The Rationale for Blitz Basketball

by on October 8, 2020
in Team Offenses

Blitz Basketball is available as a paperback or a Kindle.

The Goofy Foot Layup, language, and motor control

Television analysts repeatedly refer to layups as “wrong foot” or “wrong hand”. Most analysts are old, relatively speaking, and when they were taught to play basketball, everyone agreed that there were wrong ways to execute skills and right ways to execute skills.

One-handed passes were wrong.

Jumping to pass was wrong.

Crossing one’s feet on defense was wrong.

Using the inside hand on a layup was wrong.

Jumping off the same-side foot as the shooting hand was wrong.

None of these skills is wrong, and, in fact, many coaches now actively teach these executions to develop better and more skilled players. Despite their acceptance in the modern game, many refer to these skills as “wrong”, even when promoting them.

Language matters. Why would a coach teach something called “wrong foot” or “wrong hand”? Wrong is defined as “not correct.” What does a player think when being asked to practice something that is not correct? If the player accepts inside-hand layups or goofy-foot layups, as most do today, how does the coach know what he or she means when he or she says “wrong”?

Many coaches dismiss this argument as semantics.

Watch a practice with beginners. Often, when introducing layups, players use a goofy-foot approach: When shooting a right-handed layup, they jump off their right foot.

In a traditional view, this is wrong; the “correct” layup is to jump off the inside (left) foot to shoot with the outside (right) hand. When someone says “layup”, this is what we picture, and any other shot referenced as a layup requires a modifier: two-foot layup, inside-hand layup, reverse layup, etc.

Because a traditional view says that players must use their inside foot to shoot with their outside hand, the coach stops and corrects the players. When we call a layup a “wrong-footed layup”, this is exactly what we mean. It needs to be corrected. Over and over, we stop players who may be making layups jumping off their same-sided foot (right foot for a right-handed layup), and tell them that despite the success, they executed incorrectly and must change.

The irony, of course, is that after spending hours and hours to teach the “correct” layup, if players last long enough in the competitive stream, they will reach a level where their coach teaches the “wrong-foot layup”: The layup that they once executed naturally. The further irony is the this natural movement is no longer natural; players practice the traditional layup so much that they lose the ability to shoot the goofy-foot layup and must re-learn their natural motions.

This is the problem with language. When we label the layup, “wrong”, we automatically correct this behavior in children. However, we eventually teach this skill, and highlight the shots, so how can it be wrong? Why do we frustrate children who are beginning to play basketball and learning new skills by telling them that their initial approaches, which are successful in terms of making the shot, are wrong because they did not perform the skill like the coach wants?

Furthermore, there is a reason that children tend to shoot goofy-foot layups.

The initial movements that children learn — crawling, skipping, walking, running — use a contralateral movement pattern: I lift my right arm, and my left leg. We see this contralateral pattern when children shoot layups initially: they jump off their right foot and lift their left knee and right hand to shoot. This is not wrong and need not be corrected initially.

Put yourself into the child’s shoes. To shoot a traditional layup, the child must change his or her basic coordination, while learning to manipulate a basketball (which often is too big) to shoot at a target that is often too high. We ask children to learn several new things at once. Do we start ball handling by asking players to make around-the-back moves on the move or do we start by learning to bounce the ball, then bounce the ball with movement, etc.?

Many coaches argue that a goofy-foot layup is “wrong” because it is not natural. If that is, in fact, true, why do so many children use a goofy-foot layup when they initially start? Without prompting, they use a goofy-foot finish; they have to be instructed, and practice repeatedly, to use a “traditional” layup. How does that make the traditional layup “more natural”?

A goofy-foot layup is not wrong, and for most children, it is the initial natural movement because it fits more closely with their previously-learned skills and coordination. Rather than start with constant corrections to move to the “traditional layup”, why not allow players to start with success? Encourage them to shoot in the manner of their choosing in an effort to make the shot. After all, we judge the “correctness” of a professional’s shot by its outcome; why hold beginners to a more difficult standard of making the shot AND using a specific technique? As players progress, coaches can introduce other layups and diversify the players’ skills.

Instead, we drill the traditional layup to such an extent that many middle-school and high-school basketball players can be differentiated from other athletes by their inability to skip. Many older basketball players who have been instructed in the proper layup technique change their skipping pattern to match their layup pattern: Rather than skipping by driving their left knee and right arm together, they drive their right knee and right arm. They have adopted a sport-specific pattern to such a degree that they have lost their initial coordination patterns.

This, of course, is why older players struggle to re-adopt the goofy-foot layup that initially came naturally. They must re-learn basic contralateral patterning. All because we are adamant that players start with one traditional layup, which differs from their previously-learned patterns and requires many repetitions, feedback, and corrections.

Rather than building on success, we make the initial learning harder and more frustrating, and later when we deem the goofy-foot layup to be technically- and strategically-appropriate, that learning becomes harder and more frustrating. All because we have a traditional view of what a “correct” layup looks like and refer to an important skill as “wrong”.

If a coach is adamant that jumping off the right foot to shoot a right-handed layup is wrong, the coach should not teach the layup. However, as Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and others have shown, this would be limiting the players, and eliminating one potential weapon from their skill set.

SABA vs Zones

I saw this tweet with a play from the Clippers’ scrimmage, and immediately thought “that should have been a lob for a dunk”. I read the comments, and people appeared to think it was good defense.

The problem starts as the player receives the first pass over half-court.

This picture occurs just before the ball is passed to the player high on the right sideline.

At the start, the spacing is fine. Most high school teams teach to flash a player to the middle against the 1-2-2, and that would not be wrong. However, the current spacing creates an immediate 2v1 in the yellow circle above. Quick ball movement should be able to exploit this advantage.

This image is the instant that the player receives the pass.

Now, the spacing creates a problem. Why is the player circled above standing in the midrange? His positioning eliminates a driving lane for the player with the ball, and he is unprepared to shoot a three-pointer on the catch. If he is not a shooter, he should be positioned elsewhere, potentially in the dunker’s spot with his shoulders squared to the ball. This would create a 2v1 with the player circled below.

This image is then the attacker with the ball faces the basket.

Now, for some reason, our shooter in the corner still is not behind the three-point line. Despite this, the baseline defender is sprinting out toward him. What is the opposite post, circled above, doing? Does he not like to score? He is actually backing away from the basket area that is currently being vacated with no defender sprinting to take away the space. At this instant, there should be a lob for a dunk. The next best alternative is a flash to the ball side to take away the weak side help for a catch and finish at the rim. To end up with the next frame instead of the ball at the rim is terrible execution.

After looking to the basket, he looks away and starts to dribble middle as the original passer basket cuts because he is denied.

The attacker with the ball turns away from the basket and still no defender has covered the open space in yellow. Fortunately for the defense, the baseline attacker has backed further away from the basket, presumably because he hates offense. An adept passer could throw a little pocket pass to the point guard cutting because he has a step and there is no help defense, but if he was unwilling to throw the lob to an open player, I imagine he is not equipped to throw the pocket pass right there.

Despite giving up the big advantage (lob), the cut attracts the attention of two players, which means that the offense still has a 2v1 advantage in green with a quick ball reversal.

Next dribble.

Instead, he dribbles again, and defenders match up. At this point, the advantage is gone, and the offense relies on the attacker to make an individual move to create a shot.

The shot

With the lack of spacing — neither weak side player is outside the three-point line, the baseline strong side has lifted from the corner, and the fifth player apparently gave up and ran back on defense — the help defense rotates and forces a bad, contested shot.

Again, most see good defense because the offense attempted a bad shot. However, the offense forfeited multiple advantages. When the player on the right wing receives the pass, the ball stopped. When he stopped the ball, the defense could recover and match up.

The ball stopped largely because the offense was spaced poorly on the strong side — too far out to create the 2v1 on the baseline, but not outside the three-point line — and the opposite baseline attacker, who should have scored, decided that he did not want to play on that possession and took himself out of the play.

The defense rotated fairly well, as these movements occurred in fractions of a second, but that is the speed of play at the NBA level. Attackers have to recognize openings immediately, or preferably anticipate the openings, because of the speed of the game. Once the attacker on the right wing holds the ball, they lose the big advantage. Once he takes the second dribble, they lose the small 2v1 advantage on the weak side.

This is a major reason that zones work at all levels. Players catch and hold and allow the defense to rotate instead of attacking on the catch like we teach against player-to-player defense. If he caught and ripped to the basket, he creates a kickback to his teammate in the corner or a 2v1 with the opposite baseline and the baseline defender. If he passes immediately, he likely creates a dunk for his teammate on the baseline. Instead, he holds the ball, the defense moves quickly, and the advantages quickly disappear. Good defense, but the offense allowed it by forfeiting its advantages and holding the ball.

Understanding a coach’s on-court values

The tweet above has been simplified or misunderstood; there are two interpretations, not just one. The obvious point is to recruit skill and shooting. The other is that when a coach recruits athleticism over skill, presumably because the coach believes he/she can develop skills, it is not the players’ fault if those skills have not been developed after two years.

Those who recruit athleticism and toughness rather than skill and shooting, must have a plan to develop skills and shooting or to scheme around the deficiencies. Similarly, those who recruit skills and shooting ahead of athleticism and toughness must have a plan to develop athleticism or scheme around any athletic deficiencies. One recruiting philosophy is not necessarily right, although I have my preference, but the absence of a plan to develop or scheme around deficiencies leads to many recruiting mistakes and poor fits, and these poor fits often end up in the transfer portal by choice or by the coach pushing them out to sign a player who fits better.

The decision to transfer often is not the mistake or the bad decision; instead, it results from a poor original decision. Players decide poorly because they are not truthful with themselves about the things that really matter to them, probably because they are 18 years old and not entirely aware of those things. Coaches make bad decisions, often because they are not truthful with themselves about the things that are important to them.

The tweet was really about awareness.

Does the coach recruit for a specific style? Does the coach collect the most talented players possible and hope to figure out a system? Does the coach know which player types that he/she favors? Does the recruiting philosophy match the allocation of minutes?

I coached a player who attempted nearly 8 three-point field goals per game. A program that attempted 15.13 3FGA/G recruited her, and told her that they wanted to shoot more three-pointers in the next season. Despite signing one of the nation’s best shooters and stating a commitment to shoot more three-pointers, they averaged 15.03 3FGA/G. They actually shot fewer three-pointers per game!

The player listened to the coach’s sales pitch, not her actions. The coach believed that she would change her style of play.

Coaches evaluate their seasons and imagine ways to improve. Most tend to be proactive and aggressive: Play faster, shoot more, play more aggressive defense. When the season starts, they revert to their more conservative personality and core beliefs. Change is hard, and when you perceive your job to be on the line, change is harder.

Players who they signed during their enthusiasm for change may not fit with their style of play. The lack of fit is not anyone’s fault other than a lack of awareness: The player ignored the signs that the coach did not value three-point shooting, and the coach lacked the awareness of her own philosophy. The coach may have believed with all of her heart that she would change, but it rarely happens.

Problems also occur when coaches overrate their ability to develop skills. I am confident in my ability to develop players’ skills, and especially shooting, and have a significant track record to support this belief. Everything from our system of play to our communication style to our practice schedule to our drill design is set up around skill development. That being said, I recruit shooters and skills first, and we scheme around players who cannot shoot.

Whereas I imagine that every coach and every program believes that they develop skills and emphasize skill development, few environments that I have seen do as they say. For example, the coach below has been known for 20 years for skill development. But, how much of what is described actually occurs?

There is nothing wrong with the drill, and every coach in the country uses similar drills. However, does the drill integrate passing and reads? The only player pass is the initial one which is a pass to a stationary, undefended coach. Does the drill involve reads? It is hard to tell because of the short clip, but based on what we can see, not really. It sure looks like the defense is scripted. When the defense is scripted, do the offensive players make reads? Off the DHO where the two players make different moves/shots, there is no defense; who do they read? Finally, is this game-like? There is no live defense, and only one player in the drill, so clearly a designated shooter. Is that game-like?

To reiterate, this is not a bad drill, and this is common at nearly every college program. However, I believe many coaches overrate their ability to develop incoming players’ skills, which leads to transfers when players do not develop into the players that coaches imagined, because these are not game-like drills. Now, with practice restrictions and individual workouts, these may be the best drills possible. This may be a great, efficient practice. However, that does not make the drills game-like, and as long as we view these drills as game-like skill development drills, we overrate the effect that we have on our players’ skill development.

The SABA Offensive Philosophy

SABA is more of a philosophy of offensive basketball than it is a specific system. Consequently, the philosophy can be applied to any system, although it may change the system’s precise goals and execution. To learn more about the specifics of SABA, please see SABA: The Antifragile Offense, available as a Kindle or a paperback.

SABA is based on the idea that an offensive possession has four possible states: Disadvantage (defensive advantage), neutral, small advantage and big advantage.

A disadvantage is when the defense aggressively pursues a steal; the basic principles of attack do not change if this attempt is a full-court diamond press, a half-court 1-3-3 or trapping a high on-ball screen. Consequently, we do not have numerous full-court and half-court press breaks. In fact, we do not have a press break; we just have proper spacing in the full-court and half-court, and proper spacing when a teammate is trapped.

Our offensive objective is to create a big advantage; for us, a big advantage is an open layup or a catch-and-shoot three-pointer for one of our 37+% shooters. When we face a disadvantage, our goal is to create the big advantage immediately, as beating a trap immediately takes out two defenders, creating a numerical advantage.

In transition, the offense has a small advantage because the defense is not set; depending on the numbered advantage, the offense may start with a big advantage (2v1, 4v2), but at minimum, it has a small advantage. Our objective is to maintain and extend this advantage rather than allowing the defense to recover and set up.

When the defense is set, and the position starts from neutral, the offense uses an action to create its advantage. Occasionally, the action works perfectly, and the team moves directly from neutral to a big advantage. In a traditional view, this is the “play” working.

The action always creates an advantage, even when the big advantage is not available immediately. If the defense switches to prevent a layup, now the offense has created two mismatches, which is a small advantage. When a player catches without sufficient room to shoot, but with a defender closing out, she has a small advantage; we want to keep the defense in rotations until we create the big advantage (desired shot).

Occasionally, whether due to the defense or the shot clock, the offense does not extend the advantage and instead uses the small advantage to create its shot. Not every possession ends with an open layup or a wide open catch and shoot three-pointer.

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