?The influx of European players. With U.S. big men in short supply, NBA clubs have been looking overseas, where international rules encourage big men to develop perimeter games. The wider lane forces post players to establish position farther from the basket, zone defenses make it tougher to get the ball into the post and easier for defenders to collapse inside when it does get there, and the closer three-point line seduces even 7-footers into bombing from the outside. The newer wave of international players—6'11" Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks and 6'9" Peja Stojakovic of the Kings, for instance—are far more comfortable outside the arc than in the low block.
?Too many kids. Even though they're not likely to get much post-up tutoring in college, players who skip that stage of their career are often less physically developed when they enter the league. The Pacers' Jonathan Bender and the Los Angeles Clippers' Darius Miles have pipe-cleaner bodies that aren't equipped for the slam-dancing that's done in the low post. "You need power to play down there," says Toronto Raptors forward Charles Oakley. "You need a strong lower body so people can't push you off your spot. Some of these kids are skinny as twigs."
In effect, post play today is at best a secondary option and at worst the basketball equivalent of cholesterol, clogging the offensive arteries. The Knicks traded Ewing to the Seattle SuperSonics in part because his deliberate post-up game clashed with the slashing, up-tempo style most of his teammates favored. Even with Ewing's declining skills, that's a trade that never would have been made a decade ago. "A lot of teams used to rely on their inside guys," says Portland point guard Damon Stoudamire. "Now you only want inside guys to keep everything honest to have a weapon you can go to just in case."
Not everyone agrees that the low-post game is going the way of canvas sneakers. Several point guards are comfortable on the blocks, including the Sonics' Gary Payton and the Knicks' Mark Jackson, although few young point guards appear to be following their lead. "Big men aren't the only low-post guys," says Orlando Magic coach Doc Pavers, who uses 6'8" swingman Tracy McGrady in the post more often than any of his frontcourt players. "For years we were all banging our heads trying to post up the five [center]. My five, Mike Doleac, is a better shooter from the outside, so we let our smalls post up, let the opponent trap and let Doleac shoot jump shots."
No team, though, prefers a jump-shooting big man to one who can take the ball inside with authority. The Clippers made inexperienced Michael Olowokandi the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft believing that he was that rare find: a center with burgeoning back-to-the-basket skills. The hardworking Olowokandi has attended Newell's camp every off-season and often does pregame work on his post-up game, but he's far from comprehending all the mysteries of the post. Through Saturday he was scoring only 8.4 points per game. "The tough thing is, it takes a combination of finesse and strength," says Olowokandi "You have to have delicate footwork, but at the same time you have to be strong enough to bump and hold your position."
The intellectual aspect is equally demanding. Newell teaches at least six countermoves to use if the defender is positioned near the post player's left shoulder and six more if he's on his right. "You have to learn how to feel a defender," Newell says. "Do you feel him applying pressure in the small of your back or on your hip? That can tell you whether to make a spin move toward the basket or turn the other way for a fadeaway. There is a counter to every approach the defender takes and the really good post players, like O'Neal and Duncan reach the point where they can read the defender and know in an instant what move is called for."
Coaches can only hope the success of O'Neal and Duncan spurs young players to copy low-post techniques in the way that Magic influenced a generation of big players to concentrate on passing and ball-handling skills. The ones who develop their back-to-the-basket game are the ones most likely to wear championship jewelry. Post play may be a dying art, but mastery of it is still crucial to a long postseason life.