Offensive and defensive assumptions behind Blitz Basketball

April 26th, 2016

Last week, I re-formatted the diagrams in Blitz Basketball to make it available through Amazon Kindle. It was the first time that I had read the book since I wrote it in 2008 (originally in 2006, with the second version completed in 2008).  Read the rest of this entry »

Skill, Versatility, and Small Ball

December 9th, 2015

Twitter is not conducive to an actual argument or explanation. After trying in futility to make a point about small ball and the Golden State Warriors, a full article is required. The argument started with a tweet that was retweeted into my timeline: Read the rest of this entry »

Zen and the Set Play in Basketball

January 7th, 2015

A Zen Story:

There were two temples, rivals. Both the masters….were so much against each other that they told their followers never to look at the other temple. Read the rest of this entry »

End of the UNC vs Iowa State Game with FIBA rules

March 25th, 2014

Read the rest of this entry »

Steve Alford wins the Pac12 Championship by going 2-for-1 late in the game

March 17th, 2014

The best coaching decision that I saw all weekend was made by Steve Alford of UCLA. With 50 seconds left in a tie game, Alford set up a play to go 2-for-1: Read the rest of this entry »

The chaos theory in basketball

March 2nd, 2014

During the Sloan conference this weekend, I saw tweets referencing George Karl and Jeff Van Gundy referencing chaos in basketball. I tried to find out more information about what was said, but the best was this small article by Curtis Harris that doesn’t explain in any depth the concept of chaos from the conference. Read the rest of this entry »

The Fallacy of Wins and Losses in Youth Sports

January 31st, 2011

Note: Originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

In a recent youth football championship game, one team trailed 6-0 when the coach ordered a trick play that is now a youtube sensation. After a penalty, he called out loudly that the defense had been off-side, and the official forgot to walk off the five yards. He yelled at his center to move the ball forward. The center stood up and handed the ball over his shoulder to the quarterback, which is a legal maneuver. The quarterback started to walk off the five yards and then sprinted past the unassuming defenders for the game-tying touchdown. Read the rest of this entry »

A Lesson from College Football

October 13th, 2010

In Greg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, he writes about Oregon University’s offense:

Pass patterns are minimal, which keeps the quarterback’s mind from melting under the pace…The blur offense has maybe 20 plays, though several involve an option about who carries the ball. A very simple playbook allows Oregon to perfect the execution and snap really quickly.

Oregon emphasizes execution and speed of play, and they score at a near-record pace. Rather than add complexity, as has been the trend over the last decade, Oregon simplifies. As Easterbrook writes, offenses and defenses ebb and flow – an offensive system gains an advantage and then defensive systems adjust and force offenses to develop something new.

The idea of simplification is important for basketball coaches, especially at the youth level. Rather than out-duel the opposition with added complexity (more presses, more defenses, more set plays, more OB plays), out-execute the opponent through simplification, speed of play and skill execution.

Often, when a team lacks great individual skill, a coach feels compelled to add complexity to give the team an opportunity to compete. However, rather than adding complexity which makes the skill execution more complicated, why not simplify?

When we developed the Blitz Basketball methodology, we simplified. We were an u9 boys’ team, and we had no great shooters. Rather than adding complexity to create open shots for the best shooter, we implemented a system so most outside shots resulted from dribble penetration into the middle and a pass out; were shot off the catch; and the pass was received with the player facing the basket and standing still. In essence, from a shooting standpoint, we eliminated as many variables as possible to simplify any outside shots.

From our standpoint, the Blitz system dovetailed nicely with a Teaching Games for Understanding approach to coaching. I had been coaching college basketball where my primary responsibility was running off-season workouts with the guards and running through shooting and ball handling drills with the guards during position breakdowns. Therefore, I was in an individual skill and drill mind-frame when I started to coach the nine-year-olds. The program director, Jerome Greene, had a son of the team, so he attended every practice. After every practice, he implored me to allow them to play more – he said that they would only learn to play the game through playing, not through a bunch of drills. He changed my mindset and the Blitz system developed naturally through this change.

In his New York Times’ article, “Oregon Turns Practice Into Nonstop Sprint With Precision as Goal,” Pete Thamel writes:

Oregon’s practices last two hours, an hour less than a typical college practice, and there is so little time between plays that coaches must do their teaching with only a few words or wait until the film room. Kelly said that practice had become so sophisticated and fluid that getting off 30 snaps in a 10-minute period had become common.

While basketball differs from football, a shorter, more intense, more focused practice is better in basketball too. When I coached in a professional league in Sweden, we had 90 minutes for practice. When time is an issue, it forces the coach to prioritize and make decisions.

“That relentless pace and superior conditioning help explain how Oregon has outscored its opponents, 86-7, in the second half this season without ever running that staple of football conditioning drudgery — wind sprints.

‘Practice is a wind sprint,’ said Nate Costa, Oregon’s backup quarterback. ‘There’s no real need to do that additionally.’”

When we added more small-sided games and scrimmaging, as opposed to drills, we eliminated conditioning because the players were in good shape. The practice conditioned the players for games because the entire practice was game-like. In a limited amount of time, we prepared players for games while improving technical skills like ball handling, passing and lay-ups and tactical skills like handling traps, spacing and trapping on defense.

In addition to simplifying, Oregon Head Coach innovates:

The high-speed practices mean that wide receivers must learn to run backward to the huddle to see the next play. Receivers are taught not to chase after missed passes and to sprint to the referee, who is a manager wearing an official’s jersey, to hand him the ball after a completion.

Simple things, really, but innovative and creative because few coaches cover the small details. When I visited Vance Walberg to write an article about Fresno City College, the two things that stood out to me the most were that he taught the jump ball and he chose specific players for specific spots for blocking out on opponents’ free throws. Many teams have a play for the jump ball; Walberg actually taught the principles of making sure they won the tip. Many coaches concentrate on blocking out: Walberg made it a reward or honor to be the player under the basket, and at that time, it was 6’2 point guard Tyronne Jackson boxing out under the basket.

As the end of the day, whether the offense is simplified or complex, execution determines success. Last season, at the high school level, I used one defense, one offense and four out of bounds plays. We won the league championship, and we were not the most talented or skilled team. We beat one team by 30+ points, and the coach called a different play every time down the court, none of which worked because the players thought too long about what they were doing and were constantly correcting each other on where they were supposed to go.

I recently read a post with the coach of a youth team bragging that you could not win a game in their youth league playing only one defense. I find that astonishing since UCLA went to three Final Fours in a row without changing its defense. In the end, it is not so much what you do, as how you do it. The blur offense looks great, but it is the precision and execution that makes it great, not the intricacy of the 20 different plays in the playbook.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

Did Efficiency Statistics Kill the Mid-Range Jump Shot?

September 24th, 2010

Every season, a coach or NBA analyst publicly bemoans the lost art of the mid-range jump shot. I never understand the argument, as a mid-range jump shot is typically a lower percentage shot than a three-pointer, the shot typically vilified by the argument (we’re arguing, of course, about players old and strong enough to shoot three-pointers without altering their shooting technique; I’m not advocating for six-year-olds to start jacking threes).

I don’t see a problem with the apparent “lack of mid-range shooting” mythologized by some. A mid-range jump shot is an inefficient shot. Last season, our entire defensive game plan was to force mid-range jump shots, preferably off the dribble.

A stand-still catch-and-shoot three-pointer is an easier and higher efficiency shot than an off-the-dribble, full-speed pull-up jump shot. There are many more variables at work in a mid-ramge jump shot versus a three-point shot, not the least of which is that a three-point shot is from the same distance and speed every single time which improves the specificity of practice. The increase in three-point shooting has nothing to do with pleasing the crowd, as some suggest, but an evolution as the game becomes more statistically analysis-based.

What are the variables for a stand-still catch-and-shoot three-pointer? The defense. Distance is constant and shooting technique should be constant.

What are the variables for an off-the-dribble pull-up jump shot? Pick-up of the dribble (left or right). Speed of movement forward. Speed of movement lateral of the basket. Degree of bend to decelerate. Type of stop. Defense’s proximity. Distance from the basket.

Therefore, once a player is strong enough to overcome the distance to the basket, a catch-and-shoot three-pointer has fewer variables to consider than a mid-range jump shot. To the point of variables and difficulty, in the 2009-10 NBA season assisted shot values ranged from 36.9 (Orlando) to 77.2 (Utah) for shots from 16ft-23ft and 32.1 (NYK) to 52.9 (Toronto) for shots 10ft – 15ft.

On the other hand, assist values for three-point shots ranged from 75.7 (Cleveland) to 92.6 (Indiana).

While not a definitive measure of shot complexity, assisted shots generally mean that another player created the shot for the shooter, while unassisted shots mean that a player had to create his own. In my opinion, when one must create his own shot for a jump shot, that is a more complex shot with more variables than a shot created by a teammate.

Looking at the shooting percentages and efficiency numbers, and considering that the three-pointer is worth 50% more than a two-point shot, illustrates the reasoning behind increased three-point shooting and decreased emphasis on the mid-range jump shot.

In the NBA, mid-range shots are defined as 16-23 feet. Last season, team shooting percentages ranged from 36.4% (Charlotte) to 43.2% (Dallas). Shots from 10-15 feet ranged from 34% (NJ) to 44% (LAL), while three-pointers ranged from 31.4% (Detroit) to 41.2% (PHX). Teams shoot better on mid-range shots, but not enough to overcome the extra point.

In terms of offensive efficiency, the top 5 NBA teams in 2009-10 were PHX, Orlando, Atlanta, Cleveland and Denver. These teams ranked 1st, 4th, 9th, 2nd and 10th respectively in 3-point percentage and 3rd, 10th, 18th, 23rd and 16th respectively in mid-range shooting.

What to make of the numbers?

1) Offensive efficiency (the measure of how good an offense is in terms of points scored per 100 possessions) correlates with good three-point shooting more than good mid-range shooting.

2) Three-pointers occur after a pass more often than 2-point jump shots.

3) The efficiency from the three-point line per 100 shots for the worst three-point shooting team is better than the efficiency on mid-range jump shots of the best 2-pt jump shooting team.

Now, mid-range jump shots MAY lead to more free throw attempts, shorter rebounds, etc. Of course, many teams now design their defenses to encourage deep two-point shots and discourage three-point shots, meaning some of three-point attempts may be tougher shots now, leading to lower shooting percentages.

In my last two coaching positions with high school girls’ teams, I actually encouraged lesser players to shoot three-pointers. Why?

  1. It stretches the defense for other players if they are a threat.
  2. They were novice players and fairly unskilled. If they did not shoot, they often traveled when trying to make a move and drive to the basket. If they missed, we had a chance for an offensive rebound, and we were a good offensive rebounding team.
  3. They were the smallest players on the team, and often on the court, and had difficulty shooting or passing inside the key.

In one game against the defending Section Champions with my top two players fouled out in the third quarter, this player hit 5 three-pointers. She kept the game close with her shooting, and she had the confidence to shoot because I encouraged her to shoot all season. She did not shoot a high percentage that season, but, honestly, nobody shot a high percentage at that level of play. You never know when the attempts will pay off, especially when players are not scared of being yanked from the game for a shot attempt.

Now, I do not take this approach with all players. When I coached a pro women’s team, I encouraged our worst offensive player (who we needed on the court for her defense) to put her head down and drive hard to the basket on her first pass reception of the game. I did not care if she drew a foul, made a basket, missed a lay-up or was called for a charge: I simply wanted our opposition to know that they could not leave her to double our best player because she would attack the basket. She went from a player who played less than 10 minutes during the previous season and who traveled almost every time she caught the ball at the start of the season to a very important role player/defender off the bench who did not kill us offensively.

However, back to the argument, the “lost art of the mid-range game” is not as bad as those who mythologize the mid-range shot make it appear as (1) it is a lower efficiency shot and (2) there are more variables on the shot making it a more difficult shot and (3) there is less specificity of practice.

Therefore, why is it a bad thing that more players and teams take higher efficiency shots with fewer variables and more specificity of practice (distance is the same every shot, just like practice, whereas the distance changes constantly for a mid-range shot)?

If the argument eliminated the idea of three-point shots versus two-point shots, and instead started with the suggestion that high school teams should take higher efficiency shots where there are fewer variables and a greater specificity of practice, would anyone disagree?

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

Creating a Defensive Strategy or Principles

May 8th, 2010

I never played on a team that played zone defense, and I developed with the mindset that teams only play zone defense if they do not think that they can guard the opponent man-to-man.

However, as I began to coach, I realized that man-defense and zone-defense are very similar. When I coached in a professional women’s league in Sweden, we upset one of the top-ranked teams in the last game before the All-Star teams were announced. The Swedish National Team coach was in attendance. Our opponent had four players who were likely to make the All-Star Game (one played at LSU and the other at Miami). We won by 20+ points and held them below 50 points (averaged over 70ppg). After the game, their coach told them that their performance cost them an All-Star selection. Actually, it probably cost them one spot, as we received two selections, and they had three players represented even though we swept them on the season by double-digits in both games.

At the All-Star Game (I was the Head Coach and these players were on my team), we went out to dinner on the night before the game and the players asked me what type of defense we played against them. They guessed that it was a triangle-and-two and then a 2-3-zone. We played man-to-man defense. However, to me, every good man defense is a zone defense, and every good zone defense is a man defense.

At that level, I scouted opponents and game-planned our defense to take away our opponents’ strengths. That was our second time facing them, and we always defended better in the second game because I had a chance to scout based on the first game, whereas I did not always get to see an opponent live or on tape before our first meeting. Against this team, we fronted their strong post player and sagged off their forward who was not an outside shooting threat. They typically had a strong-side triangle or high-low involving their three best players, so we defended those three tightly and used the other two to play lots of help defense, daring their two weaker players to shoot.

At the high school level, my strategy is far more general. This season, rather than starting with specifics of rotations and movements and slides, I started with a general philosophy: force low-percentage shots.

When I played, we never had a general philosophy. The unstated goal, of course, was not to allow the opponent to score. During my J.V. season, our coach’s goal was 50 points allowed, and we ran a sprint for every point over 50 that we allowed.

There is no defense to prevent the opponent from shooting or to generate a steal on every possession. Therefore, as a coach, I am conceding that our opponent will shoot. My goal defensively is to dictate where the shots are taken.

To force low-percentage shots, we strove to do three things: prevent lay-ups, limit free throws and eliminate catch-and-shoot three-pointers. We never practiced weak-side rotations. However, we practiced contesting a lay-up in transition without fouling. We did not practice a traditional closeout; however, we practiced running at a shooter and forcing the drive.

While we defended a man, we really defended areas of the court. We defended the paint, meaning that off-ball defenders were prepared to help if someone had a lane to the basket even though we never worked on the proper rotations or the exact spot to stand (we never did the shell drill in the entire season). We defended the lane to the basket.

On the ball, the first goal was to eliminate the catch-and-shoot three-pointer, even if it meant giving up the drive. If our on-ball defender had good defensive position, she played the lane to the basket, not just the player. If the offensive player started to drive, our defender’s goal was not to stop her on her first dribble, but to keep her out of the paint. These are different goals.

If the opponent took one hard dribble and stopped for a 16-foot pull-up jump shot, we played good defense. We believed that a team could not beat us with two-point jump shots because we would make a couple three-pointers and shoot a lot of free throws. Even a good shooting team (50%) from the mid-range area would not beat us without making some three-pointers and free throws.

All of these thoughts and strategies crystallized as I played in my 4v4 men’s league game last night. We play a 2-2 zone and as experienced players, we rotate and cover the ground pretty well. We were playing a bigger, slower team and we started off slowly, as they passed the ball around the perimeter and into the high post and forced us to chase.

Rather than allow them to walk the ball up court, I extended into the back court. I did not guard the man, but I guarded a lane. I forced the ball away from the area of the court that I left open. If they tried to pass over my head, I forced a lob pass, which gave me time to recover, or I stole the pass. By extending the defense, we gave up some open shots. However, these shots were typically runners from 15-feet or angled 18-foot jump shots. More important, these shots were taken when we had 3-4 defenders, while they had 2-3 offensive players.

On the first couple possessions, we gave up several offensive rebounds that led to most of their early points. Once we extended the defense, their rebounds diminished. While it appeared that we gave up open shots, we created advantages for our defense. They took hurried 18-foot jump shots which increased the pace (our advantage) and limited their offensive rebound opportunities. Sure, they made a couple jump shots, but they were the shots that we (I) could live with because they shot a low percentage and we easily compensated for the made shots with a couple steals for lay-ups.

Most coaches spend a lot of time on specifics with the approach to eliminate all shots or create turnovers on every possession. However, what if you do not create the turnover? What if the other team gets open shots? Are they the shots that you want to give up or the shots that they want to take? Do your players know the difference? Do your players know your defensive philosophy? Is the philosophy realistic?

When creating a defensive strategy, you cannot plan only for the best possible outcome (steal for a breakaway lay-up) but also have to plan for the worst possible outcome (2v1 fast break vs a press or an open shot vs a half-court defense). When your players know how to react in these situations and defend with a purpose, then you have a tough defensive team regardless of the original strategy (man, zone, press).

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League<