It didn't used to be this hard. It really didn't.
In the mid-1990s, everything ran through the post. Even the Bulls with Michael Jordan centered around the triangle post offense. Most '90s and early 2000s offenses started the same way: an entry pass to Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, even Rik Smits, Ron Seikaly, and Arvidis Sabonis. Work the post, kick out, run your offense.
But somewhere along the way, that changed.
The game has become perimeter initiated, as hybrid forwards like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant use the post out bringing the ball up themselves, and the class of big men has vanished into a mold of simply hoping your guy can rotate effectively or make a tip-in.
In the playoffs last season, when the Heat began their true adoption of the small-ball concept that made them the truly lethal unit that won the title, they faced the Indiana Pacers in the semifinals. The Pacers had built their team around size, strength, toughness, and defense. Specifically they had Roy Hibbert in an All-Star year, with no center to really counter him. It should have been bucket city.
Yet what happened? The Heat beat the Pacers' post offense with a simple front. The Pacers never figured out how to beat it. Hibbert or West would roll, the help defender would come, the offense would have to reset with seconds left on the clock and no perimeter creators. (Paul George hadn't evolved yet. That wrinkle is something to watch if the two teams meet again in May.)
How did this happen? How did throwing a simple entry pass become such a problem? Two of the league's best big men in the post touched on the subject to CBSSports.com.
"It's not easy to make that pass," Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said. "It's something you've got to work on. Say you're right handed. I'm right handed. If I'm on my right in the block, you've got to make that pass with your left. Most passers are trying to either make it with their right, or overhand over their head. If you're doing that at the three-point line, guys are either going to back out or they're going to presssure you. So it's not an easy pass.
And meanwhile, the defense is going to try to front you or three-quarters you or push you off your block. It's something you have to always work on. Basketball players always have to work on everything. You cannot be one-dimensional. The more things you can do on the court, the more value you're going to have on the court."
His partner in crime, Zach Randolph, one of the best post players in the league, thinks the biggest problem is that players aren't having it developed early on anymore.
"A lot of guys don't know how to make the pass," Randolph said. "Times have changed. Guys are fronting you now. Last night, they're fronting me, but now, when they do that, I let them front me and I go high-low. But when Marc flashed, DeAndre dropped back, so Marc's making them pay with the jumper. Defenses are getting smarter. They've got scouting reports now that are emphasizing to front and don't let them get the ball."
Here are two examples against the Clippers of how having that second big to punish the defense for fronting is key.
You'll see here that on the pick-and-roll, Griffin goes to pressure Mike Conley, releasing Gasol. When Gasol cuts to the post, DeAndre Jordan is worried about the high-low pass to Z-Bo near the basket and works to front him. From there, without the rotation, Gasol's got an easy mid-range jumper. That's a low-percentage shot for a lot of players, but for Gasol, it's an in-rhythm set shot, one he's worked to master. Darrell Arthur also kills teams from this spot with that same set.
But that's out of the pick and roll. Watch what happens when the Clippers front Z-Bo straight up in the post and he threatens the roll, forcing Lamar Odom to help on the back side.
Still, the entry pass is a lost art. Is it that the bigs in this league have become so mediocre overall that there's not much value in working on how to feed them? Maybe. But when teams are deploying small-ball lineups on the regular, and leaving themselves open to drastic size mismatches in the paint, teams would do well to give their bigs an opportunity to cash in on that advantage.
But they have to figure out how to get the ball there first.