When Elton Brand was a junior at Peek-skill (N.Y.) High in 1995-96, he was 6'8" and 245 pounds and already could overpower opponents down low for easy buckets. That was about the time he heard that he needed more than just an inside game to make it as a pro. "I was being told that if I wanted to reach the highest level, I had to learn to step outside and face the basket" says Brand, the Chicago Bulls' second-year power forward. He took that advice, and in so doing: followed a path many of his peers have traveled—though that doesn't necessarily mean it's in the best interest of the NBA. The league is bulging with players whose perimeter skills are polished, but it's in dire need of those proficient in the ways of the low post.
Until the mid-1990s, quality back-to-the-basket play was a staple of almost every team, some of which had multiple threats on the blocks. These low-post artists were masters of the complex choreography of drop steps, up-and-unders hook shots seals, and counters. For 13 seasons, beginning in '80-81 forward Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics was a pivoting pump-faking human instructional video around the basket, considered by many the most skilled member of a far-reaching fraternity that has included such big men as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Patrick Ewing, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Parish and Tick Sikma, and not-so-big men like Mark Aguirre, charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley and Bernard King. In the latter stages of his career, 6'6" Michael Jordan was one of the best low-post players in the league.
Lately, however, the consistent low-post scorer has been almost as hard to find as a tattoo-free torso. Teams still toss the ball into the post, but with few exceptions, the players who catch it there don't have polished moves. They are practitioners of low-post lite: able to take advantage of mismatches or shoot over smaller defenders, but ill-equipped to use technique to beat a defender of any size. While many teams have players they can use for a possession or two, only a few clubs have the kind of post player who was once plentiful, one so skilled or so powerful—or both—that his team could feed him the ball constantly and feel confident he'd come away with a basket or a foul, Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal is the prime example of that rare breed, followed closely by San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan, Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber and Portland Trail Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace.
It's no coincidence that the Lakers, the Spurs and the Blazers are considered the top contenders to win the championship, while the Jazz and the Kings appear capable of taking it. Just as telling, the Philadelphia 76ers weren't widely considered a serious title threat, despite having the best record in the East for most of the season until their Fe. 22 trade for 7'2" center Dikembe Mutombo, who, while not a prolific scorer down low, is gifted at stopping players who are.
The paradox of post play is that although it runs counter to nearly everyone's desire for a faster, more fluid pro game and to the evolution of the big man into a more versatile, agile athlete, it's as essential to winning a championship as it ever was. "You can't play basketball without the post-up," says Olajuwon, who added an element of ballet to the low-post bump-and-grind. "It's like building your house without a foundation. The last two teams that won championships were San Antonio with Duncan and David Robinson and the Lakers with O'Neal. You tell me what the foundation of those two teams is."
During the regular season, teams find ways to compensate for the absence of steady post play. Some, like the Phoenix Suns, accelerate the pace of the game and try to get fast-break points. Others, like the New York Knicks, drive to the basket, draw defenders and then pass the ball back out for jumpers. The postseason exposes this void. When the game slows down, the ability to score consistently in a half-court offense is essential. "In the post you can draw fouls" says Blazers forward Shawn Kemp. "If your team gets behind, you can bring it back at the foul line, get points without the clock running."
Because illegal-defense rules prohibit double-teaming until a player has the ball, it's hard to keep it out of a skilled post-up player's hands. Once he gets it, defenses are almost obligated to double, which creates opportunities for cutters and spot-up shooters, especially three-point specialists. "Every team would love to have someone it could go to down low against any matchup," says New Jersey Nets general manager John Nash. "Problem is, they're not making players like that anymore."
That's true, and here are several reasons that production isn't expected to pick up in the near future.
?The change in college offenses. It's hard for a player to develop a post-up game when he rarely gets the ball in the post. The systems widely used by college programs call for constant movement and more versatile big men. Former California coach Pete Newell, who tutors college and pro big men every summer at his camp in Hawaii, remembers recommending a college center to a pair of scouts last season. "They said they couldn't tell how good he was," Newell says, "because he only touched the ball two or three times."
?The Magic Johnson effect. Many players whose size would have made them low-post players in another era grew up wanting to be Magic, not Kareem, and now they show off their ball handling and outside shooting. It's hard to fault 7-foot Kevin Garnett for not wanting to anchor himself to the low post when he has the skills to play 20 feet from the basket. Doing business down low is hard, often brutal work that leads to as many bruises as buckets. "There's a glamour effect for big guys who like to do the crossover and go by the defenders," says Brand, who despite the advice he got in high school is one of the few young players to enter the league in recent years with decent post-up skills. "Everybody wants to be versatile. We want to be like Magic, 6'9" and handling the ball."