After years of struggles for lottery teams, Al Jefferson finally had his moment in the playoff sun this spring. Though he departed early, finally succumbing after Game 3 of Miami’s 4 game sweep of the Bobcats to a torn plantar fascia, Big Al received some long overdue public for his offensive dominance despite playing on one foot. Meanwhile, Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert continue to labor under intense scrutiny for their production down low.
The criticism Howard and Hibbert are enduring result from both a fundamental misunderstanding of how post ups “work” and their own skill-sets. In particular, big men have been pressured to think that dominating from the post means catching the ball 12 feet away with their back to the basket and either through power or guile creating a shot over an overmatched defender.
In practical terms, this leads to a wealth of relatively inefficient contested 8-12 foot shots. Though post play has a certain magical allure, there is nothing inherent in trying to score from a back-to-the-basket position that makes shots of that distance more desirable than they might otherwise be.
Still, with the increasingly reliance on “small ball” lineups in the modern NBA, the remaining “true centers” in the league are expected to use their size and strength to dominate on both ends of the floor. As the rest of the league gets smaller, the thinking goes, these remaining titans should better be able to exploit their physical stature. However, this expectation runs counter to the increasing realization that post play is one of the more inefficient means of producing offense. Howard and Hibbert merely represent examples of the difficulties these behemoths face.
Despite his otherworldly collection of tools, Howard’s performance as a post player has been mediocre at best. Despite being one of the most common post up practitioners this year, Howard has only scored .77 points per post up possession, according to Synergy Sports, below the league average of around .83.
This inefficiency is due, in large part, to his exorbitant turnover rate: Howard has committed turnovers on 20.1% of his post possessions, well above the league average of around 12.5% for high volume post players. While he has performed better thus far in the post season, tallying .88 points per post possession, and cutting his turnovers to only 13.6% of his possessions through 5 games, the expectation is still for him to do more, considering Portland’s seeming willingness to allow him to work versus single coverage.
Meanwhile though Hibbert performed respectably in the post during the regular season (averaging .85 points per post up possession on just over 5 possessions used per game), he has been a disaster thus far in the playoffs, only managing 14 post up attempts through 5 games and scoring a paltry .48 points per on those attempts
So, what is causing these struggles?
Though there are still a few practitioners of a range of clever feints and shots that Kevin McHale liked to call his torture chamber, players like Tim Duncan and Al Jefferson use these moves more out of necessity than choice. Taking the example of Jefferson, yes he has great footwork and a wide array of little flips, scoops and push shots he can use to score:
But, he is an one of the very best post up threats in the league not just because of his ability to score against a set defender, but because of his ability to receive the ball in position for easier baskets - a lay-up from a post entry is just as good as from a drive or in transition. And by contrast, the more “work” the post up player has to do, the more likelihood of a difficult shot or worse, a turnover.
According to data from Stats, Inc.’s SportVU system, Howard and Hibbert’s efficiency drops near the basket the more times they are forced to dribble the ball:
Source: SportVU. Note: the above data includes all touches where the player received the ball via pass within 12 feet, not merely post ups, and only includes shot attempts, not turnovers)
And it’s this subtle art of “doing his work early” that Jefferson can be an example for Hibbert and Howard: neither are ever going to have Big Al’s footwork, but if they can catch the ball with both feet in the paint, they don’t need it. So what does Jefferson do before he receives the ball to allow himself to get these easier shots?
Using Ball Reversal
Getting good, deep post position on the strong side of the floor is extremely difficult. The post player’s defender can use a variety of techniques to deny the entry pass, or he can simply push the post up player further from the basket than preferable. The entry passer can often be harassed into leading the featured post up guy away from the basket. And worst of all, fighting for good post position is a great way for a player with a size or strength advantage such as Hibbert or Howard to pick up an offensive foul:
So instead of battling a set defense on the strong side of the court, why not attempt to gain attack the opposite side of the floor? Big Al demonstrates on this play.
Though Jefferson generally prefers the left side of the floor, Udonis Haslem has taken up position on that block to offer help on a possible drive from Gerald Henderson. To get the ball on the left block, Big Al would either have to risk a foul jostling with Haslem or receive the ball at 12-15 feet from the basket.
However, since Haslem is already defending the left block, this mean Jefferson can seal him off and exploit the right block:
As the ball reverses, Jefferson “seals” Haslem by using his hips to block Haslem’s path around Big Al. Haslem is thus forced to decide whether to allow Jefferson to receive the ball with two feet in the paint or try to fight around Jefferson to deny the ball. Haslem chooses to try to fight over the top:
Jefferson’s holds the seal, giving Michael Kidd-Gilchrist plenty of room to lead Jefferson to the basket for a layup:
Another way to contend with the difficulty in establishing deep post position is making the timing and location of the post-up less predictable. Again, it’s far easier to deny good post position from a static entry passer to a stationary post up player. Jefferson combats this by being ready to “shadow” the ball as it moves around the perimeter, following the ball from one side of the floor to the other as it reverses, ready to present himself for a quick pass if his defender is inattentive for a moment:
As the Bobcats run some strong side action, Joakim Noah is caught ball-watching:
So that as the ball reverses to Josh McRoberts, probably Charlotte’s most skilled entry passer, at the arc, Noah has lost contact with Jefferson, allowing him to establish deep position:
Well set-up to receive an easy entry pass from McRoberts:
Jefferson is able to catch the ball with both feet in the paint forcing the defense to either collapse to him or allow him to attack Noah from this advantageous spot:
In this example, Jefferson combines both techniques, using the threat of the duck-in to force Pero Antic to maintain contact, allowing Jefferson to force Antic further and further from the basket, opening up the easy lob for a layup:
One of Jefferson’s key weapons is patience, even if his initial move is shut down. Instead of forcing up a shot into multiple defenders, Jefferson will often kick the ball out to the perimeter. Instead of giving up on the play, he will immediately use the momentary relaxation from his defender to get improved position as well as a live dribble. Further, this “repost” lets him ensure any help defenders have cleared the area.
Here, Kemba Walker is able to enter the ball to Jefferson, but Jefferson doesn’t have especially deep position and is surrounded by three defenders:
Jefferson patiently starts his move, drawing a double team:
As he kicks the ball out, LeBron James recovers to his man:
Leaving Jefferson open for a second entry pass, this time in a slightly deeper post position. With no help easily available, Jefferson is able to work for a short jump hook:
How Can This Help Howard and Hibbert?
An easy example is is the one of Howard getting stripped on the dribble above. Instead of pounding the ball to get as close to the basket as possible, if Howard kicks the ball back to perimeter here while keeping deep post position:
He can avoid the turnover AND receive the ball in position to turn and quickly score over Aldridge rather than having to pound the ball multiple times on the catch. Similarly, Instead of forcing a difficult shot here, Hibbert is in ideal position to kick the ball out, repost, and make an under control move:
Similarly, Howard and Hibbert can both improve greatly by doing more to prepare themselves to receive good post position in anticipation of ball reversal. Instead of demanding the ball at 10-feet and then “making a move,” they can aid their teams by catching the ball in positions where they need to do nothing with the ball other than elevate and score from close range.
Whether the Pacers or Rockets survey and move on to Round 2 of these years’ playoffs, or more likely heading into the offseason, by incorporating more of this work and movement before the catch, Hibbert and Howard will allow themselves to be much more reliable post threats, and do so in a way much more integrated with a well-functioning offense.
Seth Partnow's thoughts on the NBA can be found at Washington Post's Fancy Stats Blog, ClipperBlog of ESPN's TrueHoop Network and Hickory-High.com as well as his own blog WhereOffenseHappens.com. You can follow Seth on twitter @WhrOffnsHppns.