The Evolution of a Post Game
On two separate occasions against the Boston Celtics last Sunday, LeBron James ran down to the offensive end of the floor faced with a mismatch. With his regular defender, Paul Pierce, on the opposite side of the floor, the Celtics tasked with defending James were Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, each giving up nearly 50 pounds.
What happens now?
The popular school of thought seems to be that he receives a pass, takes a few steps back at the top of the key, gathers momentum and attempts to freight-train his way past his defender, just as he would have three years ago. But even that scenario is too detailed for how the thinking goes, the narrative far more focused on what he doesn't than what he does do.
His game isn't evolving. He doesn't post-up.
Its time to catch up and dispel that notion. James has been working with his back to the basket all season, and its been right there in front of us all along.
The Truth in Metrics
The allure of the post-up storyline has as much to do with the legend of Michael Jordan as with effectiveness. Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls after his first retirement a re-made player, taking defenders down low where he could torture them with a fallaway jumper, filling out his repertoire with the requisite up-fakes and counter-moves. Thats the story, at least, even though Jordan had been using the fallaway with his back to the defender during the first Bulls three-peat.
And when Kobe Bryant, the most stylistically similar active player to Jordan, continued the tale by following suit in the past five years, the grace of that fadeaway jumper, and its degree of difficulty, became the standard of excellence for all wing players developing a post-up game.
But that is basketball lyricism, and it has little to do with efficiency. And despite James suffering from a relative lack of mythology, partially due to the absence of a narrative-fitting signature move, the numbers encourage a theory. Before we get to video, well begin with those numbers.
James, mechanical though he can appear, has 160 post-up possessions to his name this season, shooting 52.4 percent, drawing a shooting foul 8.8 percent of the time and scoring at least a single point on over half the plays. Better yet, he scores 1.03 points per post-up, which ranks him 19th in the league.
Thats among all NBA players, not just small forwards or wing players.
For comparisons sake, Bryant, in an offense built around versatile players who can operate in the post, has 300 post-ups, but he is ranked 39th in the league scoring 0.97 points per possession, while getting to the free-throw line 1.5 percent less. Effectively, for every 100 possessions, James scores six more points than Bryant.
Among other swingmen known for their post-up capabilities, Carmelo Anthony is 51st with .94 PPP in 274 post-ups, Joe Johnson 26th in 202 possessions (1.00 PPP) and Paul Pierce 10th at 1.13 PPP in 120 post-ups.
Yes, these qualify as advanced statistics, but before you shrug your shoulders, consider that these numbers are from SynergySports, which logs each possession in every game using the actual game film. So, by their very nature, the stats pass the eye test.
Oddly enough, James was marginally better in the post the previous season, when he was 14th in the league higher if you set the qualifier to 150 post-ups scoring 1.08 points per play in 152 possessions, getting to the stripe an incredible 15.8 percent of the time. And thats where numbers dont tell the entire story.
A New Regimen
James working on his post-game along with Dwyane Wade with assistant coach David Fizdale has been a common sight after practices ever since training camp. The length of time and the moves they are working on vary, but Fizdale is a fixture, the man who has worked with James since day one.
"I commend him for having the humility to say he needs to improve at it," Fizdale said. "That's a big thing for a guy that could have an ego that says, No, Im good at this already, but he has the humility to say, No, I need to get better, and he puts in the time."
In Cleveland, James was the definition of a bruiser in the post. He would back down his defenders with multiple dribbles, often from the left side of the key, looking to use his size to get an edge on his defender, turn over his right shoulder into the middle of the paint and either finish over the top or draw a foul. As the numbers showed, it was effective, but those possessions also killed the shot clock, and when the defense brought a defender from the weakside, James lacked a counter-move to get himself out of trouble. The ball would stick, and the team would be left scrambling with a short clock.
So, Fizdale started from scratch, breaking down James game to its most basic elements. He wanted James to understand how to get the most out of his size, to work on technique, balance and footwork, to learn how to draw multiple defenders and what moves are best suited to different situations. Not necessarily the aspects you would begin with any other player, but James was already such a talented, and willing, passer, Fizdale was afforded a selective focus.
Focus was an issue, too.
"People dont realize it's hard for him to get great at something because he can do so many things," Fizdale said. "He could come off a screen and catch and shoot, he can run pick and roll, he can isolate, he can post -- for him to master something he has to really lock in on that one thing but it's hard for him because when you're good at so many things, its harder to spend time on one of them.
"The hardest thing for him, because he [can do so many things], is to say, OK, all were doing today is just this one shot."
They work on that one thing, because at the core of the matter is a player whose coaches describe as highly competitive, as a student of the game who sees every offseason as an opportunity to add something to his game. And at 26, hes adding a post-up game in his prime, at a younger age than many of his predecessors.
Does some of his work stem from a desire to prove the critics wrong? Fizdale says yes, that James takes it to heart when outsiders criticize his game. But it's about far more than that.
"It's about him really becoming the best player he can be, Fizdale said. That was a pact we made when he got here. "I said, I dont know if you can be the greatest player to ever play, but lets see if we can make you the greatest player you can possibly be, and then lets see what happens.
Let's not go onto this thing and not get you to reach the maximum potential of LeBron James, and then look back and say, Damn, we should of did this and we should of done that. And he's on board; he's the one who made the biggest sacrifice of anybody."
So, you have a two-time MVP that has fully bought into the process of building an entirely new facet of his game from the ground up. The results?
Seeing is Believing
Have we cherry-picked successful plays? Absolutely, but with James shooting 52.4 percent out of the post, there are more makes than misses to choose from. Critics often see the latter, see how raw James can look when spinning baseline or going around an up-faked defender, and in turn lose sight of the ball falling through the net.
"People just pay attention to his failures," Fizdale says. "People just point the finger at stuff without really doing their research. There's no accountability in people that make that criticisms, so we dont listen to that."
Of course, there's a greater reason James post work has gone largely unnoticed on a national level: its difficult to write about. All great artists have a style. You can recognize a tracking shot from Martin Scorsese or a smooth piano beat from Dr. Dre the same as a Clint Eastwood squint or John Williams fanfare.
But when you see James -- this is an issue shared by Dwight Howard -- what are you seeing? Do the words come easy? Nearly each one of the plays shown above features a different action, and this is not by choice. Can you describe what you see above as easily as you could the post games of Jordan, Kareem Abdul Jabbar or Hakeem Olajuwon?
You can't, because unlike those three, James lacks the familiar literary device: the go-to move.
Bread and Butter
While most people tend to primarily think of back-to-the-basket moves when picturing a player posting up, the face-up game, from the same position, is just as important. It's here that Fizdale started the process.
The reasoning is that with the post position James can establish, being one hard dribble away from the rim, his combination of speed and size makes any forward dribble a massive threat to any defensive scheme. If that dribble earns James even half a step on you, he is so strong that his sheer mass will earn him the space he needs and take you out of the play, just like what happened to Kevin Durant in the above video.
And if you anticipate the dribble, James can step back off that initial foot plant and set his feet for an in-rhythm jumper. Thats the rocker step, and as Erik Spoelstra says, it keeps everyone honest.
Being a face-up shot, without turning over either shoulder after the step, this move should, in theory, be a higher percentage play than a fadeaway jumper. With his height and quickness, James doesn't even need much room to get the shot off, but it doesn't work unless he can sell his intent to drive. He can do this simply on talent, on his ability to finish in the paint or draw contact from rotating defenders and get to the line.
This is still, at its heart, a simple jumper, and just like in top-of-the-key isolation, the ball can still stick. It's not the move thats going to bring everything together.
The Move Thats Coming
How can a shot be good enough for Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson and not be good enough for nobody in this generation, Fizdale recounts saying to James.
As soon as I said that the historian that he is came out. He said, Yeah.
Thus began the development of the move the 6-foot-9 Magic Johnson mastered later in his career, only for someone with the athletic gifts, most notably the elevation, of James.
"Thats something he wants to make a part of his game," Fizdale said. "But once he gets it, that's going to be one of those [moves] people will be teaching other kids down the line. Where people say, Man, The LeBron James running hook."
The key here being once he gets it. As you can see from the misses above, the move is still very much in its infant stages. James has made two of the hooks in 2011, having taken somewhere in the mid-teens, but right now is about the taking more than the making anyways. Nobody expects you to be able to swim the first time, but the most important part is getting in the water. After months of working on the shot in practice, James gained the confidence to take it in games. Every make from that point on goes a long way.
The eventual next step is a countermove, the drop-step, which James has been seen working on in the weeks before the playoffs. Since the running hook is meant to take advantage of his speed, James doesn't have the benefit of a gather he might have with an up-fake in the post. Once he plants that inside foot after the straight-line drive across the paint, James has a split-second to decide whether to rise up for the hook, and risk being forced to jump pass, or to reverse-pivot, sealing off the defender.
This will be the foundation. James can add more over the years, but just as a spot shooter needs a pump-fake and a ballhandler needs a crossover, the threat of the move-countermove combination will make everything else possible, and if all goes according to plan, become a signature.
There is a question that goes beyond whether James can back his man down and hit a contested hook in the lane, and thats one of fit. Spoelstra values efficiency above all else, but however high James' points per post-up might be, if James is pounding the air out of the ball and killing the shot clock before making his move, the offense falters.
Fizdale has pushed Spoelstra for more opportunities for James catching the ball with his back to the iron separate from the high-post offense Miami runs through James and Chris Bosh but the onus is on James to become more comfortable making decisions within the flow of the offense.
The coming playoffs could be a coming out party, in a sense, for all of the work James has put in this season," Fizdale says. "Whether that happens or not, the goal is for James to be among the Top 10 most efficient post players in the league. With that, with the results on display this year or next, the recognition will come."