The closeout is the epitome of fake fundamentals

I have written previously about fake fundamentals. I think drills like the zigzag drill or three-man weave are fake fundamental drills: They look like they are teaching a skill, but the drill has no relation to the game and performing the drill does not lead to improved game performance. The closeout, as commonly taught, is the epitome of a fake fundamental skill. Teams with great closeouts look well-coached, but the defense accomplishes virtually nothing. 

I attended a couple college games this week. I watched as one team performed perfect, textbook closeouts. They chopped their steps with butt down and hands high. They could have appeared in an instructional video. They were well-taught and well-drilled. In fact, the closeouts were so instruction-quality good that they looked more like 3/4 speed shell-drill closeouts than something one would do when defending shooters in a game. You could see that this was something that they practice and emphasize.

Their opponent made 12/22 from the three-point line. Their opponent, on the season, is shooing 38.6% from the three-point line and making just over 5 three-pointers per game (after including the 12/22 game). Their picture-perfect, instruction-quality closeouts did nothing to affect their opponent’s shooting.

On the other hand, in another game, a different team held its opponent to 7/21 from three-point line. This was under their 8.2 three-pointers per game and 38% shooting. How did this team hold down the shooting percentage? Not with closeouts. Instead, they face-guarded the team’s best shooter who currently is shooting 52.2% from the three-point line while making over 5 three-pointers per game. He went 2/5. Five fewer attempts than his average and 9 fewer points from three-pointers than his average in a 10-point game. Eliminate his totals, and the rest of his team probably shot better than their season average from three-point range, but overall, it appeared to be great three-point defense. Essentially, they took away shots from the best shooter, which made the not as good shooters slightly better than normal, leading to subpar percentage shooting and fewer makes overall. All without the textbook closeout.

Before this is dismissed as a small sample size, Ken Pomeroy has argued the same thing using analytics and statistics.

With few exceptions, the best measure of three-point defense is a team’s ability to keep the opponents from taking 3’s….When someone discusses three-point defense in terms of three-point percentage, they might as well make the leap to discuss free-throw defense in similar terms. Teams have much more control over how many three’s their opponents shoot than how many they make.

Essentially, good three-point shooting defense does not mean affecting a team’s three-point percentage, but affecting the number of shot attempts. This makes sense: Few players shoot contested three-point shots, so the defense does not affect the shot the same way that the defense affects shots around the basket. Instead, good defenses influence what shots are taken and who shoots the shots.

In the second game above, the defense lowered the number of shot attempts slightly, but more importantly, lowered the shot attempts of arguably the best shooter in the nation. The first team, with the textbook closeouts, did not affect attempts per game, and actually allowed more three-point attempts.

Closeouts look like good defense. However, if a player is in help-side position, the closeout is too slow. Time after time, the defenders performed their perfect closeouts and shooters shot over the closeout, hardly bothered by this picture-perfect defense. Since the closeout starts at least five feet from the offensive player to afford enough time to stop on balance in front of the offensive player, the shooter was essentially open when he shot the ball.

The purpose of the closeout, as I was taught, is to stop on balance to prevent the opponent from driving past the defender while also contesting the shot. If a defender is in help defense more than a couple steps away from his man, I do not believe that the defender can do both: The defense has to choose whether to contest the shot or protect against the drive.

Therefore, when playing against a shooter who shoots 50% from the three-point line on 10 attempts per game, the defense has three choices: (1) closeout with picture-perfect technique and hope he misses open shots; (2) do not help away from him so his defender is always there on the catch and he has no space to shoot; or (3) run at the shooter and sell out to contest the shot without any concern for the drive.

The picture-perfect closeout works against the drive, in most cases. However, the team with the picture-perfect closeouts had players beaten off the dribble repeatedly. That could have been lack of discipline, lack of quickness, etc. The player who was face-guarded never attacked the basket or drove a closeout because his man was always there on the catch. In the following game, the same player was 6/11 from three-point range and had 4 assists (and should have had more) against a defense that attempted to close out to him.

Combine the two games, and the player is right on his percentage (8/16), but just under his average makes per game. Holding the player to 5 attempts worked strategically, whereas closing out to shooters did not work. It was not lack of effort. It was not improper technique. It was strategy.

A defender in help position cannot contest the shot and prevent the drive. Therefore, the coach has to make his or her choice. This coach apparently made the choice to take his chances with the opponent shooting 3-pointers. When the strategy did not work, the coach should have cursed himself or his staff, not his players! He yelled and screamed at the players all game, but with the quality of the closeouts, it appeared that they followed his directions and teaching perfectly. The problem was not execution, but strategy. If you choose to closeout, you risk a team making shooting a lot of threes. If they shoot these (normally) open shots, they are likely to shoot somewhere between 33-40%. That’s on the coach, not the players. If you want to limit the opponent’s three-point shooting, limit shot attempts; do not rely on the closeout, an embodiment of fake fundamentals.

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