In early January, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan and Kirk Goldsberry tag-teamed a fantastic article about the death of the post-up in the NBA’s new pace-and-space era.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, back-to-the-basket greats like Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal were on hand to perform the eulogies.
“Get in, get your butt on the block and dominate,” Ewing said of Joel Embiid, maybe the NBA’s best center, who has become too much of a perimeter player for the old heads.
Shaq and Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller went after him again after Thursday’s lethargic 112-101 loss to the Eastern Conference Milwaukee Bucks—though, to be fair, a lot of that was directed towards Embiid’s body language and recent comments they saw as excuses more than shot selection.
Then again, a lot of those Embiid “comments” had to do with his shot selection within the offense, so…
It’s true that the Cameroonian takes fewer than half of his shots from within 10 feet. (Shaq’s career average? 94 percent.) And it’s true that planting a big fella on the block 25 times a night just doesn’t happen anymore.
But the demise of the post-up isn’t down to some kind of calculator-worshipping analytics Illuminati like Shaq, Ewing and even Mark Cuban suggest.
Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey—perhaps the figurehead of the analytics movement—offered the article’s most illuminating quote: “We’re just doing what works. We’ve created the top offense in NBA history over the last five seasons, so we’re sticking with that.”
The defining feature of that historic offense is an endless barrage of James Harden isolations, the same play that made the early-2000s as unwatchable as NBA basketball has ever been. Harden has as many iso possessions per game (14.5) as the next highest player (teammate Russell Westbrook at 7.3). And he scores 1.12 points per possession on those trips, putting him in the league’s 88th percentile.
So as revolutionary as the Rockets’ attack may seem, it’s key play is really a throwback. In much the same way, Embiid is becoming the Harden of the post.
At 7’1”, he is both physically and statistically an outlier. He uses 7.9 post-up possessions per night, about 40 percent more than second-ranked LaMarcus Aldridge (5.6) of the San Antonio Spurs. Embiid pours in 1.14 points per possession while no other player who uses three or more post-ups per game averages more than a point per possession.
Embiid has been among the top two post-up players by usage every year of his four-year career, but this is the first season he has put real distance between himself and a chasing pack of familiar names: Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and a few others.
I could write about why the big fella is so lethal in the paint, but that’s obvious. He’s enormous, possesses era-best footwork and agility for a man his size, and he has a decent collection of fakes and counters. He converts 74 percent of his attempts at the rim and makes a respectable number of his face-up jumpers. So, yeah, he’s going to be pretty damn good with a defender on his back.
But it’s how he gets defenders on his back that’s so impressive.
Early in Philadelphia’s 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on January 28th, Embiid passed out of a face-up against Marquese Chriss. He could’ve sauntered back out to the perimeter. He might’ve in the past. But instead, he straight up put Chriss in the stands:
Does that look like a center scared of “getting his butt on the block?”
The 25-year-old has improvised like this all season, lulling defenders to sleep or beating them down the floor before sealing them off and planting himself beneath the hoop. Once there, he’s unstoppable:
Sixers head coach Brett Brown has fed this hunger for deep position with set plays, too. His offense incorporates plenty of actions designed to do nothing more than create clear passing lanes into Embiid. A favorite is this play that flows from a high pick-and-roll into a high-low action with Ben Simmons or Tobias Harris up top:
I can’t emphasize enough two things that both the pro- and anti-post-up crowds often fail to admit about this kind of bully-ball.
For the modernists, let’s just accept that this is great offense. Embiid is scoring 1.13 points per possession on the block. It’s tough to get much better than that in the half-court.
For the traditionalists, we need to reckon with the fact that what the former Jayhawk is doing is not normal.
No center combines size, speed and technique quite like Embiid. Even players with sweeter hook shots or more delicate footwork will struggle to get solid position down low. And unless that happens, you’re looking at a whole bunch of these:
You could do worse than an Aldridge turnaround jumper in crunch time, but that shot isn’t going to fuel a sustainable offense over the course of a 48-minute contest, let alone an 82-game season.
And guess what? It doesn’t matter if that shot came from a post-up, a pick-and-roll, or a backdoor cut. It’s the shot itself—and how often it goes in—that counts. Outcomes over “process,” ironically enough.
That’s not to say the Sixers, who rank 20th in offensive efficiency, are getting the formula exactly right.
Embiid rarely posts up in order to pass, sporting one of the lowest pass percentages of any elite big man. Defenses can be fairly confident that the pass into him is the last pass of a possession. That means limited three-point volume and a crowded lane:
The shooting around Embiid is also abysmal by modern NBA standards. Shooting a below league-average 34.5 percent from three, Tobias Harris is the best shooter in the starting lineup. We already know about how Ben Simmons can’t shoot at all.
Philadelphia’s struggles recently (they’re 2-4 over their last six games) are just a repeat of their struggles from any point in the post-Process era. Teams sag off Simmons & Co. to deny space to Embiid, force up ugly shots and silly turnovers, and then attack before Philly can get its vaunted defense set.
The scary part is how the Sixers have rotated quite a few different options on the wing to remedy this. But outside of the now-departed J.J. Redick, no one has provided enough stretchiness for long. Philly was active at the deadline again trying to remedy the issue:
Even if they don’t abandon their awkward starting five, they now have Korkmaz, Thybulle, Burks and Robinson available off the bench.
That should allow Brown to play more guard/wing-heavy lineups, which can only help improve spacing
— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) February 6, 2020
My biggest concern about the Burks/Robinson trade:
Like Tobi, Al, Markelle, Jimmy, etc., do Burks/Robinson also forget how to shoot immediately upon arriving in Philly?
— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) February 6, 2020
The central challenge facing the Sixers is how to fit a post-up big like Embiid—an elite example of the last of a dying breed—into a team that both depends on his scoring and sometimes constrains his strengths.
He’s maybe the only player in the NBA who is most effective with the ball on the block. But what happens in the playoffs when Simmons isn’t guarded at all? What happens when the floor is too cramped to even make an entry pass? What happens if that host of shooters again collectively can’t find the bucket.
Embiid is quite good at a play that is normally quite bad. Just as the Rockets did with Harden, it’s now up to the Sixers to make sure that unique skillset actually matters.