The Problem with Set Plays

Set plays are not bad. However, when players depend solely on a play, the play has the effect of limiting the player’s development of game understanding. 

In our game on Monday, our opponent came out running play after play. They ran a play that we ran in high school and called “X”. The play starts with two high and three across the free-throw line extended. On a pass to the wing, the two high cross and use the player in the middle of the free-throw line as a screen. When they called out the play’s name, my defender guarding the player who was set to cut to the ball-side block would run right to the block.

This is the problem with plays: When players do not read the screens or the cuts, and simply run to spots, they become very easy to defend. They also are learning to run to spots, not to play basketball or read the game.

If their player had stopped his cut, he would have been wide open at the top of the key with an open lane to the left side (another point since the team started its offense to the right 100% of the time) or a backdoor cut would have left him open on the weak side for a lob pass.

Late in the game, one of their players yelled at their coach: “What play do we run?” I thought to myself: just play. Even thought they ran 10 or more plays, by the 4th quarter, we knew what the plays were trying to do, and we could take away the first couple options. There is a reason that they scored 21 points in the first five minutes, and two points in the following 11 minutes. Once they showed their plays, we learned how to defend each call and could take away their options.

Because they were dependent on the plays to create shots, when their first options were taken away, they could not adjust. They could not read the defense. When we went under screens, they did not fade – they kept curling to where they were supposed to cut for the play to work. When we chased around a screen, they did not curl to the basket; they kept running to the three-point line where they were supposed to cut.

We had two bad bounces on rebound attempts or our opponent would not have scored 21 points in the final 27 minutes after scoring 21 points in the first five minutes primarily because the players lacked the awareness to adjust once we anticipated their plays.

Our offense is not a picture of execution, but that is because a motion offense is harder to learn and master. Players have to read the defense and read their teammates. Defenses cannot cheat and expect our cuts because we read the defense and take what the defense leaves open. We don’t make the perfect decision all the time, but we are learning to adjust and adapt to good and bad decisions. Occasionally one player cuts backdoor while the passer passes out of bounds. It happens. But, they are learning to read the defense, and we can use the mistake as a learning situation.

Late in the game, when we needed a basket, we had set plays in reserve that they had not seen. We got the ball where we wanted and just missed the shot. It happens. However, that is how set plays should be used with youth teams: An occasional play to get a specific player a specific shot, but with the ability to adjust and adapt to the defense. If players lack the awareness to read the defense, they are not learning, and they become easier to defend. It is easier for a coach to dictate the play with set plays, but it does not mean that players are learning. At youth and high school levels, what’s more important: player learning or dictating the play?

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Set Plays

  • I happened upon your posts and information by chance this morning — I have been in the minority wherever I have coached (IL, WI, TX, and now NE) by encouraging players and coaches to keep the focus at the youth level on developing skills and understanding concepts, vs. winning games. It is encouraging to see another coach with a comprehensive plan in place to teach the game this way, and in the long run, you and others like you are doing the players you encounter a favor and will give them far more tools than the coaches who continually run set plays, isolations, play zones without teaching proper defensive fundamentals etc. Kudos to you, and best of luck this season and beyond.

  • I completely agree. What also happens when running plays all the time at the youth level is one or two players are gernally set up for the shots all the time. Other players are taught to catch a look for those players. Not only does the player that is looking only to pass not developing reading of a defense(looking to maybe shoot or drive or for goodness sake pass to someone else) but the player that is getting the shot often is learning to force bad shots against double and triple teams. Even worse the “passer” is forcing bad passes. Because in their mind “thats the play”. Ive watched 2 seasons of this now and thankfully its finally going to be over and the kids will move on to another coach. Coaches often are blind to it, because “player x had 14 points”. However he took 20 shots(10 of which in my mind could be turnovers ie forced shots against 2 or 3 defenders) and at least 2 if not 3 of the other kids were just standing and watching.

    I think what happens is these coaches start with these kids in 3rd or 4th grade and its just the easiest way to get a basket. And they never change…

    BTW, is that Tim Locum the outside gunner from the Wisconsin Badgers?

  • There is a huge difference between teaching how to play vs teaching players how to run a play. When your time is up with your current players, will they be able to play a pick-up game in a park somewhere 200 miles away and be able to be successful? I don’t mean successful as in win. But in a way that others can tell that they fully understand the game of basketball inside and out.
    Teaching players how to play with an emphasis on fundamentals will be better in the long run.

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