Offensive Basketball: Caught Between Two Minds

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

6 thoughts on “Offensive Basketball: Caught Between Two Minds

  • I am puzzled by your article. The Spurs offense may be free flowing but it is a very structured and complicated offense and it requires a whole lot of discipline to run. Even for U20 players that is a lot to ask.

    If you had said you were running the Open Post offense and your players were struggling with the lack of structure I still would be puzzled. Almost all offensive systems have a base set of rules built around some type of formation or philosophy (i.e the dribble penetration game, the passing game, the screening game) and there are very few offensive systems that cannot be simplified for the for the 12-14 year old age group.

    Your article suggests the players are moving too slowly into their offense sets, are standing around too much once the offense starts and are questioning what they should be doing within the offense. It sounds as if they are confused. Without having seen your team it almost reads like they are over-structured.

    Just a thought.

  • As I wrote, I wanted a “Spurs-like approach.” We don’t run the “Spurs Offense,” just one simplified, basic set where “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.”

    Second, my main team is not an u20 team – it is a 1st Division team. However, most of the team also plays u20, and the average age of the team is around 20. My youngest player is 17 and oldest is 36.

    In a lot of ways, our problem is deciding when or how to break from a play and which option of several to use. For instance, out of a Horns set, when the point guard enters and runs to the strong side, when does the weak side wing make a blast cut and post? This only works if the post with the ball anticipates the cut, but because it is not a “designed play”, he could be looking for the cutter coming off the strong side screen action. If that is the case, the weak side cutter is now in the way. Who made the mistake? Now, if I tell the weak side wing not to cut, then he tends to stand in the corner and starts to think too much, and we get the sense that we need to “run the play”. However, it’s not really a “play” but a basic alignment from which to run a motion-like offense. Of course, even though it is a motion-like offense, and I want them to read the defense and make the best play, we almost never get to the action that I secretly want (for a variety of reasons, but the inexperience and lack of confidence of the posts with the ball are two, and hopefully can be solved by the return of my best player).

    It is a weird combination of struggling to run plays, but at the same time lacking the experience, confidence, and skill at this level to rely strictly on motion principles. I kind of agree with you that we play like we are over-structured, but we really only run three things now – and all three are simply ways to initiate a motion-like offense. Two are to get a couple cuts and a ball reversal before a pick and roll, and the other is Horns, which gives plenty of options depending on who cuts and where the PG sets a screen. We don’t run any patterned offenses or plays with multiple, specific looks.

  • I took over a girls Junior High team during the off season one year. They were not very good shooters or ball handlers – they struggled to get the ball across half court. They rebounded pretty well but their positioning under the basket was awful and they could never collect on the second chance points. I remember one tournament game they went 2-21 from the foul line – we lost by 7 points.

    It would seem pretty obvious what we needed to work on in practice but they believed they lost games because they did not execute the plays correctly. The whole group was obsessed with plays.

    I wanted them to pass and cut and dribble penetrate and if they were even remotely open then shoot the ball but they wanted plays. New plays. Better plays. Unstoppable plays. Any kind of play.

    We played in a league that had 16 minute running halves with 3 timeouts per half which meant there were potentially 6 timeouts called every half. With every time out I started adding really simple 1 and 2 girl quick hitters. The plays were awful but the girls loved it and as soon as the play broke down they would instantly start running the pass and cut offense. If I remember right they ended up ranked third place in that league which was pretty good for that group.

    I think the lesson I learned was that as a coach I oftentimes make thing too complicated for my players but sometime the opposite is true too. Sometime our players make things too complicated for themselves.

    Good luck!

  • Steve:
    I had a similar situation. We scored 81 points in a loss where our two best players missed open shots in the last 10 seconds to win the game, and when we talked about the game at the next practice, one of my starters said that he thought the problem was that we needed more plays. I said, “Okay, we can look at that,” but when I went back and looked through tape and stats that night, I realized we were less than a point per game from leading the league in scoring despite having played almost half of our games (at that point) without our best and only real post presence. Lack of plays or offense in general was not our problem.

    When I took poetry in college, I remember my professor saying that the haiku, while being the most constrained form of poetry, was also the most creative because the constraints freed the poet to focus on creativity rather than having to decide how many lines, syllables, what type of rhyme, etc. I sometimes think the same in basketball: when players have the freedom to do anything, they essentially have writer’s block – they choose nothing. That is one reason why our motion plays start with a specific action – to constrain the choices and get players moving (it’s the thing that I dislike about DDM: everyone stands and waits for the dribbler to penetrate).

  • You are exactly right about finding the right balance between letting players play, but also keeping good offensive action. One thing that I think isn’t taken advantage enough of is teaching players what to look for in a play. For example, a play may be run for a shooter to end up getting a shot at the end of it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t read the defense and hit a post player whose man is over extending on a screen. If you can teach your players how to read the defense and then exploit what they are giving up, that is when the offense really starts to make something happen.

  • Good read. I am struggling with the same thoughts, but with 5th graders… There are a couple of teams in the league that run plays well, but the good kids mainly get the ball, and the game seems kind of robotic… I have players who are just learning to dribble and have never learned positioning screens or even layups. When the best players have the ball, they try to do it all themselves as well. What’s worse is that the less skilled team members follow their lead when they touch the ball and try to score themselves, rather than share and spread the floor. A play or two can help them work better as a team, but basics like good screens, boxing out, and careful deliberate passing can win games as well. I guess you need a balance of skills building and plays to keep them growing as total team players.

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