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.

Basic high-school basketball offensive set

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Plays, Coaching, and the Copycat Syndrome

As the season winds down, and we move into April, coaching clinic season is here. Every spring, coaches spend a lot of money to listen to elite coaches offer a few tidbits of real knowledge. The coaches in the audience scribble down every word, play, and drill; if it is good enough for a famous elite coach, it is good enough for them. Read more

Chaos, Creativity, and Right & Wrong in Youth Basketball

I am not anti-set play. I tend toward being a set-play coach as opposed to a motion coach. However, I attempt to teach in a way that does not restrict: Our plays are more like entries into a semi-structured freelance offense as opposed to directions to follow explicitly.  Read more

General basketball skills before specific basketball plays

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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

Offensive Basketball: Caught Between Two Minds

In previous seasons, I used very little structure offensively. I was coaching high-school freshman, so I wanted them to learn to see the game and to make plays, rather than running plays. I wanted to provide freedom to make and learn from mistakes of decisions rather than mistakes of not running the play correctly. My goal was developmental, not winning, and I felt the relative lack of structure enhanced the development, as all the players had opportunities to practice all the skills – passing, shooting, dribbling, cutting, posting, etc.  Read more

Coaching a European Club – Week 6

The week started with a game, so there was no time to practice any of our issues from the weekend’s game. We started off in the lead, despite several missed lay-ups and free throws, so I thought we would eventually be okay. I took out one starter because he looked like he was sleep-walking, and after the first quarter, he was the only one who I felt was competing 100%. The game just got worse and worse, and we lost by 20. We largely played the same way as we did on the weekend, we just faced a better opponent.  Read more

Coaching Frosh Basketball – Week 6

We lost a close game. We fell behind early, as per usual. I attribute our early difficulties to two things: (1) our players are comfortable; none is willing to push beyond his comfort zone. Therefore, we practice at one tempo, but the game is at another tempo. We do not have a player who pushes the other players to increase the intensity, so it takes a while for us to adjust to the game tempo. (2) every team that we play runs dozens of set plays. In this game, the coach called out a play on every possession. For the entire first quarter, they ran a different play on almost every possession. The first time that we see the play, our opponent generally gets a good shot. After we see the play once or twice, we adjust and take away the first couple options. Our opponent needed a late fade-away three to hit double-digits in the second half.  Read more

Why Are Set Plays Dangerous for Young Players?

I attended a university lecture on decision-making and the presenter showed a version of this video (There are many versions of this online). Please watch this video before reading the article below.

Why do people miss the moonwalking bear? When people focus on one task – counting the passes made by the white team – they attempt to ignore all irrelevant stimuli. To some people, noticing the moonwalking bear could be seen as a weakness, as it illustrates an inability to stay focused on a task. However, what happens if you focus so intently on your task that you miss something as obvious as a moonwalking bear?

Young, inexperienced players must deal with new and different stimuli when playing basketball. They have not mastered the basic basketball skills of passing, catching, shooting and dribbling, and now they must execute these skills under defensive pressure. Then, coaches teach set plays for players in an effort to make the game easier or to create a good shot for the best shooter.

The problem is that as players try to run the play, they miss the moonwalking bear. I watched a high school AAU game at a recruiting evaluation tournament a couple summers ago. The team had a player who had peaked the interest of Big 12, WCC and Big West coaches in attendance, so the team was not devoid of talent. The team ran the same play every time down the court. After several possessions, the defense caught on to to the play. The play started with a down screen and a wing entry pass. By the fourth possession, two defenders were running with the cutter coming off the down screen and nobody guarded the screener. The team threw the pass to the wing anyway, which resulted in several steals before the coach called timeout.

Why did the guard fail to see the screener who was open? There are probably several explanations, but this video explains one: she was trying so hard to run the play (count the white team’s passes) that she did not see the open player (moonwalking bear). The play was designed to go to one area of the court (wing entry), and she devoted all her attention to protecting the ball and making that pass.  She focused more on running the play than trying to score.

Set plays or continuity offenses have a role in offensive basketball. However, the objective is always to create a good shot and score, not just to run the play. I hear coach after coach screaming at players to run the play, and then the player completely ignores an open lane, shot or teammate.

Before teaching plays, we need to teach young and inexperienced players our general goals. At my first practice this season, I asked the players for the best possible possession. They threw out some answers, but none gave me my number one answer: a possession that ends with a made basket with a defensive foul that puts us on the free throw where we score a third point. To me, that is the best possible possession because we get three points, our opponent gets a foul and we can set our defense. This type of thinking may be over the heads of eight-year-olds, but if that does not make sense to them, what is the objective of the set play?

After discussing the best possible possession, we discussed the worst: a steal or long rebound that leads directly to a fast break lay-up for our opponent. Not only do we not score, but our offensive possession leads straight to their basket.

Then, we went through other scenarios that fit between the best and worst. We prioritized shots. A wide open, catch-and-shoot three-pointer: great shot. An off-the-dribble, fade away 17-footer: terrible shot.

After we had the general idea of the types of shots that we wanted to take, we instituted a basic set: a four-out offense predicated on a high on-ball screen: think the Orlando Magic (without Dwight Howard or nearly as many shooters).

More often than not, while we started in the basic four-out set, we rarely ran the play. In fact, after a fellow coach had watched us play four times, she had no idea that our offense was designed for a high pick-and-roll as she had only seen us run it once or twice in four games. Instead, players took advantage of lanes to the basket or passed to cutters cutting to the basket.

Occasionally this freelancing led to bad offensive possessions or one player got in another’s way because she cut too early or stood in one spot too long, but generally the freedom to make plays within one set worked very well. We rarely missed the moonwalking bear under the basket, and the varsity coach was amazed at the points that we scored, as we well out-scored the varsity.

This isn’t to say that the Orlando offense is the perfect offense or that you should only shoot three-pointers. Instead, the point is that we cannot teach in a way that makes our players miss the moonwalking bear. Players need to be aware on the court and play the game, rather than run the play. The objective is to score. The best process is to take good shots – often, this means running a play or a continuity offense. However, the offense is only as good as the players, and when players focus more on the play than on scoring, mistakes are bound to happen because their awareness of the court decreases and bad decisions follow.

To enhance the decision-making of your players, create awareness of possible options rather than limiting the focus to one entry into a set play.

By Brian McCormick
Author of Cross Over: The Model of Youth Basketball Development, Developing Basketball Intelligence and several other books for coaches.

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