Keeping ‘The Dream’ Alive
Hakeem Olajuwon’s attempt to revive the NBA’s post game.
by Mark Cameron
A new NBA off-season trend is today’s young stars taking lessons from the legends of old. Whether it involves working with an assistant coach, such as Dwight Howard gathering tricks from Patrick Ewing, or even learning the art of shooting from an assistant from another organization, like Rajon Rondo working with Mark Price, the League’s top players appear eager to learn.
One of these legends with an eye toward mentoring is Hakeem Olajuwon, who has worked out independently with several players over the past few summers. After initially working with big men such as Yao Ming and Emeka Okafor, Olajuwon caught the attention of NBA wings looking to add another dimension to their game. Last offseason both Kobe Bryant and Josh Smith reached out to Olajuwon in order to work on their post games. This summer he is back to working with bigs, this time tutoring Orlando’s frontcourt tandem of Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard, which is the least he could do given the fact that he publicly schooled Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic with his footwork in the 1995 Finals.
But even though these players appear anxious to workout with Hakeem Olajuwon, how much are they really able to take away from him? Is their time spent with him an attempt to truly learn the art of the post game or is it the newest fad like trying to beat Michael Jordan one-on-one in his Flight School years?
For example, after a summer with Olajuwon, both Kobe Bryant and Josh Smith saw a significant dip in their eFG% around the rim this past season. Furthermore, Synergy Sports Technology shows that last season Bryant had a worse PPP (points per possession) and field goal percentage in post up situations than other shooting guards such as Brandon Roy and Dwyane Wade. Similarly, Josh Smith also scored less often per possession and less efficiently in the post than many other forwards, including LeBron James, Lamar Odom, Rashard Lewis and Luol Deng to name a few.
This doesn’t mean that they’re not learning, however, or that their time with Olajuwon had a negative impact on their post games. In fact, perhaps due to their summer workouts, both Bryant and Smith internalized Olajuwon’s advice and looked to be more active in the post last season. Bryant spent 19.4 percent of his time in the post, an unbelievably high number for a guard, which equaled the amount of time spent in the post by guards Dwyane Wade (6 percent), Brandon Roy (6.3 percent) and Vince Carter (7.1 percent) combined. Smith worked 18.7 percent of his offense in the post, which was significantly more than the aforementioned forwards James (6.3 percent), Odom (9.4 percent), Lewis (12 percent) and Deng (6.9 percent). Ultimately, it’s quite common for a player to experience a drop in efficiency with a large increase in attempts in a certain area, highlighting what tends to be a negative relationship between frequency and efficiency.
In this case, such high percentages suggest that both perimeter oriented wings were so inspired by their time with Olajuwon that they spent the following season dedicating a larger portion of their offensive game to the low-post. And it’s not just the Synergy numbers that suggest that. This past year everyone ranted and raved about the “new” Josh Smith, who lowered his percentage of field goal attempts taken as jumpshots to only 36 percent, down from 47 percent the season before. Additionally, he took only 7 three-pointers last season after averaging 94.2 three-point attempts per year in the five seasons prior.
The changes to Kobe Bryant’s game drew a fair share of media attention as well. After going to work on Shane Battier in the post en route to 41 points in an early November game in Houston, Bryant stared down a familiar face sitting courtside. Olajuwon told the media after the game that “he looked at me to confirm, ‘I’m using what you taught me.’ That was the greatest gift for me.” All of Bryant’s 15 made field goals came from inside the arc and six of them were classified as turnaround jumpshots after backing his defender down.
So what’s the point of all of this? Outside of those two players, the teams they play for, and their fanbase, who truly cares if they decided to restructure their offensive approach with a greater emphasis on developing a low-post game? Well, in addition to Bryant and Smith, Olajuwon has also worked with a variety of NBA centers. As mentioned, he started off teaching post moves to Yao Ming and Emeka Okafor, but has recently made it a point to tutor young, more athletic centers who are capable of learning the moves that made Olajuwon who he was.
Three of these centers are NBA Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard and pivot prospects Hasheem Thabeet and Hassan Whiteside. Howard quickly formed a friendship with Hakeem, claiming that after a brief chat during the 2010 Playoffs, Olajuwon “inspired me to keep playing.” The newly formed partnership between Olajuwon and Howard has the potential to be so strong that one Celtics blogger professed “I shudder at the thought of Dwight Howard working with Dream… learning like two or three moves will make him unstoppable.” Indeed, Hakeem’s work with these young centers holds the promise to refocus the art of the offensive pivot back to playing in the low-post with an array of footwork driven moves.
As Sports Illustrated writer Phil Taylor put it, “until the mid-1990s, quality back-to-the-basket play was a staple of almost every team… lately, however, the consistent low-post scorer has been almost as hard to find as a tattoo-free torso.” And this jab at the lack of polished low-post scorers in the NBA came back in 2001, well before the widespread arrival of European big men who were more comfortable firing up a three and stretching the floor, rather than working in the post.
Back in Olajuwon’s playing days, he could stretch the floor as well and use his jumpshot to lure his defender out of his comfort zone. But it’s important to understand that was all part of the game plan: To set-up his wide array of post moves, which are seemingly missing in today’s game.
It’s unrealistic to think that Hakeem alone is going to bring back the NBA’s low-post game by simply working out with a few choice centers each summer, but it is entirely possible that he kick starts the movement of returning to back-to-the-basket post play. If he can get an established champion like Kobe Bryant to recommit himself or help a young all-star on the rise like Josh Smith to completely restructure his offensive game, then it’s not a stretch to think he could get the NBA’s young up-and-coming centers to focus on post moves as a primary means of scoring, to reverse the hands of time by discarding the face up game as the dominant way to put points on the board.
We may never see another center like Hakeem Olajuwon – a 7-foot, natural scorer with the feet of Ronaldinho and a knack for working around the rim. But his teachings as an NBA freelancer may make up for the fact that we didn’t always appreciate how much he spoiled us with his talents in his playing career.
In the end, it looks like it’s up to Hakeem Olajuwon to work with the next generation of NBA centers and plant the seed that they carry the burden of reviving the League’s back-to-the-basket fundamentals. And, after inspiring a couple of the League’s top stars, it appears it has already begun. I guess that makes “The Dream” the Inception as well.