Coaching a European Club – Week 13

Our regular league game was moved until Monday this week, and our opponent canceled (forfeited) our u20 team game about 2 hours prior to tip-off on Saturday, so no games to report. Naturally, with a game on Monday instead of Saturday, players took the opportunity to make weekend plans and skip Friday’s practice, so we again had three real practices this week. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the return from military duty from one of our guys at our Friday practice. 

Since we had nine players on Friday, and needed to catch up the player after 10 days away, I played so we could scrimmage. I noticed two things while playing. First, I made passes so much earlier than my players. In one case, we were working on a secondary transition break, and I was the trailer. Essentially, I reverse the ball and cut. As I went to reverse the ball, the defender overplayed the wing. In the same movement, before my teammate even looked at me for the ball, I threw a pass leading him to the basket on the backdoor cut. He cut a split second after I passed and scored. Later, I made virtually the same play. We were running a play where the point screens the wing. His defender started to cheat, and I threw the pass leading him to the basket for a lay-up. In this case, he did not recognize the opening; he did not notice his defender cheating. My pass ended up in a turnover.

I have been working on a new edition of Playmakers: The Player’s Guide to Developing Basketball Intelligence, and this is one of the most important points. In Gary Klein’s Streetlights and Shadows:Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making, he makes the point that expertise in decision making differs from what we once thought. Our traditional belief has been that expert decision makers sorted through all available choices and made the right choice quicker than non-experts. Klein argued that expert decision makers quickly fixated on the right choice, whereas novice decision makers had to go through the possible choices.

When I saw my teammate overplayed, I did not go through a list of possible options. I immediately made the pass because that was the best choice. On the first play, my teammate saw the situation the same, and made the right decision at nearly the same moment, caught the pass, and made a lay-up. In TV terminology, I saw the play before it happened. In the second instance, however, I made the same decision, but my teammate did not recognize the situation in the same way as I did.

Now, if I had waited as my teammate assessed all of his potential options, he likely would not have been open for the backdoor pass. Therefore, as a passer, I have to make a choice: Do I make the pass assuming that my teammate will read the play as I do at the same time or do I hold onto the ball and run the play as it is designed (allow him to set the screen and pass to the cutter)?

This changes the way that we think about decision making. I made the same decision in both plays. However, the outcome was good in one case and bad in the other. The correctness of my decision, then, was not my decision making process, but my teammate’s. My failure was in expecting my teammate to make the same read, not in the read that I made. Even the defender said as we ran down court that he was hoping that his man did not see the opening that he gave him. My read on the play was sound; I made the correct pass given the defense. My mistake was expecting my teammate to see the play in the same way. Again, this changes the way that a coach has to view decision making. As I often say to my players, you have to understand who you are passing to: some players will read the play as I did, some players have better hands, etc. To be successful as a team, you need to get all the players reading situations in the same way. With my experience, I see things differently than many of my players, and when I underestimated that, I committed a turnover. The challenge, now, is to get all the players so they would have read the play the same way that I did. I watch my American point guard sometimes, and he gets frustrated because the younger players are not reading things the same way as him. They simply lack the experience to have the same knowledge base as him. It’s one of those things that takes time to learn.

The second thing that I noticed was defensive angles. I see this in other games that I watch too. Good defenders and good defensive teams understand angles. For instance, it was a 4v3 fast break. I was on the right side with two offensive players. As the pass went to the player in the top, I closed out to take away the player’s right hand and to jump in the passing lane. As I expected, the player tried to make the next pass into the corner and threw the ball directly into my hands. I watched the exact same play the next day in another game, and the player closed out directly to the offensive player and allowed the pass to the corner for the wide open three.

When the defense is disorganized, as it is in transition, you cannot play straight up defense. You have to play the percentages or gamble. This is different than a gamble for a steal or something like that. This is playing probabilities. If there are four players and three defenders, and  just vacated a spot where I know there was an open player, who is the most dangerous player? How fast can one of the other two defenders get tho the open player? If I get beat off the dribble, where do I have help? Allowing that extra rotation keeps the defense scrambling. If I force the first player to dribble to beat me, and send him in the direction of both my teammates, I am playing the odds. I am trying to extend the play so we can get more defenders back and match up. I am trying to take away the quickest, most open shot. Sure, closing out toward the elbow and giving a middle drive is not the best play in all circumstances, but when you are a man down, it is the smart play not to allow the ball to continue to be reversed.

Again, this is one of those things that players learn as they play more. It’s also one of the reasons why older players can be effective defensively even when they lose a step. Guys like Shane Battier and Kevin Garnett are revered for their defense even though both are past their athletic peaks. They are able to make up for their diminishing athleticism by playing smarter. They have a ton of experience and are able to play the probabilities of success in a situation very quickly, and make decisions based on the probability of success. Novice players lack this well from which to draw and tend to rely on their athleticism to make up for their lesser understanding of the game. Of course, when you get a player in the peak of his athletic prime with a deep understanding of the game, you have a player like LeBron James.

Since I did not know much about our up-coming opponent, there was no game preparation this week. We spent more time passing and catching this week, and working on our awareness, even before I noticed these things while playing. We used the advantage passing game (6v5) to practice passing against a scrambling defense and finding the most open player. I also continued to do more post/guard breakdown, as we have to be able to get some more baskets from our posts, even with our best player out with an injury. We worked more on getting position, and fighting for position defensively. We also added a couple wrinkles to get some open shots for our guards, as we have to rely on them for at least one more game.

I want to make some more systematic changes to our defense, but with so many players in and out, I decided to keep everything the same for another week. I also want to see our defense once our post returns from injury, as it seemed like we were starting to improve defensively when he got hurt. No need to make big changes if we can continue that improvement when he returns. Plus, due to more gym conflicts, we have two games (Monday/Sunday), but only two practices this week.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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