“Small Ball” is Skill Ball

I saw the above on SacTownRoyalty, and I feel this argument persists. Traditionalists dislike the modern game, and bemoan the lack of back-to-the-basket post play, and they find any reason to favor bigger lineups.

I wrote about the Warriors previously, and specifically Draymond Green’s influence that allows the Warriors to go small. The Warriors’ small ball is less about height, and more about skill.

When I was young, I suffered through Sacramento Kings’ seasons with Joe Kleine as a starting center because the three-point shot was underutilized and a big center was mandatory.

The Modern Day NBA values skill, whether due to rule changes, analytics, Steph Curry, Billy Donovan/Rick Pitino, Vance Walberg/DDM, European influences, or common sense. Often, skill = small because taller players are not allowed to handle the ball or shoot at young ages. When taller, bigger players cannot exploit mismatches on the interior, height loses its impact, especially in the NBA which has all but passed a rule outlawing second shots (teams rarely send more than one player to offensive glass).

If you cannot exploit a smaller defender, the system discourages you from pounding the offensive glass, and you have to chase smaller attackers around the three-point line, negating some of your defensive prowess, your effectiveness is limited, and often replaced by a smaller, more versatile player.

Now that the modern-day NBA has accepted that skill beats size, size is diversifying and developing skills. No longer do we view a 6’8 player who dribbles and passes as an anomaly, and we expect our 7′ to shoot competently. As more taller players develop all-around skills, the skilled, taller player has advantages due to versatility, defensive length, and more.

The teams listed above did not employ traditional centers; Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez is a three-point shooter; Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid plays like a 1990’s SF; Marc Gasol shoots 3s and initiates the offense; and Denver’s Nikola Jokic is a point-center. Utah’s Rudy Gobert is the only starting center without a new-age game, but he’s a great compliment as a rim-running lob threat with defensive mobility.

Furthermore, their size comes because players like Simmons, Giannis, Kawhi, Siakam, and others have size and skills to play multiple positions. These teams are not sacrificing skill to add height; they’re building around skilled players who have size and versatility. Skill is king, but when the skilled player has more size, he is that much more valuable in today’s NBA.

How Quick Beats Tall

by on June 25, 2019
in Strategy

Originally Published by Basketball Sense, January 2002

The most common excuse among youth, high school and college teams is the lack of a big guy or an inside presence: “He’s too big;” “We’re too small;” “They’re too strong;” “How are we going to stop him?” These excuses set up teams for unnecessary losses. Height or post play rarely decides any game or championship at any level below the NBA and elite international competition. Teams lose when they fail to shoot free throws well; turn the ball over too much; fail to block out and rebound; get out hustled and outworked; or get severely out shot.  Height is not a determining factor in these scenarios.

The most reliable stat I have seen for determining the game’s outcome or a team’s season outlook is possession margin, which is determined by adding the difference in offensive rebounds and turnovers. If possession margin is an indicator of success, protecting a team’s defensive glass and protecting the ball are the two most consistent ways to win games. Creating possessions through offensive rebounds and by forcing turnovers enhance the team’s chance for success.

Teams generally rely on posts for three reasons: 1. Rebounding; 2. Interior defense; 3. Interior offense. A smart, quick team can compensate for their lack of size, and punish teams for their height advantage.

Rebounding, and especially defensive rebounding, is assumed to be the posts’ job, but defensive rebounding success is positioning and toughness. A big team has a rebounding advantage if all things are equal, but below the NBA level, most rebounds are gathered below the rim. Essentially, the skill of defensive rebounding is gaining inside position (a product of solid man to man or zone defense), making contact with the offensive player, and retrieving the ball. A tough defensive team with good position will get almost every rebound, with the exception of the occasional long rebound. 

Offensive rebounding is a special skill — less positioning and toughness, and more quickness and anticipation. If the offensive player anticipate’s the rebound’s location and quickly moves in that direction, he or she negates the size and/or positioning of the defensive player. The likelihood of an offensive rebound increases in transition, on a long shot (produces long rebounds), and when penetration forces defenses to help and scramble, negating their positioning advantage. Smaller teams are more apt to push the ball, attempt longer shots, and penetrate to the basket, putting the defenses at a disadvantage and presenting offensive rebounding opportunities.

Defensively, teams that rely on strong post play tend to be easier to guard because there is a tendency for other players to stand. Defending a team that stands or a player that stands is easier than defending a team that constantly sets screens and moves without the ball. A post player generally receives the ball with his back to the basket. If he or she is dominant, and the defensive team is severely out-manned, it is easy to double team and practice rotations, especially when his or her teammates stand around. It is much more difficult to plan for, and practice rotations to beat a terrific penetrating guard.

Offensively, it is easy to compensate for the lack of an inside game by pushing the tempo, shooting the three and/or penetrating to the basket. First, this puts pressure on the defense. Second, the ability to do all three makes help defense and defensive rotations difficult. Third, it opens up offensive rebounds and second shots. By constantly attacking, the defense is put on its heels, negating its size advantage.

The small team’s biggest advantage is ball handling and ability to pressure the ball on the perimeter. By taking care of the ball, a team prevents its opposition from getting easy shots and increased possessions. It insures itself of getting at least one shot almost every time down the court. By pressuring the perimeter, the team can create turnovers and easy offense for itself, and also make it very difficult to enter the ball into the post players, thus negating its disadvantages inside. 

Height is the most over-hyped aspect of basketball. Rarely if ever does post play determine the championship, unless there is a Shaq-like force. These examples above illustrate how quick beats tall, breaking down the perceived disadvantages of the height-deprived. There is no excuse at all: this is how quick beats tall.

Klay Thompson, Biomechanics and Motor Learning

In 2011, before masses of strength & conditioning coaches discovered and popularized motor learning, I spoke at the Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group conference (organized by current Boston Celtics’ Director of Performance Art Horne) on using motor learning principles within strength and conditioning to improve performance and reduce injuries, specifically on jump landings. You can see part 1 of the talk here, and part 2 here, but the video camera did not capture the rest; all of the slides are here, and a paper in the Strength & Conditioning Journal on the same topic is here.

One major topic was the difference between a biomechanics viewpoint and a motor learning viewpoint. As you can see in the slide above, one slide shows a landing similar to Klay Thompson’s landing in Game 6. Now, there are a multitude of factors that go into any injury, and Thompson’s landing likely was more forceful because of a higher jump, but the similarities are there.

When I presented, and for several years after, biomechanists debated my premise. One of my conclusions was that we cannot avoid these landings during games so we must train for them. Biomechanists argued that there is a single perfect landing technique, and that is the only thing that we should train. “Why would you purposefully put a player into a sub-optimal position and risk injury?” I was asked. The above was my reply; these landing are going to happen regardless because of the game’s demands, and we should train in a way that prepares players to handle them.

The counterargument often is that if only the athlete spent more time training the perfect, ideal landing, then he would land perfectly regardless of circumstances. So, we train perfect landings in unopposed static environments and expect them to transfer perfectly to chaotic game situations.

In Klay’s injury, as with most ACL injuries that occur on a jump landing, there was contact or someone nearby (I believe the research says within 1 m) and the eyes were directed upwards on the landing (see above). When strength coaches and physical therapists run players through jump training programs or ACL prevention programs, how many focus on the eyes? How many have landings occur through contact or with someone nearby? Some do (I have seen soccer teams practicing landings with shoulder to shoulder contacts), but most do not because looking upwards and contacting players in the air disrupts the perfect biomechanical landing. So, we train repeatedly for something that rarely happens (perfect landing) in the hopes that it will happen, and we avoid training for the events that happen in every game and lead to most of the injuries, statistically.

It is easy to sit back and say that if Klay had landed on two feet in a half squat position, landing on his toes and rolling back toward his heels, that he would not have hurt himself. How realistic is it to land from a dunk attempt when you are fouled and looking back at the rim to land in this idealized position?

Everyone should learn an ideal landing technique as the foundation of a jump training program. However, that is the starting point, not the end. Jump training programs should incorporate jumps, hops and leaps in all directions and all planes with external cues (balls) and without vision of the floor. Programs should progress gradually as players adapt, but they should progress.

Just as athletes strive to jump higher and higher, whether onto higher boxes (which actually reduces the landing demands) or over higher hurdles or just to dunk, athletes should strive to add difficulty and complexity to their landings. Rather than concentrate solely on jumping onto or over higher things, add rotation or distance or actions after the landing (sprints, shuffling). Incorporate catching into jump landings to distract vision. Incorporate a partner into drills for slight contact. Start by adding one of these elements and once players adapt, add more and more.

Will players land sub-optimally? Probably. Is there a greater chance for injury in training than sticking to perfect sagittal plane, two-footed half-squat landings? Yes, but the environment is controlled and managed as compared to the game.

Without these progressions, players are not prepared for the landings in the game. It is similar to a player who never shoots against defenders in practice. We accept without question that NBA players’ shooting percentages are halved in games; a player shoots 80% in practice and 40% in games.

Why would we not expect the same kind of skill deterioration in a skill such as jump landings? Why not train in ways that reduce the skill deterioration from practice to games?

None of this is to suggest that Klay’s injury was preventable. Every injury is multi-factorial; between the hamstring, the fatigue from 5 straight seasons going to the finals, the pressure of the situation, fatigue that that was usually around the time that he’d be on the bench, the contact, the landing, a less than perfect take-off, bad luck, etc., there are many potential explanations.

Instead, this is to highlight the limitations of most jump training and ACL prevention programs because most adhere to a biomechanics-based model that attempts to reduce possible techniques into the singular ideal technique, despite the game demanding more and greater techniques. As long as we adhere to the biomechanics-based models, we short-change our athletes, and they become more susceptible to injury, especially sub-elite athletes who lack the strength and experience of an athlete like Klay Thompson.

Brute Force Development

I watched a typical workout with a well-respected trainer and two high-school players. Everything made sense; the players worked hard; the trainer was engaged. However, I don’t know or couldn’t see a purpose other than “getting better.” This, to me, is brute force development: Doing something so many times that inevitably through the force of will there has to be some improvement.

From my vantage point and my biases, one player had numerous flaws in his shot. I am not one to advocate for a ton of technical work, breakdowns or a singular ideal technique, but when a player airballs as many as he makes, there is a problem. Rather than identify a problem and design drills to correct the problem, the approach appeared to be to shoot more.

I have texted many of my incoming players this summer to ask about their offseason goals. They nearly always give a general answer. “I want to improve my shooting.” Great, how do you want to improve your shooting? What specifically do you want to improve? Answers vary; I want to shoot quicker, extend my range, or I just want to get better. The players who want to extend their range or shoot quicker are on the right track, provided that they design exercises that focus on these aspects of their shot. The players who just want to get better are unlikely to make much progress; they do not have a plan. They are relying on brute force.

This is not uncommon. We have a society that believes that improvement comes from doing more; reps, and reps, and reps. However, if you shoot poorly now, and rely on shooting more in the same way, how is that going to lead to improvement?

Now, in yesterday’s workout, maybe the focus was not shooting, as almost every shot was after a move. This could have been “game-like training” for the moves and shots that these players shoot during games. However, how is it game-like if there is no defense and the players follow the coach’s directions: dribble here, make this move, get to this spot, and shoot.

Okay, well, it was not really game-like practice, but they were practicing their ball-handling. Again, how? By doing more of the same? When they lacked control on the reception of their crossover, but did nothing specific to improve this control, how are they going to improve? Again, the hope that if we do this one thing enough we will force improvement.

Brute force development works in some instances, otherwise nobody would continue to go to these well-paid trainers who rely on brute force methods. For most, it requires a lot of repetitions, which also helps the trainer, as the player must return to the trainer over ($$) and over ($$).

This method is not skill development. It is how many view skill development, but simply relying on doing the same thing more is not developing a skill. It is maintaining or solidifying a skill; if one performs this skill at an expert level, solidifying the skill at this level may lead to small improvements. However, if one performs at a sub-elite level, why solidify or automate the skill at this level? Why automate a shot that airballs as often as it goes in?

I work with two players who are non-shooters. We alternate between drills that perturb their current skill to force changes and drills that focus on the specific changes and drills that challenge accuracy and drills that they enjoy/competitive drills.

From the outside, the purpose may not be apparent. However, whereas our workouts may appear disorganized and less intense (which they are), I have a very specific goal for each player, and each drill fits this goal: One player is changing from a flat-footed set shot to a jump shot and one is changing from a two-motion shot to a one-motion shot. The drills are attempts to perturb their former techniques and assist with the coordination of their new techniques. The goal is to improve their shooting, but these are the specific ways in which we hope to accomplish this goal. It is not brute force development, but specific skill development.

Real Life Recruiting Stories

I write this to inform coaches, parents, and players, not to complain or criticize, as I am very happy with the group that we have this season. Nevertheless, these are some behaviors and actions that cost players scholarships this spring. Maybe these players found better opportunities elsewhere, but I know at least two have not signed yet. Read more

Next Page »

  • What Is A Playmaker?

    Who decided that a point guard has to be small? More importantly, what is a point guard? We expect a point guard to be a leader and have a high basketball I.Q. Why don’t we expect or challenge all players to develop this game awareness? Why rely on only one player? Read more →
  • The PBDL Concept

    English soccer academies wait until players are 11 to play full 11v11 soccer; in Italy, youth basketball players participate in skill-oriented clinics at 6-years-old, but start competitive games at 12. In the United States, kids play 5v5 full court games and compete for national championships when they are 8-years-old.

    Read more →

  • Starting A PBDL

    The PBDL emphasizes learning and development. Presently, players and parents have numerous recreation options - leagues based on fun and equal participation, typically for beginners - and numerous competitive opportunities - teams focused on strategy, game preparation and winning. There are few true development leagues - until now.

    Read more →