You can’t just throw it in the post

Just take it into the post, ya know? They’re shooting too many jumpers. Gotta take it down low, down on the block. What are the Pacers doing?

This has become basketball conventional wisdom meets Monday Morning Pointguarding. Post-play good. Jumpers bad. Don’t “fall in love with the jumpshot,” because she’ll give your battle plans to the enemy as you daydream about her curvature and soft touch.

It is a bit like how football’s running game became viewed as more virtuous than the air attack. Don’t get “pass happy,” out there. Better to stick with those ground yards, which are so often ugly and of minimal immediate reward.

But because rushing is so ugly and of minimal immediate reward, the assumption is that it all must pay off like a sound mutual fund or nightly adherence to proper dental hygiene. Of course, that isn’t so. Rule changes have made the thrown ball a far more effective weapon than the toted one. Football’s become somewhat like Los Angeles: Running is a good change-of-pace, but far from the most essential means of conveyance. But maybe the myth of necessary rushing persists because it once was fact, and oral tradition is slow to change.

While the football analogy fails to clarify anything I’m saying, I cite it to demonstrate that these false sacrifices are touted across sports. It’s why there used to be more sacrifice bunting in baseball. A boring submission for the greater good has an emotional pull in sports because it represents the grand lesson we wish to learn from all this. Give of yourself, and the collective should benefit. And in chasing this ideal, the act of sacrifice becomes misunderstood as helping, even when it isn’t.

Post play is just boring enough to carry the “responsible sacrifice” tag, while also having been so formerly effective that anyone with a wrinkle swears by feeding big men like foie gras geese. Talking TV heads lament how there “are no real centers” as though we’ve failed as a society.

The truth is that the centers are all around us, we just legislated them out of the game. As I so often harp, the 2002  legalization of zone defense made life difficult for big men. There is a reason why Rik Smits–in his prime–had a higher usage rate than even today’s best centers, and it’s not that we stopped producing tall people of notable skill.

Speaking of Pacers and the 1990′s, I believe Roy Hibbert would be an ever better All Star in that era. He’s certainly much larger than Robinson, Olajuwon and Ewing pretended to be. His post moves are refined and when given the chance, he drops ball-in-hoop like an automated arcade prize claw. But there is a problem, an obstruction to the plan that was salient on Sunday. It just wasn’t mentioned by the many who lamented how Indiana failed to press their frontcourt advantage in Game 1. Simply put, the Heat don’t want Hibbert to get the ball.

If this was 1995, “going to the post” would simple as wanting to do just that. In a world where teams can front a center while shifting defensive help? A bit tougher, and, well, see below:

Roy Hibbert is being fronted (blue line) by Udonis Haslem. I’ve highlighted the basketball 1970′s orange because my eyes are made from funhouse mirror scraps, and it’s hard for me to spot the rock.

Shane Battier is playing defense that once was illegal, as he’s ignoring his man (Paul George) and zoning towards Hibbert.

The high entry pass makes it over Haslem’s head, but Battier races in to get the steal. Thieved indeed. 

Let’s look at a similar play, but in a world with illegal defense. It’s 1995, life is blurry, and Hakeem Olajuwon is being fronted. Under modern rules, Karl Malone could follow the top arrow and lend support.

Karl Malone is not allowed to do this of course. He has to follow his man–Chucky Brown–out to the three point line. Brown made 22 three pointers in his entire, lengthy career, but Malone is forced to track him, due to illegal defense concerns.

The result is a successful entry pass, and a sweet Hakeem dunk. Points, indeed.

Even in non-fronted situations, life is tough for the modern big. Below, Roy Hibbert runs a screen and roll with George Hill.

LeBron James has been keyed on Hibbert the whole time and shifts over, leaving his guy somewhere out of sight and mind by the corner three spot.

Hibbert is harassed on the catch. He managed to pass out of this nicely, but the possession ended in a miss. Swarm, indeed. Again, James could get called for illegal D in a bygone era.

Our old friend Rik Smits didn’t have to put up with such hazards. In this instance, he’s fronted, but has room to make a catch, especially if Reggie Miller pulls his defender from the scene.

Instead, Smits sets a screen and spots up. Scottie Pippen has a responsibility to his man, above the arc, but Pippen is opportunistically eyeing Rik.

Not so fast, Scottie. Pippen is below the free throw line and his guy is somewhere near halfcourt. This is not allowed and the refs made the call. Illegal indeed. This call may have decided Game 6 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals–kind of a big deal at the time.

We’re living in a different era, one in which horizontal space has been opened up at the expense of the lumbering. The more floor area available, the more it pays to be mobile. While players like Roy Hibbert, Al Jefferson, and Andrew Bynum can still be incredibly valuable, rules dictate that they cannot dominate as their ilk once could. If you want your team’s center to go out and crush the meek, just remember: It’s not so easy.

Related posts:

  1. Ban the Free Throw
  2. Hanging With Mr. Hooper #3: The Washington Post’s Joel Censer
  3. Remembering the Malone free throw chant


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