When Elton Brand was a junior at Peekskill (N.Y.) High in
1995-96, he was 6'8" and 245 pounds and already could overpower
opponents down low for easy buckets. That was about the time he
heard that he needed more than just an inside game to make it as
a pro. "I was being told that if I wanted to reach the highest
level, I had to learn to step outside and face the basket," says
Brand, the Chicago Bulls' second-year power forward. He took
that advice, and in so doing followed a path many of his peers
have traveled--though that doesn't necessarily mean it's in the
best interest of the NBA. The league is bulging with players
whose perimeter skills are polished, but it's in dire need of
those proficient in the ways of the low post.
Until the mid-1990s, quality back-to-the-basket play was a
staple of almost every team, some of which had multiple threats
on the blocks. These low-post artists were masters of the
complex choreography of drop steps, up-and-unders, hook shots,
seals and counters. For 13 seasons, beginning in '80-81, forward
Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics was a pivoting, pump-faking
human instructional video around the basket, considered by many
the most skilled member of a far-reaching fraternity that has
included such big men as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain,
Patrick Ewing, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon,
Robert Parish and Jack Sikma, and not-so-big men like Mark
Aguirre, Charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley and Bernard King. In
the latter stages of his career, 6'6" Michael Jordan was one of
the best low-post players in the league.
Lately, however, the consistent low-post scorer has been almost
as hard to find as a tattoo-free torso. Teams still toss the ball
into the post, but with few exceptions, the players who catch it
there don't have polished moves. They are practitioners of
low-post lite: able to take advantage of mismatches or shoot over
smaller defenders, but ill-equipped to use technique to beat a
defender of any size. While many teams have players they can use
for a possession or two, only a few clubs have the kind of post
player who was once plentiful, one so skilled or so powerful--or
both--that his team could feed him the ball constantly and feel
confident he'd come away with a basket or a foul. Los Angeles
Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal is the prime example of that rare
breed, followed closely by San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan,
Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, Sacramento Kings forward Chris
Webber and Portland Trail Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace.
It's no coincidence that the Lakers, the Spurs and the Blazers
are considered the top contenders to win the championship, while
the Jazz and the Kings appear capable of taking it. Just as
telling, the Philadelphia 76ers weren't widely considered a
serious title threat, despite having the best record in the East
for most of the season, until their Feb. 22 trade for 7'2" center
Dikembe Mutombo, who, while not a prolific scorer down low, is
gifted at stopping players who are.
The paradox of post play is that although it runs counter to
nearly everyone's desire for a faster, more fluid pro game and to
the evolution of the big man into a more versatile, agile
athlete, it's as essential to winning a championship as it ever
was. "You can't play basketball without the post-up," says
Olajuwon, who added an element of ballet to the low-post
bump-and-grind. "It's like building your house without a
foundation. The last two teams that won championships were San
Antonio with Duncan and David Robinson and the Lakers with
O'Neal. You tell me what the foundation of those two teams is."
During the regular season, teams find ways to compensate for the
absence of steady post play. Some, like the Phoenix Suns,
accelerate the pace of the game and try to get fast-break points.
Others, like the New York Knicks, drive to the basket, draw
defenders and then pass the ball back out for jumpers. The
postseason exposes this void. When the game slows down, the
ability to score consistently in a half-court offense is
essential. "In the post you can draw fouls," says Blazers forward
Shawn Kemp. "If your team gets behind, you can bring it back at
the foul line, get points without the clock running."
Because illegal-defense rules prohibit double-teaming until a
player has the ball, it's hard to keep it out of a skilled
post-up player's hands. Once he gets it, defenses are almost
obligated to double, which creates opportunities for cutters and
spot-up shooters, especially three-point specialists. "Every team
would love to have someone it could go to down low against any
matchup," says New Jersey Nets general manager John Nash.
"Problem is, they're not making players like that anymore."
That's true, and here are several reasons that production isn't
expected to pick up in the near future.
--The change in college offenses. It's hard for a player to
develop a post-up game when he rarely gets the ball in the post.
The systems widely used by college programs call for constant
movement and more versatile big men. Former California coach Pete
Newell, who tutors college and pro big men every summer at his
camp in Hawaii, remembers recommending a college center to a pair
of scouts last season. "They said they couldn't tell how good he
was," Newell says, "because he only touched the ball two or three
--The Magic Johnson effect. Many players whose size would have
made them low-post players in another era grew up wanting to be
Magic, not Kareem, and now they show off their ball handling and
outside shooting. It's hard to fault 7-foot Kevin Garnett for not
wanting to anchor himself to the low post when he has the skills
to play 20 feet from the basket. Doing business down low is hard,
often brutal work that leads to as many bruises as buckets.
"There's a glamour effect for big guys who like to do the
crossover and go by the defenders," says Brand, who despite the
advice he got in high school is one of the few young players to
enter the league in recent years with decent post-up skills.
"Everybody wants to be versatile. We want to be like Magic, 6'9"
and handling the ball."
--The influx of European players. With U.S. big men in short
supply, NBA clubs have been looking overseas, where international
rules encourage big men to develop perimeter games. The wider
lane forces post players to establish position farther from the
basket, zone defenses make it tougher to get the ball into the
post and easier for defenders to collapse inside when it does get
there, and the closer three-point line seduces even 7-footers
into bombing from the outside. The newer wave of international
players--6'11" Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks and 6'9" Peja
Stojakovic of the Kings, for instance--are far more comfortable
outside the arc than in the low block.
--Too many kids. Even though they're not likely to get much
post-up tutoring in college, players who skip that stage of their
career are often less physically developed when they enter the
league. The Pacers' Jonathan Bender and the Los Angeles Clippers'
Darius Miles have pipe-cleaner bodies that aren't equipped for
the slam-dancing that's done in the low post. "You need power to
play down there," says Toronto Raptors forward Charles Oakley.
"You need a strong lower body so people can't push you off your
spot. Some of these kids are skinny as twigs."
In effect, post play today is at best a secondary option and at
worst the basketball equivalent of cholesterol, clogging the
offensive arteries. The Knicks traded Ewing to the Seattle
SuperSonics in part because his deliberate post-up game clashed
with the slashing, up-tempo style most of his teammates favored.
Even with Ewing's declining skills, that's a trade that never
would have been made a decade ago. "A lot of teams used to rely
on their inside guys," says Portland point guard Damon
Stoudamire. "Now you only want inside guys to keep everything
honest, to have a weapon you can go to just in case."
Not everyone agrees that the low-post game is going the way of
canvas sneakers. Several point guards are comfortable on the
blocks, including the Sonics' Gary Payton and the Knicks' Mark
Jackson, although few young point guards appear to be following
their lead. "Big men aren't the only low-post guys," says Orlando
Magic coach Doc Rivers, who uses 6'8" swingman Tracy McGrady in
the post more often than any of his frontcourt players. "For
years we were all banging our heads trying to post up the five
[center]. My five, Mike Doleac, is a better shooter from the
outside, so we let our smalls post up, let the opponent trap and
let Doleac shoot jump shots."
No team, though, prefers a jump-shooting big man to one who can
take the ball inside with authority. The Clippers made
inexperienced Michael Olowokandi the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft
believing that he was that rare find: a center with burgeoning
back-to-the-basket skills. The hardworking Olowokandi has
attended Newell's camp every off-season and often does pregame
work on his post-up game, but he's far from comprehending all the
mysteries of the post. Through Saturday, he was scoring only 8.4
points per game. "The tough thing is, it takes a combination of
finesse and strength," says Olowokandi. "You have to have
delicate footwork, but at the same time you have to be strong
enough to bump and hold your position."
The intellectual aspect is equally demanding. Newell teaches at
least six countermoves to use if the defender is positioned near
the post player's left shoulder and six more if he's on his
right. "You have to learn how to feel a defender," Newell says.
"Do you feel him applying pressure in the small of your back or
on your hip? That can tell you whether to make a spin move toward
the basket or turn the other way for a fadeaway. There is a
counter to every approach the defender takes, and the really good
post players, like O'Neal and Duncan, reach the point where they
can read the defender and know in an instant what move is called
Coaches can only hope the success of O'Neal and Duncan spurs
young players to copy low-post techniques in the way that Magic
influenced a generation of big players to concentrate on passing
and ball-handling skills. The ones who develop their
back-to-the-basket game are the ones most likely to wear
championship jewelry. Post play may be a dying art, but mastery
of it is still crucial to a long postseason life.
COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Low Pressure O'Neal (left) and Robinson are throwbacks in the post, dominant no matter who defends against them.
COLOR PHOTO: NORM PERDUE/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Mailing it in With the aid of pinpoint entry passes from John Stockton, Malone has delivered the Jazz to a pair of NBA Finals.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH 4 on the floor For all their highlight-grabbing, end-to-end play, the Kings rely on the down-and-dirty effectiveness of Webber.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Learning curve Warriors center Erick Dampier (25) could teach former top pick Olowokandi a trick or two in the paint.
Here are five big men who should be better than they are in the
Shawn Bradley, Mavericks
Easily pushed away from the basket, but at 7'6" he'd be
unstoppable if he ever learned the skyhook.
Charles Oakley, Raptors
Has all the tools--size, toughness, touch--to compensate for lack
of jumping ability, but has become a spot-up shooter.
Dale Davis, Trail Blazers
Indecisive and puts up too many fadeaways for such a powerful
Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves
With Kevin McHale as his tutor should have a better repertoire of
Horace Grant, Lakers
Can make the open 15-footer, but give him the ball in the post
and he will usually give it right back.
Playing without a post-up, Olajuwon says, is "like building a
house without a foundation."
"Everybody wants to be versatile," Brand says. "We want to be
like Magic, 6'9" and handling the ball."