As the great Rust Cohle once posited, “time is a flat circle.” Life is cyclical. Everything that has happened before will continue to happen again.
The same is true in basketball, where past trends and tactics are constantly falling out of favor, only to resurface later on when the skill level of the league and analytical climate allows for it.
This season, the post-up – a staple feature of the Dead Ball Era of the 1990s and 2000s – has come back into vogue. For instance, after only seven teams had a post-up frequency over five percent last year, we have a whopping total of ten teams boasting such frequency this year (per NBA.com).
But how is it that the play type most synonymous with one of the most inefficient epochs of the sport has resurfaced in today’s data-centric landscape? Let’s take a look around the association and find out.
The Four Factors of an Efficient Post Up
You’re probably familiar with Dean Oliver’s famous Four Factors – four statistical categories that play a huge role in determining the outcome of a game. Well, I have come up with a similar breakdown for what makes an efficient post-up possession.
Here’s a quick legal lesson before we begin. When courts are creating tests to help future judges make decisions (for example, creating a test for what constitutes a speeding violation), they usually include two components in their criteria for examining these situations: rules and factors.
Rules are variables that need to be satisfied to pass the test. Meanwhile, factors are items that must be considered as the analysis is taking place. We call the attributes we are about to outline factors instead of rules because not all of these things need to be present for a post-up to be efficient. Only some of the factors need to be, but as a general rule of thumb, the more variables present, the better.
Now, without further ado, the four factors of an efficient post up possession include:
- Speed – efficient post ups are generally executed quickly, leaving little room for the defense to load up and offer help.
- Position – ideally, you prefer the post player to receive the ball deep into the paint so they can score using little to no dribbles (the fewer dribbles, the fewer chances for turnovers).
- Mismatch – it’s a whole lot easier for a player to back someone down and score when that someone is shorter and smaller than they are.
- Passing – putting great passers in the post is beneficial for when defenses send a double team their way, and they can swiftly pinpoint the open player on the floor.
Examples Around the League
The Chicago Bulls currently tout the most efficient post-up team in basketball, averaging 1.15 points per possession (PPP) on this playtype. Their primary surrogate for carrying out this action is Nikola Vucevic, who they like to set up for post-ups using a cross-screen.
The Indiana Pacers would run a ton of cross screens in the 1990s to set up their scoring mercenary Rik Smits with low-block opportunities. But the difference with how the Bulls do it for Vucevic is that they have him run a shallower route coming off the screen to ensure he stays as close to the rim as possible.
While Vucevic wasn’t exploiting a mismatch or forcing the defense to bring a second defender, he did catch the ball with deep position and only took one dribble before laying it up for an easy two points.
Another team whose post-ups often include the first two factors is the Los Angeles Lakers. Due to some of their personnel constraints (i.e., a lack of outside shooting), they start many of their actions closer to the interior.
One such example of this is their heavy utilization of the snug pick and roll (a pick and roll that takes place inside the three-point line). Oftentimes, they use Anthony Davis as the screener for this play so that he can flow into a quick post-up with deep position.
Speaking of pick and rolls, other prolific post-up teams use the most popular play in basketball to help insert the third factor into the equation.
Switching ballscreens is a popular strategy in today’s game as it avoids giving an offense a temporary 4-on-3 advantage that other pick and roll coverages (i.e., hedging/trapping) usually concede.
Deandre Ayton and Kristaps Porzingis are both well above league average in post-up efficiency, despite their exceptionally high volume (sixth and seventh in the entire NBA in post-ups per game, respectively). And it’s largely because of their teams putting them in positions to use their superior size and strength to attack.
Lastly, post-ups are cool again because we have so many great passing bigs who can surgically dissect a defense when a second defender comes their way.
Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic are both in the top four in the NBA in post-ups per game (as are their teams). And coincidentally (not really), they are also both two of the four best passers in the league.
In both these clips, we see a similar sequence unfold: they receive the ball while being guarded by someone who has no business doing so (factor three), promptly back them down (factor one), suck in the defense, and immediately determine the most efficient pass available (factor four).
Not All Post Ups are Back
Just because some types of post-ups are back doesn’t mean all of them are. Even in 2022, there are teams whose low-block transactions usually fail to meet any of the factors in our efficient post-up test.
Both of these teams have lackluster post-up personnel (other than Pascal Siakam, no one on either team is higher than the 45th percentile in post-up efficiency), and they are rather unimaginative and methodical about the ways they design these plays.
In neither clip do we see any of the four factors met. They both take multiple dribbles, start with poor position, can’t overpower their matchup, and don’t draw a second defender in order to attack their defense with some passing. Watching clips like these makes it feel like 1994 all over again.
Still, even with existence of these bad apple post-ups, this once endangered playtype has re-populated itself within the league’s schematic ecosystem, further adding credence to Cohle’s maxim.
And now that we’ve re-established post-ups, one can’t help but wonder what old basketball trend will return to the game next.