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May 27, 2015

Can Joel Embiid survive in an NBA where post-ups are so uncommon?

The pick-and-roll is king nowadays, but the post-up isn't dead yet

Zach Lowe wrote an interesting piece yesterday about the fragile state of post-up basketball in the NBA. The CliffsNotes version goes something like this: The current rules (hand-checking, zone defense, etc.) have created an environment where it’s much more efficient to spread the floor with shooters and run pick-and-rolls than pound the ball down to your big guy on the low block and tell him to go get a bucket. Here’s the statistical evidence:

There is no debate that post-ups make up a shrinking portion of the scoring pie, though there is some debate about why that is. Only eight teams this season finished even 10 percent of their possessions (via a shot, turnover, or drawn foul) with a post-up, per Synergy Sports. A decade ago, 22 teams hit that mark, and every team ended at least 7.5 percent of its trips with some kind of post-up. One-third of teams finished with a lower post-up share than that this season.

Those Synergy numbers don’t account for the possessions when a post-up forces the other team to double and the offensive team gets an open shot elsewhere, but scoring from the post is definitely down league-wide. I then wondered about how this would affect the Sixers going forward, specifically the guy they have the most invested in by quite a bit. You know, he just so happens to be a post player.

If you looked up the word potential in the dictionary, you would find a definition. On a basketball court, though, I’m not sure you’re going to find a better example than this play:

Embiid is compared to Hakeem Olajuwon for many reasons (freshman numbers, African origin, soccer background, etc.), but that was literally the case of a 19-year-old kid busting out a full-fledged Dream Shake in all of its glory. The question for Embiid is how he can emulate Olajuwon when the rules aren’t as kind to post-up threats as they were in 1995.

Lowe actually provides the blueprint for post play moving forward in the rest of the article. There’s no one specific answer, either. For example, if the Sixers can acquire a point guard capable of shooting 3s off the dribble to pair with Embiid in the pick-and-roll (not a small 'if,' but basically D’Angelo Russell if he pans out), their post-up problem will be largely solved.

One of modern defenses’ favorite ways to deal with such a player is by switching every high ball screen. The way you punish that specific tactic is by dumping the ball down low to Embiid against a much smaller player. Let one of the Sixers’ rivals tell you all about what to do:

“Teams are switching more,” says Danny Ainge, the Celtics GM. “And that means the post-up is still relevant.” Brutalize the switch, and a team may ditch the idea — unshackling the pick-and-roll again.”

When you take a closer look at a juggernaut like Golden State, the type of team the Sixers aspire to eventually become, it’s not just their great shooting that makes them so potent offensively. They also have great passing and post-up threats littered all over their roster, which places opponents in a predicament when the Warriors have legitimate size advantage on the wings. Steve Kerr is comfortable posting up players like Shaun Livingston or Harrison Barnes if an undersized guard is defending them.

The Sixers are together we building for the future behind a post-up threat, even though the league has drifted pretty far away from the practice. From everything we’ve seen from Embiid, he has the total package skill-wise. The question of whether he’ll be able to best leverage those skills in the NBA might come down to how the other players on Sam Hinkie’s roster can post-up as well.

Regardless, how Brett Brown uses Embiid will be a fascinating subplot to see play out.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann