“The thing that blew me away, at Indiana we never ran a play. It was read and react and you really had to think your way through the game. The first time I ran a pick and roll was in the NBA.”
Isiah Thomas, quote taken from Bob Knight The Unauthorized Biography
This quote from a NBA Hall of Famer is astonishing. The reason for my surprise is that Isiah Thomas played for one of the most dominating personalities in basketball history while attending Indiana University. This quote shocked me because I grew up watching Bob Knight patrolling the sideline and reprimanding his troops like the Army man that he is. Coach Knight was the epitome of the old school controlling coach for many of us. He was too strict and yelled too much. We thought he preferred boring basketball players whom he could control and his teams were boring to watch. What I did not understand as a kid, was that Bob Knight helped initiate the Motion Offense into the basketball landscape. This offense was revolutionary because it went away from the old style set plays. Players running the Motion Offense were expected to think the game, thus they had to know how to play. Although Motion/Continuous Offenses have their weaknesses, they are still the best ways to teach kids how to play the game.
We all have heard the criticisms. “These kids do not know how to play the game” and “ All they are playing is street ball” and “They dribble too much”. The list goes on and on. These proclamations usually come from old school players and coaches that supposedly knew/know how to play the game. The problem with this is that like all things, basketball changes. What does not change is that basketball is a game of reactions and the better you react, the better you will produce.
React- “To act in response to or under the influence of a stimulus or prompting”
Think back to your greatest basketball play as a fan and you will surely recall the supreme reaction of the amazing feat:
We all remember Magic with the baby hook over the outstretched arms of Bird, Parrish and McHale at the old Boston Garden. The play was set for Kareem but Magic reacted to the overplay of Kareem by attacking the middle and floating the sweet baby hook through the net. This was not the designed play but basketball at its best.
How about the Jordan layup over Sam Perkins and the Lakers in the 91‘ Finals.. His Airness attacking the paint for a right hand dunk only to see the long armed Sam Perkins(also Jordan’s college teammate) attempting to block it. Jordan then switched hands in the air and finger rolled with the left on the way down. Again, reaction at best. Jordan described the shot as “instinct”.
Or the greatest shot in Spur’s History, The Memorial Day Miracle by Sean Elliot. Even though the shot came off of an out of bounds set play, Elliot adjusted to a bad pass by tiptoeing the sideline to remain inbounds. He then squared ten toes to the rim and let go a BOMB in the face of the outstretched arms of Rasheed Wallace. Elliot’s reaction helped propel the Spurs to its first of four Championships.
All of these wonderful basketball moments were a testament to the improvisational ability of basketball players. The ability to think and react on the fly is what makes basketball such a beautiful game. Now here is the problem; Coaches must develop individuality in a team setting. What and how is the best way to accomplish this? Here is my opinion:
Practice Skill Sets More than Sets- The problem with practicing too many sets(plays) is that all kids up to the College level need skill work. For that matter, Pros still need skill work. The difference with Pro and youth ball players is that by the time a player reaches the Pro ranks, they are more or less accustomed to their roll. Jacque Vaughn was a pass first point guard at Pasadena Muir High school. He was a pass first point guard at Kansas and he is a pass first point guard for the Spurs. I am sure that he shoots the ball thousands of times a week and yet his jump shot is still not strong enough to make him a legitimate shooting threat at the NBA level. The question is, would have constant and consistently good shooting reps as a teen enhanced his shooting as a future pro? Of course it would have. That is why constantly practicing sets instead of working on individual skill sets can handicap players. What good is it to teach a kid to run a play but they still can't dribble with their weak hand? How does it help a kid to run an offense that begins with a wing entry pass but the wings have not been drilled enough in the art of getting open on the wing? I recall viewing Villanova Coach Jay Wright in an instructional video lamenting " These parents want me to teach these kids how to get to the NBA but I am spending all my time teaching them to dribble with their left hand". Another problem with practicing so many sets is that it makes players think too much about the play and not think to play the game.
Teach to think the game- Like Isiah said in the earlier quote, the Indiana players were expected to think the game. This is a problem for most coaches. By teaching players to think the game and empowering them to react with their thoughts, turnovers and mistakes are bound to happen. Bob Knight drilled a passing, cutting, screening offense into his players that demanded that they learn to read and react. According to many, he went mad in the process. Imagine a control freak allowing kids to control the outcome of the game. That is an exercise in self torture. Sets give coaches control to dictate who and when shots occur to a certain extent. Continuous offenses puts players in spots and areas and allow them to decide the appropriate response to an action. That in itself is very difficult to do. Some coaches are not equipped with the tools to think the game themselves. They are products of sets and things that their old coaches taught them. What is thinking the game? Here is a scenario:
Player 1 has the ball at the top of the key. Player 2 is being heavily denied on the wing but Player 1 wants to get her the ball. Player 1 dribbles toward player 2. Here are some ways to teach thinking and reacting to the game:
1. Player 2 cuts Back Door since they are being overplayed
2. Player 2 receives a dribble handoff and can turn the corner against intense pressure
3. Player 2 fades away from the dribbler to clear space and allow for the dribble kick
4. Player 2 sets an on ball screen
5. Player 2 circles behind or against the grain
There are more options than these and each option in turn offers more options, but these are simple reads that all proficient players should know.
Jungle Ball is not the way- Playing Rucker style street ball is not the way of teaching the game either. Players who dribble a thousand times with And 1 Mixtape moves is not going to thrive in a structured basketball setting either. Take Rafer Alston, aka Skip to my Lou. I love Skip. He is exciting and I enjoy watching him manipulate the ball and clown defenders on the blacktop. However, Skip is not the NBA player playing for a chance for the Eastern Conference Title. Rafer Alston is. Rafer is running the Magic like an NBA point guard should. He is still a master of improvising but he is controlling his turnovers and moving the ball. He is making sure his Big is getting touches and his street ball pedigree allows him to break defenders down off of the dribble and hit open shooters like Hedo Turkolu and Rashard Lewis. I have viewed so many coaches with athletic kids but teach no basketball IQ or Skill Set. Their players show up to college unprepared for that level since mostly everybody is athletic at that level.
Play more 2 vs. 2 and 3 vs. 3- I read a wonderful quote by a college coach recently. It said
“ When your players are playing 2 vs. 2 you are teaching. When your players are playing 5 vs. 5, you are coaching” . We need more teachers. Basketball skills like basket cuts, on ball screens, back door reads, angles of setting screens, spacing, dribbling and passing against pressure, rebounding angles, defending pick and rolls, forcing offensive players to their weak hand and cutting the floor in half, weak side positioning, communication, shooting against pressure and defensive stances are just some of the skills that can be honed during 2 vs. 2 and 3 vs. 3. Not to mention one of the most important attributes a baller can have, HEART. Small games will expose the faint of heart as they can not hide. I always found it fascinating that NBA combines feature small skill set sessions that pit draft picks against each other. Even at the highest level, NBA scouts , coaches and GM’s want to see how players think and react in basketball.
Lets look at some recent happenings in Elite Basketball:
1. The Orlando Magic are on the brink of going to the NBA finals. One of the reasons why is, that the Cleveland Cavaliers are not adapting to the Magic’s European style of play. The traditional two bigs defensive alignment of the Cavs are allowing for mismatches in the favor of the Magic. The Magic are playing with one low post presence and their small and so called power forwards are hitting open threes. Their line up at any given time includes, Michael Pietrus( 6’6), Hedo Turkolu(6’10), Rashard Lewis(6’10). All three of players shoot the three with consistency and can create off of the dribble. THEY ARE ALLOWED TO READ AND REACT TO MISMATCHES AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THEM!
2. The Memphis Tigers went to the 2009 NCAA Sweet 16 and the 2008 NCAA Championship game with an innovative offense that rewards reading and reacting. The Dribble Drive Motion was created by a former Jr. College Coach, Vance Walberg, and it is being implemented with success at the highest level of basketball. Coach John Calipari should be commended. He took Umass to the Final Four in the 90’s with a style that was built around his All American Big, Marcus Camby. He scrapped that system in favor of a system that fit his current players. Players such as the lighting quick reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, Derrick Rose. That is a sign of a great coach. Coach Cal is known for having a healthy ego but he put that ego aside and let his players play.
3. The LA Lakers and the Chicago Bulls of the 90’s were successful using an offense based on reading and reacting. The famed Triangle offense is nothing but basketball based on passing, cutting, spacing, and angles. This offense allowed for Michael to be Michael and Kobe to be Kobe. The spacing and continuity to the offense let Jordan exploit gaps when applicable and kick to shooters such as Steve Kerr and John Paxson when the defense collapsed. Yes the offense can have set quick hitters but the meat off the system is empowering players to think and play the game. The architect of the Triangle offense, Tex Winter, mentions that his creation was originally ran for and by HIGH SCHOOL PLAYERS.
4. On a local note, The UTSA Lady Roadrunners were very successful the last couple of years because of reading and reacting. Coach Rae Blair installed the DDM offense and easy sets that allowed Southland Conference Player of the Year, Monica Gibbs to make plays based off of her reads. One particular Set(more like an alignment) worked beautifully. One big would set and on- ball screen at the top of the key for Gibbs. The Big would then roll to the front of the rim. Gibbs would then read and react by turning the corner and penetrating as far as she could. She would get to the basket for a layup, or have the options to kick to the shooters who were spotting up in both corners. The weak side big would fill the high post area that was vacated by the rolling big and the ball could be reversed to her for the shot or the high low. That one simple set allowed for at least 5 scoring options based on spacing, simple screening and rolling and filling the high post. This play was the embodiment of a Bob Knight saying “Basketball is not rocket Science”
The problem is that we have coaches who are on both sides of the extreme. Those who make it Rocket Science and stunt individual growth and creativity or those who teach nothing and produce ignorant and unskilled street ball players. Illiterate teachers raise illiterate students. We should all continue to learn to Read so we can teach proper Reaction!