Set plays and playing the game

I refereed 20 games this weekend at a team camp, and the differences in approaches in the teams was striking. One team, as an example, played 12 players nearly equal minutes although much of the second team played in middle school last year and this was a varsity tournament. Another team had 15 players on its bench for one game, and stuck to a seven-person rotation. Some coaches stood and yelled and controlled the players for the entire game, and others sat and barely said a word. Some teams ran plays every single time down the court, and other teams played with little structure.

The first game on Sunday morning was the most striking contrast between coaches and approaches, and I thought of an old article on attentional blindness while watching. The teams were not from the same division, so the team that won was a larger school. However, the larger school (LS) was without its 3 best players and played with only 5 players after suffering injuries the previous day. At least one of the five will not be a varsity player this coming season. The smaller school (SS) played 10 players, at least four of which were middle schoolers moving to high school in the fall. Therefore, my opinions on the game, and the coaches, have nothing to do with the outcome.

LS rarely ran a play. SS played a zone for most of the game, and LS shredded their zone. They had capable shooters, although nobody who shot as well as the best shooter on many other teams, but they moved the ball so quickly and never stopped moving. They were faster and better conditioned than SS, and the speed made a huge difference on both ends. Their zone offense with multiple cutters in motion was very difficult to defend and caused numerous defenses mistakes due to poor positioning and lack of communication. When they played against teams who played man defense, they played similarly; the only play that I heard their coach call out was “Iso”. Their coach did not argue a call in the five games of his that I refereed, and he spent at least 90% of the game seated. LS knew how to play and they executed very well with their speed and superior conditioning despite not having any substitutes.

SS tried to run the same play – “Denver” – on almost every possession, regardless of man or zone. When I spoke to SS’s best player on the first day of the camp, I asked her if they had just started to work out or if the team did anything during the spring because she said that her bad game was due to being out of shape. She said that they had practiced all spring on their plays. It showed, as they were not in great condition physically, despite playing only 4-5 minutes at a time, and they set up their play on almost every possession.

When they ran Denver, they ran Denver. By that, I mean that they did not look to exploit openings; they followed the pattern of the play. The play was not even much of a play; it was a dribble hand-off (DHO) into an on-ball screen. After two possessions, LS knew that (1) they initiated the DHO to the right every time, and (2) that was the play. They forced left, jumped the handoff, and otherwise did not allow the dribbler to get to the on-ball screen. They disrupted the play, and the disruption almost always turned into a turnover despite the defense giving a free lane to the basket. The SS players never looked at the opening; they ran the play. They missed huge advantages because they were focused on getting to the next progression of their play rather than actually scoring the basketball or finding the open player. I suppose if you spent all spring working on the play, it makes sense that running the play is the most important thing, not actually scoring the basketball.

Their coach, naturally, was the coach who yelled the most. He yelled at his players the most, and he yelled at the referees the most. This was not my first time watching his team play, and he does the same thing in every game that I have seen. His assistant attempted to apologize and make excuses about frustration because of the youth of his team, but, to me, that made it even worse. Unlike most of the coaches, he clearly was not playing to win the games, as he played middle schoolers for nearly half of the game rather than having them play in the junior varsity division. Rather than coach them or help them, he yelled and screamed at them and the officials.

Plays are fine. I run plays. However, the purpose of a play is to create a good shot. Throughout the weekend, the better teams were the more flexible teams, the ones who played with the least structure. These teams tended to have the most shooters, are at least the most players willing to shoot open three-pointers. These teams also tended to be the smaller teams; the LS above started nobody taller than 5’7, and she was actually their PG. When they played zone, the middle of their zone was a 5’5 shooting guard. There was a similar team that was from a smaller school and slightly younger that played similarly and relied on a 5’6 guard to defend opponent’s post players. However, despite a lack of size and structure, they won games and played better basketball than their opponents. They passed the ball better, found open players, and consequently took better shots even without an inside presence.

My point is not that a coach should avoid coaching or running any plays. However, especially in the summer, there is more to gain from playing with less structure and encouraging players to make plays, move the ball, and take good shots rather than emphasizing the specific plays. When players understand the fundamentals, they can learn new plays quickly and easily. However, when they do not understand the fundamentals generally – pick-and-roll, DHO, setting and using screens, spacing, cutting, post splits, etc. – learning a new play is difficult, as the coach has to teach the skill as part of the play. Denver should take about 2 minutes to learn. However, when you also have to teach how to do a DHO and how to do a pick-and-roll and what good spacing means, the play is far more involved and complex. By focusing on the general skills initially, players develop better skills, and they are adaptable to different offenses.LS was a very adaptable team; they adapted to missing players, injuries, different defenses, different opponents, and more without changing their style of play or their ability to execute. I believe that is what most coaches would hope to accomplish, or what many coaches would identify as good coaching. To me, this is accomplished by mastering the skills generally before implementing the skills into more structured plays to get specific shots at specific moments.

Players need to learn to play the game rather than to run plays. The offseason is the perfect time for this development.

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

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