Running Plays like the Indianapolis Colts

We played a game last weekend and our opponent spent more time setting up to run a set play than doing anything else. Players dribbled around, other players ran in circles and the coach grew increasingly frustrated. We managed to force a couple 30-second violations just by letting them try to run their own plays. We eventually won by 25 points running one “play.”

In his ESPN column, Gregg Easterbook tried to explain the difficulty of defending the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning:

Manning is the sole NFL quarterback who calls his own plays…Many plays drawn up by Moore and Manning have multiple options — any one of several things can happen, depending on the defense. When Manning comes to the line, he chooses which variation to use. Most of the time, Manning simply calls whatever he wants to call. Often several of the receivers are running “sight adjustments.” They don’t have a specific pattern called at the line — rather, they run what seems likely to be open given the defensive set.

In a perfect world, our offense (and to a lesser extent our defense) would be the same. We start in a basic five-out set. However, the point guard has multiple options based on what she reads. In fact, at the developmental level without a Manning-like player, the numerous options probably hurts our efficiency.

Generally, the ball handler is looking to pass and basket cut for a give-and-go. She has three potential pass receivers. If none is wide open, she also has the option to dribble at one of the pass receivers. The pass receiver then reads the defense and receives a hand-off or cuts backdoor to the basket.

In this way, we can play an entire quarter and look like we have run multiple plays even though our entire offense is based on three things: dribble-ats, pick-and-rolls and give-and-gos. I never call anything. It is up to the ball handler and the pass receivers to read the defense. When we play well, it looks great, we create open shots and we look pretty good. When we do not play well, we can look pretty bad, fairly unorganized and like a team without a coach.

However, that is part of the lesson: learning to adapt to and read the defense to make good basketball plays. At the developmental level, the decision-making is far from perfect. The goal, however, is to develop players who will make the right decision when they reach the varsity. How will they ever learn this skill if they are not allowed to make mistakes or look bad occasionally?

Having Manning call his own plays is extremely effective. Obviously, many quarterbacks lack his level of ability. But TMQ thinks the real reason more NFL quarterbacks don’t call their own plays is coaching bureaucracy. The coaches want to be in control, and maintain their illusion of possessing super-ultra-secret insider knowledge. No mere player could call a down-and-out — only coaches have that kind of skill! By not letting quarterbacks call their own plays, NFL teams concede an advantage to the Colts.

Is the same true in basketball? Phil Jackson will never get his due as a coach because he appears to allow his players to do everything and rely solely on his best players. However, former players have told me that in their years in the NBA, nobody prepared a team for an opponent as well as Jackson and his staff.

We see a coach who allows his players to play in the Triangle, which requires them to read the defense and make plays, and we give credit to the players, which they deserve. However, these players would not be able to make these plays if Jackson coached in a different style, demanding that players run certain sets every time down the court. His players thrive because of the way that he coaches, just as Manning thrives because of the way his coaches have allowed him to perform.

Is this only possible with a Manning or Kobe Bryant? It certainly helps. However, how many quarterbacks look better in the 2:00 Drill than they do throughout the course of the game? Why is that? How many basketball teams play better when making a comeback than during the normal course of a game? Why?

To a certain degree, players stop worrying about being perfect and concentrate on making plays. Coaches stop dictating the play and have to trust the players. When players read the defense, make the correct decisions and execute, they are more difficult to stop than when they try to run a specific play and the defense can defend the play.

Unfortunately, oftentimes a coach’s best intentions backfire and the plays are not nearly as effective against another team’s defense, especially when the players lack the general playmaking ability to fall back upon. My goal with my team is to develop the general playmaking ability first and then the varsity coach can play a similar style or use more plays knowing that the players have the general skills to enhance the execution of the plays and to use if and when the plays do not work.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

4 thoughts on “Running Plays like the Indianapolis Colts

  • Awesome post.

    1. I can see that two pass receivers might be the girls on either side of the ballhandler, but who is the third?

    2. What do you tell the other girls not involved in the dribble at or give an go to do?

    3. Who decides when to pick and roll? I mean how do you avoid the ballhandler doing a dribble at or a give and go at the same time someone is coming to set a pick for her?

  • 1. As we cross half court, we have a high post, a wing and a trailer available as pass receivers. I don’t really want the high post pass, and we never practice it, but sometimes it is wide open. It’s hit or miss when we go there in a game. We either get a drive to the left by the high post for a good shot, or everything congests and our chances of a turnover go up astronomically. That’s one of the things we’ll focus on over break.

    2. I don’t tell them anything. I mainly try to get them to maintain spacing or make a basketball play; i.e. if your girl stop guarding you, go to the basket.

    3. The general set is designed to get a PnR after a ball reversal so that we are dribbling with our right hand off the screen (watch the Orlando Magic play; we basically do the same thing that they do as their basic set). The designated “5” is the only one that I want setting on-ball screens.

    We’re supposed to communicate when setting a screen (fist in the air) and read our teammate for a dribble-at (if she dribbles straight at us, it’s a dribble-at). But, it’s far from perfect and we commit turnovers when one girl passes to another who is crossing her arms for a screen. But, that comes with experience.

    Now that we have a general idea, the goal is to improve the communication and add a little more complexity so we don’t do exactly the same thing every time down the floor. We also need to improve the spacing and get the ball and plays moving quicker. We’ve cut down on our turnovers dramatically, but we also aren’t creating as many lay-ups as before, so we need to be a little quicker and willing to take smart risks.

    These concepts are very new (they’re used to running plays and asked for plays all fall), so we still think too much. It’s a learning process. But, one of the local club coaches complemented the girls and said they look night and day better than the beginning of the year, which is mostly attributable to better confidence, better spacing and more time spent on pivots and rip-throughs to avoid travels and jump balls.

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