Keep It Binary, Stupid

Basketball unfolds as a series of choices, one leading to the next. No matter how controlled or patterned a team attempts to be, the offensive scheme will inevitably break down requiring the attackers to improvise. 

Effective coaching exploits this reality by placing players in spots where their natural freelance abilities come to the fore and where the choices are binary – “either/or” situations where it is relatively easy for the offense to read the defense and act quickly.

Complicated offensive schemes that congest the floor, obscure the choices, and attempt to control too many variables reward the defense by creating uncertainty and indecisiveness. Too many moving parts complicate the reads, granting the defense time to react.

Conversely, offenses that create quick, binary decision-making are built around actions and maneuvers that shorten defensive reaction time. Effective offense reduces the number of choices by forcing defenders into “no-win” situations where a choice to respond in one way renders them vulnerable in another way. This makes it easier for offensive players to see or read the defense and seize the initiative quickly.

Basketball’s fourth law – Keep It Binary, Stupid – explores these principles.

Click here to read.

Decline & Fall

So far, so good.

The twenty-five rule changes implemented this season – especially those intended to increase pace and enhance “freedom of movement” – seem to be working. We ended last season with only five teams averaging 80 or more points per game, none scoring more than 85. By mid-December this season, seventy teams were averaging 80 or more, seven of them in the 90’s.

Still, I have my doubts. You don’t reverse a forty-year decline in one season.

Just how deep is the hole we’ve dug? Continue reading…

By Request

During the last couple of weeks, in response to a series of posts on the decline of scoring in college basketball and my attempt to trace the reasons for this disturbing trend by probing Austin Carr’s record-setting performance in the early 1970’s, several readers have requested information on the Stack or Isolation Offense. Over the weekend I was flattered to hear from basketball aficionado, Herb Welling.

Coach Welling, as you may know, has been called the “minister of information” in coaching circles and has been featured several times in the media, most prominently in Grant Wahl’s 2008 Sports Illustrated article on the evolution of the Dribble Drive Motion offense.

Herb first became acquainted with when researching the matching zone defense and discovered my piece on coach Gene Sullivan’s strategy. In recent days we’ve shared several emails and phone calls, discussing the origins of Sullivan’s equally interesting Stack offense.

I promised him that I would provide a deeper dive into the subject and am pleased to offer it now in a “quick and dirty,” Q & A format. In the future I’ll post a more comprehensive and polished essay.

In the meantime, I hope this initial piece proves helpful and prompts further questions and commentary.

Click here to read Stack Offense Q & A

How Many Passes?

Remember those early scenes in Hoosiers when Coach Norman Dale drills his Hickory High team in his offensive philosophy?

“How many passes?” he implores.


And several scenes later, “How many times are we gonna pass off? How many?”


And then just before their first game, “Guys, remember what we worked on in practice. I wanna see it on the court! How many times are we gonna pass before we shoot? How many?


And then early in the game, Rade, the team’s self-centered hothead, challenges Dale, jacking up several long jumpers without once passing the ball. Dale immediately benches him and even after losing another player to fouls, refuses to reinsert him, content to finish the game with only four players on the floor.

It’s the film’s defining moment because it reveals Coach Dale’s character – his insistence on team work and discipline and selflessness, his belief that there’s a “right way” to play the game that is more important than the outcome. At that point we’re not sure why, but for Norman Dale, this is his last chance, the end of the line. He’s willing to lose the game, infuriate his team and its fans, and risk his job, all for principle. If he retreats now, he knows he will lose everything.

Twenty-nine years since its debut I’m not surprised by the film’s enduring fascination. It’s got everything – the David versus Goliath story line, the celebration of small town virtues, the quiet insistence on integrity, second chances, and the possibility of redemption no matter the depth of personal failing.

But I’m forever amused by how much importance Hoosiers’ fans continue to place on coach Dale’s dictum: four passes. Continue reading…

Early Season Musings

One month down, four to go, and time for me to start blogging again.

Since early October we’ve been treated to a litany of articles previewing the 2014-15 season. Virtually all of them speculate on who will ultimately emerge as the best team and the top players. I’d like to go in a different direction, probing trends in strategy and philosophy, and as indicated in the tag line for this blog, “challenging basketball’s conventional wisdom.”

In no particular order here’s what I hope to explore as the season unfolds:

• Basketball’s talking heads frequently cite the importance of “making the extra pass.” But how many passes are actually required to produce a quality shot? Is an offensive scheme that produces quality shots after multiple passes inherently more effective than one that generates such shots more quickly with fewer passes? Do the odds of a turnover climb as the number of passes and length of possession increase? Are fewer passes indicative of “poor coaching” or an “undisciplined team”?

• Will players finally adjust to the new hand checking rules and commit to playing defense with their feet? Will the so-called “traditionalists” who spent the better part of last season griping about the rule changes finally admit that mugging one’s opponent was never actually part of the game’s origins and that “taking the charge” — while often gutsy — is not really a “basketball” skill? Will the intended “freedom of movement” actually take effect, leading to more baskets, fewer trips to the charity stripe, and a more esthetically pleasing game? 

• Will John Calipari’s platoon system bear fruit? How will it change and morph as season progresses? Will it unfold in a series of five man waves or other kinds of combinations? How will the loss of Alex Poythress affect the scheme? What will happen when a game is on the line?

• Bill James, the legendary amateur baseball statistician and father of “sabermetrics,” defined his work as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” The analytic revolution he inspired has now found a place in virtually every sport including basketball. Coaches and roundball aficionados are uncovering fascinating trends and patterns through data mining and analytics. But what are the limits? At what point does the sheer volume of data dwarf its practical application? How do you “see through” or “around” the data points to the actual game? Unintentionally, does an emphasis on data mask the simplicity of the game and complicate the strategic coaching choices? Teams and particular styles of play may emerge as statistically “efficient” but are they necessarily “effective”?

• Is blocking out necessary for effective rebounding? Traditionalists insist on its importance, but John Wooden didn’t think so and neither does Bill Bradley. Who’s right?

• Is the midrange jump shot dead and buried or waiting to be re-discovered? What conclusions emerge when we map the effectiveness of shooting across the full spectrum of distinct spots between the 3-point line and the rim instead of collapsing all of those spots into one statistical area loosely defined as the “midrange”? What happens when we apply Sandy Weil’s optical tracking analysis of shooting, measuring not only where a particular shot takes place but how it occurs? What might happen if players were re-schooled in the traditional mid and short range jumper, the pull-up, and the bank shot, and if offensive schemes catered to creating such shots? Can we create a whole new generation of shooters – able to shoot from a variety of spots, especially in traffic? Would pace and scoring actually climb and the quality of the game improve?

• On the eve of last season’s NCAA Championship t.v. analyst Kenny Smith picked Connecticut to defeat Kentucky in the big game arguing that he favored “basketball players” over “athletes.” How do you select players to build a team? What criteria do you use?

• Football coaches use various offensive formations and alignments to create “mismatches in space” and ways to outnumber the defense at the point of attack. Is it possible for basketball coaches to do the same? Even in an era of no huddle, hurry-up offense, football games come to a required stop as each successive play is whistled dead and the teams re-align for the next snap, but basketball is a game of continuous action with the teams seesawing back and forth between offense and defense often without any stops. So is football-style “formationing” actually possible in a basketball game?

• Coaches try to control two fundamental elements that make up many team competitions — time and space. What is the relationship between these two elements in basketball? How does that relationship affect the game’s affect strategic and tactical choices?

• Last year John Calipari once again took a team to the Final Four. Is he a master tactician, a great recruiter, a bandit, or all of the above? In an era of AAU, one-and-done, and frequent transfers does he represent the worst in collegiate basketball or is he actually the most honest coach in the business?

• In early October ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan asked “Is Scoring Stuck?” Then, several weeks ago statistical guru Ken Pomeroy chimed in, speculating that we are about to experience the slowest season in history of college basketball. If the early season trends hold, Pomeroy believes that “possessions per 40-minutes” are likely to fall to 65.0, leading to the lowest scoring season since 1952. Ironically, implementation of the three-pointer and shot clock in the mid-1980s, coupled with their subsequent refinement and the recent “freedom of movement” rule changes, were intended to open the floor and reverse the downward slide. Yet scoring and pace remain stuck or once again in decline. Why? Will reducing the shot clock further, lengthening the three-point line, and widening the lane – changes now being discussed – finally correct the problem or does the real culprit lie elsewhere?