Friday, July 20, 2012

Mens_Rea Teaches You Things About Basketball pt. 3 - Play Development and Analysis


In part 1, we examined how offensive players move on the court and how that movement impacts other players on the court. In part 2, we looked at the options defenses have available to make scoring difficult and the consequences of the choices it makes. Now we're going to try to put the fundamentals we've learned into a more complex system that takes into account both elements - the full basketball play.

A successful basketball play contains three elements: (1) appropriate and realistic identification of the rosters strengths and weaknesses, (2) efficient application of those strengths while minimizing the weaknesses in our play, and (3) proper execution by the players on the court of the play.

We're going to begin by discussing those three elements then we'll take a look at some sample plays and critique them.

Play Design and Concerns

Identification of Strengths and Weaknesses

Probably the most difficult element in designing a play is learning to identify your roster's strengths and weaknesses. It's important that the coaching staff is able to peel away the names, faces, and reputations of its players and try to accurately assess the actual talent available. This can be very difficult because you also need to separate the production of a player that comes as a result of outside factors - the system they've been in, the players around them, and other outside forces. Coaches have met an early exit many times because all too often they rigidly tried to enforce a system of plays that did not match the talent available. Good coaching, and by extension good play design, comes from facing the talent in front of you, not the talent you want. Hopefully, as we proceed it will become more apparent why this is the case.

Efficient Application of Strengths/Minimizing Weaknesses

Once the coaching staff has examined its roster, it needs to see how those pieces will fit together to create some offense. At the end of part 2, I described two fictional players as part of an exercise (the response to which is below) reviewed here:
  • SG: quick, reads screens well and can convert in the lane or out along the perimeter
  • SF: fairly slow, has bad hands, and is very poor at low post scoring
When I'm designing a play, I want to maximize the potential of both of these players as much as possible. It would make sense then that I wouldn't design a play for the SF in the post, right? On the other hand, it would probably be a good idea to put my SG in a position to come off of screens to find his scoring opportunities. This may seem like common sense and easy to implement but when we have five players on the court each with their own unique areas of strength and weakness, it can become complicated very quickly.

Proper Execution

Even the best designed plays can fail if the players are unable to understand the purpose of the play and execute the play as designed. As we'll see, some systems try to integrate an understanding of the game's fundamentals into their offensive systems in order to reduce the complexity of a specific play's intricacies. The coaching staff has to make a philosophical decision for its offense - should we rely more heavily on our rosters' ability to read and react to the defense or should we instruct our roster on the options available in each play and tell them how to prioritize those options. Either system requires the team to know the offense and implement its designs as a single unit.

Basic Plays

Now that we've thought about the underlying concerns of a basketball playbook, let's look at some common basic plays. In our animations the 1 is usually the PG, 2 is the SG, 3 is the SF, 4 is the PF, and 5 is the C. However, often times the players are interchangeable and you should ask yourself if what each player is being asked to do fits with someone that plays a different position. For example, in our plays we'll usually have the PG as the playmaker but if the roster we're working with has a point forward, it would be feasible to substitute the SF for the PG.

Single Double

The single double is one of the most common plays in the NBA and is primarily designed to give the SG (or any player that can read screens well for that matter) the ability to create offense off of low set screens. Let's look at the play.

The PF and C set staggered screens on one side of the court while the SF sets a screen on the other side of the court. The SG cuts down the center of the court and may run off either set of screens - the single screen by the SF or the double screen by the PF and C. This is the most basic version of the single double play. But it's not entirely a play until we explore the options around it, so let's see what options are available.

Here, once the SG runs off the double screens, our C tries to seal a defender and the PF pops out to the baseline. Now if the SG doesn't have an available shot, he may pass the ball down to the C in the low post or give our PF a baseline shot. If the SG runs off the single screen by the SF, a similar post up opportunity as the C is available.

Now let's add some desired shot opportunities to our players.

  • The SG is strong as a perimeter wing and corner shooter
  • The SF is strong at the elbows as an isolation player
  • The PF is a strong mid-range shooter
  • The C is a strong post up player

Illustrated as:

The area in green represents the area of strength for our SG, red is our SF, gray is our PF, and blue is our Center. When we look at the end result location of our players in the single double, we did a pretty good job of accommodating their strengths.

But what happens if the defense has all three players covered? We've left ourselves with no other options. 

Let's see a variation that tries to solve this problem.

In our variation, the SG realizes that the passing options to the PF and C are unavailable or don't result in open shots and his own shot would be contested. Instead of trying to force one of those options, we've added a ball reversal option. In other words, the SG can reverse the side of the court the play will continue on by passing the ball back and moving the action to the other side.

Once the SG passes the ball back to the PG, he has keyed the offense to the next set of options in the play. The SF will see the pass to the PG as a trigger to move to the elbow to receive the pass. The PF will set a screen for our SG and the C will move to the baseline for a second screen. The result is the SG, SF, PF, and C are all in favorable positions.

The dynamic that we just stepped through is how well designed plays operate. We have our primary action that tries to maximize the strengths of our players but we have secondary or even tertiary options if our primary plan is unavailable. It's up to player execution to make the right decisions in our plays to understand what options are available and decide which option is best.

The Pick and Roll

Perhaps the most common play in basketball, the pick and roll is centered around two players. The ballhandler will call for a ball screen and try to free himself up off that screen while the roll man will try to exploit the defense's attempt to cover the ballhandler by rolling to the basket.

Here we see the PF set a ball screen for the PG. The PF is able to free the PG of his defender with the screen and the PF's defender must switch to defend a drive to the lane but is much slower. This is the basic goal of a pick and roll, to create a mismatch that can be exploited. Some of the options that we saw in part 2 in defending off-ball screens are available here as well.

Finding the roll man
This time the defending PF tries to cut off the driving lane by the PG by anticipating the PG turning the corner. This is called hedging on the pick and roll. The PF is hedging toward where the ballhandler is going. If the defense isn't coordinated, it leaves the roll man open to receive the pass and a lane to the basket.
Moving under the screen
On the other hand, if the PG tries to simply go under the screen, the PG might simply shoot the ball.
Hedge and recover
Ideally, the roll man's defender will be able to quickly switch to the ballhandler then quickly back to his man. The roll defender usually tries to hedge on the pick and roll only long enough to stop a quick drive to the basket and delaying the ball handler long enough to allow the ballhandler's defender to recover.

Just like our single double play above, let's add some complexity to our basic play. One potential counter to a hedging defender is called a screen-the-screener play. A screen-the-screener play will try to prevent a hedge on the pick and roll by first screening the defender of the roll man before the pick and roll occurs.

By screening for the ball screener, we've made it difficult for the roll man's defender to hedge on the pick and roll by taking him out of position early.
Switching on the screen-the-screener
By carefully switching on the screens, the defense stands a much better chance of defending the screen-the-screener. However, as you can see, it can become very difficult to switch at the right time and it can cause other options (SF in our example) to be open until the defense recovers.


Now that we have a general idea of the goals of a play and have looked at some of the basic plays, we're going to continue in part 4 by looking at full offensive systems. It's unclear at this point how I'll break up the various systems and whether it will have to involve more than one part but I hope to discuss UCLA, Shuffle, Dribble Drive, Princeton, Flex, and the Triangle.

As for the exercise at the bottom of part 2:

James Kerti provided a pretty good response that involved doubling the SG out of the Modern Swarm Defense and forcing him to pass to our SF. Our scenario didn't tell us much about our lingering PF and C but I think an additional consideration might be to rotate our C over to defend the SF in the low post if our SG decides to pass to him out of the double team. Now we have the defending SG and SF doubled on the opposing SG, our main scoring threat, with the defending C, who based on position should be at least somewhat proficient at low post defense (an assumption that reading the exercise didn't provide so don't fault yourself if you didn't consider this). We have purposely now left open the offensive C and are forcing the SF to make a fairly difficult pass across the lane over our C.

There are many ways to handle this scenario but the underlying focus should be to force the SF to become the playmaking or scoring threat.

And now for a new exercise to end part 3.

Let's look at the second screen-the-screener play above where the defense switches, but now we'll add our SG and C.

Imagine you're the PG on this team. Your teammates are struggling to hit their jumpshots and you think the best way to get the team going is to get a layup attempt. You just ran the play above hoping to get a drive to the basket or pass to your roll man for a layup but, because you weren't expecting the defense to switch, it failed and resulted in a bad possession. You're coming up the court to call a play and want to alter the screen-the-screener play. 
How would you alter it to get a layup attempt for your team? 

In animation form:

What would you instruct your team to do next?


  1. "What would you instruct your team to do next?"

    When my PF is coming towards my PG, could I have him go on the right side of the defending PG, and use him a screen for my PG?

    1. Sorry, the animation wasn't working correctly but I updated it now. Having said that, you are the PG and you can instruct your team to do whatever you wish.


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