The game of basketball tends to move away from the post-up. Such a statement is not exactly breaking news; look Inside the NBA any night and you’ll hear countless tropes about how the game isn’t played physically as low as it used to be. Instead, we opted for 3-point shooting instead, and in the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics were examples of this shift. Against the Golden State Warriors, 41.6% of their shots came from downtown.
For a few years now, I’ve always wondered what it would take for the pendulum to start swinging the other way – away from such a heavy catch-and-shoot attack and more towards the post-up. There are a few obvious things that stand out: players dominating low, the height advantage to make it work, and enough 3-point shots to properly space the ground around him so that the threat of the 3-point kick is as alive as the post-up itself.
Doesn’t this team look a lot like the next version of the 2022-23 Boston Celtics? To be clear, we’re not advocating that they go back to the 1990s and lead the triangle attack. Instead, there could be an opportunity here for Ime Udoka and the staff to further integrate the type of play into the playbook as a relative advantage.
Last season, the Celtics took 286 post-up shots (about 3.5 per game), twelfth-most in the NBA. However, the C’s were the fourth most effective team in the shooting type, behind the Denver Nuggets (powered by MVP Nikola Jokic) and the Brooklyn Nets (with Kevin Durant commanding the lion’s share of their attempts).
Post-ups have been reserved for elite players in the league these days. Greats like Jokic and Joel Embiid are so dominant they need those looks, while the Durants, Jayson Tatums and Luke Doncics of the world get there due to uneven strength within.
Below is a screenshot of the Celtics’ individual post-up numbers from last season, and they show across the board that it’s been a positive type of play for the group.
Efficiency and volume are therefore intrinsically linked. There is a danger in increasing the volume of post-up attempts because the longer something is in your game plan, the more opponents will attack it and spend time removing it.
Namely, the Celtics added two size and shot players this summer in Danilo Gallinari and Malcolm Brogdon. Gallo is an effective post scorer, as we’ve covered before, and is really good at forcing changes with smaller defenders. His step back on one leg to the middle of the post gives off Dirk Nowitzki vibes.
Brogdon, on the other hand, has always been reluctant to score in the post, even with a strong, chunky frame. He recorded no possession on post-ups last year, three in 2020-21 and two in 2019-20. We’re not advocating that Brogdon suddenly change his stripes, just that he’s the perfect shooter to surround other post-ups. Brogdon’s catching and shooting numbers are strong enough to help space the ground around other guys operating in the position, while Derrick White (31.8% C&S) and even Aaron Nesmith (31.1%) struggled last year.
Spacing is crucial for a post-up attack to have impact, especially with incompatible posts. The court needs to be reversed when a smaller guy goes low, which means the center needs to be able to lift up to the 3-point line to provide spacing. Al Horford, Grant Williams and Gallinari all provide this type of reversal, which makes assist rotations and traps a little harder for a defense to pull off. Robert Williams can stand on the opposite end of the dunk spot and have gravity, as he can hammer any lobs or pullbacks that prevent him from being left alone. All of the other Celtics at guard and wing are also capable shooters, leaving no weak link to help.
From there, two questions remain for Ime Udoka and staff when considering whether to add a few more post-ups: who are they managing them for and how are they accessing them?
The first is an easy to answer question – which one has the distinct size advantage.
Back in the Brad Stevens days, there were playbook segments and wrinkles in all of their sets for Marcus Smart to get into the job. Now that Stevens has moved into the front office, the smaller guards Smart used to play with (Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas) are gone and Smart gets the lion’s share of his minutes at 1. His strength advantage is even bigger. noticeable. than ever before, and I always felt that giving Marcus a few of those opportunities in the playbook helped him stay engaged as an extra ball mover and pass thrower.
The playbook has changed a lot since Stevens’ days, but you can see how easy it was for the coaching staff to occasionally throw a Smart Bone:
Last year, Smart took 25 shots from post-ups and scored on 48% of them. Those numbers are higher than the previous two seasons, but the vast majority of them came from dribble back-ins or scouting as opposed to engineered play calls. The Eastern Conference has quite a few smaller (or skinnier) guards for Smart to feast on. Trae Young, Darius Garland, Jalen Brunson, Tyrese Haliburton and Kyrie Irving would all give up a significant advantage on the block.
The real key to making this work work is efficient and quick movements from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Grant and Gallo’s post-ups are less on purpose and more a way to punish a defense for an error during possession. The real traction comes as Tatum and Brown learn to thrive in the midfield the way other dominant All-Star wings have in the past.
Jaylen has been exceptional over the past two years coming into each season with an extra trick up his sleeve. While nothing should replace the need to clean up his grips this summer, adding more confidence to his post-up game wouldn’t hurt. He’s already done well in the fadeaway pullover down, but he’s not pulling it a ton out of his bag. On either block last year, Jaylen turning to his right for a fadeaway scored 50% of the time (10-20), according to game-tracking data from Synergy Sports.
Tatum has that deep bag of midrange turnovers and fades to his credit. He also has the long strides and shrewd footwork but doesn’t seem to be using them in the position. Last year, the vast majority of his post-up attempts ended in jumps; 39 of his 59 attempts on the left or right (non-faceup) block were fadeaways.
Tatum would greatly benefit from adding an up or down move to his bag, punishing defenders who anticipate those turnover jumpers. He should learn from his idol Kobe Bryant on the impact of a progressive movement when the fade is so deadly.
As the stars go, so go the Celtics. It’s not really news. But if Udoka and the entire organization find a way to prioritize this type of play from their stars, it can have a big impact on the team in the regular season and in the playoffs. All of the best title-winning wings of the past twenty years have the mid-post isolation bag, from Kawhi Leonard to LeBron James, from Kobe Bryant to Dwyane Wade. A little more back-to-basket time — especially with this roster surrounding them — could be that one small step that elevates these stars to a whole new dimension.