Project Post-Up: Dwyane Wade

Imagine its 1995 and you’re Liam Neeson. You just spent months of your life in the Scottish Highlands filming a swashbuckler based on the legend of Rob Roy. The movie, one of your first true star vehicles, comes out in April to critical acclaim, along with plenty of praise for one of the greatest sword fights ever put on camera. This is a big moment for your career.

Then Mel Gibson’s Braveheart comes out. Within a month, Rob Roy is completely pulled from theaters.

It’s odd, but the public consciousness generally only has room for one great thing in a particular genre. One adventure movie at a time. When Saving Private Ryan came out at the same time as The Thin Red Line, the box office spoke and it was one historical war movie at a time. The same goes for Science Fiction. How many of you saw Dark City or eXistenZ the same year The Matrix was released?

Sometimes this genre fatigue can last for years. Three years after Clint Eastwood reinvented the Western with Unforgiven, Sam Raimi attempted to inject a little fun back into the genre with The Quick and the Dead. Raimi’s movie barely topped $20 million at the box office, far below its production budget.

That’s just the way pop culture seems to work. Two things that are similar can’t both be equally great. People will make their choices, and one will enjoy a far greater level of popularity.

But when the price of admission is merely the cost of connecting to the internet or turning on the television, there’s no reason to have to choose between two of the Miami HEAT’s most similar storylines.

You’ve heard plenty about LeBron James in the post this season. Playing with his back to the basket twice as often as at any other point in his career, James posts up with lethal efficiency, scoring just under a point every single time he finishes a possession on the blocks. Though James has long been efficient in the post, this is the season that, stylistically, he’s fitting into the Michael Jordan post-up development narrative that’s demanded of him.

But you know who has been even better in post situations, with just as much usage? Dwyane Wade.

BY THE NUMBERS

Of course, the word “better” is relevant here, in a shortened season. James has scored 199 points in 120 post-ups. Wade has 75 points in 74 possessions (with nine games missed due to injuries). By this weekend, James could certainly be the leader. But after James and Paul Pierce – sandwiched right in the middle – here are the players currently behind Wade in post-up efficiency (1.014 points per possession).

Joe Johnson. LaMarcus Aldridge. Dirk Nowitzki. Kobe Bryant. Al Jefferson. Kevin Love. Dwight Howard. Andrew Bynum.

That isn’t what is most impressive, or interesting, about Wade’s game on the blocks, however. It’s how much time Wade used to spend down there, and how much he does now.

Between 2009 and 2011, about six percent of all of Wade’s used offensive possessions came in the post, or about 1.5 post-ups per game, give or take some passes out of double-teams to spot-up shooters. This season he’s up to 13.1 percent of his possessions in the post, while making over half his shots there for the first time ever.

But these last few years have been the refinement of Wade’s post game. The journey began in 2008, the year Wade had just 15 possessions in the post, with the hiring of assistant coach David Fizdale.

“"Project Post-Up came that year,”" Wade said.

FIZ

As a point guard out of the University of San Diego, Fizdale doesn’t exactly strike you as someone who would be a master at teaching post play. But with the size to post up smaller guards throughout his career, Fizdale had the perfect experience to teach bigger, stronger wing players how to take advantage of their physical advantages.

Not to mention the combination of work ethic and study habits.

"“He'’s one of the very best teachers in this league, an underrated teacher,"” Erik Spoelstra said. “"But also he’s diligent, he’ll watch film, he’ll put in the time behind the scenes to be prepared for a workout. He doesn’t walk out there and make it up on the fly, he has a structured plan, big picture and small picture, on what we can accomplish and on what the goals will be for the next few weeks."”

Wade was hardly Fizdale’s first pupil. After spending a few years in Miami’s video room, Fizdale got his first assistant coaching gig with the Golden State Warriors, where he worked with Jason Richardson. A couple of years later he took a job on the bench of the Atlanta Hawks, where again he developed the post-game of a scoring shooting guard.

Joe Johnson.

Not only was it a valuable experience for Fizdale, his work with Johnson was an instant, and crucial, boost to his credibility as a teacher.

"“Spo had laid the table for me before I ever got here because Spo had helped [Wade] so much with his jumper that Dwyane had a ton of trust in Spo,”" Fizdale said. "“Players know each other, so when Joe Johnson talked to D-Wade about what I helped him with in the post, and just me as a person, the transition was easy. It was seamless.

“"Once he saw that I was speaking detailed language to him the same way Spo would, immediately [Wade] said, '‘That makes sense.’”'"

And thus began the relationship that would begin laying the groundwork for the rest of Wade’s career.

"“He'’s meant a lot since he came in in,”" Wade said. "Taking time to, being that guy who’s not only able to stay out there with me, but also bring a lot of things to me, and help me with a lot of things like moves.

“"He brought a lot to my post game when he got here. I really didn’'t post up that much before he came, so we worked on that a lot. I always work with him after, and I take his advice on a lot of things, because his offensive mind is as good as I’'ve seen."”

WHY THE POST?

It’s simple. Athleticism doesn’t last forever. But skills last beyond athleticism.

"“I came at him right out the gate,”" Fizdale said. “"I said, '‘You’'re not going to be the quickest, most athletic guy who can just high pick-and-roll his whole career. At some point in your career, you’'re going to get tired of hitting the floor. You’'re going to get tired of trying to run by these other little quick young guys, and then dealing with the Josh Smiths and the Al Horfords and Joakim Noahs at the rim.

“‘You’'re not going to win that battle most of the time. We have to start evolving your game into something that will give you more longevity.’”'"

It wasn'’t just about Wade. It was about how he would fit in with the team in the most efficient way possible. Even when post-ups for Wade aren’t being called, the skills he would develop with Fizdale help the face-up isolation game as well. Being able to play with his back to the basket keep the door open on drives as well, avoiding dead ends caused by the defense getting in position.

"“You see Dwyane and LeBron now a lot, especially when we’re pushing the ball and they get it up on the wing, they’ll go at the guy,”" Fizdale said. “"And they really get him in retreat mode, and the guy thinks, ‘OK, I cut the drive off, I’m good.’ No, no, no, no. Now you’'ve got to deal with the post up.”"

That was what Spoelstra wanted. Aggressive, dynamic, fluid offense. As for the details, the moves and fundamentals, of how Wade would achieve that goal, the head coach deferred to his assistant.

“"I left that to the two of them, because when you start adding new dimensions to people’s games, it has to come from them,”" Spoelstra said. “"What we need is post presence. What moves and what dimensions of that has got to come from them.”"

NEW DIMENSIONS

One of the first things you notice when watching Wade in the post is that he has a very focused set of core moves. He has his turnaround jumper and a jump hook in the lane, with a baseline spin counter move rounding things out. Though he occasionally flashes some fancy footwork – such as this move he and Fizdale are currently working on – for the most part, things have been kept simple.

"“Simplicity is often one of the greatest strengths,”" Spoelstra said.

But where Wade’s move-set may be simple right now, those moves complement one another in complex ways. Three years ago, Wade’s post game wasn’t just simple, it was one note.

“"The only thing he had in his arsenal was a fallaway to the baseline, and people started figuring that out about him,"” Fizdale said.

“"'Why are we letting them off the hook with a fallaway jumpshot?”'" Fizdale says he asked Wade. “"I just really started working on his base and his footwork on things that can get him to the rim. Once he’s in the paint, he has incredible touch. We all see it. Five feet and in he’s one of the best, once he gets it up to the rim it’s got a good chance of going in. I tried to convince him that’s a higher percentage shot.”

“"If you'’re stronger than everybody, why are we shooting fallaways?"”

Next came the jump hook. Wade is usually so much stronger than opposing shooting guards that once he gets turned around near the paint, he can, as Fizdale says, beast and beast to earn his ground.

“If they give, eat the space. Every time they release to not hit you, eat that space.”

And once Wade has Pac-Man'’d enough of that space from his opponent, he turns, rises, and flicks his wrist.

This is another move teams get a handle on early, however. All it takes is a quick defender shading down from the high post to deter an extended foray into the paint. If that defender digs too far, then Wade has the kick-out pass that leads to a spot-up opportunity or to another pass that leads to a spot-up.

But if a team is actively trying to keep Wade out of the middle, that often means Wade’s defender has his hips turned North-South. Then the baseline counter becomes an option.

“"And at the end of the day, [Wade] always has his fallaway jumper,”" Fizdale said.

Simple.

NOW AND THE FUTURE

Just as Spoelstra is focused on the macro, how he can use the post abilities of his elite scorers as tools of destruction, Fizdale remains focused on extending Wade’s career.

"“D-Wade has finally realized that it takes a lot less energy to [post] then to run high pick-and-roll, weaving and getting hit. When you’re running high pick-and-rolls every single play for him, telling him to hit a home run . . . yeah, he can do that for so long, but as he got older, as he’s getting older, you can’t do that every play with him.

“And you’re letting guys who can'’t play post defense off the hook. It’s really not an easy thing to do. It’s probably the toughest thing to do in our league is to defend, under the rules, to defend a good post offensive player."”

Fizdale'’s eventual vision is for Wade to continue developing his ball-handling in order to become better at probing the paint. If Wade drives and the big man meets him, stop trying to finish over him. Instead, keep the dribble alive, dribble along the baseline, and if the defense gets turned around, curl back into the paint and finish with a hook shot.

In the meantime, Fizdale and Wade still work after nearly every practice – in the post or shooting free throws – refining everything they’ve worked on for years, everything that has turned Wade into one of the deadliest post players in the league, regardless of position.

And just as Wade learned from Fizdale, so does James. With Wade pitching in wherever he can.

“"I'’m not [Hakeem] Olajuwan or anybody like that,”" Wade said. "“But I know a few things down there.”"