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.

Are the Rockets the Anti-SABA?

When I wrote SABA: The Antifragile Offense, the San Antonio Spurs were the model; they moved the ball, cut and exploited small openings or advantages, continually hunting for a better shot. They used some of the same ideas: you’re most open on the catch, 1-second rule (they call it a .5 second rule), etc. Because the book debuted around this time, the Spurs, and teams that played similarly, were viewed as the ideal. Many coaches loved SABA because many coaches see the Spurs, and this style of basketball, as the right way to play.

The 2018 Rockets, then, appear to be the polar opposite. In fact, several people have tweeted at me to ask my thoughts or to express this feeling. Whereas the Rockets do not play the exact style that I prefer aesthetically, their basic gameplay very much fits within the SABA philosophy, and is a testament to one of the core reasons for SABA: Flexibility.

The Rockets generally start with a simple action (an on-ball screen) rather than an elaborate play. The Warriors switch this screen. The switch creates a small advantage. The Rockets, usually Harden, attempts to exploit this small advantage to create a big advantage: He drives at the defender and steps back for a 3 or he drives by the defender for a layup.

I do not want to shoot a lot of step-back three-pointers, but I also do not coach James Harden, nor do I play against defenses as good as the Warriors. I would struggle to call a step-back three a “big advantage”, but Harden’s success during the season changes the math.

At most levels, when Harden penetrates against the switch, defenses help. The pass off the penetration forces rotations, and ball movement creates a big advantage and an open catch-and-shoot three-pointer or a layup, as the Spurs demonstrate above.

However, when teams do not help, Harden attacking a mismatch to get to the rim is turning a small advantage into a big advantage. Occasionally the defender plays well and negates the advantage, but generally, Harden gets to the rim for free throws or a layup.

That’s SABA.

It may not be the joyful, aesthetically-pleasing version of SABA, but it fits the basic philosophy: Disorganize the defense, create a small advantage, and exploit the small advantage to find a big advantage. Harden and the Rockets dribble more than I prefer, and play at a slower pace, which reduces the amount of ball movement available, but otherwise, they stick to the general ideas of SABA.

In the criticism of the Rockets’ offense, few have mentioned the Warriors’ defense. I was taught that the goal in a pick-and-roll was to create a switch and then to exploit the mismatch. The Rockets take their time, but with Golden State largely staying home on shooters and trusting their individual defenders, the Rockets’ isolations are the result.

In previous generations, when defenses’ switched, offenses spent entire possessions trying to exploit the mismatch inside with the roller posting up the smaller defender. Offenses stopped and attempted to pass inside at all costs. This still occurs at the college level.

Most have realized that the perimeter mismatch can be (is) a bigger mismatch than inside. The Rockets attack there. If the defense does not help, they trust Chris Paul or James Harden to score one-vs-one against the mismatch. Most defenses help, which leaves shooters open, forces rotations, and creates ball movement.

The Rockets have played this way all season. During the playoffs, the pace has slowed (I assume; I have not looked at the stats). Also, Golden State is switching off the screener, so the Rockets must run multiple screens to get their matchup. It is fascinating to watch the movements off the ball by the offense and defense as Houston attempts to create the mismatch that it wants, and Golden State attempts to prevent this matchup.

Golden State’s defense is a big reason for the Rockets’ isolation-heavy offense, and a reason that “switch ability” is such a buzzword for draft prospects. Defenses can turn a devastating pick-and-roll into “iso ball” and not have to over help and leave shooters when the “mismatch” is not much of a mismatch.

The slower pace plus off-ball switches and multiple screens to create the desired match up puts the Rockets against shot clock. I imagine D’Antoni is concerned with the pace, not the isos. In Game 5, Chris Paul could not pass out, and Durant blocked his shot because the shot clock was at 1. That is a problem; playing slowly allows the defense to swarm late on the penetration.

The Warriors have shown the best way to defend a SABA offense, especially one built on the three-pointer: Switch and do not help. Force the offense to play one-vs-one and make tough shots.

The Rockets’ offense may not be pretty, but it is, to a certain extent, the evolution. Defenses have evolved to frustrate the Spurs-like SABA offenses, and the current offensive answer is to hunt for the best matchup and isolate one’s best player with the other four players spread to the three-point line to prevent help. By next season, the best offensive minds will have better methods of attacking the switch-heavy defenses, and the defenses will be forced to evolve to close the gap again.

On-air drills and negative transfer

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The problem with the triple threat

Last year, at this time, everyone wrote about the beauty and ball movement of the San Antonio Spurs offense. A series of posts that I wrote eventually became the genesis for SABA: The Antifragile Offense. Now, with Atlanta’s loss to the Cavaliers, everyone is writing about the deficiencies of the same philosophy and offense. Read more

The Shot Clock Argument in High School Basketball

In my years as a coach, I have coached with no shot clock (boys), a 35-second shot clock (as an assistant), a 30-second shot clock, and a 24-second shot clock (men & women). I prefer the 24-second shot clock. After watching the high-school state playoffs last week with no shot clock, I tweeted about the shot clock.

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Team Offense: A Philosophical Decision

With my team at the developmental level, we run a very unstructured offense. We have a “play,” but it rarely looks as good as it does on paper. In games or practice scrimmages, players speed up, lack patience, or pivot too slowly, which prevents perfect execution.


Luckily, my goal is not to run the play. I imagine that we could spend time at every practice running through the play 5v0 until the players memorized exactly where to go and our timing would improve. When we entered into the high post, we would pivot quicker and see the open cutter for the lay-up, rather than passing too late or missing the cut altogether.

However, if we spent so much time memorizing the play, what would happen when the defense learned the play and adjusted? If we spend hours trying to eliminate thinking, how would we adjust?

Rather than practice precision timing, we spend most of our practice learning to adjust and adapt. We have our primary goals: shoot close to the basket or open three-pointers. We have our strategy to create these shots: disorganize the defense and force the defense to defend sideline to sideline. And, we have our primary tactical skills that we emphasize: give-and-go cuts, high on-ball screens and dribble-ats.

Therefore, when we run our initial action and someone forgets where to cut or the defense takes away the first option, we can adjust. The players can make the decision to make the best possible play. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. But, we’re never stuck. We may not always look pretty or precise, but we also do not waste time “setting up.”

At the developmental level, these are the two options: either spend a lot of time memorizing certain plays so that the team offense looks precise or teach players some simple tactical skills to use over and over until they manage to create a good shot. The first option typically leads to quicker results; however, these teams are easy to defend and players are not necessarily learning the skills employed in the offense. The second option takes more time and often looks ugly, but players learn more and as they improve, they become more difficult to guard because they can adjust to the defense.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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

Steve Nash & the High On-Ball Screen

If you run high on-ball screens as part of your offense (as I do), here is a video of Steve Nash (via True Hoop) destroying the L.A. Clippers by reading the defense and taking what the defense gives up. He does not over-penetrate and he does not force a shot. If he has an open jump shot, he takes it; if he draws a double-team, he swings the ball to the open man.

The high on-ball screen disorganizes the defense, and the Suns move the ball until they have a high percentage shot, never allowing the Clippers to re-set once they start to scramble.

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