If there has been a dominant storyline in the NBA playoffs, beyond the ever growing number of injuries and the seemingly inevitable coronation of the Golden State Warriors, it has been the tidal wave of change, as modern offenses built around pick-and-rolls and spacing the floor overwhelm the smashmouth post-up attacks made famous in the 1990s. That’s the way the league has been going for awhile, with the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs getting past teams like the Indiana Pacers and the Memphis Grizzlies in the last few playoffs, but it has been taken to a new level in 2015, with all four of the Conference Finalists living and dying by the three-point shot.
For a brief moment in the 2nd round, one which Phil Jackson took advantage of to send his now infamous tweet about the way things were goink, it looked like the conventional wisdom of the modern NBA would be overturned. Instead, in series after series, the bigger and slower frontlines of the Grizzlies, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards weren’t able to seal the deal. The result is playoff basketball that previous generations of fans wouldn’t recognize - the Atlanta Hawks start games with a 6’10 and 6’7 guy upfront, the Warriors have a 6’6 starting power forward and the Cleveland Cavaliers close games with a 6’9 power forward at center. The results have many people around the league speculating about whether there’s a place for the post-up anymore.
As the league began banning hand checks and loosening the rules on what constitutes as a moving screen, it’s become harder and harder to stay in front of smaller and more athletic players on the perimeter. Let them play in enough space and they are probably going to be able to generate a pretty high percentage look at the basket. If the defense sends help, the offense can spread guys so far around the court that it’s almost impossible to get to everyone as the ball rotates. Have enough talented players shoot enough wide open 3’s and the game becomes pretty easy.
The flip side of the rule changes is they have made it much harder to run offense through the post. The days of the illegal defense have come and gone, which means defenses can stash multiple players in the paint and prevent offenses from easily entering the ball into the post. When the big men do get the ball with the back to the basket, the refs let their defenders get away with a lot more physical contact than if they were guarding them on the perimeter. Just watching the Grizzlies big men try to wrestle through the paint to generate “easy” looks is enough to wear anyone out.
As Jackson found out, it’s hard to argue with the math. If the other team is consistently generating higher percentage looks out of their halfcourt sets, the numbers are going to start going their way eventually. The beauty of the seven-game series is the best team is probably going to win and the best teams in the modern NBA are built around penetrating guards, big men who space the floor and rosters full of guys who stroke 3's. The last championship team built around two traditional post threats upfront was all the way back in 2010, when the Los Angeles Lakers complemented Kobe Bryant with one of the biggest frontlines in the league in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
Even the modern-day holdovers are starting to change their tune. While the Grizzlies will do everything in their power to keep Marc Gasol in free agency, the Pacers have been daring Roy Hibbert to exercise his opt-out option, telling everyone they want to play faster and change their style of play. Frank Vogel wouldn’t even promise that Hibbert would keep his starting job next season. So what does that mean? Has the reign of the 7’0 come to an end? Is the future of the NBA going to look like the Warriors, who have been winning playoff games against the league’s best centers with hybrid line-ups that feature no one taller than 6’8 on the floor?
While the league has been ruled by 7’0’s for most of its history, the best centers of today certainly don’t seem to measure up with their predecessors. Marc Gasol, the first-team All-NBA C, is a gifted all-around player but he’s not a natural scorer. He has a career average of only 14 points per game and he shot 39.4% from the field in the playoffs. Pau Gasol, at 34, and Tim Duncan, at 39, have their best days far behind them. DeAndre Jordan, the third-team All-NBA C, is an extremely limited offensive player who can’t create his own shots. Dwight Howard was supposed to be the best big man of his generation and he has stagnated as a player, seemingly peaking in his early 20’s with the Orlando Magic.
The problem is even more acute for the two most skilled low-post scorers in the modern era, Al Jefferson and Brook Lopez. For as gifted as those two players can be with their back to the basket, they don’t have the type of all-around games that a team can build around. Jefferson and Lopez are both floor-bound Goliaths who struggle to play above the rim on defense or move their feet laterally to cut off dribble penetration. Neither guy have ever been out of the first round and the Brooklyn Nets played better last season without Lopez, when Jason Kidd unleashed a futuristic-wave of hybrid small-ball line-ups to turn their season around.
The issue isn’t that Lopez offense couldn’t have helped the Nets but that it couldn’t make up for all the juggling they would have to do on defense to hide him, particularly when asked to guard the pick-and-roll. That’s what I’m wondering about the decline of post play in the modern NBA - is it that you can’t win with that style or that its best practitioners give up all they gain on offense on the other end of the floor? Maybe the real problem is there aren’t many great two-way 7’0 anymore.
I don’t think a young Shaq or a young Tim Duncan would have much trouble doing work on the smaller frontlines we are seeing in the Conference Finals. You would need to make sure those guys were playing with shooters who could spread the floor for them and guards who could control tempo but big men of that caliber could be just as dominant in 2015 as they were in 2001. Those type of guys just don’t come along very often. While the Grit N Grind Grizzlies have been carrying the torch for 90’s basketball, there’s a reason Zach Randolph was a mid first-round pick and Marc Gasol was a 2nd-round pick.
Maybe the dogs that haven’t been barking in these playoffs are the lost generation of big men who couldn’t stay healthy. Yao Ming is 34 while Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden are 27. Yao and Bynum were way bigger than Dwight and they had much more skill around the basket. Oden was billed as the next great two-way big men since he was 15. Who knows what kind of teams could have been built around those guys. Bynum had a brief stint as Hibbert’s back-up in Indiana - imagine the Pacers running the same system on both ends of the ball except with a center who could go for 20-25+ points a night.
With the way the math works in the modern NBA, building a team around post play requires walking on a razor’s edge. Unless you have the best of the best doing it, it’s not something you want to try at home. The problem is that the skills that allow you to efficiently score with your back to the basket - overwhelming size, an intuitive feel for the game, soft touch around the rim - don’t necessarily translate to playing great defense against pace-and-space teams. It’s about finding that combination of skills in one big man and it’s always going to be much easier to pair more limited big men with great play from the guard and wing positions.
That’s what made DeMarcus Cousins' inspired play under Mike Malone in Sacramento so fascinating. Cousins has always been a gifted scorer with incredible physical gifts for a 260+ pound man - the problem has been getting him to buy into the defensive side of the ball, especially since he doesn’t have the uber athleticism to get away with poor positioning. As he moves deeper into his 20’s, Cousins could be the next great NBA big man, although it looks increasingly unlikely that it will happen with the Kings, given the lack of young talent around him and the historical difficulties of getting free agents to sign in Sacramento.
Jahlil Okafor, who will likely be one of the top two picks in this year’s draft, has many of the same pros and cons in his game. At 6’11 275, he’s a freakish scorer with an intuitive feel for the game who can dissect a defense from the low post and he lead Duke to an NCAA championship with a four-out team around him. That’s the kind of roster that Cousins has never had in Sacramento. The question for Okafor is whether he can avoid the career path of guys like Lopez and Jefferson, as he put up subpar rim protection numbers at Duke and he may never be a guy who can fly across the lane and meet someone like LeBron or Kevin Durant above the rim.
When you are talking about a two-way 7’0 who can have a championship team built around them while scoring the ball in the post, you want a guy whose an elite scorer AND an elite athlete. That leads us to the two young centers I’ve been most intrigued about in recent years - Joel Embiid and Karl Towns. Embiid just started playing basketball a few years ago and he has already been plagued by the same type of injury issues that ended Oden’s career prematurely, but the flashes he showed at Kansas are tantalizing. His per-minute NCAA numbers were out of this world and he’s athletic enough to take the ball between his legs in mid-air and dunk.
In my opinion, Towns is the most gifted all-around big man to enter the NBA since Anthony Davis. The difference is that Davis started his career as a guard and has the scrawny build of someone who sprouted 8 inches in high school. The New Orleans Pelicans have paired him with another 7’0 with the bulk to play as a C and it’s difficult to run a ton of offense through Davis in the low post when he’s sharing the floor with a Robin Lopez or Omer Asik who is taking up space at the front of the rim. At 7’0 250 with a 7’3 wingspan, Towns has the skill-set to score from all over the floor and the size to play as a C full-time.
If Towns ends up going to the Minnesota Timberwolves at No. 1 overall, it’s easy to see how they could build an elite team around him that plays great D, spaces the floor and still gets a lot of offense from the low post. The key is you don’t want to play two post scorers at the same time because that doesn’t give either enough space to set up shop around the basket given the way modern defenses pack the paint. If the Timberwolves put Towns at the 5 and some combination of Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad at the 4, they could build wing-heavy team a lot like the Warriors, except in their version Andrew Bogut could command double teams on the block and give you 20+ points a night on a high percentage.
I don’t think we will ever an era like the 1990’s anytime soon, when most of the league was trying to build their teams through the block. But while making a living by scoring with your back to the basket isn’t going to work for the vast majority of young big men coming into the league, the rules that apply to the 99% don’t necessarily hold true for the 1%. Jahlil Okafor. DeMarcus Cousins. Joel Embiid. Karl Towns. Post play may be gone for now but that doesn’t mean it will be gone forever.