The problem with the triple threat

Last year, at this time, everyone wrote about the beauty and ball movement of the San Antonio Spurs offense. A series of posts that I wrote eventually became the genesis for SABA: The Antifragile Offense. Now, with Atlanta’s loss to the Cavaliers, everyone is writing about the deficiencies of the same philosophy and offense.

One key point that I made, and it appeared in SABA and Fake Fundamentals, is the needlessness of the triple threat position. As I wrote last year:

Rather than focus on the triple threat and triple threat moves, we need to teach the game starting with the team (actions to disorganize the defense) and moving to the individual (reading the space and deciding whether to make the next pass, drive the closeout, or shoot). Players need to learn to play in space and anticipate the space, making quicker decisions, and not allowing the defense to re-set.

In Zach Lowe’s feature on the Hawks’ future, he included this short clip of the defense going under an on-ball screen for Jeff Teague:

Lowe wrote:

They ducked under screens on Teague pick-and-rolls, walling off his penetration and allowing their own big men to stick with Horford and Paul Millsap instead of sliding over to help. Horford and Millsap tore apart defenses on free rolls to the rim when teams trapped Teague, but that option suddenly evaporated against Cleveland.

In the video, this is visible. However, Teague’s pick-and-roll manages to create a small advantage: When Demarre Carroll receives the pass from Teague, he has a small advantage. J.R. Smith closes out well and attempts to take away the middle as there are three offensive players and their defenders to the baseline side.

When the ball is in the air, and on the reception, Carroll has a small advantage. As Smith stunts toward Teague, he turns his back toward Carroll. The small advantage disappears when Carroll stands still and immediately drops the ball into triple-threat position below his waist on the reception.

Carroll had two options to create something off the Teague penetration: (1) He could have moved to the catch of the pass to start his drive before he had the ball, thus catching Smith off-guard. Dwayne Wade is probably the best player in the NBA at this; (2) He could have slid higher on the court as Teague penetrated and attacked to the middle as soon as the ball hit his hands without moving to triple-threat first.

Most coaches see the catch and triple threat as basketball 101. That is precisely how the game should be taught (below). However, he gave away a small advantage. I do not know what happened after the video ends, but it is likely that someone had to create a shot by going 1v1. They have poor spacing and nobody open.

As Carroll watched the penetration, he should have been aware of his teammates on the low block and in the corner. With that spacing, he has two options: catch and shoot or catch and drive to the middle. Catch and pass is not an option because no defender left their man to help on the ball, which was Lowe’s point. However, Smith moved far enough away from Carroll that he could attack Smith’s momentum (although not far enough that Carroll would have had a comfortable catch and shoot).

Therefore, if Carroll reads the play and anticipates before the catch, he should catch on the move or catch higher on the court for middle penetration. He may not have created a lane to the basket, but his penetration would have kept the ball moving, and he may have maintained the small advantage and forced someone to help on his drive, creating a bigger advantage for a teammate. Often, it is not the first penetration, but the second penetration that creates the big advantage. Unfortunately, when players receive the pass and immediately triple threat, every penetration is essentially the initial penetration because the defense has time to re-set and organize.

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



12 thoughts on “The problem with the triple threat

  • Very good words again about the over stressing of thriple threat. Even in international pro games we see this kind of situation, which to me tells that the player is not playing the game. He is only ready to make a consept that some one has told him in the early age of his basketball career. We can also read that he is very much right handed. The whole left area in the middle is all free to go with or without the ball. His spin is given the order ” thriple threat and go the righ, that is what you alway do” and this is exactly what we see.

    The freedom of motion in the game without the ball is off, the readyness to read the situation at the court is off.
    Players are tought to wait for the ball and shoot three pointer When you move to the basketball, catch it two hands and push it to the cap in front of you, the player is already so much nearer the scoring sitiuation that you almost smell the net.

  • Jukka:
    Agree completely. Emphasis on triple threat complements an emphasis on set plays/continuity, where players are taught to catch and wait for the next cutter.

  • This is actually the first season that, and it started prior to SABA coming but was inspired by some of the ideas I got in the give-and-take from those posts on the triple threat, I’ve emphasized dribble penetration more than passing as a means for ball movement. This doesn’t mean my players don’t pass, we pass as well if not better than any team we’ve played. Rather, in our 5-out motion our goal is to create gaps with our cuts and then dribble penetrate into those gaps to create a drive-and-kick game.

    After we pass, we have two options. We can cut to the basket, or we can loop behind for a hand-off. If we loop behind, the player with the ball has two options: he can hand it off to us and roll to the basket, or he can fake the handoff and keep the ball, in which case we curl to the basket. If we get the ball, we can pass it to a teammate and use one of our two cutting options, or we can dribble-at a teammate. If we dribble-at a teammate, he has two options: he can get the rock, in which case we roll to the basket, or he can back-cut. Off-ball players are always ready to fill open spots or cut to the basket. At any time, if we feel we have an advantage we’re looking to penetrate and create open shots for our teammates, and we work on this all practice long, every practice with small-sided games.

    It’s essentially a 5-out, positionless version of the dribble-drive motion offense, and I’ve never seen as big of an improvement in all my players (I have three teams) as I’ve had this season. It works, their instincts grow, and they really learn how to play as a team. We haven’t worked on the triple-threat at all, although sometimes I reference it when players dribble aimlessly. I’d rather have a player triple-threat the ball than aimlessly pound it without actually going anywhere. That being said, the triple threat is not an emphasis, and neither isolation or continuity are the goals. Our goal is to move the ball as quickly as possible, whether through the pass or the dribble, in order to create the kind of advantages we can capitalize on.

  • Paul:
    If we adopted FIBA rules in the U.S., I believe it would force high school coaches to coach more like this because there is not time to hold the ball on every catch and re-set when the one desired option is unavailable. FIBA rules force young players to play faster and to read the game. The faster game increases the number of repetitions, but it also forces players to learn quicker and adapt better.

  • Paul,

    Just out of curiosity, how do you implement screening into your system? Do you talk about it much?

  • Hi, Tom. Traditionally, I’ve been a 5-Out Pass and Screen Away coach. This season for the first time, I’ve eliminated teaching it entirely. This is not to say that I don’t believe it’s an important tactic, teams from HS to the NBA use the screen-away regularly as a part of their offense. I’ll probably use it again in the future. I love the way that Bob McKillop runs it at Davidson and Bob Huggins at West Virginia runs it, as well as Bob Hurley at St. Anthony (must be a thing with Bobs running motion offense—including the originator, Bob Knight).

    For youth players, with limited practice time, as Don Meyer once said you cannot emphasize everything. So my goal this season is to teach them how to effectively cut to the rim and space away, whether that’s a basket cut or the cut behind, which, if you don’t get the ball, ends with a curl to the basket. Off that, we’re opening up lanes for dribble penetration and from that we delve into the drive and kick. Everything is downhill, with the aim of collapsing the defense with cuts and drives to the rim that opens up either layups or catch and shoot jumpers.

  • What do you find is the best way to teach youth players how to effectively cut to the rim and space away? Any good drills for that?

  • You said “Most coaches see the catch and triple threat as basketball 101. That is precisely how the game should be taught”. When is the proper time to use a triple threat then if it isn’t effective really?

  • Kevin:
    I play cut throat 4v4 with the stipulation that on any catch, players have to face the basket (and cannot put the ball over their heads), and on any pass, players must cut to the basket (all the way until their head is under the basket, then find the open spot to fill).

  • Kevin:
    First, I believe it is a misnomer because once a player catches and holds the ball (i.e. triple threat), he or she is unlikely to shoot (therefore, there are not three threats). Second, once the player holds the ball, he or she has give up the biggest advantage to attack with the dribble. Therefore, when the player catches and holds the ball, he or she is primarily a passer. This is used when running plays or waiting for a cutter. The player does not need to crouch into a low position as a passer, and, instead, should use a more erect posture to see over a defender. Also, the ball should not be on the hip, because few passes are thrown from there; the ball should be around the chest (armpit) and cocked and ready to make an overhead pass, chest pass, wrap around pass or push pass.

    To answer the question more specifically, I don’t see a lot of use for the traditionally taught triple threat, and the times when players hold the ball in some position (triple threat or otherwise) are primarily when running a play/continuity or waiting for a cutter or when the player missed an opportunity to drive or shoot.

  • Brian, so as a youth coach, would you recommend not even teaching the triple threat position at all or mention it, but not emphasize it?

    Also, what is cut throat 4v4?

  • Kevin:
    Probably good to have a default position of some kind, but I would not teach players to put the ball on their hip. I use the hard2guard position with ball on their strong side at the armpit, and they keep the ball active to protect it: &

    Cut Throat: Basically, a one possession game. Offense scores and stays on offense. Defense gets a stop and moves to offense. New team enters on offense.

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