Jokic, passing and positions

Nikola Jokic may be the best passer in the NBA in 2020-21. He also stands 7-feet tall. For many, these statements are incongruous; short players are supposed to pass the ball well, and tall players dunk.

The same has been said about LeBron James for his entire career. He is a great passer for someone his height.

Why is height considered a constraint on passing skills? For generations, NFL organizations preferred taller quarterbacks because they can see over the offensive and defensive lineman more easily, and are less likely to have a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage. As the speed of the game has increased, teams now prefer more mobile quarterbacks to height, but taller QBs still have the advantage in the pocket to see and throw over the line of scrimmage. Why would taller basketball players not have the same advantage?

Our surprise at the passing skills of players such as LeBron and Jokic is due to our traditional position designations. We organize and evaluate players by these positions: point guards pass, shooting guards shoot, etc. LeBron and Jokic do not fit within the traditional position designations, which is why we have qualifications now: A point-forward or a point-center.

Many of the greatest players in NBA history subverted the position designations. Point guards were supposed to be the smallest players until Magic Johnson; tall players were supposed to play close to the basket until players like Larry Bird, Bill Laimbeer, and Dirk Nowitski. Allen Iverson and Stephen Curry were considered not to be point guards because they shot too much, whereas Draymond Green confounds on both ends, as he is too short to be a center, but too tall to be a playmaker, yet he manages to be both. Similarly, we picture players like Magic, John Stockton, Oscar Robertson, and Steve Nash as the best passers, but every generation has had centers who pass well: Wilt, Bill Walton, Sabonis, Webber and Vlade, and now Jokic.

Despite the fact that many of our best players subverted the traditional position designations, we continue to use them. Why? In a time of positionless basketball, what do position designations offer?

Youth coaches use position designations to simplify the game for players. As coaches complicate the game with more plays, schemes, and strategies, a position allows players to learn only parts of each play or scheme: Their position. Rather than understanding the entire play, they memorize their part. Of course, when the shooting guard is injured, and the coach only has one shooting guard left, as soon as he or she goes to the bench their plays fall apart because nobody knows that part of the play. Several years ago, due to injuries, my “point guard” had to run the “power forward” spot on out-of-bounds plays because she was the only one who knew all of the spots; all of our regular “power forwards” were injured. We could not slide everyone up one position, as we did in our normal offense and defense, because none of the wings knew the plays. Luckily, our point guard had a great basketball intelligence and could fill in anywhere.

Youth teams should not have so many players and such a complicated system that players can learn or memorize only parts of each play. That shouldn’t be the purpose of youth basketball.

However, the greater problem is that positions become constraining or self-limiting. How many times during a game does a coach yell to pass to the point guard to dribble up the court instead of empowering the rebounder to dribble? Essentially, the coach decides that one player is better at dribbling or decision making than the others, so only that one player — called the point guard — is allowed to dribble. This limits the skill development of those not allowed or empowered to dribble.

Therefore, these position designations are used for short-term success — reducing mistakes — not long-term development. The players who manage to overcome these position constraints or designations, however, like LeBron and Jokic, tend to be the best players: A point guard who can shoot, a post who can pass, a smaller player who can defend bigger players in the post, a bigger player who can defend smaller players, or smaller players who rebound well.

If the best players manage to subvert these positional constraints, why do we still develop players using these designations? Why only allow one player to inbound the ball? Why allow only one player to dribble? Why force one player always to stand close to the basket?

Rather than complicating the system and constraining the players, we should embrace positionless basketball and empower all players to play all roles. We should not be shocked by a 7-footer who can pass; we should expect 7-footers to pass because their height should allow them to see the court better than a 6-foot point guard. Obviously, a 6-foot point guard has some advantages in terms of quickness and shiftiness that 7-footers may lack, and just as NFL teams now prefer mobile quarterbacks, the shiftiness of smaller players may prove more beneficial in man situations.

Rather than renaming or qualifying positions — point-forwards and point-centers or shooting-point-guards and pass-first-point-guards — we should have basketball players. We should develop all skills in all youth players not restrict them to the traditional skills of a single archetype. Once players reach the professional level, coaches will establish roles to maximize success, but these roles do not have to be defined by positions. Instead, they should be defined by skills: Run the offense through the playmaker regardless of height, and set screens for the shooter regardless of position, and use the defensive role player to set screens and basket cut to occupy defenders. Allow the skills to determine roles, not some traditional position designations from a bygone era.

How Quick Beats Tall

Originally Published by Basketball Sense, January 2002

The most common excuse among youth, high school and college teams is the lack of a big guy or an inside presence: “He’s too big;” “We’re too small;” “They’re too strong;” “How are we going to stop him?” These excuses set up teams for unnecessary losses. Height or post play rarely decides any game or championship at any level below the NBA and elite international competition. Teams lose when they fail to shoot free throws well; turn the ball over too much; fail to block out and rebound; get out hustled and outworked; or get severely out shot.  Height is not a determining factor in these scenarios.

The most reliable stat I have seen for determining the game’s outcome or a team’s season outlook is possession margin, which is determined by adding the difference in offensive rebounds and turnovers. If possession margin is an indicator of success, protecting a team’s defensive glass and protecting the ball are the two most consistent ways to win games. Creating possessions through offensive rebounds and by forcing turnovers enhance the team’s chance for success.

Teams generally rely on posts for three reasons: 1. Rebounding; 2. Interior defense; 3. Interior offense. A smart, quick team can compensate for their lack of size, and punish teams for their height advantage.

Rebounding, and especially defensive rebounding, is assumed to be the posts’ job, but defensive rebounding success is positioning and toughness. A big team has a rebounding advantage if all things are equal, but below the NBA level, most rebounds are gathered below the rim. Essentially, the skill of defensive rebounding is gaining inside position (a product of solid man to man or zone defense), making contact with the offensive player, and retrieving the ball. A tough defensive team with good position will get almost every rebound, with the exception of the occasional long rebound. 

Offensive rebounding is a special skill — less positioning and toughness, and more quickness and anticipation. If the offensive player anticipate’s the rebound’s location and quickly moves in that direction, he or she negates the size and/or positioning of the defensive player. The likelihood of an offensive rebound increases in transition, on a long shot (produces long rebounds), and when penetration forces defenses to help and scramble, negating their positioning advantage. Smaller teams are more apt to push the ball, attempt longer shots, and penetrate to the basket, putting the defenses at a disadvantage and presenting offensive rebounding opportunities.

Defensively, teams that rely on strong post play tend to be easier to guard because there is a tendency for other players to stand. Defending a team that stands or a player that stands is easier than defending a team that constantly sets screens and moves without the ball. A post player generally receives the ball with his back to the basket. If he or she is dominant, and the defensive team is severely out-manned, it is easy to double team and practice rotations, especially when his or her teammates stand around. It is much more difficult to plan for, and practice rotations to beat a terrific penetrating guard.

Offensively, it is easy to compensate for the lack of an inside game by pushing the tempo, shooting the three and/or penetrating to the basket. First, this puts pressure on the defense. Second, the ability to do all three makes help defense and defensive rotations difficult. Third, it opens up offensive rebounds and second shots. By constantly attacking, the defense is put on its heels, negating its size advantage.

The small team’s biggest advantage is ball handling and ability to pressure the ball on the perimeter. By taking care of the ball, a team prevents its opposition from getting easy shots and increased possessions. It insures itself of getting at least one shot almost every time down the court. By pressuring the perimeter, the team can create turnovers and easy offense for itself, and also make it very difficult to enter the ball into the post players, thus negating its disadvantages inside. 

Height is the most over-hyped aspect of basketball. Rarely if ever does post play determine the championship, unless there is a Shaq-like force. These examples above illustrate how quick beats tall, breaking down the perceived disadvantages of the height-deprived. There is no excuse at all: this is how quick beats tall.

Offensive and defensive assumptions behind Blitz Basketball

Last week, I re-formatted the diagrams in Blitz Basketball to make it available through Amazon Kindle. It was the first time that I had read the book since I wrote it in 2008 (originally in 2006, with the second version completed in 2008).  Read more

Skill, Versatility, and Small Ball

Twitter is not conducive to an actual argument or explanation. After trying in futility to make a point about small ball and the Golden State Warriors, a full article is required. The argument started with a tweet that was retweeted into my timeline: Read more

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

End of the UNC vs Iowa State Game with FIBA rules

Read more

Steve Alford wins the Pac12 Championship by going 2-for-1 late in the game

The best coaching decision that I saw all weekend was made by Steve Alford of UCLA. With 50 seconds left in a tie game, Alford set up a play to go 2-for-1: Read more

The chaos theory in basketball

During the Sloan conference this weekend, I saw tweets referencing George Karl and Jeff Van Gundy referencing chaos in basketball. I tried to find out more information about what was said, but the best was this small article by Curtis Harris that doesn’t explain in any depth the concept of chaos from the conference. Read more

The Fallacy of Wins and Losses in Youth Sports

Note: Originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

In a recent youth football championship game, one team trailed 6-0 when the coach ordered a trick play that is now a youtube sensation. After a penalty, he called out loudly that the defense had been off-side, and the official forgot to walk off the five yards. He yelled at his center to move the ball forward. The center stood up and handed the ball over his shoulder to the quarterback, which is a legal maneuver. The quarterback started to walk off the five yards and then sprinted past the unassuming defenders for the game-tying touchdown. Read more

A Lesson from College Football

In Greg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, he writes about Oregon University’s offense:

Pass patterns are minimal, which keeps the quarterback’s mind from melting under the pace…The blur offense has maybe 20 plays, though several involve an option about who carries the ball. A very simple playbook allows Oregon to perfect the execution and snap really quickly.

Oregon emphasizes execution and speed of play, and they score at a near-record pace. Rather than add complexity, as has been the trend over the last decade, Oregon simplifies. As Easterbrook writes, offenses and defenses ebb and flow – an offensive system gains an advantage and then defensive systems adjust and force offenses to develop something new.

The idea of simplification is important for basketball coaches, especially at the youth level. Rather than out-duel the opposition with added complexity (more presses, more defenses, more set plays, more OB plays), out-execute the opponent through simplification, speed of play and skill execution.

Often, when a team lacks great individual skill, a coach feels compelled to add complexity to give the team an opportunity to compete. However, rather than adding complexity which makes the skill execution more complicated, why not simplify?

When we developed the Blitz Basketball methodology, we simplified. We were an u9 boys’ team, and we had no great shooters. Rather than adding complexity to create open shots for the best shooter, we implemented a system so most outside shots resulted from dribble penetration into the middle and a pass out; were shot off the catch; and the pass was received with the player facing the basket and standing still. In essence, from a shooting standpoint, we eliminated as many variables as possible to simplify any outside shots.

From our standpoint, the Blitz system dovetailed nicely with a Teaching Games for Understanding approach to coaching. I had been coaching college basketball where my primary responsibility was running off-season workouts with the guards and running through shooting and ball handling drills with the guards during position breakdowns. Therefore, I was in an individual skill and drill mind-frame when I started to coach the nine-year-olds. The program director, Jerome Greene, had a son of the team, so he attended every practice. After every practice, he implored me to allow them to play more – he said that they would only learn to play the game through playing, not through a bunch of drills. He changed my mindset and the Blitz system developed naturally through this change.

In his New York Times’ article, “Oregon Turns Practice Into Nonstop Sprint With Precision as Goal,” Pete Thamel writes:

Oregon’s practices last two hours, an hour less than a typical college practice, and there is so little time between plays that coaches must do their teaching with only a few words or wait until the film room. Kelly said that practice had become so sophisticated and fluid that getting off 30 snaps in a 10-minute period had become common.

While basketball differs from football, a shorter, more intense, more focused practice is better in basketball too. When I coached in a professional league in Sweden, we had 90 minutes for practice. When time is an issue, it forces the coach to prioritize and make decisions.

“That relentless pace and superior conditioning help explain how Oregon has outscored its opponents, 86-7, in the second half this season without ever running that staple of football conditioning drudgery — wind sprints.

‘Practice is a wind sprint,’ said Nate Costa, Oregon’s backup quarterback. ‘There’s no real need to do that additionally.’”

When we added more small-sided games and scrimmaging, as opposed to drills, we eliminated conditioning because the players were in good shape. The practice conditioned the players for games because the entire practice was game-like. In a limited amount of time, we prepared players for games while improving technical skills like ball handling, passing and lay-ups and tactical skills like handling traps, spacing and trapping on defense.

In addition to simplifying, Oregon Head Coach innovates:

The high-speed practices mean that wide receivers must learn to run backward to the huddle to see the next play. Receivers are taught not to chase after missed passes and to sprint to the referee, who is a manager wearing an official’s jersey, to hand him the ball after a completion.

Simple things, really, but innovative and creative because few coaches cover the small details. When I visited Vance Walberg to write an article about Fresno City College, the two things that stood out to me the most were that he taught the jump ball and he chose specific players for specific spots for blocking out on opponents’ free throws. Many teams have a play for the jump ball; Walberg actually taught the principles of making sure they won the tip. Many coaches concentrate on blocking out: Walberg made it a reward or honor to be the player under the basket, and at that time, it was 6’2 point guard Tyronne Jackson boxing out under the basket.

As the end of the day, whether the offense is simplified or complex, execution determines success. Last season, at the high school level, I used one defense, one offense and four out of bounds plays. We won the league championship, and we were not the most talented or skilled team. We beat one team by 30+ points, and the coach called a different play every time down the court, none of which worked because the players thought too long about what they were doing and were constantly correcting each other on where they were supposed to go.

I recently read a post with the coach of a youth team bragging that you could not win a game in their youth league playing only one defense. I find that astonishing since UCLA went to three Final Fours in a row without changing its defense. In the end, it is not so much what you do, as how you do it. The blur offense looks great, but it is the precision and execution that makes it great, not the intricacy of the 20 different plays in the playbook.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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