The 80s and 90s were the Golden Era of the big man. Centers and power forwards led their teams through the NBA playoffs, and dominated that era with physical defense, tough rebounding, and interior scoring. Big men were a staple of a good team, and the building block of any franchise that needed to mire out of mediocrity. The classic post has disappeared at every level of basketball, because players of this era are missing several of the fundamental characteristics that allowed players from other time periods to dominate. There are at least four basic components to a great post player, the ability to give and take contact, the requisite skills to score field goals, the ability to get good positioning in all facets of the game, and the heart to want to dominate. No big man can succeed without an understanding and some semblance of these four principles.
The problem with a good percentage of big men in the game today is that they do not relish contact. In order to be dominant under the rim, a certain level of physicality is necessary. The larger basketball players have to ward off their opponents while they take shots in the post, jostle for position when they rebound the basketball, and clear space for the smaller guards on every offensive set. Those actions require that big men have an affinity for hitting other people and a certain level of tolerance for being hit. The best big men in basketball have the temperance of football players, and the best teams at any level of basketball are made of players that are willing to use their bodies to score baskets on offense and regularly put their bodies between their opponents and the basket on defense. Big men of yesteryear were intimidators, and the big men of today could learn from them. Basketball is a contact sport, and posts represent the tougher sect of athletes that hit the basketball court. No big man can excel without being willing and able to throw his weight around in the paint.
And, in addition to simply being willing to mix it up under the goal, any good power forward or center must have a solid understanding of basic post moves. Delegation of strength or size is useless without the core pieces of interior scoring, the hook shot and the drop step. All offensive moves and countermoves are set up from one of those two basic steps, so post players must feel comfortable using both weapons in the painted area to be efficient scorers. They are the yin and yang of the paint. A good hook starts with the big man making contact with their defender to create separation between them, and then rolling a soft shot off the fingertips of the hand opposite the defender. It is a classic power move. Hit the defender and score. But, the basic drop step represents the basic finesse move. Drop steps use the defenders strength and momentum to slip away from contact and score. Once a defender gives away their position by pushing the offensive player, the big drops the opposite leg past that defender, collects himself with a second step while squaring his shoulders, and slips past the opponent for an easy score. Great forwards and centers throughout NBA history used these fundamental shots in combination with jab steps and pump fakes to set up more complex offensive weapons like the fade-away, powerful spin moves, and the up-and-under layup.
One of the most glaring flaws in the skill set of post players today is their lack of positioning when executing the most basic elements of the game. In order for a big man to play effectively against the athletic point guards and wings of the NBA and to outperform other bigs on the low block, he must always put himself in the right position. Scoring, rebounding, blocking shots, and setting picks, the building blocks of a great big man’s game, require that the player be in the correct spot on most plays. And each category is predicated on a different type of positioning.
Scoring is thought to be dependent solely on footwork and touch, however great scorers work to get to their spots on the courts. Shooters work to get to their favorite high percentage areas on the perimeter, and post players should be working to get the deepest possible position in the paint. In general, the closer a shot is to the basket, the more likely the player who took the shot will score. Big men today are regularly forced off the block because they do not begin fighting for deep position before they receive the basketball. Catching the basketball further out on the floor makes easy scores more difficult, so good athletes should fight for space deep in the paint.
And, the same is true of rebounding. Post players do not properly position themselves to get rebounds before the ball is shot so individual rebounding numbers across the nation have suffered though shooting percentages have remained fairly constant. Long shots generally produce long rebounds, and short shots make short rebounds. Since the same few players take most of the shots for their teams and most missed field goal attempts careen to the other side of the rim, rebounders should be able to track the flight of the basketball fairly easily. Yet, big men find themselves pushed under the rim and out of position for rebounds regularly. Lack of positioning affects rebounding as much as it does scoring.
But, all parts of the game require a focus on getting to the right spots. Consistently blocking shots is a function of being in the right place. Big men have to get their bodies parallel to the offensive player and the goal before the offensive player gets off the ground to block their shot. Failing to do so results in fouls on the defense and converted buckets for the offense.
Even setting picks on offense and playing team defense requires attention to personal proximity on the court. If players are too congested on the hardwood, then the offensive play gets stifled and any pick that was set is rendered meaningless. One man can essentially guard two players without the proper spacing.
On defense, being out of position means giving up easy points. Every defensive player must focus on an individual player, but keep within the team concept of the defensive set. Every good defense depends on each player being in a position to defend the player that they are assigned to stop and help their teammates with the player that is assigned to them.
And though physical play, skilled offensive attacks, and focus on being in the right place are completely necessary, the desire to win may be the biggest factor that is missing from today’s big men. Post players today have no heart. Big men from the past wanted the basketball, demanded the basketball, and desired to destroy their opponents. That is what truly separated the great players from the mediocre ones. They wanted to better than their opponents. Post players had the desire to bully teams, whereas in the internet age everybody wants to be friends. Dwight Howard hangs with LeBron James. LeBron is best friends with Dwayne Wade. Wade still spends time with Chris Bosh. And, none of them attack each other with the fervor that it takes to win championships. Hakeem Olajuwon never spent his weekends with Patrick Ewing. Karl Malone would never call Alonzo Mourning for a quick brunch before a day of shopping with the wives. Great big men do not befriend the enemy.
To dominate as a big man you have to relish contact, learn the finer points of scoring, work at getting good position in evert facet of the game, but most importantly, you have to want to dominate. The post players of today have fallen behind other generations because they lack the desire to compete on that level. They are under-skilled, lack the proper countenance, and lack the level of motivation necessary to destroy their competition. Without a new found focus on these fundamental keys of basketball, the true post player may become extinct altogether.