The chaos theory in basketball

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.

When I initially heard the chaos comments, I immediately referred to my preferred description, disorganizing the defense.  Similar to my philosophy, Harris wrote:

“A coach should do more than drill memorized plays into the collective brain of a roster. Great coaching goes a step further and creates a cohesive unit that operates seamlessly without thought.”

I was thinking about this very thing last night. We scored 96 points last night against a team that played at least four different defenses. When they switched defenses, I never called timeout. I sat almost the entire game. Our halftime talk was very short. We ran very few set plays.

When their coach was pissed after the game, and had something to say about a late timeout that I had asked for to get substitutes onto the court and tried to cancel when the ball went out of bounds but the official wouldn’t allow it, I think he was really mad because he looked like he was doing so much more coaching, yet we were up 20 almost the entire game. He stood and worked the officials all game, changed defenses, called timeouts to set up new defenses, and called out set plays frequently – the things that we often associate with game coaching.

I think you could watch my team and wonder if I did anything, and I think that is the goal, to a certain extent. Truthfully, I had to do a little coaching. At a free throw, I called over my point guard and told him that they had been in zone for three straight possessions, and he was calling out man plays. I had to settle down a player who picked up a technical. I had to use my substitutions and timeouts to get rest for my best player who generally plays 36-40 minutes per game.

However, when they applied a press, I did not have to call out a press break or call a timeout. We have basic spacing. We generally know what to do. We usually have 4-5 players in the court who can handle the ball in the back court against pressure because I empower them to handle the ball. There is no get the ball to the point guard (of course, writing that, I did get on two of my young guards in our practice scrimmage on Friday night for sprinting down court and leaving one of the young posts who shouldn’t be handling the ball against pressure to bring up the ball against pressure. In that case, I had to talk to the guards about being more assertive and wanting the ball, but that’s what practice was for. We did not have the problem in the game).

When they switched to zone, we attacked. Sometimes we called out man plays, but that’s not the worst thing in the world, even if it makes an opposing coach think that we’re clueless. How many teams practice their zone against man offenses? What are the fundamental differences between a man offense and a zone offense? As long as you move to screen a person, and not a spot (in man and zone), and you adjust actions like a pick-and-roll to account for the likelihood of more backside help, is it wrong to run man plays? At the J.V. level, I ran one offense, man or zone. Against man, we got middle penetration; against zones, we got baseline penetration – that was the biggest difference.

We did not appear to run much, and sometimes we look sloppy with the ball, and sometimes we rely on guys to make tough shots, but we scored 96 points against a good team. Yes, that is a sign that we have some good offensive players. It’s also a little bit based on what Harris wrote: a cohesive unit that operates seamlessly.

Our second basket of the game is a good example. We had a wing on the left wing. Our point guard had cut through to the block and our post was on the opposite block. Our wing wing drove to the basket on the baseline side. Our point guard sprinted up the lane-line, in and around a couple players, and popped to the wing, right where the wing had started his drive. The wing picked up his dribble in a bit of trouble, stuck against a bigger guy, calmly reverse pivoted and passed out to the point guard for an open three-pointer.

This was not a play, but it is a movement that we practice at least once a week for the entire season. It’s simply understanding spacing, using an action to disorganize the defense (dribble penetration), and trusting teammates to react to your action. To me, that’s good basketball, whether it is freelancing or a designed play.

“‘In all sports,’ Sloan panelist Bill James chimed, ‘all coaches overuse strategies that give them the illusion of control.’ Calling copious plays and taking timeouts at the slightest hint of trouble are hallmarks of this illusion. Coaches who have real control of their team have put in countless hours of practice and embrace the beauty of chaos during games” (Harris, 2014).

After my game, I thought about how we look like we’re playing pick-up basketball sometime with some of our shots and our lack of a consistent-looking attack. In the end, I think that is the goal. As a coach, you cannot control everything. Therefore, you have a choice: do you attempt to control everything through your plays and timeouts and take your chances when you run out of timeouts or the play doesn’t work, or do you coach in a way that prepares players to play through chaos?

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

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