The Aesthetics of Basketball

I watched several high-school basketball games yesterday, and saw the type of game that worries NBA personnel, according to a recent article by Zach Lowe:

League officials are less concerned with uniformity and the triumph of math than they are with stylistic appeal, per several team sources who have discussed the issue with the league or attended meetings in which officials brought up the topic. The league does not want NBA basketball to look like a pickup game, and it is concerned that games with, say, 70 combined 3-point attempts would take on the feel of a ragged, me-first open gym game. This is what Stern hinted at during that April press conference: “When our teams are hot, it’s a thing of beauty. And when they’re not, they can go 3-for-41,” Stern said.

In the high-school games, it appeared that some form of dribble-drive-motion-type offense was mandatory. Even a team with a dominant post player with a willingness to post on the block and a significant size advantage against its opponent often employed DDM-like principles and sets.

1,width=280,height=280,appearanceId=1As someone who has used a version of a DDM offense – Blitz Basketball – and who was wearing a t-shirt with the 3>2 logo, this would appear to appeal to me, but I had mixed feelings.

Over the last year, I have exchanged emails with a coach who has moved slowly from a motion offense acolyte from the Bob Knight tree of influence to a fan of the DDM. Throughout the exchange, I have expressed both support and derision for DDM, and my feelings were confirmed during the high-school games.

In support of DDM and similar systems, the games yesterday were played quickly – the shot clock was almost never a factor. The games were relatively high-scoring in the 60s and 70s. The games were not sloppy in the sense that there were not an abundance of turnovers, though there were a number of quick, questionable shots.

Of course, the team that scored 7 points in the first half of its game (yes, 7, in a varsity high-school basketball game and championship game of its bracket in the tournament) did not use DDM principles, but employed a Flex offense. Their offense looked good with lots of ball movement, player movement, and screens, but there were entire possessions of 30 seconds where the ball never entered within the three-point line. They often looked like they were running offense for the sake of running offense rather than looking for a basket. Their best shot was a broken play that led to baseline dribble penetration with a baseline drift for a corner three-pointer, a play that contributed nearly half of their 1st half points!

2,width=280,height=280,appearanceId=1After watching the ineptitude of the team running Flex, the occasional quick jack of a three-pointer was less of a concern. Whereas coaches and fans of previous generations may cringe at a three-pointer off of one pass, especially from a questionable shooter (“Be a shot maker, not a shot taker” would have been the more appropriate t-shirt to wear), shooting quickly does reduce turnovers and ensure a shot attempt. Is it better to run offense and not get a shot or to run nothing and get an acceptable shot?

When I coached AAU, and developed what became my Blitz Basketball philosophy, my goal was twofold: (1) simplify decision-making for young (u9s) players, and (2) ensure that outside shots were catch-and-shoot shots with players feet set. The problem with Flex, for instance, is that the outside shots, considered good shots, are shots that require the player to catch, square to the basket, and shoot in one fluid movement. For older players and better shooters, this is not a concern, but for 9-year-olds, this is complex. Why run offense to get a complex shot when running DDM leads to a less complex shot? What’s the point – to look good running offense or to take good shots?

This is my big problem with criticizing three-point shots or the DDM-style: why run offense to get the same shot that you can get without running a structured offense? The answer led me to a second important point with developing players: why spend practice time memorizing plays that lead to complex shots rather than spending the practice time improving skills?

My problem with the DDM-like offenses is the first point. Whereas with 9-year-olds, I felt it appropriate to simplify decision-making for young, inexperienced players, I find this somewhat of a copout for high-school players and beyond. Sure, kicking out to an open player for an open three-pointer is a good decision, but is it the best decision? Is the shot off one pass the best decision? It limits the opportunity for a turnover, and may lead to 3 points, which is a great possession. However, are we simplifying the game too much? Should we expect more from players as they progress to the varsity level? Should we expect more from NBA players? If this is a high-efficiency shot, does it matter whether it is after one pass or five passes or 5 seconds into the shot clock or 25?

I don’t know the answer. If most high school players shoot 2-point shots below 50%, a 30% shooter shooting a three-pointer is just as good. Does it matter what happens before the shot?

I am a fairly old-school coach. I like post play and paint touches. I want to shoot free throws. However, I am also of the new, analytics generation: I dislike mid-range jump shots and prefer to shoot a lot of threes. Does it matter what we run to get these shots?

I will be honest. I love to watch a well-executed play to get a lay-up or a wide open shot. However, I dislike games where the team slows down and looks to the bench for the coach to call out a play every possession. Even worse, teams who run dummy motion for 25 seconds and run a high pick-and-roll at the end of the shot clock anyway – how is that good fundamental basketball just because there were a number of passes or because it used the shot clock? Why is it more fundamental to run the same action for the same shot after 27 seconds than after 5 seconds?

I worry about games devolving into pick-up games, like many high school games, but is that worse than running offense for the sake of running offense? What is good basketball?

A perfect world, I suppose, would be a combination of the two. Less of an emphasis on running offense for the sake of running offense, but more of an emphasis on improving decision-making rather than settling for one pass and jack.

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

4 thoughts on “The Aesthetics of Basketball

  • That is a great point Brian. As I have switched from boys to girls basketball I have had to change some philosophical view points. For one I have actually had for the last two years coaching girls at least 90% of the players tell me they want to know exactly where their shots are coming from. Did not matter if we were in motion or running a set they wanted to know exactly where to shoot from. Going over shot selection has only made them second guess themselves. I have gone from a pure Blitz style which I ran with boys to a 4-out look where we reverse the ball to the wing and try to attack the rim. We stagger away for the other wing. They know where their shots are coming from. Dribble penetration spots, the drive or the stagger. We just reverse it when nothing is there and run it again. But we get into that habit of running offense for the sake of it every couple possessions. In response we have spent a large portion of time on shooting and defense and just try to tell them to be aggressive. I have had mixed feelings about it so far as I believe it is too predictable at times (if I was coaching against it I would just force it baseline and trap and not allow reversals) yet the players like the comfort of knowing where to go. As the season progresses we hope to see some improvement in shot selection and decision making.

  • TJ:
    This tends to be true more often with girls than boys, but I think it is a symptom of structured/unstructured basketball versus a gender issue. More boys play unstructured basketball at younger ages, so they have some comfort; fewer girls do. They grow up in more structured environments and crave the structure.

    The question, then, is whether to continue down this path because it creates the most comfort right now or to force them out of their comfort zone. Of course, this changes for each individual and team. There is rarely a black and white answer.

  • There has always been gunners in basketball but I think that because more and more kids play more structured than unstructured basketball there is less of a stigma about it now. I grew up in the 80’s watching the Celtics and Lakers who played great team basketball while having great scorers.
    For the groups I used to play with, the worst reputation to have was a ball hog or gunner because no one wanted to play with you.
    Youth coaches gunning for wins encourage their best players to take as many shots as possible, so a lot of players don’t see a problem with hunting your own shot without worrying about your teammates. Learning to play offense takes a long time because so much of good offense is perceptual intelligence as much as athletic ability..
    I know in the mens leagues I used to play in that the toughest teams to guard were the groups of guys that had been playing together for years because they knew how to play off one another. Even if they had lost some of their quickness and athleticism.

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