basketball

How NBA Teams Are Bringing The Post-Up Back To Life

The NBA is in the midst of an offensive explosion, with 14 of the best 15 historical offensive ratings for teams coming in the past four seasons. The Boston Celtics currently boast the third-best offensive rating in NBA history, and like so many teams in the new, high-scoring NBA, they do it in part by overloading the floor with shooting. Though they’ve cooled a bit from deep since the start of the season, they’re one of only 13 teams in history to attempt at least 40 triples per game, and they’re connecting on 37.1 percent with four rotation players over 40 percent. .

Why, then, in crunch time of their Nov. 14 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder — to take just one example — did the Celtics opt to utilize MVP candidate Jayson Tatum on a post-up, far inside the 3-point arc, executing what many consider an outdated and obsolete type of play?

For one reason, it was because Tatum is one of the game’s best overall scorers and was guarded in single-coverage by the opponent’s point guard. (It also worked: Tatum used his body to create space, took one dribble and pivoted to the rim for the inside-hand layup, helping the Celtics eventually grab the W.) But there’s another good reason: Because post-ups are actually the Most efficient play in basketball.

When used, post-ups have been surprisingly effective

Points per chance by playing type during the 2022-23 NBA season

Play type Frequency per 100 possessions Points per chance
Post-up 5.9 1,035
Isolation 17.8 0.992
handoff 21.3 0.980
Pick 68.9 0.979

Through games of Jan. 22.

Source: Second Spectrum

How did posting up go from “deader than dead” to the NBA’s best play? And does this mean big men are really having their revival at long last? (While centers may have been the purveyors of post-up buckets in decades past, forwards have actually surpassed them in post-up frequency — perhaps giving credit to Dr. James Naismith’s original positional conception of “forward” being the main attacking position.)

Still, we should pump the brakes a bit on any notion that the days of Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon are upon us once again. Perhaps the most rudimentary explanation for the renewed success of the post-up is a form of selection bias: the play is now reserved mostly for those who do it best. Post-ups occur only 5,887 times per 100 possessions, and the 20 players with the most post-ups on the season combine for nearly half (43.6 percent) of the league’s total post-ups. Nikola Jokić accounts for an absurd 4.7 percent of leaguewide post-ups on his own. Only four teams, excluding the Denver Nuggets themselves, have posted up more than Jokić on his own this season, and he scores 1,263 points per chance on such plays. (The best offense in the league scores 1.065 points per chance.)

As a point of comparison, the 20 players with the most pick-and-rolls in the league combine for just over a quarter (26.9 percent) of the league’s total pick-and-rolls, per Second Spectrum. If the NBA’s pick-and-roll leaders — Luka Dončić, for example, scoring 1.124 points per chance on pick and rolls — contributed more significantly to the total share of such plays, the play type would be more successful than its current 0.979 points per. chance (but of course, it would also be used at a much lower frequency per 100 possessions).

Thinking about post-ups in a vacuum, however, misses what makes them so valuable in the current NBA. The league is shifting away from static plays of any kind, and toward a fluid state of multiple actions layered on top of one another. The post-up as a primary playcall, with a ball handler dribbling downcourt and dumping the ball into the post, where a center promptly battles another center before shooting, is finished; that precise sequence has happened only twice this season.

Post-ups are now becoming dynamic. The percentage of post-ups that have featured a positional mismatch — with a center defended by a guard or forward (or a forward defended by a guard) — has increased from approximately one-quarter in 2013-14 to just over half this season, per Second Spectrum. Those mismatches have to come from somewhere, and such advantages can be created by other events on the court — such as pick and rolls or handoffs — before being converted into points via the post.

The dropping frequency of the post-up coincided with the rise of the hand-off. Similar to picks, approximately a quarter of hand-offs result in switches this season, creating a potentially advantageous mismatch. (Less than 10 percent of hand-offs were switched by the defense in 2013-14.) And as leaguewide frequency for post-ups has plummeted by almost 6 plays per 100 possessions from 2013-14 to today, hand-off frequency has increased. by almost 8 plays per 100 possessions. But a post-up can flow out of a hand-off, especially after the defense is forced to switch or rotate or open up some other weaknesses.

At the bare minimum, using a pick-and-roll and/or a hand-off to flow into a post-up can make sure that help defenders are as far away from the offensive player as possible, giving him plenty of time to work. alone in the post.

There are correlations between the players who are best at posting up, those best at hand-offs and their teams’ offensive efficiency. Jokić and Sacramento Kings center Domantas Sabonis are two of the league’s most efficient and frequent post players, and so too are they the two most frequent hand-off providers. And both of their teams currently rank among the top 5 highest offensive ratings in history.

One common thread is that Jokić and Sabonis are brilliant scorers and passers; using them in either capacity out of the post is a good tactic. That’s not unusual: Across the league, possessions with passes coming out of the post carry practically the same efficiency as possessions seeing shots coming off of post-ups. For today’s multi-talented bigs, the post can be used as a vehicle between every kind of event on the court, rather than an end in and of itself.

And yet, in the entirety of Second Spectrum’s database (beginning in 2013-14), 2022-23’s post-ups are the both most efficient play type on record and the leastfrequent. In fact, post-ups have been the most efficient and least frequent playing type in every season in the database other than 2013-14 (when it was the most efficient and second-least frequent playing type).

Post-ups are produced more, but are used less

Frequency and efficiency for NBA post-ups by season, 2014-23

Season Post-ups per 100 possessions Points Per Chance
2013-14 12.4

0.899

2014-15 11.9

0.890

2015-16 10.4

0.902

2016-17 9.4

0.934

2017-18 8.7

0.942

2018-19 8.6

0.975

2019-20 7.0

0.975

2020-21 7.0

0.999

2021-22 6.4

1,000

2022-23 5.9

1,035

Through games of Jan. 22, 2023.

Source: Second Spectrum

There is an inherent tension in a play slowly growing in efficiency yet shrinking in usage. Are teams now using post-ups too infrequently? Will there be diminishing returns if they’re used more often again? With (most) teams in the league maximizing efficiency and applying Moneyball principles to the NBA, there must exist to some extent a relative “objective” equilibrium between frequency and efficiency of individual play types.

Other factors impacting where such an equilibrium might settle haven’t shifted dramatically for the past few seasons. While 3-point attempts have generally been on the rise over the past few decades in the NBA, they’ve been stable for the last four seasons. So too has 3-point accuracy and pace.

But unless the rules change, or post-up artists like Jokić and Sabonis lose their skills to alien invaders in a real-life Space Jam situation, it’s hard to see plays in the post becoming less efficient. More likely, their frequency could rise at some point. And wings like Tatum are perhaps the next frontier in the post-up’s reclamation of offensive attention. The Toronto Raptors last season went all-in on non-big post-ups. Wings like DeMar DeRozan have long been post-up wizards. But as post-ups are becoming tools to punish mismatches created elsewhere, or a means of chaining together events like hand-offs and pick-and-rolls, the wing’s ability in the post will be an important tool in any necromantic resurrection of the play .

The day of the post-up receiving the first billing is likely done; no realistic amount of equilibrium shift can undo so many years of tactical evolution. Teams can certainly turn to the post for simple, static buckets at times — like the Celtics did with Tatum against the Thunder. And it’s important to remember that modern NBA offensive sets are often in flux, with multiple pieces flowing together like a complex ballet. How post-ups can fit into the theater around them, as finishing moments to exploit mismatches or as continuation events to move players or the ball across the floor, is changing. There are now many advantageous uses for the post-up in the NBA. And as its efficiency continues to rise, teams are poised to recommit to more and more of them.

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