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If you’re concerned about the potential extinction of post-up NBA big men and mid-range jumpshooters, fear not. Life, uh, finds a way.
If Inside the NBA and the tweets of retired players is your primary source of basketball analysis, you may be under the impression that the NBA is undergoing a massive extinction event. The catastrophic impact of 3-point shooting has sent a shockwave through the basketball world, wiping out the plodding dinosaurs of yesteryear and remaking the NBA climate, rendering it progressively more inhospitable to mid-range jumpshooters, steady floor generals and other archetypes who play the game “the right way.”
The NBA ecosystem has changed dramatically over the past two decades but many players and player archetypes have been able to adapt and evolve. Surviving in the now barren space between the paint and the 3-point line. Staving off the total extinction of their species and finding new ways to pass their basketball genes on to the next generation. There is still room for biological basketball diversity.
So which NBA archetypes have actually gone extinct or find themselves endangered? And who has learned how to adapt and survive?
Endangered species: The post-up big man
According to play type statistics available at NBA.com, Joel Embiid is leading the league this season with an average of 9.2 finished post-up possessions per game. That’s the third-highest mark for the six seasons for which the data is available (Embiid and LaMarcus Aldridge both averaged 9.4 post-up possessions per game in 2018-18) but the trend can be seen in the declining number of high-usage post-up players. In 2015-16, there were 12 players who averaged at least five finished post-up possessions per game. The next season there were eight. Then six. Then seven. Last year there were three and this season there are just four — Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic and Andre Drummond.
Those numbers imply a declining number of big men who do the majority of their offensive damage around the basket, aligning neatly with the sticky and oft-repeated lament of bigs abandoning an advantage in the post to try and make themselves outside shooters. But that’s only partially true and focused on the very narrow structure of back-to-the-basket post-ups.
For example, in 2000-01 (one of the earliest years for which reliable play-by-play data is available) we can find nine players who averaged at least 20 field goal attempts per 100 possessions, with at least 70 percent of their shots coming within 14 feet of the basket. That list — Shaquille O’Neal, Nazr Mohammed, Juwan Howard, Elton Brand, Lorenzen Wright, Tim Duncan, Vin Baker, Marcus Fizer and Brian Grant — includes both stars who acted as primary offensive fulcrums for their teams, as well as role players whose only contribution on the offensive end was scoring around the basket.
So far this season, there are 10 players meeting the same criteria — Andre Drummond, Zion Williamson, Jonas Valanciunas, JaVale McGee, Elfrid Payton, Jimmy Butler, Marvin Bagley, Ja Morant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. There are a few obvious conclusions to draw from that list. The first is that several players in the group are primarily perimeter players who are much more willing to attack off the dribble than pull-up for a jumper. And even among the bigs, Giannis and Zion are the only two who could be reasonably thought of as primary offensive threats for their teams. And those two are far more likely to be creating shots at the basket for themselves with drives or face-up possessions than Shaq, or Elton Brand or Tim Duncan were.
The other quirk here is that the most frequent post-up players we identified above mostly aren’t on this list. Drummond is — as an outlier of circumstance and a Cavs’ team that’s lavishing misguided post-ups on him, mostly to their own detriment. But Embiid, who is leading the league in post-up possessions, by far, also averages 3.0 3-pointers per game. Jokic and Vucevic are at 3.7 and 6.5, respectively. The players who post-up the most have much more diversity in their games than they did two decades ago. And it’s not just about jumpers. Jokic is a revolutionary passer and big men like Domantas Sabonis and Bam Adebayo are increasingly using their facilitation prowess for more than just passing out of post-up double-teams. Vucevic isn’t even a particularly noteworthy passer compared to his contemporary big-man peers, but his assist-per-game numbers the past few years are on par with peak seasons from players like Tim Duncan who were formerly thought of as very good or even elite post passers.
And here’s the fun upshot of all these changes — the post-up has actually gotten more efficient. Using it less has made it more effective. Obviously, the individual talents of Embiid and Jokic have a lot to do with their own success. But up through the 2016-17 season, the average post-up possessions logged by Synergy Sports produced 0.885 points per possession. Over the past two seasons, the average NBA post-up has produced 0.936. That seems like a small improvement but it’s enough to reorder the relative value of several different offensive outcomes.
So while the frequency of the post-up may be declining the post-up big man archetype hasn’t really gone extinct, it’s simply evolved and adapted, adding shooting and flexible playmaking to ensure survival against NBA defenses. But these post-up big men are a keystone species in the NBA ecosystem and their evolution has sent ripples outward, and that’s where we see an actual extinction event.
Two decades ago many NBA teams carried big, strong frontcourt players whose primary utility was to defend the post-up big man. These were players who offered very little at the offensive end and whose defensive contributions were more about acting as an impediment to Shaq or Duncan than protecting the rim and blocking shots. These were your Andrew DeClercqs, Vitaly Potapenkos and Samaki Walkers.
This species of role player never really thrived, but for years they were an integral part of the NBA ecosystem. For the five-season span from 1998 to 2003, there were 15 players who could be loosely categorized in this role, playing a minimum of 2000 combined minutes across those seasons, averaging less than 10 field goal attempts, 2 assists, 2 blocks and one 3-point attempt per 36 minutes. For the past five seasons in the NBA, just two active players fit those criteria — Ian Mahinmi and Bismack Biyombo.
Biyombo is 28 and playing on a one-year deal with the Hornets. He may have another few seasons of NBA basketball ahead of him but if he does it will be because he’s evolving. He’s playing 22.3 minutes per game this season, the most he’s averaged since 2012-13 but he’s secured that role for himself in part by averaging a career-high assist percentage and his highest block rate in five years. He’s surviving by adapting on a personal scale. Mahinmi played just 38 games last season because of injury, wasn’t offered a contract this offseason and, at 32, may be done in the NBA.
The dominant interior big man is alive and well, just different. But the species that relied on them for survival are largely a vestige of history.
Endangered species: The floor general
While the post-up big man escaped extinction with adaptation, the floor general hasn’t been able to follow the same path. The backcourt player whose primary responsibility and contribution is to deliver the ball to a scorer has always been a part of basketball but even in previous eras there was a sharp distinction between players who could and could not contribute a bit of valuable scoring along with it.
The difference between Eric Snow and Mike Bibby is a perfect example. They both finished in the top-10 in assists during the 1999-00 season — 8.1 per game for Bibby and 7.6 for Snow. But Bibby offered a lot more than distribution on offense. He was a 36.3 percent 3-point shooter on nearly three attempts per game. He chipped in 14.5 points per game and leveraged his jumper in a variety of ways to keep a defense off balance. Not so for Snow. He attempted just 45 3-pointers all season long, making just 11. He was not a scoring threat in any way and didn’t even pretend to be.
And of his 625 assists that season, about a third went to Allen Iverson (a dynamic perimeter threat) and another 20 percent went to Tyrone Hill and Theo Ratliff (two bigs who mostly scored with their backs to the basket). He wasn’t using the implied threat of his own scoring prowess to create opportunities for others, the way players like James Harden or Luka Doncic do today. His job was to bring the ball up the court, not turn it over, and get it into the hands of the players who could take care of the scoring themselves.
For the five-year span from 1998 to 2003, there were six additional players in that Eric Snow category — averaging fewer than 12 points, more than 6 assists and fewer than 2 3-point attempts per 36 minutes — who played at least 2000 minutes. A few of this group (Snow, Avery Johnson, Moochie Norris, Jacque Vaughn, Brevin Knight, Muggsy Bogues, Anthony Carter) had strong defensive reputations but mostly their NBA roles were defined by this ability to avoid turnovers and get the ball where it needed to go.
From 2017 to the present, just one player has totaled at least 2000 minutes while meeting those statistical benchmarks — T.J. McConnell. He’s survived with some minor adaptations, as a much more dynamic driver than you’d probably think. This season McConnell has averaged more drives per game than Dennis Schroder, Kyrie Irving or LaMelo Ball. But he’s the last of a dying breed and there’s no obvious evolutionary path to survival — creators who could score and shoot split their taxonomy off from those would couldn’t long ago.
Endangered species: The mid-range assassin
The mid-range assassin is a bit of an amorphous player type. When broadcasters and basketball classicists lament the lost art of the mid-range jumper they don’t seem to be referring to a uniform player type. There are players like Sam Cassell who were red-hot pulling-up off the dribble just inside the arc. There are players like Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady who mixed pull-up jumpers with a steady diet of baseline turnarounds and fallaways out of the post. And then there were the big men like Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Garnett whose mid-range diet came both from the post and from pick-and-pop opportunities at the elbows.
It’s true, that the mid-range jumper has been largely phased into obscurity in the modern game. Shots from beyond the arc have been steadily increasing and by and large shots at the rim have stayed consistent — it’s mid-range jumpers that are being transitioned out behind the arc. In the 2000-01 season, just over 30 percent of shot attempts around the league were classified as mid-range jumpers. This year, it’s just over 10 percent.
However, it’s mostly a very specific kind of mid-range shot that’s being phased out — the catch-and-shoot. In 2000-01, just over two-thirds of the league’s mid-range shots were assisted. This year it’s down to 43.8 percent. The NBA’s player-tracking statistics are only available back to 2013-14 but even in that window, we can see the decline in pull-up 2-pointers isn’t nearly as dramatic. In 2013-14, pull-up 2-pointers made up 17.4 percent of the league’s total shot attempts. This season, that mark is 14.1 percent — a decline but nowhere near as big as the overall decline in mid-range jumpers. The decline in 2-point jumpers then isn’t just about the math of 3 being more than 2, it’s also about teams recognizing the value of spacing and realizing they get more space for dribble penetration if their spot-up shooters are waiting a bit further out, taking their defenders with them.
The upshot of all that is the decline in mid-range frequency is coming mostly from complementary players, spot-up shooters and floor-spacers, not necessarily the primary scorers who used it as a primary part of their arsenal. And those players are still around. For every James Harden, a high-volume scorer who’s excised the mid-range jumper from their shot-selection, there’s a Kevin Durant who still regularly uses it to break a defense.
From 2000-2005, there were 18 players who played at least 5000 minutes, attempted at least 3.5 long mid-range jumpers per 36 minutes and made 43.0 percent or better. For the past five years (with the minute threshold cut to 4000 to account for this partial season and last year’s interruption), there are 20 players who qualify.
You can see that most of the highest-volume mid-range shooters in this sample are from the previous era but the modern era has plenty of frequent shooters and a legit argument for being a more accurate cohort. Especially when you consider there are a whopping 18 players in the earlier cohort who averaged more long mid-range attempts per minute than anyone in the modern cohort but made less than 43 percent. That group includes (an admittedly past-prime) Michael Jordan and Karl Malone, but also Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Chris Webber, Rip Hamilton.
The modern cohort has plenty of players that slot into the different mid-range archetypes — pick-and-roll pull-up wizards like CJ McCollum and Bradley Beal, pick-and-pop bigs like Nikola Vucevic, and the versatile wings in between like Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant. The mid-range game is absolutely used differently than it was two decades ago, but the same kinds of players who excelled at in the past still use it and arguably more effectively than ever. So the next time someone says the mid-range jumper is a dying art, ask them how much they really miss Ricky Davis firing up 18-foot bricks.
Metacognition is an irregular column series, thinking about how we think about basketball. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.