be.
Anthony is a bruiser in the paint, one of the best one-on-one scorers in recent NBA history. And Barnes is finally getting a chance to shine. After playing fourth (or sometimes even fifth) fiddle for the Golden State Warriors, he’s now setting career highs in multiple categories for the Dallas Mavericks, including his 20.1 points per contest. He’s got good size for a wing, along with the athleticism to back defenders down, turn and shoot over them:
Guys who just missed the cut include Turner (only 91 post-ups on the season, but 0.96 PPP) and Towns (0.90 PPP). Embiid is just below at 0.88 PPP—not bad for a guy who missed the first two years of his career with different ailments.
DeMar DeRozan, one of most old-school wing players in the NBA, boasts 1.15 PPP on 117 post-ups this year. However, he does so with just a 9.1 percent frequency, meaning it’s not a large enough part of his game to merit inclusion. Regardless, his ’90s flair is such a refreshing throwback in a time when so many other guys strictly want to shoot threes.
A few others missed our cutoff in spectacular fashion. Most notably, Hassan Whiteside is dead last (within our scope) at 0.71 PPP, and Andre Drummond is third-worst at 0.75. Predictably, the former is constantly the source of frustration for Miami Heat fans, while the latter has been mentioned in recent trade rumors, per ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe.
Finally, to the opposing centers who have to match up against Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins…I’m sorry.
The two behemoths lead the league in post-ups at 359 and 302, respectively. Though their PPP aren’t all that far ahead of the league average (0.99 for Gasol, and 0.94 for Cousins), their sheer volume of attempts make them two of the NBA’s deadliest players down low.
Considering Volume and Efficiency
If we take into account the number of post-ups and efficiency, thereby surmising which players are legitimately doing the most damage in the post, our list begins to shift.
By subtracting the league average from the player in question’s PPP, then multiplying that clip by his number of post-ups, we see how many points that player is adding when posting up, as compared to an average post contributor.
For example, Robin Lopez’s PPP is 0.93—0.03 greater than the league average. Multiplying that by the number of times he’s posted up (104) yields 3.12, which serves as his points added in the post.
Here’s how the original 13 above-average players fare:
No one should be shocked that Gasol leads the league in points added when posting up, considering the diversity in his back-down game.
He can finish from a standing position or with sweeping right-handed hooks. He has an incredible ability to counter good defense with either a turnaround jumper or a left-handed flip shot. Not to mention, he’s one of the NBA’s strongest players, as well as one of the most patient.
And kudos to Al Jefferson. Even at 32 years old and coming off the Indiana Pacers bench, he’s still schooling the youngins on the low block with a variety of fakes and awkward push shots. His 28.21 points added via post-ups is the league’s No. 3 score.
Perhaps even more importantly, Jefferson may help usher in the next generation of back-to-the-basket talent.
With the Pacers, the veteran has gotten a chance to witness Turner’s growth firsthand. During an interview with local Indianapolis radio, he said, via Indy Corn Rows’ Tom Lewis, “Go back to the question you asked me earlier, about guys I didn’t know were that good. Myles Turner is something special. Things that he can do as far as playing the 5, and he can play the 4 because he can shoot the three, can dribble the ball. He’s like a 7-foot guard, in my opinion.”
The days of the lumbering center who can only post up are over. Our condolences to Jahlil Okafor.
We are now in the era of the 7-foot guard. Guys like Turner, Jokic, Towns and Porzingis are changing the ways we view the center position.
Sure, in these opening years of their careers, they may prefer to shoot jumpers and face up their defenders. But they also have improving post repertoires which—with time—will make us forget we ever thought the center position was dead.
They’re in the early stages of making the post cool again.
Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.