Summary: Teaching plays gives coaches a false sense that they are teaching the game of basketball and players a false sense that they are learning the game of basketball. The best players will actually make their mark by deviating from the play and scoring.
Before I begin, please take a look at this excellent article from Learn to Coach Basketball.com. My favorite quote from the article is: “Players need to be aware on the court and play the game, rather than run the play. The objective is to score.”
Plays certainly have their place in the great scheme of things. They ensure that everyone on the team is “on the same page”. They can increase the opportunity for a mismatch or open up the court for a particular player. But in the end, it’s the skill of the individual player that determines whether the mismatch or open court produces points. Plays are best used in specific situations: inbounding the ball under your basket, getting off a high quality shot in the last few seconds of the game, etc. However, as the core of what a team does each and every time they come up the court, plays just make the team ineffective.
Let me first distinguish between plays and motion or continuity offenses. Plays are those things that the coach or point guard calls out as the ball comes up the court. I can’t personally figure out what a point guard, or coach for that matter, might see that would cause them to choose one play over another. I suspect that, more often than not, the point guard is just trying to “mix it up”. Calling out the play ensures that everyone is on the same page but little else. Motion and continuity offenses are designed to get players moving (on the assumption that a moving player is more effective than a stationary player – an assumption that I think is highly flawed). Continuity offenses carry the idea of motion to its ultimate conclusion – where the players finish up in the same location that they started in and can just continue the motion over again.
Too often the execution of these offenses assumes that players in motion will naturally end up in the right place at the right time for an easy shot. As the above article shows, in reality, the players end up focusing on the motion itself and like people in a hypnotic trance actually lose focus on the game. Step in front of one of these players and the motion comes to an abrupt halt with the offense completely confused regarding how to proceed.
My personal observation is that when players focus on movement – i.e., “go from here to there, catch the ball, pivot, pass, and now go there”. Their basic basketball skills actually deteriorate. Sharp cuts become lazy arcs; players stop waiting for the pick and leave early for fear that they won’t be at position x when the pass comes… I think motion – in terms of predefined plays and motion offenses – actually kills the spirit of basketball. Coaches lament the loss of basketball intelligence among their players but at the same time insist that their players wear a rut in the court as they follow a mind-numbing series of movements.
Motion on the basketball court should be a deliberate, conscious, and calculated act by a player. It should take into account what the defense and one’s teammates are doing. Each time the ball moves from player to player, each player should be evaluating how the defense is responding and how they can take advantage of the defenders actions. If a defender turns his back you should immediately cut to the basket. If a defender approaches at full speed in an attempt to pressure the ball you should explode past them with a lunge step. If a defender is overplaying the pass to a teammate, you should fake a pass and then bounce pass the ball to your teammate who should be cutting in the opposite direction. If a defender relaxes after you pass to a teammate you should immediately cut to the basket for a “give and go”. If a teammate is driving to the basket and your defender leaves to pick up your teammate you should cut to the basket yourself and look for a dump-off pass from your teammate.
Learn the “Kansas” motion offense and you’re good to go until the next coach wants to use the “Oklahoma” motion offense. On the other hand, learn when to take advantage of a lazy or overzealous defender and you’ll be able to score off of any offense you’re given. I’ve never known a coach to say “I don’t care that you scored with a back door cut! You were supposed to dribble to the elbow and pass out to the wing!”
Before players can transcend the physical aspects of the game and make creative and innovative decisions, they have to have a solid foundation in the physical skills. They have to know how to cut, protect the ball, pass, and initiate drives. They have to know the difference between jogging and sprinting. But isn’t that what you’re being asked to do as a youth coach? Teach basic skills? At a recent coaches assembly prior to the start of a local competitive league the head varsity boys coach for a local high school exhorted the coaches to teach skills not systems. He said, “When they get to me I’m going to teach them an entirely new system anyway. Heck, I’ll be teaching this year’s players a different system from last year’s players because the make-up of the team has changed so much. I can always use a kid with solid basic basketball skills.” And I suspect a high basketball IQ only makes the prospect more attractive.