In previous seasons, I used very little structure offensively. I was coaching high-school freshman, so I wanted them to learn to see the game and to make plays, rather than running plays. I wanted to provide freedom to make and learn from mistakes of decisions rather than mistakes of not running the play correctly. My goal was developmental, not winning, and I felt the relative lack of structure enhanced the development, as all the players had opportunities to practice all the skills – passing, shooting, dribbling, cutting, posting, etc.
When I took over this season, I knew I would need more structure because the defense in a 1st Division league would be much better than high-school freshman defense. However, I also did not want to force a ton of plays or ton of structure on the team. I settled on a Spurs-like approach at the outset.
Essentially, the objective was to push the ball down the wing and look into the post. When the post was not available, reverse the ball and run some kind of action off the ball reversal. As with the Spurs above, the objective is to make this happen quickly. In most of the possessions, the Spurs have the ball reversed within 6 seconds of the shot clock. It is not exactly the Phoenix Suns 7 seconds or less offense, but it creates movement and forces the defense to defend the entire court.
In our first games against teams from higher leagues in another country, we struggled to get open on the wings. This should have led to a quick drag screen in the middle of the court:
In reality, this was my intention: I wanted to establish the wings and spread out the defense, and then use the middle on-ball screen because my two best players are my point guard and post. However, by our first practice games, we had not practiced enough or built the chemistry to do this effectively.
At that point, I got the sense that the team desired more structure. A couple players even said as much. It seemed as though we were used to running lots of plays, as opposed to playing. We also had a tendency to slow down, especially since many teams would press to take the ball out of my point guard’s hands. When we walked up the court, the Spurs’ action above is not as effective, especially if the wings are denied.
Therefore, I added a little more structure. My goal, as I say before every game, is to attack with transition. Our other plays and quick hitters are there if we are slowed down or want to change up the attack. My objective was not to go strictly to plays every time. I rarely if ever call out a play during the course of the game – the point guard has complete freedom to call out a play. My only play calls, generally-speaking, are out of dead-ball situations where I want a specific attack (the same goes for out of bounds plays – the players call out every play unless it is out of a timeout).
The problem now, I am finding, is that we are caught between the two, and some players excel in one but not the other. For instance, when my point guard is denied, and my shooting guard handles the ball, he almost always calls a play, and we almost always take too long to get into the play. However, I feel like he craves structure. A couple other players think too much when we are not in early transition. They don’t trust themselves and travel on their first step or hesitate when shooting. They think too much about the plays, and consequently are a step slow (it’s never good when the defense, through scouting, knows the play better than one of your players!).
My u20s are playing in a tournament this weekend. At halftime of the first game, we were playing too slow. We were walking up the ball and calling out plays. At halftime, I prohibited them from running plays. Play fast and attack the basket. Stop thinking. Do. In a 15-minute running clock game, we tied the game after trailing by 17, and had two chances to win the game. Of course, after attacking the entire half, once we tied the game, we slowed down and tried to run a play!
In the second game, I went over basic offensive concepts – pass and cut, space away from dribble penetration, use the whole court, pass into the post and cut. That’s it. I said that I only cared that we played fast – no walking the ball up and down the court. All five guys defensive rebound and then sprint the floor.
Of course, this turned into quick possessions and some ugly basketball, even though we got pretty good shots. Our first 6 possessions included 4 lay-ups, a wide open three-pointer off a kick out, and a turnover when we over-passed in the key. Six possessions where we attacked and got to the basket, but we did not score. Would we have scored if we slowed down and ran a play? Would it look better if we passed the ball more?
After a couple forced shots, I called timeout. I said that playing fast does not mean that we have to shoot with 0 or 1 pass. Instead, the objective is to get the ball into the scoring zone quickly (no walking), get into the paint, and find a good shot. When a big help defender comes to the ball, find the open guy.
When I was home, I thought about getting rid of so many plays (honestly, we have like 10 plays, and if we read the game better, it would be like 4 plays with different options) and allowing them just to play a motion-style offense. I thought that maybe that would encourage players to stop thinking so much about the plays (which some still cannot remember), and more about making moves or finding the open guy. However, after watching most of the team (my u20s represent all but 3 players on my 1st Division team), I am not sure if a lack of structure fits them. It fits my small forward definitely: the less that he thinks, the better that he plays; his best game was a scrimmage where the opponent pressed the entire game, and we turned their press into a 3v2 fast break, with him finishing most of the possessions. Beyond him, I do not know that a lack of structure fits.
Part of the problem is me. I do not like to give defined roles to players. For instance, I do not want to tell a player not to shoot. However, without any structure, guys are taking shots that they shouldn’t or trying to make plays that aren’t there. With the u20s, I am less concerned, as they need to learn, and these games are their opportunities to (1) expand their skills and (2) learn. However, if they do the same things in the 1st Division games, we have problems. Some of this could be alleviated, I suppose, if I told guys not to shoot or only to do this or that, but that’s not me. Our problem, at least in part, is over-thinking; I don’t know how questioning their attempts to shoot or attack will reduce the problem with over-thinking. Generally-speaking, I can live with their mistakes of aggression; it is the passive mistakes that frustrate me. Even our American import yells at the young guys more for passing up shots rather than for taking bad shots.
In thinking about sets vs. playing, I am caught in between two mindsets. I want to have some structure and play with some basic fundamental principles. However, when we play based on principles, rather than using a play based on the principles, we tend to stand around and forget the principles. At least with a small amount of structure, we get the movement started and initiate with something other than standing around. However, once we enter a play, we tend to focus too much on the play.
It is a conundrum that I have tried to attack by using the u20 games to play without structure to create learning opportunities. However, every time I tell the guys to play, they ask if they can run plays. Their comfort increases within the confines of the structure even when it causes us to slow down and think too much. I have been waiting for the time when things would start to click, but I am still waiting (of course, to be fair, we were the 2nd highest scoring team in the league until the last week, and we have only played 4 of 12 games with our best player. When he returns, he could be the trigger that makes things click, as our best performance of the season was the last game before he was injured).
After watching the games last week and writing about the aesthetics, I have continued thinking about the topic and debating different philosophies in my head as I watch my guys play. I am still uncertain of the answer. If you get good shots without running anything, is that a bad thing? Is living with the mistakes of a lack of structure better than living with players thinking too much or playing too slow when trying to run plays?
By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League