League-wide trends and the evolution of defensive schemes have made it harder for post-up players to thrive as they once did, but post work is more a displaced art than a lost one. There are still those who can score in bunches from the block -- it's just not as easy to build an entire offense around them as it once was. Still, operating from that space on the floor has its distinct advantages in terms of breaking down a defense from within and creating high-value shot attempts -- functions cloaked in a throwback reverence.
As noted by Lee Jenkins in this week's Sports Illustrated, Charlotte's Al Jefferson is a symbol for just that kind of play. He's far from the only NBA big who still makes a living from the block, though, and as a companion to Jenkins' piece we've broken down in capsule form the play of the five current players with the best post moves.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
When it comes to post-up play, potency trumps variety. Nowitzki doesn't much bother with the standard assortment of moves and counters, instead relying on a perfectly calibrated fadeaway jumper as his sole trump card. The list of defenders who can even challenge that shot on a regular basis runs but a few deep; those tall enough to reach Nowitzki's fading release point typically get lost on his jukes and pump fakes, while those who are strong enough to body Dirk out of position risk fouling or being caught flat-footed when the shot goes up.
Opponents know what's coming. Yet no matter how springy, solid, or long-armed, there's only so much that any defender can do. To guard Nowitzki on the block is to be helpless:
We've seen that very scene play out countless times in Nowitzki's career, and more and more as the years roll on. A solid third of Nowitzki's shot attempts now come from the post, where he converts 51.6 percent of his attempts according to Synergy Sports. That's an incredible rate to come from variations of a single shot, though it makes sense given how much leverage Nowitzki creates with the threat of his jumper.
This is the madness of defending Dirk Nowitzki: His shooting is so accurate that opponents have to challenge hard if they're to alter his attempt in any way, which then only leaves them more susceptible to Dirk's tricks of footwork and hesitation, which frees up even more open looks. Best of luck to those who get caught in the spiral.
Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats
Jefferson's hardwood self-education is written into his post game, which almost perfectly balances the fundamental and the idiosyncratic. His hook shot is as effective as it is funky; Jefferson's form is part hook and part push, released earlier in his spin towards the hoop than most wold expect. His absurd shot fake won't soon be found in any textbook, either, though Jefferson sells antsy defenders with it all the same. He's very obviously right-hand-dominant, shying away from lefty attempts for the sake of awkward leaners to his right.
Similar hand-crafted elements can be found throughout Jefferson's post work, which otherwise is underlined by precise and technical footwork. His every step is thoughtful. Jefferson won't soon blow by or soar over opponents, but by carefully maneuvering himself toward the basket, he's able to manipulate defenders and create viable scoring angles. His drop step is especially brutal in that regard, as opponents so overplay his righty hook that they leave open that backdoor pivot:
He has the set shot, the sweep, the double pivot, the hook. Yet all are performed in Jefferson's signature variation and style. He's taken the textbook and made it his own.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
The most physically imposing of all players on this list, Gasol is a listed 7-1, weighs in at 265 lbs., and almost impossibly light on his feet. He plods when running end to end as most big men do, but put him in one-on-one coverage in the post and he'll swivel around his opponent before they have even the slightest opportunity to adjust:
Consider that unenviable situation for a moment. After Gasol makes his catch on the block, his defender anticipates using almost all of his strength to avoid a direct back-down. Yet as soon as any pressure is applied to keep Gasol from going middle, he wheels around baseline for an uncontested score. This is a space on the floor where even the slightest mistake can result in a high-percentage look, yet at once Gasol requires that a strong, sizable opponent at once guard against a potential move toward the middle, a quick spin, a turnaround jumper, and/or a slow back-down. Gasol's toolbox overfloweth, as if it weren't tough enough to guard a player who can simply overpower many opponents on his way to the rim.
LeBron James, Miami Heat
The post game is a relatively recent acquisition for James, yet already he's established himself as one of the most efficient low-block options in the game. He uses the turnaround jumper as his base move, though James will also uncork a right-handed hook shot or move into a drop step if the situation calls.
Fundamentally, though, the kinds of matchups that James tends to draw give his post-ups an entirely different flavor from others on this list. Define LeBron's position as you will, but he's typically defended by lankier small forward types -- those with the best chance of both staying in front of James on his drives while keeping a hand in his face. That in itself is a tall order, though the Heat playbook stretches those defenders further by also bringing James to the block periodically to make use of his size advantage.
Being bigger, much stronger, and typically more athletic than his opponent, James works his way into incredibly deep post position with relative ease:
From there, it's easy for James. He's one of the game's greatest kick-out passers should the defense collapse, and if they don't he's set up for a clean score. It all comes easy for James, if only because he has the size, the brawn, and the tools to make it so.
Years of wear and injury have slowly chipped away at certain dimensions of Gasol's game, though the fluidity of his post work endures. No player in the league is better at stringing together move upon move down low, in part because he's so solid in executing so many moves with either hand:
That he's not as quick as he once was has made it slightly more difficult for Gasol to pull off these elaborate sequences cleanly, though he generally makes up for that lag on touch and technique alone. Even as he ages, fights through injuries, and loses focus in playing for such a crummy team, Gasol remains an exceptionally clever offensive players. He sees passing and scoring windows that few even recognize, and fewer still have the skill and means to access.