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.

Basketball & Improv

In the December 2009 Los Angeles Magazine, Michael Mullen recounts his experiences learning improv comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood in an article titled “Get Me Outta Here!”

During two passages, he captures the essence of great basketball as well:

Improv…is about scenes and what is known as The Game. There’s a paradox here. It is human nature to be competitive, to want to stand out and earn a pat on the back. If a scene works, however, it is because players have cooperated and found a game. The game requires an ensemble performance, so it works to your advantage if everyone succeeds.

While NBA basketball depends on star performances, and many high school and colleges win because they have one dominant player, the best teams typically have an ensemble. When everyone plays well, the team performs at its best, offensively and defensively. Even stars depend on teammates to pass the ball, set screens, rebound and defend. While everyone wants to be the star, too many wanna-be stars hunting bad shots or playing individually lead to poor performances.

A group game is infinitely harder than a two-person scene. It is akin to meeting seven friends at a shopping mall and trying to decide what to do. Everyone stands around for half an hour, then finally arrives at a compromise nobody likes. Group games depend on achieving a consciousness in which one loses awareness of self and becomes mindful of only the thoughts and movements of the assembly. It takes listening.

Motion offenses are similar. Bad motion offenses are like the seven friends at the mall. Great motion offenses succeed when teammates read each other and anticipate each other’s movements. This comes through experience playing with each other as well as knowledge of the best plays in certain situations.

If we run a high on-ball screen and the defense rotates to the screener rolling to the basket, the ball handler anticipates that another player fills the vacated area and another player anticipates the open area where the screen originated (top of the key). This is fairly basic basketball, but it spaces the floor and keeps the ball moving. Rather than the ball handler forcing the pass to the screener or pounding the ball, the ball handler reverse to the top for a high-low into the screener or to get a new action going to the weak side.

When the players anticipate the play in this manner, each player plays off each other and off the proper spacing to create open shots for the team. As the players play together more and more, the timing improves and players understand each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, and the offense flows with less thinking and more reacting to the situations, leading to quicker and more effective decision-making and more decisive plays.

Offensive Basketball: Disorganizing the Defense

Last winter, I published Developing Basketball Intelligence, which aims to teach players how to play the game, see the floor and make better decisions with the basketball. Last summer, I started the Playmakers Basketball Development League which features league-play based around these concepts and creates a learning environment for game play, not just a competitive outlet.

On True Hoop, I saw a link to an article breaking down the Boston Celtics’ defense from their weekend game against the New York Knicks. Rather than focus on the Celtics’ defense, the same article and videos illustrate the ideas that I use offensively to replace the set play or continuity offense: disorganizing the defense through a tactical skill (pick-and-roll, dribble hand-off, etc).

I emphasize two tactical skills (basket cuts and pick-and-rolls). We use some off the ball screens and dribble hand-offs, but primarily we focus on the on-ball screen and basket cuts/give-and-goes.

Our goal is to disorganize the defense and then exploit the disorganized defense with ball movement. In this clip, the pick-and-roll leads to switch and a mismatch in the post with Ray Allen matched up against David Lee. Kendrick Perkins helps off Chris Duhon when Lee receives the ball. The other Celtics defenders rotate as now the three defenders must defend four perimeter threats. Lee skips the ball to Gallinari. KG rotates up to Gallinari who passes to Al Harrington for an open three-pointer before Rajon Rondo rotates to him.

This is hard for many young players (especially those used to set plays) to understand. The initial screen did not lead immediately to the basket, but it did disorganize the defense, and the ball movement from that point created the open shot.

When young players learn plays, they learn that Screen A leads to immediate shot B. When young players learn continuity offenses, they typically learn where the shot should be taken, but not necessarily when: for instance, in Flex, the shots are typically from the elbows or at the basket.

When focused on disorganizing the defense, the shot could be taken anywhere. The tactical skill is not used to get a specific shot, but to give the offense an advantage and unsettle the defense. Players first learn how to execute the skill (i.e. set the screen) and then learn to exploit the advantages to create good shots. In set plays and continuity, players typically learn to execute the skill, but they do not necessarily learn how to exploit the advantage or use the skill to create a good shot unless the immediate shot is wide open (first cutter off a screen).

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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