The good and bad of post-up play

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Paul Pierce led the NBA in points per possession from the post last season. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

To help me look more deeply at Amar’e Stoudemire’s post-up game, the kind folks at Synergy Sports, a stats- and video-tracking system every NBA team uses, sent along a list of all players who used a qualifying number of post-up possessions in each of the last two seasons. As mentioned in the Stoudemire post, the Knicks’ power forward ranked among the league’s half-dozen most efficient big men in terms of points per possession on post-up plays in both 2009-10 and 2010-11 before falling to 58th (!) out of 83 qualifying players last season.

The data include any possession a player finishes in the post via a shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover. It does not include data on assists a player records out of the post, an omission that makes LeBron James’ ranking here even more impressive.

Some nuggets to pass along:

• All hail Paul Pierce, the only player to rank in the top five in both seasons. The Celtics’ small forward ascended to the top in 2011-12, when he averaged 1.057 points per possession and shot 48 percent from the post. Pierce, 34, posted up a bit more often last season than in 2010-11, suggesting that he has discovered a weapon that will age well. He drew a free throw on 21 percent of his post-up possessions, the highest number in the sample. That old man game …

• Watch out for Carl Landry next season in Golden State. Landry was an above-average post player in 2010-11, but he exploded last season with New Orleans, coming in just behind Pierce in the points-per-possession rankings. Landry’s field-goal percentage on post tries improved only a hair, from 49.6 in 2010-11 to exactly 50 last season. So why the big jump in efficiency? He cut his turnovers on the block dramatically and got to the free-throw line a lot more. How much of that was random, and how much of it was reflective of real improvement? Given his place as the clear-cut No. 3 big man in Golden State, Landry should get a fair number of post touches as a top second-unit option next season.

• Sticking with Golden State: Power forward David Lee is never going to be a great defender (or perhaps even an average one), but he’s a worker, and he adds something to his offensive game every summer. Lee entered the league as a garbage man on the offensive glass before emerging as a good pick-and-pop shooter and passer under Mike D’Antoni in New York. He’s still good at all that stuff, but he has incorporated an effective post-up game and some one-on-one dribble drives — and that improvement shows up in the numbers. Lee went from .78 points per possession on post-ups in 2010-11 to .825 last season. That’s not a huge jump but it matters, especially because he managed it while posting up more often. That kind of versatility will be important with center Andrew Bogut around to take a lot of the pick-and-roll chances next season.

• Also improving incrementally: Kevin Durant. He shot 38 percent on post-ups in 2010-11 and devoted a small number, 6.2 percent, of the possessions he finished to post-up plays. That spiked to 10.4 percent last season, and Durant shot a solid 44 percent on his post-up chances. He ranked 20th in points per possession from the post, and if he continues to hone a Dirk Nowitzki-style foul line/elbow post game, the league is in serious trouble.

I won’t belabor the numbers here, but Kevin Love is another guy who gets just a little better from the block every season.

• James has the most famously evolving post game in the league. But the numbers (as others have noted before) show that LeBron’s post game was already rock-solid in 2010-11, when he shot a whopping 53 percent on about 1.4 post shots per game. Only five players recorded higher points-per-possession numbers on post-ups in that season, which ended with LeBron’s melting down in the NBA Finals and looking confused as to how to attack J.J. Barea on the block.

In other words: Despite James’ prodigious low-post numbers, he wasn’t always comfortable on the block, and he didn’t use the post game as a weapon consistently. Only about 8 percent of the possessions James finished for the Heat came via post-ups in that runner-up season, per Synergy. That number rose to nearly 14 percent last season, and James kept his accuracy about 50 percent despite the increased workload. You saw the Finals; I don’t need to tell you the league lives in terror of this.

• Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge made a giant leap in post-up efficiency last season, climbing from No. 39 (out of 73) in points per possession in 2010-11 to No. 7. Aldridge managed that based almost entirely on a higher shooting percentage, which is both encouraging and worrisome. He shot a spectacular 49 percent from the post last season, up from a run-of-the-mill 41 percent in 2010-11. That’s encouraging because 49 is bigger than 41 (analysis!) and could reflect his work in getting closer to the rim. It’s worrisome because Aldridge actually earned fewer foul shots on his post-up plays last season. Which trend is most sustainable?

• Denver’s Andre Miller is good for just about 50 percent shooting from the post every season, making him the most efficient point guard to hit the block regularly. It’s nice when the numbers confirm the eye test.

• Orlando’s Glen Davis does not have a pretty post game, but he’s a reminder that there is no one way to be efficient in the NBA. He ranked No. 31 in post-up points per possession in each of the last two seasons, ahead of some pretty big names (Al Jefferson and Chris Bosh in 2010-11, Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin last season). He maintained that spot last season despite shooting a hideous 39 percent from the block, avoiding turnovers and drawing lots of fouls.

• Utah’s Jefferson had the lowest turnover rate in the post of all qualifying players last season and the third lowest two seasons ago. (He also finished 10th in points per possession last season, one spot ahead of James.) The 27-year-old center rarely gets to the foul line, and though he improved his passing last season, he’s not exactly Vlade Divac finding cutters. But he’s a decent shooter from the block with a bunch of go-to moves and perhaps the league’s trickiest pump fake, and, like Davis, he’s a reminder that turnover avoidance is a skill. The joke on Jefferson, the Nick Young of the low block, is that it’s hard to turn the ball over when you don’t try passing it and typically shoot a split second after receiving it, but those things are (just a little) less true of Jefferson now than they once were.

• Keep an eye on Kobe Bryant’s post-up chances next season. He shot 48.6 percent from the post in 2010-11, an outstanding mark for a guard/wing, and ranked 14th in points per possession on post-up plays. Last season, Bryant’s shooting percentage from the block fell to 41.5, and he dropped to No. 30 in points per possession. That’s not bad — a bit bitter than average, actually — but the Lakers can do better than “not bad” with all the talent surrounding him.

• And finally: Cleveland’s Samardo Samuels has pulled off a most improbable double, ranking as the least efficient post-up player in the sample in back-to-back seasons. Samuels shot 29 percent from the post in 2010-11 and 31 percent last season, and his turnover rate was sky high in both campaigns. Samuels, a bulky sort during those two years, looks the part of a low-to-the-ground force with a soft touch, but the numbers don’t bear it out. The 23-year-old showed up at summer league in Las Vegas looking at least 25 pounds lighter, so it will be interesting to see what happens with him next season.

  • Published On 4:45pm, Aug 16, 2012
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