Finding the Simplicity in the Complexity of Basketball

Is offensive basketball complex or complicated? To disguise one’s intentions or one’s system, offense is complex; however, as Eric Berlow talks about above, offensive basketball does not need to be complicated.

I watched several coaching clinics over the weekend, and the offensive clinics tended to focus on the complex. Attendees scribbled furiously to write down the details of each play or concept. However, if we created a data web of successful basketball teams, I think that we could simplify the complexity. In fact, I wrote Developing Basketball Intelligence with this purpose in mind: Team offensive basketball relies on the execution of tactical skills, yet few people teach these skills generally.

Instead, coaches emphasize the complexity of their offensive system, which can make the system complicated for players who lack the skills. However, if we simplified the data, I imagine that a few patterns would emerge from good offensive teams. Rather than good offensive teams being products of specific systems like the Blocker Mover Offense or the Dribble-Drive-Motion or the Flex or from set plays, good offensive teams likely have several general things in common. When listening to a clinic, these are the concepts that coaches should take away, because the generalities will work with almost any team, while the specifics are often personnel-dependent.

When I listened to Brian Giorgis, my take away was not that continuous pick-and-rolls lead to good shots; my take away was that when the ball is reversed three times or more, Marist generally gets a good shot. It’s not the complex (continuous pick-and-rolls) that leads to good shots, but the simple (ball reversals; making the defense guard the entire width of the floor).

In DBI, I explain the basic tactical skills that form the foundation of any offense. With only five players and one ball, there are only so many things that a team can do. A coach can add complexity in order to appear more complicated (harder to scout), but in the end, these complicated plays boil down to the execution of several simple tactical skills: on-ball screens, off-ball screens, basket cuts, dribble hand-offs, etc.

If offensive players understand the execution of these simple skills, even a simple offensive set becomes hard to guard. If defensive players understand how to defend these basic skills, scouting becomes easier, as one applies learned skills to specific situations, much like taking your well-learned math skills and using them to decipher your team’s shooting percentage. You don’t have to re-learn how to divide after every game when you solve for your team’s shooting percentage because you know how to divide. The division does not change from game to game; just the numbers involved.

When I watched Giorgis’ offense, I saw basic concepts. When he taught how to move in relation to a side on-ball screen, I saw “string spacing,” a concept from DBI. When I taught pick-and-rolls with my team this season, I did not have to teach specific spacing for specific screens (complex) because we started with general spacing ideas (string spacing) that could be applied to many different situations. Similarly, when Giorgis showed how to attack a defense that traps against an on-ball screen, he showed what I term “Diamond Spacing”, which is the same concept that I use against a full-court press as well. Because I start with the general (simple), when we see unfamiliar defenses or when defenses change, we have the general skills to adjust and adapt.

Unfortunately, most coaches focus on the complex and make basketball complicated for their players. When they listen to the same coaching clinic, they focus on the specifics and attempt to apply the specifics to their team.

Good offensive basketball teams tend to share a number of qualities: good spacing, good shooters, quick ball movement, smart player movement, unselfishness, individual self-awareness, aggressiveness, etc. These are the important qualities to develop. Teams use the same basic skills. The difference from team to team is how to employ those skills to add complexity for the defense and how many of the qualities the team and the players possess.

From a teaching standpoint, focus first on the basic tactical skills before the strategy of how to use the skills and emphasize the development of the qualities that comprise a good offensive player and a good offensive team. Through simplicity, one can appear complex without being too complicated for his or her own good and confusing his or her own team.

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