Beneath the reams of “X and O” strategy, coaching tips, and commentary, ten immutable laws or principles define the nature of basketball and govern its play. These laws are fundamental to understanding, coaching, and playing basketball. Once mastered they form a prism through which one can “see” the game, appreciate its simplicity, and master its subtleties.

The First Law: Time trumps territory. The elimination of the jump ball after made baskets and free throws in the late 1930’s transformed basketball into a game of continuous action with teams converting from offense to defense and back again in near seamless fashion. While basketball is played on a court with defined boundaries, it is fundamentally a game governed by time. In basketball we don’t “conquer and hold territory,” we “pass through it.” It’s a game of transition.

The Second Law: Space shapes time. In the midst of continuous and fluid action, one’s ever-shifting position on the floor in relationship to other players, to the ball, and to the basket shapes time, either shrinking or stretching it. Identifying and reacting properly to the angular and spatial relationships between these elements minimizes the disadvantages of the slower player and maximizes the opportunities of the quicker player. Spacing between players creates avenues to the basket or chokes them off.

The Third Law: The basket is True North. In a game of time punctuated by moving spatial relationships, coaches and players need a set of navigation tools to help them “see” and make the right choices quickly. What are the principles by which you read or see the game and its myriad of choices? How does one plot the games “latitudes and longitudes” accurately? How does one develop “court sense”? The basket is the only significantly fixed point of reference on the court. It tells you where you are and what to do.

The Fourth Law: 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. Consequently, an effective offense clarifies the available choices by creating “either/or” situations – ones in which it is easy for attacker to make his choice quickly. On the other hand, good defense uses court geography to muddy the options. It attempts to confuse and contain the attacker, attempting to buy time until help arrives.

The Fifth Law: A jump shot is better than a layup. While the elimination of the jump ball after baskets and free throws in the late 1930’s made basketball a game of transition, the emergence of the jump shot in the late 1940’s followed by its rapid adoption across the country in the 1950’s altered the relationship between time and space once again. It made the game vertical, liberating the offensive player to maneuver on his own. The jump shooter’s quick release combined with the height attained made it necessary for the defensive player to play much tighter than what was previously needed. The defender’s aggressiveness made him vulnerable to the fake and drive and, in particular, to a brand new maneuver — the lethal pull-up jumper. Today, an effective offense regularly produces 12′ to 15′ jump shots as well as 3-point attempts. Ironically, such an offense is more likely to create layups and second shots “at the rim” than offenses designed to create layups.

The Sixth Law: Quick and approximate beats slow and perfect most of the time. “The race is not always to the swift,” said Damon Runyon, “but that’s where to look.” In a game built on exploiting angles and gaps, the ability to negotiate space quickly is critical. Quickness is a player’s greatest weapon, trumping size and strength. A quick player can compensate for imperfection in technique or judgment. More importantly, he can create or seize opportunity.

The Seventh Law: The difference between winning and losing is two minutes. Basketball games are usually won in short spurts, often lasting two to four minutes. For example, in the 1963 NCAA semi-final game, Loyola Chicago broke open a tightly contested three-point game, outscoring Duke 20-4 in the final four minutes of play. Forty-one years later, in the 2004 semi-finals, Duke found itself on the short end once again when Connecticut outscored them 12-0 in the last three and half minutes to overcome an 8-point deficit. Whether the tempo is fast or slow, most games are won when one team “finds itself,” capitalizing on a hot hand or its opponent’s sudden lapse or breakdown. In a game of fast tempo, the explosion may result in a run of 8 to 15 points or more. In a slower game, 4 to 8 points. In either case, the team that exploits those precious “two minutes” is usually the winner.

The Eighth Law: 90% of the game is played without the ball. The formula is simple: 1 – 10 – 40 – 90. There’s one basketball, ten players, and they play for forty minutes. That means that generally a single player has the ball an average of only four minutes. This brings us to our final number: 90. If a player has the ball only four minutes, he’s running around the court without the ball 90% of the time. What a player does during that 90% determines how great a player he is. 1 – 10 – 40 – 90. That’s the formula and when a kid learns it he becomes a basketball player.

The Ninth Law: Manage the game, don’t coach it. Show me a coach relentlessly prowling the sidelines, barking out a constant stream of “do this” and “do that” commands and I’ll show you a coach who doesn’t understand the nature of the game. Good coaches coach during practice. Once the game begins they have the courage to get out of the way. Over-coaching kills the game. It destroys initiative, robotizes the players, and complicates what is actually a very simple game.

The Tenth Law: Relaxed but ready. To a greater extent than many other sports, basketball is an emotional game. A player’s temperament or mood will greatly affect his performance. The fundamentals of the game emphasize quickness, body control, and touch. All demand neuromuscular coordination of a fine degree to attain maximum performance. Any excess flow of adrenalin can cause an imbalance in this coordination with disastrous results on the playing floor. The controlled drive becomes a charge, the sharply timed pass a turnover, the smooth individual move a travel, the quick defensive hands a hacking foul, and most of all, the smooth rhythmic shot becomes a jerky prayer. The end result? A possible win becomes a probable loss. Emotion, then, plays as vital a role in basketball as the execution of fundamentals, as the tactics and strategy, even as much as the talent available. The coach who does not understand this places his team at risk.

11 thoughts on “Laws

  1. Pingback: It’s a Simple Game | better than a layup

  2. As you know, I’m a hockey guy, but found your ten principles, with some exceptions, applicable to hockey as well. In fact, they may be largely applicable to any non-static game. Baseball, and to a great extent, football, are static games. In baseball there does not exist the fluidity that exists in a game like basketball or hockey where there is a constant offensive vs. defensive transition that could change in a moment. In hockey, there is the rare set play (almost never works) and most goals are the result of what the eleven guys without the puck are doing. Interesting reading. Keep it up.

    • Can’t tell you how often I think about hockey when composing my thoughts on basketball. Right now, hockey is the more free-wheeling sport. Basketball is over-coached. In hockey the coaches stand “behind” the bench; in basketball they spend a large portion of the game, not only pacing back and forth “in front” of the bench, but often on the court itself, intruding on the play. The t.v. cameras and commentators frequently focus on the coaches, capturing not only their antics but endlessly recounting their coaching lineage. (Do you really care to know who a particular player’s 8th grade AAU coach was and how he was influenced by Coach So-and-So? Why does Dick Vitale feel the need to tell us?) Their physical presence on the sidelines along with the excessive number of timeouts, is ruining the “rhythm” and natural flow of the game. Not many people know it, but prior to 1949, college coaches could not talk to their teams during a timeout. If caught, they were penalized. It would be interesting to return to those days. We might find out who can really coach.

        • Back in Wooden’s day, most coaches sat and watched. In fact, in 1970-71 (or perhaps the season before?) the rules were changed requiring coaches to remain seated; they could only stand up under certain circumstances. Some coaches joked about having seat belts installed. All of this changed as t.v. coverage moved from primarily regional to national coverage and ESPN came on the scene. Suddenly, coaches like Digger Phelps began playing to the camera and to the crowd and the ex-coaches who became commentators joined in the glorification of the coaching community. If you examine tapes from the early 1970’s NCAA games you will often find broadcasters like Curt Goudy announcing all by themselves — no broadcasting partners, no commentary from former coaches, and very few camera shots of the bench. The broadcast was about the game and the players on the floor.

  3. LOVED these 10 laws. I am so happy to have found this site. Please keep it up! I’ve been coaching school basketball for 8 years and I really love what you’re doing here! Thank you!

    • Thanks, Coach! Really appreciate your kind comments. I’m getting geared up for a new season of commentary and coaching strategy. Let me know what you find interesting or what you disagree with. Glad you enjoy my take on things.

    • Thanks for reading my stuff. As I replied to another site visitor several weeks ago I will be developing an in-depth piece on Gene Sullivan’s stack offense in the months ahead. Would appreciate hearing from you regards the DVDs you have and how I might be able to get copies. Thanks in advance for any help you may be able to give me.

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