How the post became the NBA's new playmaking frontier
Was there a particular moment this season that brought Giannis Antetokounmpo's playmaking development into sharp focus for you? To my eyes, that instance occurred during a mid-January game against the Atlanta Hawks.
A second-quarter possession in that contest saw Giannis surveying his options from the left block after drawing Kevin Huerter on a cross-match. He'd immediately taken Huerter into the post on a cleared-out side of the floor, prompting an emergency double-team from John Collins. With Pat Connaughton engaging a defender in the dunker spot and Jordan Nwora dragging another with him while relocating to the ball-side wing, Lou Williams was the lone Hawk left to split the difference between two Bucks shooters on the weak side. Giannis fixed his gaze on George Hill above the break, gathered the ball, and started to wind up. That sent Williams lunging in Hill's direction … just as Giannis hucked a no-look overhead hook pass to a wide-open Donte DiVincenzo in the corner.
Two quarters later, Giannis found himself in almost the exact same situation, this time posting up the taller but similarly overmatched Danilo Gallinari. Collins, playing the role of free safety, brought a softer double, but the net result was the same: poor Lou Will stuck trying to guard two weak-side players at once. This time, Giannis froze Williams with a look to the corner and a quick pump-fake in that direction before hitting Bobby Portis underneath the basket on a baseline cut:
Giannis has long been a snappy playmaker in transition, where he can pave huge passing boulevards by dint of his defense-razing speed and power. In the narrower confines of the half court, where he often catches the ball standing still, he's historically been more mechanical with his reads and passes. That started to change this season, though. We're seeing him regularly move defenders with his eyes and toy with their expectations as he seeks out the most profitable looks for his teammates, especially from the post. That skill refinement provides a crucial half-court weapon for a Milwaukee team that's still a tad light on high-level ball-handling, and that's had its share of offensive struggles - even en route to the title last year - when the game slows down in the playoffs.
That type of playmaking is becoming an increasingly important component of the modern big man's tool kit. To wit: the three main MVP candidates this season - Giannis, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid - all stand at least 6-foot-11, all blend that size with elite guard skill, and all, to varying degrees, operate and make plays from the post.
The matter of degrees is important. While those reads from Giannis were impressive by his standards, they'd be child's play for Jokic, who manipulates defenses with the mastery of a puppeteer. It’s Jokic’s versatility as a playmaker that sets him apart - the ability to make inside-out and outside-in passes, on-the-move and standstill passes, in equally devastating measure. But it's in the post that Jokic seems most at home as a playmaker, and he's unparalleled in his ability to both spray passes out to shooters and hit rim-diving cutters through brambles of arms from that position.
Crucially, the ball almost never stays on the same side of the floor when Jokic gets doubled on the block. His sense of where all his teammates are at all times, and of how the defense will react to their every move - and his every glance - based on where the double-team came from, borders on omniscience. He'll whip passes to spots you're not sure he can even see:
As overload schemes and weak-side pre-rotations have become the norm around the league, we've grown accustomed to seeing guards throw defense-warping skip passes out of the pick-and-roll. Increasingly, we're seeing bigs make them from stationary positions with their backs to the basket, and Jokic is the standard-bearer.
Those passing opportunities are obviously much easier to come by if the post player is able to draw multiple defenders to the ball, which is only going to happen if said player is a serious threat to score. Giannis isn't in the same galaxy as Jokic or Embiid as a post scorer, but he's made meaningful improvements in that regard - better footwork, better ball protection, better touch on his push shot - that have naturally helped facilitate his growth as a passer. This is the first season of his career in which he's averaging better than a point per possession on post-ups, and he's doing it on career-high volume, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
Early in his career, one of Jokic’s only offensive weaknesses was his penchant for passivity; his natural instinct to look for passing options A, B, C, and D before even considering trying to score himself. He still looks to pass first, but he's adopted a much more aggressive scoring mentality in the last few years (especially this season in the absence of Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray), and if anything that's only amplified his preternatural passing gifts. Opponents can no longer afford to guard him in single coverage and dare him to beat them on his own, because as a player scoring an obscene 1.17 points per possession out of the post, he surely will.
Passivity has never been an issue for Embiid, the newly minted scoring champ and the league leader in post-up points per game for three years running. (He finished second in each of the three years prior.) Embiid's been a walking double-team basically from the moment he stepped on an NBA court, but it took a while for his passing acumen to catch up to his immense low-post magnetism. For as dominant as he was on the block, he couldn't fully weaponize his gravity because double-teaming him remained a mostly viable defensive strategy.
He was plagued by sky-high turnover rates. He had a penchant for holding onto the ball too long, allowing himself to get swarmed and letting passing windows close. Most of the time when he did pass out of a double, he used the most readily accessible escape hatch, spitting it back out to the entry passer on the strong side, often with minimal advantage gained in the process.
Embiid hasn't completely shed those habits, but he's made huge strides as both a floor-mapper and a passing marksman. This season saw him combine by far the highest assist rate of his career with by far the lowest turnover rate. It's a fairly common sight nowadays to see him sling a cross-court dart while the defense is still shifting towards him:
For a while, the popular sentiment was that the post game was a dying art in the NBA. Turns out it was just molting its graying feathers to make way for some flashy new plumage.
Post-ups will never again be as prominent as they were during the illegal defense era, when league rules prohibited teams from playing zone and essentially limited individual defenders' options to staying attached to their primary assignments or hard double-teaming the player with the ball. You wouldn't see anything like the soft double Collins shaded Giannis' way in the aforementioned Bucks-Hawks game. There were no dig-downs from guards, no strong-side overloads, no pre-catch doubles to prevent the ball from even being entered into the post. As Mike Prada has painstakingly detailed, that made a post player's reads a whole lot more straightforward.
Those rules were scrapped in 2003, paving the way for the types of help-heavy, zone-hybrid schemes we see all over the league today. That made it significantly more difficult for stationary players to score down low, which is why post-ups as a possession-finishing play have been in precipitous decline ever since. As a vehicle for initiation and selfless creation, however, the post is as vital as ever.
It took a while to get here. The decade or so after illegal defense was scrapped was a bit of a fallow period for post playmaking, as the league collectively adjusted to the change. Things didn't start to shift in earnest until the early-to-mid 2010s. LeBron James started climbing the positional spectrum, and took his outrageous passing talents down into the post more often. The Warriors set the league ablaze with an offense that leaned heavily on post split action run through Draymond Green. Skilled big men like Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns started showing up in greater and greater numbers. Jokic arrived, and with him a generation of sweet-passing bigs, from Domantas Sabonis to Bam Adebayo to Alperen Sengun.
For just one crude illustration of the way things have changed, consider this: It's been 20 years since illegal defense was scrapped, and the first 15 of those years featured six individual seasons in which a player listed by Basketball-Reference as a center or forward/center averaged five or more assists. In the five years since, there have been 14 such seasons. (Not that post operation is solely the purview of centers. Big wings like LeBron, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Khris Middleton, and guards like DeMar DeRozan, Devin Booker, and Luka Doncic have all made plenty of hay in recent years by backing down, shooting over, and passing over smaller defenders.)
Post players of all stripes had to evolve after the rule changes, and we’re finally seeing that evolution reach its fully formed state. The reads those players have to make nowadays are extremely sophisticated; in a matter of microseconds, they have to spot a double-team coming from any possible direction, diagnose multiple layers of help, and suss out the pass that catches those help rotations on the wrong foot. But thanks largely to the proliferation of 3-point shooting, the rewards for making those reads are more bountiful than ever.
Defenses, too, have far more complex cost-benefit analyses to make. Long gone is the double-or-don't binary. Now they have to decide on hard doubles versus soft doubles, helping from one pass away (which offers an easier out for the offense but also a shorter recovery for the defense) versus pulling a helper over from the weak side (more difficult pass, longer recovery), sinking to take away cuts and lay-downs versus staying attached to the shooters dotting the arc. Flooding the strong side is all well and good until you give up three points rather than two.
This is some fertile tactical soil the NBA is tilling. Anyone pining for the post-dominated game of the past likely isn't doing so for aesthetic reasons.
And for what it's worth, as direct means of scoring, post-ups are becoming more efficient, with help from all the shooting and off-ball activity surrounding them. According to NBA Advanced Stats, the median efficiency of a post possession ending in a shot, drawn foul, or turnover has jumped from 0.84 points in 2015-16 (which is as far back as the tracking database stretches) to 0.92 this season.
You don't have to be a dominant post scorer to be a strong post facilitator, either. Take Draymond and those famed Warriors post splits, for example. Green isn't remotely a threat to score, which means he'll only ever see single coverage. But he doesn’t need to draw two to the ball because one of the Warriors' deadly movement shooters - who are constantly either coming off of screens or setting them - very likely will. The important thing is Green has the vision and passing touch to thread the ball through whatever seams open up amid the Warriors' disorienting whir of loop cuts and back picks and ghost screens.
Not every team has the personnel to make that style of offense sing, of course, but you don't necessarily need Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to run it effectively. The Heat run similar actions with Adebayo as the trigger man and the likes of Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro providing the gravity in motion.
The Grizzlies also incorporated those types of sets into their offense this year, which helped catapult them to third in the league in offensive rating and produced a huge spike in center Steven Adams' assist rate. Here's Adams describing the philosophical shift for Memphis and the league as a whole:
For teams that don't have the benefit of elite off-the-dribble creators, working the ball into the post can be a great way to generate advantages. That's how the Nuggets managed to sustain a top-six offense this season despite getting below-average guard play in a pick-and-roll-dominated league. (No team had fewer possessions finished by a pick-and-roll ball-handler than Denver did.) This year's Raptors relied heavily on post-ups from their trio of jumbo wings to keep their guard-deficient, shooting-challenged offense afloat.
That's not to say pick-and-roll-oriented offense precludes post play, or vice versa. Very often the former flows naturally into the latter. With switching becoming a bedrock of NBA defense, bigs frequently find themselves enjoying significant size mismatches after setting ball screens. The ability to punish those mismatches - to seal, establish deep position, and either score or draw a double-team before the defense can scram its way out of the mismatch - has become massively important. That's particularly true in the playoffs, when things get even switchier.
The extent to which Deandre Ayton can do so will have major implications for the Suns' title quest. The Sixers' fate rests in large part on Embiid's ability to carry over his improved double-team navigation. The switch-everything Celtics will dare everyone they play to attack their stout guards on the back end. Rudy Gobert and the Jazz will face the same question they face every spring.
Any way you slice it, the post is set to be a crucial battleground this postseason. Not just for the three MVP contenders and the dangerous squads they lead, but for every team that made the dance.