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The Post-up Is Deader Than Dead in the NBA

Teams have been steadily fleeing the blocks for years. But this season, the back-to-the-basket game is bordering on extinction.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the very first quarter of their very first game this season, the Nets ran a simple play with tremendous consequences. DeAndre Jordan sealed Karl-Anthony Towns deep in the paint, Garrett Temple delivered a quick pass to his center, and Jordan received the ball and spun into Towns’s body. One pump fake was all it took to catch the Minnesota man leaning; the refs blew their whistles, and Jordan headed to the line for a pair of free throws. It could have been ruled a three-point play.

You’ve probably seen a team run a post-up like this one countless times before. But you haven’t seen any more while watching the Nets this season. Brooklyn hasn’t run such a play again all season—not with Jordan or anyone on the roster.

The 2019-20 Nets have recorded just 14 total post-up touches in 19 games and finished only eight possessions via post-up; every one of them besides Jordan’s versus Towns came after a switch or against an otherwise scrambled defense. Brooklyn finished last in post-up percentage last season and has slashed its post rate even more thus far.

But the Nets aren’t the only team leaving the blocks—in the pace-and-space era, the post-up play is disappearing. Only one team this season, Philadelphia, has finished at least 10 percent of its offensive possessions with a post-up, according to Synergy Sports tracking; as recently as 2014, half the league went that high. Meanwhile, 18 teams are below 5 percent in post-up rate; as recently as 2015, not a single team went that low. Even last season, only eight teams did so, meaning the number of low-frequency post-up teams has more than doubled in only a year.

Back in May 2015, as the Warriors romped to their first championship behind a 3-point-happy offense, a host of NBA analysts noticed the post-up game’s disappearance. At Grantland, for instance, Zach Lowe wondered whether the league had “inadvertently killed the back-to-the-basket game” and wrote that “these playoffs read like [post-ups’] obituary.” He might have spoken too soon; the post-up is much deader now than five years ago. Since the 2014-15 season, the leaguewide post-up rate has been cut nearly in half, down to just 4.7 percent of possessions thus far in 2019-20.

This will be the sixth consecutive season with fewer post-ups than the last, and 2019-20 is on pace for the largest post-up drop-off in more than a decade. The reasons for the play’s excision are all tied together, a result of both rule and strategic changes that have encouraged the rise of Moreyball. (Another fun excerpt from that 2015 Lowe column: He wrote that the post-up death “evokes both wistfulness for the past and a fear that the NBA is heading toward a homogeneity in which every team drives for corner 3s, layups, and free throws. What happens if we all play Rocketball?” Welcome to the NBA in 2019!)

Offenses in 2019 are better positioned to work from the perimeter than the post. Relaxed rules on zone defenses have added traffic on the blocks for back-to-the-basket bigs. The rise of stretch 4s—to say nothing of stretch 5s—removes one player with post-up potential from the offense in favor of a shooter. Big men entering the league are less likely to have mastered post footwork. Guards tend to serve as both scorers and distributors—relegating most bigs to roles that facilitate guards’ offense (like setting picks) rather than creating for themselves.

Only seven individual players this season have used at least 25 percent of their possessions from the post (minimum 10 total post-ups): Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jonas Valanciunas, Al Horford, Carmelo Anthony (of course!), and Boban Marjanovic. Five seasons ago, 29 players crossed that threshold; 10 seasons ago, 44 did.

In 2014-15, heavy post users included the likes of Kevin Séraphin, Robert Sacre, and Cole Aldrich. Bigs who aren’t a team’s first or second options don’t get those opportunities anymore. Dwight Howard and Donatas Motiejunas combined to use 596 post-up possessions that season for Houston; it’s unimaginable nowadays that the Rockets would let anyone post up even a fraction of that amount.

The post-up seems to have gone the way of the midrange jumper, squeezed out of the game by more analytically advantageous shots. In an average season, a possession that ends with a post-up yields about 86 points per 100 possessions; according to Synergy, no offense this season scores so inefficiently, even if you remove high-value transition plays and focus on half-court offense alone (because most post-ups come against set defenses).

The game’s evolution is clearly visible through the lens of two All-Star big men who have entered new stages of their careers. The first is Howard, who used more than half of his possessions from the post for more than a decade as an offensive focal point. The other is Brook Lopez, whose post percentage typically hovered in the 30s in his Nets heyday. Now, though, both players use less than 10 percent of their possessions that way.

For Howard, the post-up was a victim of aging and skill degradation. Over the last three seasons, Howard ranked in only the 23rd percentile in points per post possession (compared to all players with at least 100 post-ups in that time). Ill-equipped bigs like Sacre and Séraphin might have posted up a bunch a few years ago, but even the 2019-20 Lakers, as the second-happiest post team in the league this season, aren’t so foolish as to waste possessions with Howard backing down a set defender.

For Lopez, meanwhile, his post-up game gave way to a new life as a spot-up shooter. Lopez’s 3-point ability means he can provide more value spacing the floor, either to sink his own long-range shots or to make room for teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, the new king at the rim. Even Lopez’s brother has moved more to the perimeter; Robin, now with the Bucks, has made as many 3-pointers this season as he had in his entire career beforehand.

Just as the midrange shot hasn’t completely disappeared, however, neither has the post-up. No team has posted up more than Philadelphia this season, and no player has posted up more than Embiid, who has flourished inside. Even Embiid, fittingly for this era, usually faces up his defender after receiving a pass in post position rather than backing him down. From there he can loft a jumper or head toward the rim, where he can finish with power …

… or blow by a flat-footed defender with a shimmy and sudden burst of speed.

Embiid ranks in the 85th percentile in points per post possession over the last three seasons. Aldridge ranks in the 84th percentile, Valanciunas in the 94th. Other semiregular posters include Karl-Anthony Towns (95th percentile) and Nikola Jokic (91st). These players have earned the right to continue commanding the ball with their back to the basket.

Leaguewide, the average points per post-up possession has actually increased in recent seasons, to a high of 93 per 100 last season—likely not because players are better at posting up now, but because only the best posters are still allowed to do so, thereby skewing the average. This is another way that the decline in post-ups has paralleled the decline in the midrange game. As The Athletic’s Seth Partnow explored before this season, star players are still generally producing from midrange, while “what has been ‘lost’ is role players standing in unproductive areas of the floor.” Recent iterations of the Warriors, for instance, notably took midrange shots at a near-league-high rate, but that’s because they made those jumpers at a historically impressive clip. They could afford to relax their analytical rigor when Kevin Durant and Steph Curry were the shooters.

The same seems true here; the very top post-up performers can still work down low, but tertiary offensive options can no longer mosey into inefficient possessions. And even for the top players, a post-up can still prove inferior to a good new-fashioned 3. Towns, for instance, averaged 1.02 points per post-up play over the last three seasons, one of the league’s best marks. He’s a phenomenal post-up performer. Yet as a 40 percent 3-point shooter over his career, his average 3-pointer yields a much higher point-per-play rate than his average post-up finish. Even Embiid, a significantly worse long-distance shooter than Towns, manages roughly the same ratio on post-ups and 3s. The 3-versus-2 math is just so lopsided.

That analysis is a tad simplistic because direct scoring isn’t the post-up’s only potential benefit. The threat of a post-up can cause an opposing team to play a big man it otherwise might sit, or induce foul trouble, or spark jumbled defensive rotations that open a high-percentage look elsewhere on the court. Synergy’s numbers on offense derived from post-up possessions after a pass aren’t much more enticing, however. And looking at total post touches instead of just those that end a possession yields the same pattern; according to Second Spectrum tracking, total post touches have dropped by nearly half in the last half-decade, too, from 15 per game in 2014-15 to eight per game so far this season.

At this point in the NBA’s offensive evolution, the most basic philosophy is to adjust strategy to fit personnel. The 76ers and Spurs have strong post-up players with less outside shooting, so they rely on Embiid’s and Aldridge’s throwback fixings. If every team had an Embiid, the post-up wouldn’t be on a trajectory toward extinction—but there’s a larger supply of talented guards than centers, so NBA offenses naturally trend away from the styles for which centers used to be known.

Brooklyn fits this template precisely. Of the six Nets with the most post-up touches last season, center Jarrett Allen (20 total touches, but only a few shots out of the post) is the only one still on the team this season. The bulk of the Nets’ offensive creativity comes from its guards and wings: from Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert, when they’re healthy, from Spencer Dinwiddie, and from Joe Harris rocketing around screens. Allen, meanwhile, is a pogo stick rather than a post brute; ditto for Jordan, even if some of his verticality has worn away with time.

Ringer teammate Kevin O’Connor once deemed Allen a “big who wants to be a guard” because of his avoidance of contact inside, so it makes sense that the third-year rim runner has finished only seven possessions by post-up in his entire career. And Jordan ranked in the 13th percentile in the post over the last three seasons, so it makes sense that Brooklyn wouldn’t funnel any more shots to him there after that blip in Game 1.

The Nets might post up somewhat more next season, when Durant returns from injury. But they probably won’t do it often. They’re merely the most extreme datapoint in a clear pattern, their post-up avoidance less a bizarre statistic than a possible sign of NBA leaderboards to come.

Stats through Saturday’s games.