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Fundamentals vs. Strategy
by Brian McCormick, CSCS, PES: Performance Director, TrainforHoops.com
While watching a college football game, an analyst suggested that the spread offense might be the ideal weapon to combat the sophisticated defenses which popularize football. The spread offense may be basketball's weapon to combat the increasingly sophisticated defenses.
Sports move through cycles with different ebbs and flows. At some points, the defenses dominate; eventually, the offenses catch-up and dominate until the defenses design a new strategy. Recently, defenses dominated basketball, as evidenced by the recent championships won by the San Antonio Spurs, and Detroit Pistons, and to a lesser extent the Miami Heat. Players are so long, quick and agile and they cover ground so quickly, allowing coaches to employ automatic double-teams in the low post and still contest jump shots on the perimeter. Teams have multiple ways to defend pick-and-rolls and their rotations are excellent, often forcing an individual to make a great play against the shot clock.
"Defense wins championships" is the coaching mantra. At the highest levels, teams scout and game plan for every opponent and every nuance or wrinkle the opponent runs. Watch an NBA game, and as soon as the offense calls its play, the defense calls its strategy. In the 2007 NBA Play-offs, as an example, whenever the San Antonio Spurs' Manu Gibobili received the ball at the top of the key against the Denver Nuggets, Denver switched to a zone defense to eliminate the high pick-and-roll.
For years, I believed defense won championships because coaches devoted more time to defense and game planning than to offensive skill development, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: defense won championships because it received more time and emphasis. In the May 2007 issue of Fast Company, Chip and Dan Heath explain the self-fulfilling prophecy as it relates to Hollywood and ask: "Did you win because you were smart or because you tipped the scales in your favor?" Defense wins because coaches expend more time and energy on defense, which makes their defense tougher, but also short-changes their offense, which increase the defense's importance.
Mike D'Antoni and the Phoenix Suns stray from the traditional, setting the pace for the next change in the game. Using Steve Nash's skills, the Suns make help defense impossible by spreading the floor with shooters. The Suns force the opponent to defend 94-feet x 50-feet, which creates far more openings for an offensive team than if the offense plays only within its scoring zone without rotating the ball quickly from side to side.
The Suns' spread offense with the Nash and Stoudemire pick-and-roll is the NBA example of the new spread offense attempting to combat the League's stifling defenses. At the college level, the en vogue offense is the "AASAA" offense (attack-attack-skip-attack-attack) developed by former Pepperdine University Head Coach Vance Walberg and popularized at Memphis University by John Calipari. More teams are relying on spacing, dribble penetration and players to make the plays, as opposed to running plays.
The biggest moment in this subtle shift occurred in the 2007 UCLA vs. Stanford game at Maples Pavilion. UCLA jumped to a big lead behind its stingy defense. However, at some point, Trent Johnson made a decision, one which many coaches are loath to make. He junked his offense. He had been trying to run pick and rolls, but the Bruins smothered every one, turning over the Cardinal, resulting in easy lay-ups and dunks for UCLA.
Once Johnson junked his offense, Stanford fought back into the game and eventually won. He isolated his point guard, Anthony Goods, at the top. He isolated his forward, Lawrence Hill, at the elbow. He relied on his players to make plays and break down the defense. And, it worked.
For years, the answer to good defense was better timing, more precision and better execution. This required more time spent running plays in practice and more plays to memorize in order to confuse the opponent. Coaches spent a great deal of time strategizing, trying to outthink and out-prepare the opponent. Coaches attempted to make every game a battle of the coaches.
However, as the Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, University of Memphis, University of Florida and others illustrate, offense can defeat defense. And, the best way for offense to beat defense is to make it hard for teams to prepare to face you. Rrather than learning more plays, the answer is acquiring better fundamentals.
Walberg's AASAA system is a system; that is, players go to certain spots and fill roles and there are certain expectations. However, most important is the floor spacing and the execution of basic fundamentals: dribbling, passing and shooting. The philosophy works against good defense because the well-spaced offense forces the defense to rotate, move and scramble, and even the best defensive teams are a step behind the ball if the offense has players who can pass and shoot and who move the ball quickly.
In my book, Blitz Basketball: A Strategic Method for Youth Player Development, I outline a system of play, and, more importantly, a system of player development. Rather than spend hours of practice time learning and practicing numerous plays to outsmart the opponent's defense, the offensive system is taught through a series of fundamental drills. The better the players shoot the ball, pass the ball and handle the ball, the better the system works during games against tough defense. Every drill incorporates these skills and most of the drills are competitive, teaching players to defend dribble penetration and closeout to shooters.
The best defensive teams typically force teams into too much 1v1 play and the offensive players struggle to create good shots because the players without the ball do not know how to move and react to 1v1 play. In the 2006 World Championships, Greece forced Team USA into a 1v1 game; however, because of their defensive approach, it was more like 1v3 or 1v5, which gave the defense a huge advantage, even against the quicker, more athletic, more talented Americans.
Great defensive teams take offenses out of their sets. They disrupt the offense, double-team, trap, hedge and generally bother the offense. The answer to this type of defensive pressure is not more plays or greater offensive strategy: it is better fundamentals.
If a team traps a pick and roll, and the ball handler is ill-equipped to handle the trap, the defense forces turnovers which lead to dunks. However, if the player has the speed to extend the trap and get into the lane, or the toughness to step through the trap to find an open player for an open jump shot, then the offense punishes the aggressive defense because the rest of the players are playing 4v3. This is not a strategic adjustment; it is fundamental teaching and training.
Coaching philosophies and methodologies tend to trickle down from the top, as youth and high school coaches watch college and pro basketball and steal ideas, concepts, plays, defenses, and more. As NBA and college teams incorporate more and more "freelance" or motion concepts to combat the tough defenses who know an opponent's plays as well as they know their own, and spend more time improving fundamentals to combat the aggressive defense, as opposed to adding more and more strategy, these concepts will filter to the lower levels and basketball coaches will spend more time teaching, as opposed to coaching, in order to be more competitive.
And, when teams have better offensive players with the skills to battle the tough defenses, basketball is a far more exciting game: nobody wants to watch a dominant offense play a poor defensive team, just like nobody wants to see a defense completely smother an offense. The best basketball is when teams and players are fundamentally sound offensively and defensively and play both sides with great intensity, passion and skill.
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