How Quick Beats Tall

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.

Offensive and defensive assumptions behind Blitz Basketball

Last week, I re-formatted the diagrams in Blitz Basketball to make it available through Amazon Kindle. It was the first time that I had read the book since I wrote it in 2008 (originally in 2006, with the second version completed in 2008).  Read more

Skill, Versatility, and Small Ball

Twitter is not conducive to an actual argument or explanation. After trying in futility to make a point about small ball and the Golden State Warriors, a full article is required. The argument started with a tweet that was retweeted into my timeline: Read more

Zen and the Set Play in Basketball

A Zen Story:

There were two temples, rivals. Both the masters….were so much against each other that they told their followers never to look at the other temple. Read more

End of the UNC vs Iowa State Game with FIBA rules

Read more

Steve Alford wins the Pac12 Championship by going 2-for-1 late in the game

The best coaching decision that I saw all weekend was made by Steve Alford of UCLA. With 50 seconds left in a tie game, Alford set up a play to go 2-for-1: Read more

The chaos theory in basketball

During the Sloan conference this weekend, I saw tweets referencing George Karl and Jeff Van Gundy referencing chaos in basketball. I tried to find out more information about what was said, but the best was this small article by Curtis Harris that doesn’t explain in any depth the concept of chaos from the conference. Read more

The Fallacy of Wins and Losses in Youth Sports

Note: Originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

In a recent youth football championship game, one team trailed 6-0 when the coach ordered a trick play that is now a youtube sensation. After a penalty, he called out loudly that the defense had been off-side, and the official forgot to walk off the five yards. He yelled at his center to move the ball forward. The center stood up and handed the ball over his shoulder to the quarterback, which is a legal maneuver. The quarterback started to walk off the five yards and then sprinted past the unassuming defenders for the game-tying touchdown. Read more

A Lesson from College Football

In Greg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, he writes about Oregon University’s offense:

Pass patterns are minimal, which keeps the quarterback’s mind from melting under the pace…The blur offense has maybe 20 plays, though several involve an option about who carries the ball. A very simple playbook allows Oregon to perfect the execution and snap really quickly.

Oregon emphasizes execution and speed of play, and they score at a near-record pace. Rather than add complexity, as has been the trend over the last decade, Oregon simplifies. As Easterbrook writes, offenses and defenses ebb and flow – an offensive system gains an advantage and then defensive systems adjust and force offenses to develop something new.

The idea of simplification is important for basketball coaches, especially at the youth level. Rather than out-duel the opposition with added complexity (more presses, more defenses, more set plays, more OB plays), out-execute the opponent through simplification, speed of play and skill execution.

Often, when a team lacks great individual skill, a coach feels compelled to add complexity to give the team an opportunity to compete. However, rather than adding complexity which makes the skill execution more complicated, why not simplify?

When we developed the Blitz Basketball methodology, we simplified. We were an u9 boys’ team, and we had no great shooters. Rather than adding complexity to create open shots for the best shooter, we implemented a system so most outside shots resulted from dribble penetration into the middle and a pass out; were shot off the catch; and the pass was received with the player facing the basket and standing still. In essence, from a shooting standpoint, we eliminated as many variables as possible to simplify any outside shots.

From our standpoint, the Blitz system dovetailed nicely with a Teaching Games for Understanding approach to coaching. I had been coaching college basketball where my primary responsibility was running off-season workouts with the guards and running through shooting and ball handling drills with the guards during position breakdowns. Therefore, I was in an individual skill and drill mind-frame when I started to coach the nine-year-olds. The program director, Jerome Greene, had a son of the team, so he attended every practice. After every practice, he implored me to allow them to play more – he said that they would only learn to play the game through playing, not through a bunch of drills. He changed my mindset and the Blitz system developed naturally through this change.

In his New York Times’ article, “Oregon Turns Practice Into Nonstop Sprint With Precision as Goal,” Pete Thamel writes:

Oregon’s practices last two hours, an hour less than a typical college practice, and there is so little time between plays that coaches must do their teaching with only a few words or wait until the film room. Kelly said that practice had become so sophisticated and fluid that getting off 30 snaps in a 10-minute period had become common.

While basketball differs from football, a shorter, more intense, more focused practice is better in basketball too. When I coached in a professional league in Sweden, we had 90 minutes for practice. When time is an issue, it forces the coach to prioritize and make decisions.

“That relentless pace and superior conditioning help explain how Oregon has outscored its opponents, 86-7, in the second half this season without ever running that staple of football conditioning drudgery — wind sprints.

‘Practice is a wind sprint,’ said Nate Costa, Oregon’s backup quarterback. ‘There’s no real need to do that additionally.’”

When we added more small-sided games and scrimmaging, as opposed to drills, we eliminated conditioning because the players were in good shape. The practice conditioned the players for games because the entire practice was game-like. In a limited amount of time, we prepared players for games while improving technical skills like ball handling, passing and lay-ups and tactical skills like handling traps, spacing and trapping on defense.

In addition to simplifying, Oregon Head Coach innovates:

The high-speed practices mean that wide receivers must learn to run backward to the huddle to see the next play. Receivers are taught not to chase after missed passes and to sprint to the referee, who is a manager wearing an official’s jersey, to hand him the ball after a completion.

Simple things, really, but innovative and creative because few coaches cover the small details. When I visited Vance Walberg to write an article about Fresno City College, the two things that stood out to me the most were that he taught the jump ball and he chose specific players for specific spots for blocking out on opponents’ free throws. Many teams have a play for the jump ball; Walberg actually taught the principles of making sure they won the tip. Many coaches concentrate on blocking out: Walberg made it a reward or honor to be the player under the basket, and at that time, it was 6’2 point guard Tyronne Jackson boxing out under the basket.

As the end of the day, whether the offense is simplified or complex, execution determines success. Last season, at the high school level, I used one defense, one offense and four out of bounds plays. We won the league championship, and we were not the most talented or skilled team. We beat one team by 30+ points, and the coach called a different play every time down the court, none of which worked because the players thought too long about what they were doing and were constantly correcting each other on where they were supposed to go.

I recently read a post with the coach of a youth team bragging that you could not win a game in their youth league playing only one defense. I find that astonishing since UCLA went to three Final Fours in a row without changing its defense. In the end, it is not so much what you do, as how you do it. The blur offense looks great, but it is the precision and execution that makes it great, not the intricacy of the 20 different plays in the playbook.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

Did Efficiency Statistics Kill the Mid-Range Jump Shot?

Every season, a coach or NBA analyst publicly bemoans the lost art of the mid-range jump shot. I never understand the argument, as a mid-range jump shot is typically a lower percentage shot than a three-pointer, the shot typically vilified by the argument (we’re arguing, of course, about players old and strong enough to shoot three-pointers without altering their shooting technique; I’m not advocating for six-year-olds to start jacking threes).

I don’t see a problem with the apparent “lack of mid-range shooting” mythologized by some. A mid-range jump shot is an inefficient shot. Last season, our entire defensive game plan was to force mid-range jump shots, preferably off the dribble.

A stand-still catch-and-shoot three-pointer is an easier and higher efficiency shot than an off-the-dribble, full-speed pull-up jump shot. There are many more variables at work in a mid-ramge jump shot versus a three-point shot, not the least of which is that a three-point shot is from the same distance and speed every single time which improves the specificity of practice. The increase in three-point shooting has nothing to do with pleasing the crowd, as some suggest, but an evolution as the game becomes more statistically analysis-based.

What are the variables for a stand-still catch-and-shoot three-pointer? The defense. Distance is constant and shooting technique should be constant.

What are the variables for an off-the-dribble pull-up jump shot? Pick-up of the dribble (left or right). Speed of movement forward. Speed of movement lateral of the basket. Degree of bend to decelerate. Type of stop. Defense’s proximity. Distance from the basket.

Therefore, once a player is strong enough to overcome the distance to the basket, a catch-and-shoot three-pointer has fewer variables to consider than a mid-range jump shot. To the point of variables and difficulty, in the 2009-10 NBA season assisted shot values ranged from 36.9 (Orlando) to 77.2 (Utah) for shots from 16ft-23ft and 32.1 (NYK) to 52.9 (Toronto) for shots 10ft – 15ft.

On the other hand, assist values for three-point shots ranged from 75.7 (Cleveland) to 92.6 (Indiana).

While not a definitive measure of shot complexity, assisted shots generally mean that another player created the shot for the shooter, while unassisted shots mean that a player had to create his own. In my opinion, when one must create his own shot for a jump shot, that is a more complex shot with more variables than a shot created by a teammate.

Looking at the shooting percentages and efficiency numbers, and considering that the three-pointer is worth 50% more than a two-point shot, illustrates the reasoning behind increased three-point shooting and decreased emphasis on the mid-range jump shot.

In the NBA, mid-range shots are defined as 16-23 feet. Last season, team shooting percentages ranged from 36.4% (Charlotte) to 43.2% (Dallas). Shots from 10-15 feet ranged from 34% (NJ) to 44% (LAL), while three-pointers ranged from 31.4% (Detroit) to 41.2% (PHX). Teams shoot better on mid-range shots, but not enough to overcome the extra point.

In terms of offensive efficiency, the top 5 NBA teams in 2009-10 were PHX, Orlando, Atlanta, Cleveland and Denver. These teams ranked 1st, 4th, 9th, 2nd and 10th respectively in 3-point percentage and 3rd, 10th, 18th, 23rd and 16th respectively in mid-range shooting.

What to make of the numbers?

1) Offensive efficiency (the measure of how good an offense is in terms of points scored per 100 possessions) correlates with good three-point shooting more than good mid-range shooting.

2) Three-pointers occur after a pass more often than 2-point jump shots.

3) The efficiency from the three-point line per 100 shots for the worst three-point shooting team is better than the efficiency on mid-range jump shots of the best 2-pt jump shooting team.

Now, mid-range jump shots MAY lead to more free throw attempts, shorter rebounds, etc. Of course, many teams now design their defenses to encourage deep two-point shots and discourage three-point shots, meaning some of three-point attempts may be tougher shots now, leading to lower shooting percentages.

In my last two coaching positions with high school girls’ teams, I actually encouraged lesser players to shoot three-pointers. Why?

  1. It stretches the defense for other players if they are a threat.
  2. They were novice players and fairly unskilled. If they did not shoot, they often traveled when trying to make a move and drive to the basket. If they missed, we had a chance for an offensive rebound, and we were a good offensive rebounding team.
  3. They were the smallest players on the team, and often on the court, and had difficulty shooting or passing inside the key.

In one game against the defending Section Champions with my top two players fouled out in the third quarter, this player hit 5 three-pointers. She kept the game close with her shooting, and she had the confidence to shoot because I encouraged her to shoot all season. She did not shoot a high percentage that season, but, honestly, nobody shot a high percentage at that level of play. You never know when the attempts will pay off, especially when players are not scared of being yanked from the game for a shot attempt.

Now, I do not take this approach with all players. When I coached a pro women’s team, I encouraged our worst offensive player (who we needed on the court for her defense) to put her head down and drive hard to the basket on her first pass reception of the game. I did not care if she drew a foul, made a basket, missed a lay-up or was called for a charge: I simply wanted our opposition to know that they could not leave her to double our best player because she would attack the basket. She went from a player who played less than 10 minutes during the previous season and who traveled almost every time she caught the ball at the start of the season to a very important role player/defender off the bench who did not kill us offensively.

However, back to the argument, the “lost art of the mid-range game” is not as bad as those who mythologize the mid-range shot make it appear as (1) it is a lower efficiency shot and (2) there are more variables on the shot making it a more difficult shot and (3) there is less specificity of practice.

Therefore, why is it a bad thing that more players and teams take higher efficiency shots with fewer variables and more specificity of practice (distance is the same every shot, just like practice, whereas the distance changes constantly for a mid-range shot)?

If the argument eliminated the idea of three-point shots versus two-point shots, and instead started with the suggestion that high school teams should take higher efficiency shots where there are fewer variables and a greater specificity of practice, would anyone disagree?

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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 →