Basketball offense and self-organization

A team is a dynamic system. “A system is a set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own patterns of behavior over time,” (Meadows, 2008; p. 2).

Teams practice and play together, and as they do, certain behaviors emerge. In high school, I played in several three-on-three tournaments with a couple of friends. We played together at lunch in pickup games almost every day. When we played in the tournaments, I learned to trust Pado to roll hard every time that he set a screen. I dribbled off the on-ball screen, saw the defense switch, and immediately threw a behind-the-back pass. It was not a play. It was not something that we diagrammed ahead of time. We played together, it worked, we trusted each other, and it became a pattern of behavior.

“A system must consist of three things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose” (Meadows, 2008; p. 11). The elements in  a team are the players and coaches; the interconnections between the players and coaches should be obvious; and the purpose or function, in terms of offense, is to score.

“A system may exhibit adaptive, dynamic, goal-seeking, self-preserving, and sometimes evolutionary behavior,” (Meadows, 2008; p. 12). Teams adapt to the court, the ball, the opponent, the officials, the fans, and more. Teams often do whatever it takes for self-preservation: Why else would Hack-a-Shaq exist? It is an attempt for a weaker opponent to survive.

“The capacity of a system to make its own structure more complex is called self-organization,” (Meadows, 2008; p. 79). Coaches increase complexity through positions, plays, strategy, and tactics. Players grow more complex by improving their skills and increasing their game understanding.

“Science knows that self-organizing systems arise from simple rules,” (Meadows, 2008; p. 81). It is amazing to watch teams in practice when they play cut throat or a similar game, and the ball and player movement look crisp, which could be the antithesis of how the team looks in games. I have – and I know other coaches who have said the same thing – wondered to myself from time to time: Maybe we should play our games with the cut throat rules. If the ball and players move better with simple rules, why add plays and other complexity that may stifle the movement?

“Placing a system in a straightjacket of consistency can cause fragility to evolve.” – C.S. Holling, ecologist

“Self-organization is often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity and stability,” (Meadows, 2008; p. 79). Despite a team’s success with cut throat, coaches tend to crave control. They desire predictability. They want to control the action as much as possible from the sideline. Of course, when the coach controls everything, the team may become fragile. When a team is predictable, it is easier to scout. When players are unable to adapt or evolve because of the coach’s demands, they will struggle with unpredictability.

I watch players  who can dribble through a press every time, but their team runs a structured press break. When the press break breaks down, suddenly the player looks inept under pressure and makes uncharacteristic mistakes. Despite possessing the skill, the coach’s straightjacket of consistency causes an inability to adapt and use the skill.

When we watch great offense, we are seeing self-organization. A system is hierarchical, but it starts from the bottom and adds layers as necessary rather than starting at the top. The body starts with cells that grow into tissues and organs; we do not start fully formed and add cells. Similarly, the team starts with the players.

The coach can assist and enhance the self-organization, or he can be the straightjacket. From an overall perspective, too many coaches at the lower levels aim for the straightjacket of consistency and do not allow the self-organization to occur. At each ascending level, it becomes more difficult for coaches to let go because players are unaccustomed to the lack of structure.

When teams self-organize around a few simple rules, the offense grows more complex organically, as players grow comfortable with their teammates. These offenses become fun to watch and hard to guard, as they seemingly have an answer for every defense. They are difficult to scout because they are less predictable. Because of the self-organization, they are adaptable. Rather than running a play to its conclusion, they adjust within the rules and based on the defense to exploit advantages.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals



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