When you think of a traditional basketball alignment, the image that comes into your mind probably looks something like the picture above: point guard with the ball at the top of the key, two wing players at the elbow extended (or in the corner) on either side of the court, and bigs either on opposite low blocks or one in the low post and one in the high post. The idea of a post-up probably produces the image of a guard throwing an entry pass to a big man with his hand straight out in the air, shielding off his defender from being able to intercept, then slowly backing his way down into the lane before he can either take a shot or pass out of a double team to an open shooter. There’s some cutting or other movement involved, but that’s the general idea.
As positions continue to blend together, so too do the skill sets of bigs, guards and wings. With that, we have seen a rise of post-up guards and wings. It’s not “new” thing to see guards posting up their man – players as far back as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or even Oscar Robertson were doing that – but it’s certainly more common now than it ever was back then. Additionally, smaller post players have become even more dangerous as they’ve become more common because of the advent of the stretch four.
An alignment like this stretches the defense to its limits. By placing the center in the high post and the power forward at the top of the key, the offense has removed both bigs – the biggest impediment to getting shots at the rim, the easiest shots in the game – from the lane, thus opening up easier scoring opportunities for the post player. Most guards and wings are not as used to guarding players in the post as they are on the perimeter, so the offense creates another small advantage there. Additionally, guards are generally better passers than bigs, so when doubled in the post, a guard or wing is more likely to be able to make that perfect kick-out pass to put the receiving player in perfect position to score.
There are a few different ways teams commonly free their guards or wings for post-up opportunities, and they look very much like the strategies used to get bigs the ball in the post.
Straight post-up in early offense
Much like in the playing involving Hibbert above, this is just an instance of a player getting himself down into the low post, sealing his man, sticking his hand in the air, receiving an entry pass and going to work. It’s probably the most common way of getting position in the post, no matter who is doing the posting.
This is also a common way that teams will free up their bigs for post-ups, though the Lakers go about it slightly differently than other teams. There’s an entry pass, followed by a cross-screen and the post player ducking into position on the opposite side, where he seals his man and goes to work. There is probably no team that uses a cross-screen to free guards and wings for post-ups more than the Miami Heat. Often, either Dwyane Wade or LeBron James will start off the possession in the corner, where they’ll receive a cross-screen from Chris Bosh or one of the other Heat bigs. They’ll then dart across the lane and seal their man off, gaining position just outside the lane.
This one is obviously much more common with guards than bigs, given the ball-handling skills of each type of player. A guard can bring the ball up in transition and begin to back his man down whenever he decides. Popularized by players like Mark Jackson, Andre Miller and every Knicks point guard of the 1990s, it’s an especially common way for bigger guards and wings these days to post up their defenders.
Drawing the help defense
Look at all the attention a player like Deron Williams draws when he goes into the post. Granted, he’s playing against the Wizards, but a double-team actually comes from three different players on this possession, like in the diagram above. Brook Lopez’s man crashes down from the top of the key, Joe Johnson’s man abandons him in the opposite corner, as does Reggie Evans’ man on the opposite block. Williams is much bigger than his defender and is able to back him down with ease. Once he gets into the lane and draws four defenders, it’s just a matter of one of the best point guards in the game sliding an easy pass through the lane to a cutting big man. (h/t Andrew McNeill for this video and the next few)
It’s also easy to get an open look when the double comes from just one defender. Here, Joe Johnson’s man crashes down on Deron, leaving Johnson open at the top of the key. When Johnson receives the kickout pass, all he has to do is throw a subtle fake at an on-the-move defender in order to get into the lane. He does easily, and draws Williams’ defender himself, leaving Williams a wide open mid-range jumper.
Even Williams just being in the post is enough of a threat to pull defenders away from his teammates. After kicking out from the post to Keith Bogans, Williams reposts and throws his hand up, calling for another entry pass. This is enough to back Bogans’ defender off, leaving space for him to shoot an open 3.
Obviously, putting bigs in the post draws help defense too, but the passing threat of a guard or wing in the post, combined with the unfamiliarity of their defenders guarding post-up situations makes it even more dangerous when you have a guard that has a polished post game like Kobe or Deron. If that player is a willing and capable passer, even better. When the defense gets drawn in and the ball gets kicked out, it forces the defense to compensate by quickly rotating. If the offense just keeps pinging the ball around the perimeter, eventually they will find an open outside shot, or a driving lane to get to the rim. Once there, that shot is easier to convert because the design of the play has inverted the defense, removing the bigs from the lane so only a guard or wing is left to protect the rim. Everything is connected, and simply by changing up who is placed where on the court, the offense is able to put the defense in multiple disadvantageous situations.