Why do fake fundamentals persist?

by on July 2, 2019
in Fun

A coach sent a video of a prominent coach starting a camp with his favorite fake fundamentals, and this coach expressed his frustration with the lack of evolution in coaches who are described as among the world’s best. The below is based on my reply.

I have found that coaches take bizarre pride in doing things when they know that players hate them. I am convinced that many feel that it is unfair that players/children today do not face the same struggles as during their childhood, and they intentionally inflict this struggle onto the players who they coach. I suppose it is the coach’s version of “when I was your age, I walked to school uphill both ways”.

I cannot relate because my father’s mission in life was to make sure I did not suffer through the unpleasant things of his childhood and adolescence. He worked to make my life (and my sister’s and mother’s) better and easier. Therefore, I do not understand these coaches who want young players to go through the same crap they did as a rite of passage of some sort.

This is not to suggest that everything about basketball must be easy and fun all the time. We practice defense, have a conditioning test, lift weights and more. Players improve. It is the desire, which I see in many, to make basketball purposefully not fun that I struggle to reconcile.

This attitude starts with the analogies that we use: “We’re going to war”, “boot camp”, “We’re grinding,” etc. Basketball is not war; war is war. Playing a game is not a grind; washing dishes for $6/hour is a grind! Soldiers go through boot camp to prepare for war; one reason is to see if the soldiers will break under extreme mental and physical pressures and exhaustion in order to exclude these soldiers before they get into a war zone and cost lives. I understand that coaches will argue that they want to see which players will break under pressure, but why do we want to exclude players at the developmental levels? Missing a crucial free throw in an u15 AAU game is not life or death. For those who missed it the first time, basketball is not war; it is not life or death.

My initial philosophy boiled down to: Eliminate everything that I hated or thought was irrelevant as a player and do more of the things that players enjoy. I took small steps, as I did not want to stray too far from the good coaches. After I read about former St. John’s University (MN) football coach John Gagliardi, I jumped feet first and eliminated all fake fundamentals.

This should not be revolutionary. Why intentionally do things that you disliked as a player? Some things that players dislike may have value, and part of the coach’s job is to push players beyond their comfort zone. Many drills and exercises could be changed to be more fun and engaging. Why do many coaches feel that is a negative? Fun is not a bad word. It is okay for players to enjoy the experience; that does not make you soft or a bad coach.

The Best Development System – As Many As Possible

“As many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible.” – Mark O’Sullivan

“Participation. Progression. Performance.” – Daniel Abrahams

For several years, Mark O’Sullivan from AIK in Stockholm, Sweden has advocated a development system that includes “as many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible.” Some people who concentrate on elite sport disagree and promote early identification, specialization, and exclusion to invest resources in the few, as opposed to the many, but O’Sullivan’s mantra is based on the belief that one cannot identify the talented few at a young age and, more importantly, that every child has a right to play.

As many as possible for as long as possible was the United States’ biggest athlete development advantage throughout the 1900s. People acknowledge the United States’ large population as its major advantage in international competitions, as well as the country’s wealth, but underestimate the benefits of a school-based sports system that allowed millions of children to participate in sports.

I attended a private boys’ Catholic high school. Many attributed our basketball success to recruiting, as a few players transferred into our school during the height of the school’s competitiveness. However, at that time, I imagine there were +/-25 Catholic elementary schools in the area that fed two Catholic high schools. Roughly speaking, +/-15 tended to feed into my high school, and +/-10 fed the other school. Assuming each graduating 8th grade class had 5-10 boys playing on the 8th grade basketball team, 75-150 boys who played on 8th grades teams matriculated to our high school, not to mention boys who attended schools outside our Catholic schools league.

We started on teams in 5th grade. Because they did not like the idea of cutting 5th graders, they started a second team for 5th and 6th graders when I was in 5th grade. Every boy who wanted to play at my school played on one of the two teams. This quickly spread to 3rd and 4th grades while I remained at the school, and eventually down to kindergarten. roughly 10-15 boys in k-8th playing basketball, and this is one school. None of these boys was cut, although there was some stratification with the A and B teams. Each team played a full schedule and received similar coaching.

When I started high school, roughly 125 boys tried out for the freshmen basketball team every year. The school decided cutting down to 15 was too much, so they added a second freshmen team, and eventually a second junior varsity team. That meant one high school had roughly 75 players remaining in the competitive stream. As many as possible for as long as possible. Many sports did not cut anyone through high school.

Somewhere during the ’00s, we decided that this system was was holding the U.S. back from developing more and better athletes, and we needed more private clubs, private trainers, and earlier specialization. When I played, our metropolitan city had two club programs (BCI and Nike); BCI had two teams (u16, u18), I believe, and Nike had one varsity team. BCI went to the BCI National Tournament and Nike went to the Big Time. Other than local games and leagues to prepare for these tournaments, that was the extent of club basketball. Now, club teams reach down to u8s, and they are viewed as vital to development and exposure. Some call themselves “developmental” programs despite cutting players every year. The large number of clubs has some benefits, as they provide playing opportunities for many, but this is offset in many negatives in terms of participation.

Today, in girls basketball, many high schools only have one team for schools with 2500+ students, and many schools do not need tryouts because fewer than 15 players turn out for the team. When I was in high school, these schools had 3 teams (frosh, JV, varsity and sometimes 4 with a frosh-soph team) and had to cut players to get down to the 36 to 48 players on the teams.

Some of the decline is due to the increasing popularity of lacrosse and softball, although they play in different seasons; softball and lacrosse should not prohibit one from playing high-school basketball. Much of the decline in participation is attributed to early specialization, and especially the club teams. Volleyball and softball club teams are known to hoard their players and prevent multi-sport participation. Basketball clubs do the same, as I know coaches who discourage girls from playing volleyball because they believe it will hinder their basketball development. Some believe that the specialization is a net positive, as the school’s best athlete playing one sport instead of three opens opportunities for two other students to make a team. Unfortunately, those players may never have played previously because they were cut at younger ages.

Somehow, we decided that the biggest factor in the U.S.’s sports success over decades is an impediment to success, and we’re undermining ourselves at every level by turning sports development into private for-profit enterprise. We have moved from a system that embodied the “as many as possible for as long as possible” goal and entered the race to the bottom, to use another of O’Sullivan’s phrases. Rather than support systems that increase participation and allow for late talent identification, we wish to identify the talented few at younger and younger ages and ignore everyone else.

This rush to identify talent as pre-adolescents happens as many criticize NBA professionals for their ability to identify the talented at 19+ years of age:

Now, I do not agree with the above entirely, as the statement is true only if the drafted players never improved or were injured, and if all environments, opportunities and coaches were the same. These same issues affect the talent spotting of younger children, except these other factors are magnified even greater at younger ages. If a 19 year-old is not a finished player, what is an 8-year-old?

In every instance when I have met with a federation about talent development and identification, the initial goal is always to find the talented few earlier and pour more resources into those few players. My answer is always the opposite: Find ways to increase participation and delay talent identification. My opposition is likely the reason that none of these federations have hired me, as many time, the people in these management positions do not have time for long-term progress; they need short-term results to keep their jobs. This turnover and the short-term emphasis also stymies the development of the federation, and none of these federations/organizations are in a better place 5-10 years after I spoke to them.

The U.S. has an embarrassment of riches and the school system (including the NCAA), while far from perfect, is a huge advantage in terms of generating a large pool of participants. The goal should be to increase the participation, especially at the developmental ages, not to find reasons to exclude children from playing a sport.

Otherwise, we create a system that has no middle. In my area, there are virtually no players for me to recruit to a junior college. There are very good players who develop in sponsored clubs from 6th-12th grade and sign D1 and D2 scholarships, and there are a lot of bad players. There is little in between. There is no middle, likely because these players were siphoned off to club teams in other sports or they were cut in middle school from one of the few clubs and quit. Creating more opportunities at younger ages increases the middle at the high school level, which makes for better and more competitive games, which only enhances the skills of the “elite”.

As an example, I spoke to the local varsity coach when I lived in a small town. The school district sponsored 6th-12th grade teams, and we lived in a remote area, so few players played on club teams. At tryouts for the 6th-8th grade teams, there were 15-20 girls per age group. Rather than keeping all of the players (2 teams per age group) or keeping a full 12-15 per grade (36-45 total), the varsity coach told me that if he has his way, they would keep the 8 most talented players, cut everyone else, and focus only on those 8 to develop into a championship high-school team in 4-6 years. Beyond the obvious short-sightedness of this idea due, if nothing else, to the high incidence rate of ACL injuries in female basketball players, the best 6th grader was better at soccer, and her high-school did not have a soccer team, so she was likely to attend a different high school, and the best 7th grader’s older sister was a star volleyball player, and she was as likely to end up playing volleyball as basketball. They could have focused on 8 girls only to have one end up at a different school and another end up on volleyball and have a maximum of 6 girls left from 3 grades despite initial interest from 60 girls! That is one way to end up with no freshmen and no junior varsity teams, not to mention child obesity.

If pros cannot confidently identify talent in adults, why do we trust amateurs to identify talent in children? Furthermore, even if we could identify the best at a young age, why do we want to exclude the others from playing? Create more and better opportunities to keep as many as possible involved for as long as possible. The school system likely provides the best opportunity for this.

Looking back at the 2007 NBA Draft to discuss talent identification

I found an old blog entry from 2007 that discussed talent identification in the lead up to the 2007 NBA Draft.

That is Eddy Curry, Kwame Brown and Tskitishvili. So far, so good.

Certainly missed on Conley, and everyone missed on Oden, but the other six remain in the NBA a dozen years later, which isn’t bad.

Not bad on Afflalo and Dudley (even nailed the Pistons drafting Afflalo!), although Young has had a great career, albeit not as a superstar.

In the lead up to the 2019 NBA Draft, I took issue with an article that described the NBA Draft as a crap shoot:

The NBA drafts players between 18 and 22 years of age. Despite youth coaches believing that they can identify talent in elementary school, these players are not finished products. Only the rare players enter the NBA as ready-made starters; almost every player has to improve to earn playing time and stay in the NBA. Therefore, when we look back after 2, 5, 12 years, some things appear obvious, but that is hindsight because we have learned more about the players in the subsequent years. Should we have known these things at the time of the draft? Sometimes, but not always.

I wrote this about Jeremy Lin during Linsanity:

What if this is really a story about a player who met failure at every step of the way with a Growth Mindset and responded with increased effort and determination to make himself into a better player? Poor Man’s Commish, the authority on the Jeremy Lin story, has commented several times about moves that he has now that he did not have at Harvard or about improvements to his shooting technique. Others have noted his improved quickness since his time at Harvard.

Maybe, just maybe, people made accurate evaluations of Lin at the time. Maybe Lin took note of those evaluations and viewed them as progress reports, not final grades. Maybe Lin heard about his suspect jump shot or need for more quickness and worked at those weaknesses.

The thing that differentiates Lin might not be his ethnicity or Ivy League degree but the way that he deals with criticism or rejection. Rather than losing hope when he went undrafted, maybe it fortified his will and determination and spurred extra effort in the gym. Maybe when he was cut by the Warriors and Rockets, it created an urgency to show more if given another chance.

Maybe Jeremy Lin is not the story of others who made mistakes, but an individual who believed in himself and created his opportunity through a re-dedication to perfecting his craft. While others settled with being pretty good, maybe he strove to be great. While others headed to Europe for a nice payday, maybe he maintained a single-minded focus on his NBA dream.

Maybe everyone was right all along. And, maybe, just maybe, Lin had the will and desire to hit the gym and prove them wrong by improving and stepping up his game at each step along the way. Maybe he persevered when most others would quit; maybe he did not allow others’ perceptions to become a self-fulfilling prophecy; maybe he grew from these experiences which tend to stagnate growth in others.

Maybe the narrative should be about a kid who likes to ball who didn’t let other people tell him what he couldn’t do or achieve and who believed in himself enough to put in the work to make an absurd dream (non-scholarship to NBA) into a reality.

Similarly, it is easy to look back and believe that we should have known that Steph Curry should have been drafted higher, but what role does the environment and coaching play?

With his astonishing success, it seems ridiculous to think that anyone would question his skill, success, decisions, or shot selection, but considering the rhetoric from a lot of NBA players, who I imagine share many feelings with a lot of the ex-NBA players who are now coaches, how would a coach have reacted at the beginning of last season before Curry became an MVP and World Champion? Remember, we’re talking about a player who many Warriors’ fans would have preferred to see traded to Milwaukee instead of Monta Ellis.

Would Curry be Curry without Kerr? On any team, with any coach, he would be a great shooter and scorer. But, in a different environment with a different coach, would he be more like JJ Reddick than Curry? How much of his brilliance is due to the environment?

This, then, changes the question. Rather than wondering why coaches missed out or did not recognize Curry’s talent and skills (since I and Tucker are arguing that it was recognized), the question instead should be: How many other players would move beyond their current status if they played in the right environment?

In today’s NBA, nobody would draft Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, but the NBA in 2019 differs from the game that was played in 2007. In 2006-07, Golden State led the NBA with 1967 three-point attempts; in 2018-19, the Spurs attempted the fewest three-pointers (2071), and Houston led the NBA with 3721 three-point attempts (stats from Basketball Reference). Similarly, Curry obviously should have been drafted higher, but it took him changing the geometry of the entire NBA to demonstrate that obviousness. He was drafted into a different NBA than the one in which he plays today.

At the time, maybe NBA GMs should have known more about Durant, Lin, and Curry. As I wrote in 2007, rather than following the adage that you cannot teach height, NBA teams should draft for the psychological skills and intangibles that predict success (competitiveness, focus, discipline) that author Marcus Buckingham argues are equally innate. If a team had identified Lin’s tenacity and grit and drafted him, would it have allowed more time for him to realize his potential?

For youth coaches and parents, there are three primary take aways:

  1. The game evolves. A player who thrives today may not have a role in a decade if he or she cannot evolve and improve. The ability to and willingness to learn and improve is as important as any skill, quality or talent.
  2. The psychological and mental skills ultimately trump the physical gifts. In any sport, there is a minimum physical threshold; a 5’8 male is going to have a very difficult time making the NBA, and a 7’0 male likely will be exposed on a soccer field. Once the minimum threshold is achieved, it is the psychological characteristics that will determine one’s success: Resiliency, grit, mindset, adaptability, work ethic, and more. If you plan to prepare your child for athletic greatness, focus on these skills and characteristics before worrying about his or her jump shot.
  3. The environment matters. Does the environment allow for the player to thrive, like Curry with Kerr or does the environment limit the player(s), like Curry under Marc Jackson? By focusing only on what a player cannot do, do we miss what the player can do? Is there a way to exploit the positives?

Yes, NBA GMs make mistakes. However, many mistakes are obvious in hindsight only because a player improved, the environment changed, the game evolved, or an injury occurred. Decisions are made with imperfect information, but to improve one’s odds, more emphasis should be placed on the psychological traits and the fit with a team’s environment (which, of course, is difficult when coaches change every 2-3 years, which is one reason that organizations such as the Spurs and New England Patriots have an advantage).

“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.

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