Prior to my game this week, I spoke with the opposing coach. He made a comment about another team in our league. He said something about their players being talented, but undisciplined, and how they just needed the coach to work with them. I joked that I imagine outsiders say the same thing about me and my team. Especially here, where most teams like to slow down the game and run set plays or Flex every time down, since there is no shot clock, we look wildly out of control in comparison. You never hear me calling out a play or telling them to slow down. Definitely different, and oftentimes we make mistakes or look disorganized because we have versatile players who play multiple positions and I encourage every player to push the ball rather than slowing down to give the ball to the point guard. In fact, I have gotten on bigger players for not bringing up the ball, but haven’t gotten on any for a turnover created when they did attack. From the outside, however, I imagine that we oftentimes look like we have a clueless coach.
During the game, one of the officials said that to me. He said that he knew most of my players, and they were better than my coaching. Hey, sometimes I think the same thing. I stay awake at night wondering why we don’t play harder, make more shots, make better passes, rotate faster on defense, etc. I spend evenings after games talking about our performance with a college coach who comes to most of our games. Despite my self-reflections, there are two issues with these comments as they pertain to coaching high school basketball in general:
The first problem is that it shows how coaches coach in the fishbowl. It’s easy to sit in the stands, watch a game, and criticize the coach or players, but how many people attend practices to see if the coaches work with their players? I know the official has never been to one of my practices – he made his comment based on less than half of a game played after four days without a practice. Whereas we did play poorly, we also shredded their press without needing a timeout or a press break and forced them to back into half-court defense. We simply missed numerous lay-ups and could not make a shot, probably because none of the guys had touched a ball in four days and our bus got lost on the way to the game, so we had 15 minutes to warm up. We also played a team that is basically an AAU team that plays year round and has played year round for years. They’re a good team, and we did not play our best, and therefore we were beaten.
The second issue is one of philosophy. In both cases, the comparison was between teams with a short-term focus and a long-term focus. In my game, our opponents played 8 players until the very end of the game when he substituted his other 3 players for a minute in a game that was ostensibly over. Meanwhile, I played 15 players in each half. Would it had been a different game if I played only my top 8? Maybe. Who knows?
My primary objective is not to win the games; I am more focused on giving each player an opportunity and helping each player improve. Whether I am successful or not is up for debate. Our opponent in the game also likes to make the game ugly; they played a 3/4 court 1-2-2 zone, and they run numerous set plays. Comparatively, we play man defense, run four plays, have no press break, and only four out-of-bounds plays (really one play run four different ways) which we have not practiced since the day we instituted them. OB plays are an effective way to score, especially in freshmen basketball, but my concern is not to get players to run great plays.
I am not saying one way is better than another. If the goal is to win the game, I have a poor approach. I think we would win more games if I had focused on 8-10 players all season. We might be more successful if we mixed up our defenses more or had more options on offense or changed our ob plays when we played teams a second and third time. However, I am trying to teach a couple things, primarily spacing, using an on-ball screen, getting open, moving the ball, stopping penetration, rotating on the back side, etc. If I played a 2-3 zone every time an opponent went to a Flex offense, we would not be working on the things that I am trying to teach. We might win, but is the win worth the loss of focus on the process goals? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on your goals and philosophy.
Similarly, the coach who was criticized plays 12+ players and rotates between man defense and a 2-3 zone on makes and misses. They run some plays, but rely primarily on ball screens for their point guard, who is a very good player. I don’t know their coach, but he coaches as if he is more concerned with development than winning. We played a one-point game earlier in the season, and neither of us benched players because the game was close. He did not play his point guard 30 minutes, and I played all 13 of my eligible players (benched a starter for missing practice). The closeness of the game did not dictate our coaching; both of us appeared to maintain a focus on the long term.
At the high school level, I am torn as to which philosophy is better or right. The reality is that some of the guys on my team will never play competitive basketball again. Would their final season be better if we played to win? What if that means that they did not get any minutes? Is it better to give them minutes in their last competitive experience or for them to have a great record?
If I pick a top eight and give them most of the repetitions, aren’t I making the decision who will and will not make the team next season? What if I play the bigger, stronger, faster guys this season because it gives me the best chance to win, but one of the smaller guys grows this summer and the bigger guys don’t? My football players are my best athletes, but most are better at football than basketball; if they gave me a better chance to win this season, but quit to focus on football, where would that leave the basketball program? My two savviest basketball players might be the two players who look least like basketball players; should I not play them because they don’t look like basketball players?
Obviously, I lean toward the long term view. However, I understand those high school coaches who do not. Sometimes, I think that I am doing a disservice to the better players by not giving them more minutes. I sometimes think that the better players deserve more minutes to enhance their development rather than giving the minutes to players unlikely to make a varsity team. I know that I would be upset if I was the best player on the team and I played only 20 minutes a game because every player had to play. Of course, I would be more upset if I was the 10th man and my coach played only 8 guys and never gave me a chance to see what I could do in meaningful minutes in a game. I don’t know that there is a perfect solution or a perfect way to coach. Playing less than 20 games without a shot clock (so games are shortened by long possessions) does not help either.
I don’t criticize the coaches who play only 7 guys against us. That’s their choice; that’s their team and philosophy. However, sometimes when I look back at the game and think about our problems, I have to remember that their best player played 30 minutes and handled the ball the entire game, whereas over half of my team spent time as a primary playmaker at some point. It’s different, which is why the scoreboard is not the only way to evaluate players and coaches at the youth level.
If I wanted to look like a good coach, I would run a bunch of plays. I would call out the play on every possession so everyone knew that I was in charge. I would demand that players ran the play precisely. Unfortunately, that is often how people outside the fishbowl evaluate a coach. That’s not me. I do not want to eliminate the players’ thinking; I want to encourage it. Does that mean we’ll make more mistakes? Probably. Does it mean they’ll learn more? Hopefully. Does it mean they will end up as better players in the long run? I hope so.
I have an advantage because I can laugh off naysayers easily, as I have coached beyond freshmen basketball, and nobody is going to evaluate me as a coach based on my won-loess record here. The problem is that many freshmen coaches – typically less experienced, younger coaches – are not as lucky. When they are put in the fishbowl, what happens? Do they change their philosophy to look like a better coach and avoid the criticism? Do they focus on wins and losses to improve their chances to move up to junior varsity? If every coach cares more about the wins than development, how does that affect the players?
By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League