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Vince Thomas

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Kobe Bryant is one guard who doesn't mind mixing it up down in the paint.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Where have all the true, bang 'em post players gone?


Posted Nov 24 2009 2:05PM

A few weeks ago, I watched Kobe Bryant abuse every Hornet player that had the audacity to try to guard him. James Posey, Julian Wright, Devin Brown -- it didn't matter. New Orleans authorities should have called child protective services. It was ugly. I don't think the man ventured more than 15 feet from the rim for the whole game.

Kobe did the same thing to Phoenix's Jason Richardson in the next game. J-Rich didn't back down. He tussled with Kobe on the block all game. It was fun to watch, but J-Rich had to be thinking, "When is this lunatic gonna do me a favor and jack up a string of 20-footers? Are we gonna wrestle all night?"

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As you may have read, this has been Kobe's M.O. for much of this season. He's been relentlessly aggressive in the post. It seems like almost every time down the floor, Kobe puts his defender on his hip, barrels to the post, catches an entry pass and gets to wheeling and dealing on dudes, grown-manhandling them.

This will probably change now that Pau Gasol is back. There's not much real estate down there with the two Laker bigs. Watching Kobe doin' work for the first month of the season also been a little depressing. It's prodded a visceral reaction: "Kobe's a guard. Why don't I see more actual big men doing what he does? What happened to true-blood post players?"

Think about it: How often, these days, do you see a big go down low, fight off a defender to clear out space, catch the rock and get busy?

I had a hunch that stats might not agree with me, because what I'm talking about (post points) is more specific than "points in the paint" (PIP) and, sure enough, when I hit NBA.com's numbers guy extraordinaire John Schuhmann to see if, by chance, "points in the paint" (PIP) had declined this decade, the numbers revealed that they've actually increased -- from about 76 ppg in 2000 up to about 82 ppg this season.

A number of factors have probably contributed to this. Hand-checking rules have allowed guards like Tony Parker to live in the paint, and we still have big guys like Amar'e Stoudemire coming off pick-and-rolls and scoring in the paint.

But, as I said, this was a visceral, aesthetic thing. I've watched thousands of NBA games over the years and I can tell you that post play -- especially the highly skilled version that the Hakeem Olajuwon-trained Kobe utilizes -- is almost dead.

I needed confirmation, so I talked to, arguably, the most post-player of all time -- Kevin McHale.

Me: "So, Kevin, I wanted to get at you about post play in today's NBA."

McHale (chuckling): "Uh, you mean lack of post play?"

Exactly.

Forget about the '90s and '80s when skilled post players were ubiquitous. I'm thinking that, as recently as the first half of this decade, we still had Shaq, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Rasheed Wallace (before he fell in love with the perimeter), a friskier Kevin Garnett, a younger Jermaine O'Neal and Yao Ming all mainly working out of the post. Nowadays, age has dropped some of those guys off the list and the newer big men stay out of the trenches.

Chris Bosh works best facing his man up around the 15-foot range. Dirk Nowitzki is basically a perimeter player. Dwight Howard gets his share of PIP, but on a lot of putbacks, alley-oops and "catch-'n-dunks." LaMarcus Aldridge rarely visits the post and Greg Oden is still too raw to be effective down there. Stoudemire is a face-up and pick-and-roll machine, not a post-up guy. KG and Sheed deserted their post games years ago. Duncan and Shaq aren't averaging 25-30 ppg anymore, so their production in the post isn't at nearly their to mid-decade levels.

Problem is, there's no one really coming up in the ranks.

Here's the list of big men that do serious damage in the post: Al Jefferson, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Zach Randolph and Yao Ming (and the aging Shaq/Duncan duo in periodic spots). In fact, it could be argued that the two illest guys on the block, at this point, are Kobe and Carmelo Anthony.

As a lifelong fan of post play, this saddens me. How did we get here?

I don't want to start the "kids these days, they lack fundamentals" diatribe, because I'm a New School cat and I personally think that basketball is played at high levels by more players than ever. But you'd be a fool to dismiss some of the structural issues at work. I've covered high school basketball and can tell you that the days of a high school coach (and, now, AAU coach) telling a big fella to get his butt in the paint and never come out is long gone. And the amount of practice time spent on working on all the various moves and footwork is minimal. If anything, the emphasis is making sure that big men can do their thing all over the court -- the more comfortable he is away from the basket, the better. The result is today's multi-skilled big man. I love that evolutionary part of the game -- as long as it's not at the expense of post play.

Because of this new emphasis (or negligence, depending on how you look at it), we have players that just aren't that comfortable handling their business in the post. McHale says that the close quarters in the paint scare some guys away. "If a guy is not comfortable with the ball down there with those bodies around, especially when it comes to making decisions, then he's going to get out of there and get the ball on the wing where there's more space.

"Guys like Kobe and Duncan are comfortable in small areas and you have to be because, if a guy is any good down there, he has time for about one dribble before the doubles come and guys are digging and slapping at the ball."

There's also the fundamental act of getting a big man the ball . McHale recalled one of his first practices as Timberwolves coach when he was trying to teach the very basic entry pass.

"I just shook my head and thought 'Wow, this is really scary. We got Big Al down there and we can hardly get him the ball. Now THAT is a lost art."

I miss post play because it's where hoops gets macho. Watch some of the older guys like Shaq and Duncan or a young guy like Bynum or some of the perimeter guys with bully games like Kobe or 'Melo or Paul Pierce. They mark territory like pit bulls.

"That's what was great about the post -- you were making a statement," McHale said. "You were saying: 'I'm building my house down here. I'm going to impose my will on the game and what are you going to do about it?'"

McHale suggests that post play may be disappearing these days because zest for banging is going away.

"You can't just walk down in there. If you're going to go down there, you have to like contact, you have to like all that bumping and grinding."

Still, I'm not about to buy the notion that today's contemporary big man is naturally some kind of pansy -- not without looking at the grating and crippling impact of flopping. Big guys are going to shy away from the banging that goes along with post play if, the second the contact gets manly, the defender is flailing to the floor like a drama queen. McHale admitted that it would have been difficult for him to work in today's NBA post, because flopping has infringed upon the game to the point where real contact almost seems foreign.

All I can do is shake my head. Don't get me wrong, the game is as graceful as ever, full of skilled cats that can hoop their butts off. But what's a good pro game without a few 8-foot turnarounds in the paint or some up-and-unders? Can I get some drop steps, please?

You know who I really blame for all of this? Larry, Magic and Michael. I mean, if we think about it, big men 6-foot-9 and up never thought too much about operating outside of the post before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. You had your Bob McAdoos that could shoot the lights out, but these perimeter big men choosing fluidity and finesse as their games' hallmarks is a result of Magic/Larry actually giving the teens and pre-teens of the '80s and '90s the idea that such a game was possible for a big guy. And then MJ came along with his signature kicks, wagging his tongue and, well, it just seemed cooler to face-up and try to blow by your defender for a dunk or pop jumper as opposed to banging down low and tossing in a jump hook after a drop step.

Then again, although the idea that the three greatest non-centers of all-time indirectly ruined big-man post play has some roundabout merit, who am I fooling? Not McHale -- although I almost had him.

"You know, you got a point, there," said McHale, before, as you can probably guess, he broke into another patented chuckle. "But those three guys also had some awesome post games, so ..."

Right. So I'm calling out to all the incubating power forwards and centers practicing in high school gymnasiums. Post play doesn't have to die. You can save it. The "Dream Shake." YouTube it.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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