First is Not Necessarily Most Important

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series Practice

My experience is that a lot of people think “first” and “most important” mean the same thing. While in some situations that is true, I think there are many situations where those two things are very different. One of those is coaching the game of basketball. A lot of what I’ve written about on this blog has to do with offense. Since that is what I’ve spent most of my time writing about, you probably think that’s what’s most important to me. You might think that all I want to do is out score teams. You might think that getting stops is not very important to me.

Let me make this clear, defense is much more important to me than offense. I believe good offense starts with good defense. If you can’t defend, you can’t win championships. Offense is easier when the other team doesn’t score. Whether it’s a missed shot or a turnover, it is much easier to play offense when you just got a stop. In my opinion, the most important characteristic of a point guard is the ability to defend, not the ability to create offense or score. Defending is so much more important to me than scoring. That doesn’t mean I think defense comes first when it comes to teaching the game.

For example, let’s say you’re working on one of the most basic defensive fundamentals: the closeout. If the offensive player doesn’t have the full complement of skills, the closeout becomes easier to execute. If the player can’t shoot and attack off the dribble, then that player becomes very easy to defend. Then when the offensive player has to closeout against a player who can do both, they are at a huge disadvantage.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think that you can work on a player’s individual skills for a few days or a couple of weeks and make them proficient at their weaknesses. I understand that developing and mastering skills takes time. It’s not easy to guard an average player one on one. The offense has almost every advantage. However, if your players are closing out on players who offensively limited, they are going to struggle defending players who aren’t.

Let’s take this to a larger topic: defending screens. I believe that you have to teach players how to set and use screens before you can work on defending them. If the offensive players don’t understand the concept of screening, the defense isn’t going to get a good feel for how to defend them. When we’re running a defensive drill, I don’t want to take the time to coach the offense. I want the offense to know what they are doing. If I have to take time to coach offense in a defensive drill, then it does seem like offense is more important than defense.

Finally, in a very broad sense, I believe that teaching the game of basketball needs to be done in a very progressive way. It’s interesting that “progressive” has a couple different definitions and both apply in this case. The game starts with the ball. Offenses and defenses are all predicated on who has the ball, where they have the ball, and where the other players are relative to the ball. It only makes sense to me that teaching players what to do when they have the ball comes before teaching players how to defend.

I have spent a lot of time talking about offense, because I think the offensive side of the game needs to evolve. Isn’t it interesting how football teams are playing more like basketball teams?  They are simplifying their playbook. They are letting players make plays. Our game shouldn’t look like football. I don’t believe it was ever meant to be that way. I believe we should teach players how to play and let them play. Basketball is a beautiful game when players can be creative when they play it.

Additionally, I think a lot has been written about defense and how to teach it. The reason teams don’t play good defense has more to do with a lack of emphasis than a lack of sharing of ideas. I think there are some coaches that have every intention of making defense most important, but end up making decisions based on a player’s ability to score instead. I think a lot of coaches teach offense first and make offense most important.

I want to make it clear that I don’t subscribe to that philosophy at all. I believe defense is most important, but I think you have to teach offense first.

 

 

Coaching with the Phrase “I Need”

This entry is part 22 of 28 in the series Leadership

The need in the picture is pretty obvious. This guy needs to go to the bathroom.Need

One phrase that I hear a lot from coaches is “I need…”

“I need more from you.”

“I need you to be on time.”

“I need you to make your time.”

“I need you to get in the gym.”

“I need you to work harder.”

“I need you to set a better screen.”

“I need you to make a good pass.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot. You may have even said it yourself.  Honestly, it gets on my nerves when I catch myself saying it. It rubs me the wrong way. What we say matters. Our words are so powerful. I suggest we stop using these two words together.

It’s only two words, but they are two words that hold a lot of weight. Let’s break it down.

The phrase starts with “I.” Last time I checked, we coach for the athletes not for ourselves. Last time I checked, we were in it to make them better, to help them learn and to give them a good experience. It isn’t about us; it’s about them. Right? Starting a sentence with “I,” immediately makes our statement self-centered. What we say is no longer about them. It has become about us. Are we servants or dictators? Are we leaders or bosses?

The second word is “need.” We all “need” air, water, and food. We all “need” safety, love and security.  Going through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would be overkill, but those are needs. I need to get a good night’s sleep every night. A player needs to work harder for themselves and for the team, not for me. Players need to be on time because it’s a good lesson for them to learn, not because I said so. A player needs to eat a healthy diet, not because it helps me, but because it’s good for their mind and body.

Trust me, being on time is important. Working hard is important. Eating a healthy diet is important, but not because I need them to do that. Those things are important because it’s what’s best for them. It is also what’s best for the team.

We are all about helping people be better people, right? I don’t need them to be better people. I want them to be better, but more importantly they have to want it for themselves. They aren’t on our teams forever. We aren’t going to follow them around through their lives to make sure they are making all the right decisions. They need to learn to do these things for themselves and for each other.

Being part of a team is a privilege, not a right. If they continue to make poor decisions and do things that are detrimental to themselves or the team, then maybe they don’t need to be part of the team. No player, no matter how talented, is more important than the other players on the roster. We don’t need any one that badly.

If you ever hear me say “I need” to a player I coach, you have the right to tell me “You need to stop.”

 

 

Relationships

This entry is part 21 of 28 in the series Leadership

Spending the last week at Tampa at the Women’s Final Four was a great experience. There was plenty of learning going on about offense, defense, recruiting, and numerous other topics. Tons of information was presented to make any program better if we choose to use it, but that’s not the reason it was a great experience.

Let’s be honest. We’ve heard most of that information before. Was there any presentation that was earth shattering? Did a coach drop knowledge that was so completely new and innovative that every program who attended will be doing things in a radically different way next season? Not really.

Compare the information from conventions over the last 5 years with the one in Tampa. The lessons from all of these presentations are pretty comparable. It’s always good to hear things again. It’s always good to have topics reinforced over and over.  Sometimes that’s the only way to get it through the thick skulls of coaches. We are some of the more stubborn people out there. Let’s be honest though; a lot of the presentations are a rehash of the previous years.

Part of what made the Final Four a great experience was the meaningful relationships that were fostered. Some of them were new relationships that were forged. Others were existing relationships that were made even stronger.

Even that’s not the true value though. The real value is in the fact that I realized I need to do a better job fostering a relationship with God. If I commit to having a good relationship with Him, then everything else will take care of itself.

I have a great relationship with my wife, but just imagine if it was better?  I have great relationships with family and friends. What if I could have better relationships with them too? I could have the Final Four experience every day. Isn’t that what life is about? Is it about drills, or recruiting or strategies? Is it about “moving up”?

Or is it about relationships? And not just superficial surface level relationships.Those leave you wondering what you’re missing out on. Some of them don’t even give you that much curiosity.  It’s the deep and meaningful ones that matter. It starts with a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God. That is the answer. Now it’s time to get to work.

 

 

The Simplicity of the Game

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series R&R Intro

I’ve watched a lot of basketball over my lifetime. I’m not that old but I’ve coached, played, or watched hundreds of games. It is so simple and so basic. The simplicity makes the game beautiful. Yet I feel like we make it so complicated.

One team is trying to score. The other team is trying to keep them from scoring. Then the other team gets the ball, and the roles are reversed. It isn’t scripted. It can’t be. Every possession takes on a life of its own.

Yet it all boils down to the same basic things.

On offense…

Shooting, dribbling and passing when a player has the ball. Movement and spacing when they don’t have it.

On defense…

Defending the player with the ball and being in position to defend the other players if they receive the ball.

Gaining possession when it’s up for grabs…

This could be loose balls or rebounds, but teams have to be able to get the ball to increase their number of scoring opportunities while at the same time limiting the other team.

Transitioning between each of the phases…

Physically and mentally being able to switch from defense to offense or visa versa is critical.

The teams that collectively do these 4 things the best win.

At some point it turns into a big game of one on one. Who is better? Me or you? And then the next person catches the ball and its a new game of one on one.

Yes there needs to be structure on both ends of the floor and in transition. Yes we can’t just roll the ball out and say “Have fun. Good luck”. But really, how hard is it?

All the X’s and O’s don’t matter much if your X’s are better than my O’s. Sure I might be able to compensate for some of that as a coach, but really?

Of course there’s the mental component. Who can make the best decisions? Who wants it more? Who can execute under pressure? Who takes the competitive challenge and cherishes it? Who can make up for physical limitations through mental skills and effort?

But really, why do we make the game so complicated? Isn’t it just about 5 people working together to complete a task? Isn’t it about each player beating their opponent at the given task as many times as they possibly can when the opportunity presents itself?

There are tons of different ways to go about it. At the end of the day, the game is simple.

We aren’t playing American football where we have one group that plays offense, another group that plays defense, and we can huddle before every play. We aren’t playing hockey where we can substitute anytime we want. It’s not soccer where one goal could be enough to win.

It’s basketball. It’s team. Even slow tempo games or defensive struggles have significant amounts of scoring compared to other games. There’s a reason football is turning into a up tempo game.

I would like to challenge coaches that through all of the schemes and game plans that we don’t lose sight of what makes this game great. It is its simplicity.

Team Mentality: An Offensive Philosophy Part 3

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Offensive Philosophy

The first question about an offensive philosophy surrounds the physical skills of the offensive players. The second question asks about the mental state of the players. Do the offensive players allow the defense to dictate the mentality of the offense? In other words, are the offensive players confident enough in their understanding of the offense that no matter what the defense does, they will be able to generate the best shot every possession?

How many times have you seen a player on offense freeze because they don’t know what to do? Typically this happens for one of three reasons, they forgot what to do, there are so many options they can’t decide, or they aren’t allowed to do what they want. Sometimes this happens when a player catches the ball. Sometimes it happens when they don’t have the ball. We can yell and fuss and scream and teach and whatever we have to do to get the player to remember what to do. Or we can make it really simple and straightforward and we can drill it until they don’t know what else to do.

Players can own an offensive mentality in which they are ultimately confident. There’s no reason they can’t. When they don’t have to worry about “messing up the play,” they can focus on just playing. They can focus on shooting, making good moves, making good decisions, screening, and all the other skills we want them to execute.

This mentality must start with an understanding of spacing, player movement and ball movement. Then it must be complimented with an understanding of each player’s strengths and weaknesses. This starts with understanding one’s self and then understanding one’s teammates. If players understand these things, then I believe they can find a way to beat any defense that’s out there.

I don’t believe they have to memorize 57 quick hitters or 10 continuities to confident in their offensive mentality. At the same time, it takes time and a level of basketball IQ to be able to effectively run a true motion offense. Instead what if we do something that takes the best of both worlds and combines them.

What if we glue players to spots on the floor that they can’t leave unless something makes them leave those spots? That something would be an action that is so simple and that has been drilled so many times that it becomes instinct.  Spacing therefore is maintained.

What if we give the player with the ball the freedom to do whatever they want within their skill set? Now the ball can move freely based on what the player feels comfortable doing based on what the defense allows. Ball movement happens easily.

What if we teach them step-by-step how players can move through the use of concepts and rules that can be drilled and mastered? Now players move in an organized fashion but also in a way that is unpredictable. We have accomplished the criteria of player movement.

Now we have to know our teammates and ourselves. As a player, I must know:

The list goes on and on. However, if a player knows these things like this, it makes offense so much easier to play. Each of these things could happen on the same possession or none of them, but none of them are specific to any play. They are just a part of playing offense.

Don’t get me wrong; there must be some skill level to go along with the mentality. Players must be able to do something on the court. The higher the level of competition, the more they need to be able to do.

However, assuming that there are similar levels of players on the court, I believe that a team of players with a confident mentality regarding how they want to play offense will be able to take advantage of any defense they face. What happens when a defense changes how they defend the post or a ball screen? What happens when a defense goes from a man to man to a match up zone? What happens when the defense starts playing a box and one?

How many times have you seen a defense get into the heads of the offense just because they take something away or do something different? I believe we can severely neutralize if not prevent this from happening. If players know how to play offense, they don’t care what the defense does. They just play offense.

Sometimes players get in their own way. Ever seen offensive players freeze up when the pass they are supposed to make isn’t available? What happens when a player forgets to set a screen, or makes the wrong pass? What happens when players run aimlessly around the court without purpose and spacing, because they don’t really know where to go?

If the offensive players are tied to a play, they are more likely to be unsure what to do if the defense is able to take away part of the play. If the defense can cause the play to breakdown, then the offense is forced to do something else.

I believe these should never happen. Players should be able step on the floor and play offense with very little mental effort. Of course we can practice offense for hours and hours to make sure we get it right, but what about players’ skills? What about defense? If we simplify offense and at the same time make it unpredictable, we can be good offensively, and get better at defending and fundamental skills. If we teach and practice the same concepts on a daily basis, then we can focus on improving on the skills surrounding these concepts as well as defensive concepts.

Players will never worry that the defense took something away. They will never worry about what defense the other team is playing. They will find ways to attack the defense and generate scoring opportunities. It’s really not that hard. I think a lot of coaches make it that way trying to out think the room. If your team has a mentality that they can’t be defended, you might be surprised what they can do.

The only question that remains is can they put the ball in the basket. This is the single biggest reason we have struggled over the last 4 years offensively. We can generate tons of shots and good shots. We just haven’t been able to put the ball in the basket. The best way to defend us has been to let us shoot and then make sure you get the rebound.

Skills and Abilities: An Offensive Philosophy Part 2

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Offensive Philosophy

The first major question in developing an offensive philosophy (and not necessarily the most important question) is do the offensive players have the skills and abilities to take advantage of what the defense is doing. In other words, if the defense takes away a certain movement or action can the offensive players take advantage of what the defense gives up? In reference to the last post, if the defense allows a certain movement or action, can the offense capitalize?

For instance, if a defender denies a pass, can the offensive player recognize it and make a good backdoor cut. If a defender fronts a post player, can the perimeter player make a good lob pass away from help side defenders? If a defender chases the offensive player off of a downscreen, can that offensive player curl? If the defender is forcing the ball handler to their weak hand, can that player still be effective? If the defense traps a ball screen, can the ball handler make the proper play to make the defense pay for taking that risk?

How do you defend Ray Allen when he’s coming off of a screen? He’s going to set it up. He’s going to use it. He’s going to make the right read depending on what the defense does. So many times a defenders only chance is too defend him differently than he did the last time to make him uncomfortable and then make the shot a little tougher in hopes that he misses.

How do you defend Tony Parker on a ball screen with Tim Duncan? So many times, the only thing defenses can really do is force one of the two to shoot a jump shot and hope they miss. Without Serge Ibaka on the court, they got any shot they wanted in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. It’s a nearly impossible task.

Complete offensive players make offense easier on everyone else. They create opportunities for teammates that allow them to play to their strengths. One complete player is hard to guard. Two complete players are almost impossible to guard.

If you’re coaching against players who have extraordinary skills and talents, they become nearly impossible to defend with one player. These kinds of players have the skills and abilities to counter almost any defensive maneuver. If you decide to double-team that player, offense just got a lot easier for the other 4 players.

However, most of us don’t have the luxury to coach that level player. Most of us coach players who have limitations. They aren’t proficient dribblers with both hands. They can’t create their own shot. They don’t use screens well. They can’t finish in traffic. They can’t shoot off the dribble. They can’t shoot without dribbling. They are undersized. They are slow. The list of potential limitations is long. Most players have at least one offensive limitation. Other players have more than one. This affects their mentality, which we will talk about later, but at the most basic level, it affects their offensive production.

What if your team doesn’t have one complete player? Like most of us, what if our whole roster is made up of incomplete players? We become much easier to defend. Defenses can make shooters drive. They can make drivers shoot. They can make right-handed players go left. The good news is that the teams we play against are similar to us. Some are better, and some are worse, but the limitations of other teams give us a chance to be successful on game day. Otherwise, we would be in trouble (e.g. the rest of the world during the Summer Olympics). When the USA puts it’s 5 best players on the court, the rest of the world can’t keep up.

Players can develop their skills. They can get better over the course of their careers. However, very few of them will ever be complete players. Even if they have complete skill sets, many of them don’t have the athleticism of a Lebron James or Kevin Durant. So even a complete skill set is limited by their athletic ability.

There are so many situations where it comes down to a matter of the execution of a skill. Some players are more skilled than others. Some players are so talented that a defender might only make it more difficult for a player to execute a skill. They may never be able to take away that opportunity. Other players may have trouble executing the skill even in the most simple situations. Even if the coach calls the perfect play in the perfect situation, if the player can’t execute the skills properly, then the play will fail.

How can we empower players to be successful on offense given their limitations? We teach them how to play and use their skill sets to help the team. We let drivers be drivers. We let shooters be shooters. We let players who can go right go right. We let post players, who might not be good 1 on 1 players, be good screeners. We find ways to help our players be successful no matter what the situation.

How many times do we run an offense that looks good on paper but doesn’t work when our players run it? We’re mad at our players because it isn’t working. Maybe they don’t have the skill set to run that play or that offense. Our players’ limitations severely handicap offensive production. When we run plays or offenses that require players to do things that they are not good at, we make that box even smaller.

I believe players have to have options. Players must have the option to do multiple things with the ball within their skill set when they catch it. Obviously if they can’t do anything with the ball, then there is a bigger problem. Surely if they are on your team, they can do something with the ball. Surely you can help them learn how to take advantage of their skill set in a way that helps the team.

As long as there is spacing, player movement, and ball movement, I believe teams will create cracks in defenses and turn them into gaping holes if we teach them and allow them to do so. If offense is simple, then they can be more focused on their skills. If offense is unpredictable, then the defense has a more difficult time knowing what’s going to happen next. This gives our players with limited skill sets an advantage.

The point here is that an offensive philosophy should allow players to maximize their strengths and hide their weaknesses. It should be flexible to no matter who is on your team and no matter who goes in the game. If there is an emphasis on spacing, player movement, and ball movement along with the development of skills, then your team will be tough to guard.

Introduction: An Offensive Philosophy Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Offensive Philosophy

Sometimes it’s good to talk skills, drills, and X’s and O’s. Sometimes it’s good to talk about leadership and relationships. Sometimes it’s good to talk about philosophy. Right now, I want to talk about offensive philosophy when it’s 5 on 5. Maybe “when it’s 5 on 5” is more clearly stated by saying when we’re not in a transition opportunity. Of course, it’s easiest to score in transition because the defense isn’t as well organized. Most teams want to create and take advantage of transition opportunities. How many coaches say “we play an fast paced up tempo exciting brand of basketball?” Yeah ok, that ‘s fine but let’s be honest.

Teams can’t always create these situations. The higher the level of play, the more half court possessions there will be. The need to score against set defenses will always exist. Great offensive teams can score when it’s 5 on 5.

Having an offensive philosophy helps coaches define what is important to them. It helps coaches decide what they teach their players and how they teach them. It helps coaches communicate clearly to their teams. If players know what is important to the coach, it is much easier for them to play offense. Players who play offense without a lot of mental stress are able to focus more on executing skills and making shots.

Before we start talking about this part of an offensive philosophy, let’s talk about defense. On any individual possession, defense has the opportunity to dictate the initial action and alignment of the offense. They can choose to play man-to-man defense in a few different ways. They can choose to play a few different kinds of zones. They can choose to press in different ways. They can choose to switch defenses in the middle of a possession. The offense must respond to what the defense does. Their response determines how successful they will be.

A team’s personnel or offensive tendencies may impact the defensive decisions made by a team and a coach. However, on any given possession the defense will always choose their positioning and alignment first. A defense may be excited and ready to stop a team or they may be scared to death before the ball crosses half court, but they will choose what defense they play and what they decide to try to take away.

Once this choice is made, the defense is choosing to give up something. There is no perfect defense. There isn’t one defense that can stop every offense. No one can guard everything. Some defenders are better than others. Some teams play better defense than others. However, even great defenders will get beat against good offensive players.  Great offensive players will beat great defenders almost every time.

A lot of people say there is no defense in the NBA. I agree that some players and teams are not very good defensively. However, it’s very difficult and maybe impossible to guard some players in the NBA. These great players make some teams impossible to guard.

When you watch NBA games, you can see that defenses choose what to try to guard. Their positioning on the court is an attempt to take away something. Let’s be a little extreme for a second. If there are 5 NBA level defenders standing one step outside the 3-point line, it may be pretty tough to get a clean look at a 3 pointer.  If there are 5 NBA level defenders in the lane, it may be pretty hard to shoot a layup. Of course teams don’t play like this, but no matter where defenders position themselves on the court, they are choosing to make an effort to take away something.  They might be taking away the wrong thing. They might not be able to take away that thing, but they are attempting to take away something. However, every time a defender takes something away, they are giving up something else. It is impossible to guard everything.

 

There are two questions that come as a result. We will talk about those in the next post.  Until then….What is your offensive philosophy?