Decision Making vs. Playmaking in Basketball

During my games this season, the player sitting next to me was treated to me saying “now, now, now” and “see him” many times. I said these statements far more than “no, no, no” or “that was a bad shot (pass)”. Our errors in decision-making were more often a non-action than the wrong action or improperly executed action. We missed players who were open more often than we forced passes into well-defended players or passed up open shots or lanes more often than we forced a bad, contested shot.

I spent yesterday editing and preparing a paper. The study focused on something else, but an interesting result showed that the percentage of good decisions was very high (over 80% for both high-rated players and low-rated players). This percentage seemed far too high for middle school basketball.

Decisions were measured only at the dispossession of the ball: When the player passed, shot, or turned over the ball. The study did not measure non-decisions or decisions not to make a pass or take a shot. If a player ignored an open teammate, and maintained possession of the ball, nothing was measured.

My running commentary and the auxiliary findings from this study suggest that poor decision-making is unnoticed because it does not result in an immediate turnover.

The good decision-makers are not the players that avoid turnovers, but the ones who make plays. John Stockton is the NBA career leader in assists AND turnovers; Brett Favre is the NFL career leader in touchdown passes AND interceptions. Look at the current list of the top 10 in turnovers: Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Jeremy Lin, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, and Monta Ellis. Are these players bad decision-makers because they commit a lot of turnovers?

Rather than look at decision-making in terms of turnovers, we should emphasize playmaking. We should encourage players in their efforts to make plays, even when that leads to an occasional bad play or a turnover. Rather than take out the player for the poor decision that led to a turnover (which leads to the player not trying to make a play next time), use the bad pass or shot as a teaching moment in a subsequent practice.

I read an article in Men’s Health about decision makers in the military. One said that he never had 100% of the information available when a decision was made, and was hopeful to have 80%. I wonder if the difference between good playmakers and poor playmakers is similar. Are good playmakers able to make quicker and better decisions because they act with less information available? Do poor playmakers wait to have 100% of the information available, thus delaying decisions and missing open players?

Ironically, waiting to have 100% of the information likely leads to more turnovers or bad decisions because the delay allows defenders to rotate to once open players. The early pass often is the better pass.

Research studies have shown there is something to the 80% idea. More refined and effective visual search behaviors were found to be responsible for the superior anticipatory performance of expert soccer players (Williams et al., 2002). Laurent and colleagues (2006) found that experts have and make use of rich and highly structured representations; their pattern recognition discriminates them from non-experts. These studies showed that experts do more with less information than non-expert players. The perceptual abilities thought to differentiate expert and non-expert players include pattern recognition and the ability to predict and anticipate an opponent’s behavior (Aglioti, Cesari, Romani, & Urgesi, 2008).

Playmakers act early. They make plays. This may lead to bad decisions or turnovers because they do not have all the information or because they attempt to force a play. However, as they learn to do more with less, their decisions become quicker and more accurate, and they make plays for themselves and for their teammates.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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