Scrimmages and Offensive Instruction in Practice

A coach emailed a question regarding Blitz Basketball and my use of scrimmages to teach my basic offensive sets and defensive strategy.

I do not spend practice working 5v0 or walking through defensive rotations in a typical shell drill. I scrimmage, and after a player is finished, I use the play to teach a concept if something needs to be corrected. I generally do not stop the action in the middle of the play.

As I answered his question, I realized the philosophy behind my coaching style. I do not expect perfect execution in a game. Many coaches do. Many coaches want their players to execute the play exactly as they draw it on the blackboard. I think the game is messy and unpredictable. I believe that my team’s success depends on the players’ ability to adjust and adapt during the play and to make the best decision.

If I stop the action in practice when a play becomes messy, how do the players learn to adjust and adapt? In a game, I can use a timeout here and there when the play gets messy, but I do not have enough timeouts to use to control every possession or prevent every mistake. Therefore, at some point, the players have to fend for themselves. However, if they never get the opportunity to adjust to their mistakes and make decisions to adjust to the new reality, how can I expect them to make good decisions in a game?

An old adage is that you have to practice perfectly because there will be game slippage. If you practice perfectly, the adage goes, you will perform at 70-80% in the game due to the slippage. However, if you practice at 70-80% at practice, the game slippage will result in a performance closer to 50%.

What if the adage is only half-true? What if the game slippage occurs because the players do not learn to adjust and adapt to new situations during their perfect practice? What if there is little to no game slippage when practice is imperfect and players have to make decisions constantly and then receive feedback after the play about other options or better possibilities?

My practices often looked disorganized this season, and our game performance was sloppy at times because we looked so disorganized. However, we honestly had very little to no game slippage. We generally performed better against our opponents than we did against each other. Skills that we rarely executed correctly in practice scrimmages (traps on the press, pick-and-rolls on offense) suddenly happened over and over in games.

Some of our success was a talent differential, as we played teams whose starters were not as good as our players off the bench. However, we played teams with equal or more talent, size and speed, and executed as well against them as we did in practice. Our performances were not perfect, but I do not expect perfection. I have yet to see a team play perfectly.

Therefore, to maximize performance, do we strive for perfection in practice so we perform close to perfection after the normal game slippage or do we practice at something less than perfect, but eliminate most of the normal game slippage?

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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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