When to Use the Triple Threat

by Paul Cortes
Head JV Boys Coach, Jewish Community High School of the Bay
Youth Basketball Coach, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department
AAU Coach, Bay City Basketball

This is to piggy-back off Brian’s last post on “Problems with the Triple Threat“. Brian may or may not disagree with something I post here, because my thoughts are my own, but we share similar philosophies and I agree with many of the sentiments in his post. I originally started to respond in the comments section, but as my post grew in length I decided to make a separate post. The topic that came to mind is when to use the triple threat, and how to use it correctly.

I think there are two things at odds here, and both of them to me entail bad basketball, even at the NBA level. One is stopping the ball and using the jab series while four teammates stand around and watch. This is the way that “triple threat” has been taught by some and it really is an inefficient style of play that lacks the cohesiveness of a SABA style that leads to more ball movement and more open shots. If you have an elite player with an extreme advantage, it may be useful to isolate him sometimes, although I do believe the modern elite player is most dangerous when attacking in the flow of ball movement and movement without the ball (Steph Curry says hello).

On the opposite end of the spectrum is players propensity to dribble immediately on the catch against a set defense. This is especially prevalent at the youth level. I had a youth team recently that always wanted to make one pass, immediately drive into a crowd, and turn the ball over. It took some time for them to understand that by moving the ball and moving without the ball, you move the defense and open up driving lanes, which makes the use of the dribble that much more effective.

I agree with Brian that the Triple-Threat position, when utilized correctly, is primarily a passing position. I still called it a triple threat, mostly because I want players to understand that if the defenders sags off to, say, deny an entry pass into the post, I want you to shoot, and if the defender overguards you, I want you to drive by him. Be a threat to do all three things so that the defensive has to play you respectably.

Some people call it by a different name, which is fine. Something that I feel is important is that, whatever you call it, you emphasize that players use the position when there’s no advantage. This occurs primarily in the halfcourt, when the other team has scored and has set up on defense. You should know on the catch whether you have an advantage or not.

Davidson’s Bob McKillop has 5 rules of offense that I use with my teams. They are as follows:

1) Attack space – Of course, you have the most space in transition when you have a numbers advantage, which is a situation where players should NOT Triple Threat. If there’s no space, players have to create space, and we can get more space if we, instead of individually trying to create space by using the jab series, collectively create space by moving the ball. Often teams turn the ball over trying to attack where there’s no space

2) Dribble with a Purpose – This is what I mentioned earlier. If you don’t teach the players when and how to use the Triple Threat/Hard2Guard position, they will want to put the ball down every time they catch it which keeps them from doing the following two rules

3) Help Someone Get Open – by screening for a teammate, making hard cuts, or when the gaps open up, driving and drawing help defenders

4) Catch and See – I love the phraseology of this. In the Porzingis example, his eyes are down. He’s not seeing the court. Or if you immediately dribble with nowhere to go, your court vision is reduced, and if the passer makes a great cut or gets a teammate open with a screen, you will be less likely to hit the open man on time and on target if you’re dribbling aimlessly on the catch.

5) Crash the Boards – This is less applicable to the discussion but I believe players are harder to box out when players move the ball and move without the ball instead of standing still.

In the grand scheme of things, I think the Triple Threat Position is a concept that is very important in the halfcourt offense situation against a set defense, where the offense has no advantage. It is often taught in ways that are less conducive to good offensive movement, so the coach must also emphasize the importance of not holding the ball too long and working together as a team to gain an advantage. In early offense in the halfcourt, against the set defense, coach should teach players to 1) Triple Threat on the catch so that teammates can work to get open, 2) be ready to move the ball whether it’s with a well-timed pass or a purposeful dribble.

12 thoughts on “When to Use the Triple Threat

  • Paul:
    I think that I’d change #4 to See and Catch. Again, one reason that players use a static position (triple threat or otherwise) is because they failed to anticipate prior to the catch, which means they must hold the ball somewhere as they decide what to do. Also, a lack of anticipation is why young players dribble immediately into trouble; if they were able to anticipate (which they struggle to do because of lack of experience and a culture that has young players running plays or continuity offenses that eliminate the need to anticipate and read the defense), they would see the trouble and drive elsewhere or not drive.

    As I think about it, I think a lot of these things that we teach – where to hold the ball, plays to run, etc – exist because we do not know how to teach players to anticipate. If we cannot teach anticipation, we have teach what to do when the ball is stopped and we’re holding the ball or we have to give the players a play to follow to organize the group and get reasonable shots; to prevent the driving into trouble.

    If we could create ways to teach players to anticipate and read the game, we would not need these back-up plans. However, teaching these more abstract, more complex skills takes time, and our culture does not have the patience to allow players to make mistakes while engaging in this time-demanding learning process, so we attempt to short cut the process with the back-up plans, such as plays and continuity offense that require holding and protecting the ball.

  • I think that most times, players should anticipate and attack on the catch. Think of it this way. If the other team shoots 40%, 60% of the time we’re in transition (this is simplified, of course there’s gonna be dead balls off misses, but we’ll ignore that for now) So at least 60% of the time we’re on offense, there’s no need to triple threat.

    Then, I’d say that, if the other team isn’t pressing, 40% of the time we’re going against the set defense. Every one of those possessions will end in a situation where we have an advantage of some sort, unless we settle for a contested shot or turn the ball over before we get the advantage. When we get the advantage, the possession will end in a situation where we’re attacking on every touch.

    But when we bring the ball up the floor, there is no advantage available. If we pass the ball to start the offense, it is very unlikely the first pass will lead to an advantage. This is because the defender only has to make a short closeout, and all of the other defenders only have to shift slightly to load up on the ball.

    In this situation, there is nothing to anticipate. You know you’re going to catch it, and a shot, drive, or pass to a player in an immediate scoring position probably isn’t going to be available. This is where the “Catch and See” rule pops in. Note that this not the 5 Rules of Offense. This is the 5 Rules of Motion Offense, and we run motion offense in the situation where the defense is set and we need to move the ball and move without the ball to create advantages.

    Of those offensive possessions, eventually, once we create movement and open up gaps, advantages will become available. I’m gonna say that roughly half of each possession will consist of creating the small advantage—moving the ball, setting screens, cutting, until we’re able to penetrate or attack a long closeout—and the latter half of the possession, provided we don’t settle for a contested shot or turn the ball over, will consist of turning the small advantage into a big advantage.

    These numbers are not exact by any means, with no empirical evidence, this is all an estimate based on watching, coaching, and playing a lot of basketball, but I think as a rough estimate they’re mostly ok. Roughly 60% of the time we’re in transition, about maybe 20% of the time we’re attacking a small advantage in the halfcourt, and that leaves the other 20%. That number might be a bit higher, a bit lower, but I think it’s about right.

    What do we do in that other 20%? What do we do when we’re not in transition, when the defense is set, where there is no immediate advantage to be gained?

    We could just set a ballscreen every time, and that would create the immediate advantage. I like ballscreens, and I do use them.

    I do, however, believe in the value of motion offense and teaching players how to pass and cut, how to screen away, how to get open and help teammates get open without and away from the ball. I do not think that teaching this is a shortcut. In fact, teaching motion offense can be tremendously difficult, and is rife with mistakes and has quite the adjustment period for players that have never done it before. But the long-term dividends are huge.

    Anyways, I’d see roughly 80% of the time, the game is “See and Catch”. But 20% of the time, we’re in a situation where we have to run something, whether it’s an immediate ballscreen, a set play, or motion offense. If we run motion offense, that’s where the above rules come into play, and in the process of running motion we have to catch the ball and see what the passer decides to do next. He might cut past his man for the give and go. He might screen away, in which case you’re watching for whether the cutter or screener gets open, or you’re looking to reverse the ball to the opposite side. If nothing’s there, maybe you dribble hand-off.

    This is what “Catch and See” refers to. Of course, as soon as the advantage is created, we’re in “See and Catch” mode again. We’re no longer in the passing game. Now we’re attacking.

  • I think the way an offense is initiated can also determine how often the Triple Threat or static position is used. You will see many offenses start every half court possession with a down screen to free a wing player who catches the ball moving away from the basket with his/her back to the basket. This often necessitates the player pivoting to see the remainder of the court which creates the need for the triple threat. It also makes it very difficult to “See and Catch” when utilizing this movement. The defense in this case is pretty set, especially on the weak side and it makes it more difficult to create a large advantage. I think the down screen is also used because at the Pro and College level you see great shooter coming off these down screens and knocking down jump shots. Few, if any, players below a D-1 level can hit those shots on a consistent basis.

    Teams that initiate their offenses in a variety of ways; Pick and roll, drive and kick, back screen, dribble at, hand-off, etc. can get the defense moving and increase the probability that they can create a big advantage. Other sports such as soccer, hockey and lacrosse enter the offensive end with constant movement (ball, player or both) to create their advantage. Because the player is not cutting away from the basket, they are more likely to learn to “See and catch” rather than the other way around.

  • Mike:
    Good points. Lots of college and pro teams use a few almost dummy motion type passes before initiating the offense, and the players rarely bother to triple threat or in some cases even look at the basket. In the Pistol, the guard throws ahead to a wing, and the wing catches with back to basket, holds the ball, and hands off to the guard. In the Spurs motion, they reverse the ball from the right wing to Duncan at the top to the left wing without a triple threat: Just quick passes to get some movement before the actual action meant to disorganize the defense. High school and lower basketball tend to run more set plays/continuity and end up with players holding the ball much longer.

    I don’t know why so many teams at youth/HS levels act as though you have to start the possession with the ball in the middle and 2 players on each side, but you end up as you say with some stagnation and a need to pivot and hold the ball somewhere. I would say that in most of these instances, players are not triple threats because they’re going to pass to the next action in the play, and therefore, they don’t need a traditional triple threat position.

    I suppose my primary point is that (1) Few players really receive a pass and are actual triple threats, regardless of positioning, when they hold the ball and wait to be defended; and (2) The traditional triple threat position isn’t really a position that affords three options because it is a poor position from which to shoot or pass.

  • That’s a good point about starting positions in offenses, Mike, I think regardless of the starting position, the Triple Threat is often needed in early halfcourt offense to run actions to open up gaps. You can’t attack where there’s no gaps. That being said, I’m very loose in my definition of the Triple Threat. I agree that it’s primarily a passing position, and we want to move the ball quickly.

    Or you could delve into an immediate ballscreen or handoff action to create a gap immediately. There’s different philosophies to that. I prefer to teach the passing game (5-Out Pass and Screen Away), with ball screen, handoff, and the give and go sprinkled in. But there are many ways to do things.

    You’re right about downscreens. I use them at times to start my 5-Out, but it’s definite food for thought. Brian mentions why start with the ball in the middle, which is a good question. Effective transition offenses don’t start from the middle, they start from the side. With my JV team, our transition offense is also our halfcourt offense. Bring the ball up the sideline and make the first action from the side. This leads to quicker ball reversals, better spacing. Now, like Mike mentions, players might screen away, handoff, ballscreen. It’s much more fluid.

    I think bringing the ball up the sideline and having the player that inbounds the ball be the trailer is a good way to do it. Older teams designate bigs to take it out, so one big sets up low and the other is the trailer, creating a natural high low, plus having a big body back there to screen for a shooter on either side. I don’t like to positionalize youth players, so maybe any of them can inbound, and any of them can be the trailer. Teach all kids how to handle trail responsibilities. How to reverse the ball, set screens, cut, handoff, etc.

    This way there’s no cutting away from the basket. The spacing flows from one side to the other. Instead of a player having to cut away from the basket, catch and pivot, he’s already naturally spaced out, so he can catch with a good sense of where the gaps are.

  • Paul:
    If players in “triple threat” are primarily passers, why do we worry about their position (posture and ball), and why do we teach the position as one that is not the optimal position for passing? Youth teams spend so much time on triple threat – I’ve worked camps where they spend 3-4x as much time on triple threat as on shooting. Is that time well spent if it’s basically a passing position?

  • I believe those camps are teaching as a 1v1, isolation scoring position, are they not? The best offenses don’t play that way. When the ball sticks in one person’s hand for too long, there is no pace, no movement, and the resulting shot is less likely to be open. The game is evolving and more people are realizing the value of pace-and-space ball movement.

    I teach Triple Threat the same way that you teach the Hard-to-Guard position. I just chose not to change the name.

  • I don’t know what they’re teaching. No defense. To me, they were just teaching players to catch and get in a set stance. USA Basketball’s videos teach the same thing, and the demonstrator does the same thing as the Porzingis picture: bent over with eyes on the ground, and the coach emphasizes the three options over and over. It’s just not reality.

  • Agreed. Nothing worse than a player catching it, his defender makes a long closeout, and he triple threats instead of attacking the closeout. Only to jab, jab, make a move. Especially when his teammate set him up for the attack. Attacking advantages promotes the team game. Attacking with the jab series is all individual.

  • Paul, that is an interesting point about transition offense using the sideline. I think most people assume the ball should be in the middle of the court in transition due to the traditional 3-on-2 drill that many coaches use. But the ball being in the middle is manufactured by the drill rather than through the natural process of the game. I believe the same thing is true to an extent with the Triple threat. It was more a drill creation than a game creation. When starting a halfcourt drill, coaches needed a starting point and emphasized the Triple threat because it looks good and seems functional even though it can be limiting.

    Brian makes a good point about many teams starting in the traditional 1-2-2 offense despite the fact that most teams never work on entering the post or posting up. Using a variety of entry points would be more likely to disorganize the defense and create advantages from ball and player movement. With rule changes and the difficulty of converting post ups, this set up should nearly be obsolete.

    It seems as if initiating your halfcourt offense from the sides would actually be more beneficial than the middle because of the ease of ball reversal in addition to the multiple options that become available. It didn’t even occur to me in my previous posts that all other invasions sports in addition to using a variety of ways to initiate their offense, do it from a variety of entry points as well. They don’t all start in the middle of the field/ice.

  • Just a quick response before I go coach a game: fastbreak numbers quickly change. The 3v2 break should be able to quickly flow into a 4v3 or 4v4 break if other players join the fray, all the way up to 5v5. In 2v1 all the way up to 5v5, the optimal angle is from the side. It doesn’t make sense, then, to push 3v2 from the middle. It should flow just the same as everything else. This is putting aside the fact that attacking 3v2 from the side leads to better angles for drives, dishes, and kickouts.

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