Teaching The Game

Coaches, just to keep it real, we need to do a better job teaching players to play the game. If we teach the game better, players will play it better. This teaching goes all the way from individual skill development to 5 on 5 play. Yes, players have to get in the gym and work on their skills. Yes, players must take what we give them and do something with it.

However, we have to do our part to make it something they can learn. In my experiences, we tend to over complicate the game.  Whether it’s offense or defense, most players we coach are not going to win Olympic Gold Medals.  Most players aren’t elite. Elite players are elite for a reason.  They have mastered the basics.  In our efforts to be elite, we try to teach players who are not elite to be elite instead of teaching them to be basic first.

The 3 main keys to successful offensive basketball are spacing, player movement, and ball movement. Defensively, can your players defend space, their player, or the ball? So many players don’t understand those basic things from an offensive or defensive standpoint. If they don’t understand these basic principles, how can they learn and understand more complicated ones?


How much of the court are we forcing the defense to guard? How much of the court do we want to defend? Spacing is certainly based on players’ abilities. Defenses who have to respect 5 players who can shoot NBA range threes are going to have more court to cover than a defense who plays against a team who is only effective shooting from 15 feet.

We can’t assume that all players have equal skill sets, but for a second assume they do. It’s also based on where our players are located on the court. In thinking about teaching offense there are a few questions to consider.

  1. Are we located close enough to each other to be able to make clean crisp passes away from defenders?
  2. Are we located far enough away from each other that one player can’t guard two players?  
  3. Should we make all 5 defenders guard the entire court? Or can we create a situation where 1 defender has to defend a large area of the court alone (isolation)?
  4. Can we create an advantage situation as a result of a specific alignment or a specific movement?

Teaching offensive basketball begins with spacing. Teaching players where they need to be on the floor relative to each other gives them an opportunity to move themselves and the ball effectively into positions where they can score. It forces the defense to cover more of the court based on the individual players’ skill set and gives the offense more room to operate successfully.

We can ask a few questions from the defensive side of things as well.  

  1. Can we affect the team’s spacing by defending players who have the ball in certain ways?
  2. Can we affect the team’s spacing by defending players who do not have the ball in certain ways?
  3. Are there some areas on the court that we need to defend more than others?
  4. Are there some areas that we don’t need to defend at all?
  5. Should we defend some areas of the court whether we need to or not just because it will make it more difficult for the offense to get into the areas that they prefer?

Obviously every coach has their own defensive philosophy.  One extreme says that we shouldn’t defend players in the backcourt because they can’t score from there.  Another extreme says that because they can’t score in the backcourt means they are easier to defend and we should take advantage of that. How you defend is up to you. In any case, you have to decide how you’re defending the space on the floor. 

Player Movement

The more that players move, the more the defense is forced to move. The more a defense moves, the more likely it is to get out of position. The more defensive players have to move, the more tired they become so that they have less energy on offense. However, this movement must be intelligent movement. Players must understand how to move, when to move, and where to move in order to maintain spacing and create scoring opportunities. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that spacing will be compromised. Bad spacing is going to lead to bad offense.

So teaching players how to move intelligently, becomes critical to good offense. The more intelligently players move, the less predictable they become to defenders. A predictable movement is easier to defend than an unpredictable action. Teams who move in a systematic yet varied manner make themselves an opposing coach’s scouting nightmare.

  1. How do you teach your players to move without the ball?
  2. Is it organized and coordinate or random and varied? 
  3. Is this movement purposeful?
  4. Does it create scoring opportunities?
  5. How much do players have to remember vs. how much are they learning?

So many coaches spend a lot of time worrying about how to defend certain actions without really taking into consideration the players in those actions.  How we defend a team’s worst player is just as important as how we defend a team’s best player. 

  1. Is the action a scoring action?
  2. Do the offensive player(s) in the action have the ability to score in a variety of ways?
  3. Is it better to stick with our principles even if it allows the action to occur or should we go away from our principles to prevent the action?
  4. Can a defender who is not involved in the action help defend the action because the player they are defending isn’t a threat at that time?

Ball Movement

In the game of basketball, there is no more important object than the ball itself. All of the strategies, skills, and intangibles mean very little in comparison to the ball. The ball moves in one of three ways: shooting, passing, or dribbling. Whether a player shoots, passes or dribbles is ultimately their decision. As coaches, we must determine how much we try to control those decisions compared to teaching them to make these decisions on their own. If a player isn’t comfortable in a certain area because of a lack of skill, they are not likely to execute the correct decision, even if we try to control the decision they make.

In addition, the decisions of what to do with the ball at any given point in time are split second. Many times a moment of hesitation can turn a good decision into a bad one. Instead of spending time controlling every decision, what if we spent more time teaching them skills and how to make decisions?

On the defensive side, defending the ball is the hardest thing to do and it’s also the most important thing to do.  Good ball pressure makes other actions tougher to execute.  However, we must ask ourselves if it’s worth pressuring a player who can’t shoot or if it is acceptable to force a 3 point shooter to drive even if it means we get beat initially. Again, everyone is going to have different answers and perspectives based on their philosophies and personnel.  Against one dimensional players, try making them two dimensional. Odds are it will work in your favor.  Against multi-dimensional players, is there a one-dimensional player that you force into making plays instead of that multi-dimensional player? 

What if we spent more time helping them make more shots, better passes, and effective dribbles? Now players can have more confidence that they can execute whatever decision they make. If we spend more time teaching spacing, skills, and player movement, the decisions that they make with the ball become a lot easier.


Teaching these three basic principles combined with individual skills provides a foundation for players to be able to execute offense so much more effectively. At the same time, if our players can learn how to defend good spacing, player movement, and ball movement, they will be better equipped to defend in any situation.


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