The San Antonio Spurs, Ball Movement, and Triple Threat

Our expectations and desires are incongruent with the way in which we teach the game of basketball. Judging by television, twitter, and conversations with coaches, we want everyone to play like this:

However, we teach the game like this:

In the Spurs possession – which prompted Jeff Van Gundy to say, “I hope the kids at home, and their youth coaches, just tape that possession and show it on an endless loop” – not one player squared to the basket in triple threat position. However, in the USA Basketball video, the coach says that you cannot pass, catch, or shoot unless you are in proper [triple threat] position. This is the incongruity: we celebrate one thing, but teach another.

Look at the eyes. On the catch, when the players get into triple threat position, their eyes go to the floor. We teach the game from the individual skill to the team skill, whereas the Spurs play from the team to the individual. We teach the game from the triple threat position first, usually with a jab step series. This emphasizes individual basketball. Who uses a lot of jab steps in an NBA game?

Ball stoppers (not just Joe Johnson). Now, there are times to run an isolation for a player or to use a jab step. However, these should not be the primary modes of offense, and these should not be the basics upon which we are developing players, especially if the Spurs ball movement is the holy grail.

Much has been made of the Spurs international flavor. Their ball movement is related to soccer, in which a popular concept is to move the ball and “let the ball do the work.”

In the sequence above of 20 passes, no player took more than three touches, much like the Spurs sequence that started with Kawhi Leonard dribbling up court and ended with Patty Mills taking two dribbles along the baseline to set up Manu Ginobili’s layup.

If this is how we want players to play basketball, we have to speed up the decision making of youth players to let the ball do the work. The decision making cannot speed up if we teach players to put the ball at their hip and look at the ground.

In the USA Basketball video, the coach says, “Sometimes as young players, we are already thinking what we are going to do before we catch the ball.” I hope so! Did any of the Spurs catch a pass and then think about their next move? The coach asks Kemba Walker, “What do you look for here?” Walker answers that the first thing that he looks for is how he is being defended.

He is right and wrong. The demonstration is not gamelike, and this is one problem with instruction. Nobody catches the ball standing still with the defensive player standing still directly in front of him. When Walker said that he looks at how the defender is defending him, the defender is standing right in front of him. Wouldn’t he have stolen the pass if they were standing still and that close together? He is correct in that he should look at the defense; however, he should look at the team defense, not just his individual defender, and he should do this prior to receiving the pass.

This is an important point. Watch the Spurs clip again. Ginobili receives the handoff from Leonard with space because his defender went behind Leonard. Splitter receives the pass at the top of the key with roughly six feet of space, as his man was helping in the paint. Mills catches the pass on the move with his defender trying to catch up and moving away from the basket. On the quick pass to Diaw, Mills gets a step on Cole because he changes directions first. Because he anticipated the catch, stop, pass, and cut, he moved first. As Doc Rivers said, “The offense gets to say go.” Diaw sees Mills advantage immediately, so he does not pivot to the basket; instead, he hands off to Mills and sets a screen. Mills’ drive draws Anderson away from Splitter. Splitter moves to set a a screen on Ginobili’s defender, but slips to the front of the rim when Anderson turns his back. Ray Allen stares at the ball, and as soon as he turns in Ginobili’s direction, taking a step to deny him the ball, Ginobili cuts against his momentum to the rim. Every pass was received either on the move or in open space (or both), except the pass into Diaw in the post. There was no situation like the one in which Walker or Lillard has the ball in the first two minutes of the USA Basketball video. However, the bulk of teaching in youth basketball starts with the offensive player in a stationary position and progresses to the player defended by a defender in a stationary position directly in front of him. This is not how we play the game, or want to play the game, but it is how we teach the game.

The Spurs offense is predicated on three simple things: (1) spacing; (2) disorganize the defense; and (3) You’re most open when you first receive the pass. If our goal is for children to emulate the Spurs, as Van Gundy suggested, we need to de-emphasize the triple threat and the jab series. The triple threat and jab series are tools for playing against pressure and for creating one’s own individual offense. The Spurs do not rely on individual offense. They work from the team to the individual. They use an action (screen, cut, handoff, post-up) to disorganize the defense, and once the defense is disorganized, they let the ball do the work. They move the ball faster than the defense can move its feet (incidentally, one reason their offense has stalled against switches is they have not punished the switches, so the switch does not disorganize the defense as much as when San Antonio switches against the Heat, and Duncan, for instance, is caught on the perimeter against James).

Rather than focus on the triple threat and triple threat moves, we need to teach the game starting with the team (actions to disorganize the defense) and moving to the individual (reading the space and deciding whether to make the next pass, drive the closeout, or shoot). Players need to learn to play in space and anticipate the space, making quicker decisions, and not allowing the defense to re-set.

Note: Original version of this appeared in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 6.12. To subscribe to the free weekly newsletter, enter your email address in the box at the top of the right-hand column. Thank you.
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