Style of Play
The first and most important step in building a basketball program is developing a system, or a style of play. Your philosophy and knowledge of the game will shape that system. But don’t get too set in your ways. Be flexible so you can change your system to best utilize the abilities of your players.
Unlike colleges, at the high school level, we cannot give scholarships to players who we think would look good in our school’s uniform. Nor do we have the luxury of keeping the same players for several years as do coaches in the NBA. Therefore, we must be flexible enough to adapt our system each year to maximize the attributes of the players on the team.
In 2004, we had a talented team returning to O’Connell, but in August, our 6-9 center decided to transfer to another school. We went from a team that was going to be strong inside to a team that had good overall height but no players taller than 6-6. We had to adjust our emphasis for that year. A 6-5 player named Ernie Lomax became our starting center. Ernie was not a scorer, but he was a big physical presence who loved to pass. We were able to use our post as our leading assist man, because he was always able to find the open man. The team adjusted great to the new philosophy. We went 30-4, and we won the state, league, and Alhambra championship. If we had tried to bend the players to fit the system that we had anticipated, we would not have been as successful. Instead, coaches need to bend the system to fit their players.
Some coaches do very well with mediocre players but find that their teams struggle when they have more talented athletes. Other coaches seem to excel with a superstar but don’t fare as well with a solid all-around team. Those mixed results based on personnel differences reflect the coaches’ stubbornness in sticking with the style of play that they like, no matter what. They might try to modify it slightly from year to year, but the same basic style of play emerges because it’s the one they are most comfortable with. What these coaches fail to consider or acknowledge is that certain systems are more successful with certain kinds of talent. A coach who stays primarily with one system will only be successful during those years when the talent happens to match the system.
For example, a coach who is married to a zone defense that best suits a taller, slower team may find himself coaching a team that lacks size but is extremely quick. Instead of playing his favorite zone with such a team, that coach should switch to a pressing defense that would take advantage of players’ quickness and create turnovers. But the reverse can also be true, as it was one year at DeMatha.
To be a consistent winner, the coach and the system must be flexible enough to bring out the best in the players as individuals and to capitalize on those strengths for the good of the team. Your coaching philosophy should allow for such flexibility. Although the system that fits that particular team may not be your favorite or the one you know best, it may be the one that gives your team its chance to become the best it can be. Providing that chance is the essence of coaching.
The varsity team was small and quick, and the players excelled in a full-court pressure defense. Our junior varsity, in contrast, was one of the biggest we’ve ever had. It featured six-foot-seven Kenny Carr, who would later make a name for himself at North Carolina State and with the Portland Trailblazers.
When the junior varsity returned from its first game, I asked the coach how much he’d won by. “We got beat,” he replied.
“You got beat? How?”
“Well, we were pressing all over the court,” he answered, “and they just kept zipping through us. Our big guys just couldn’t stay up with them.”
I then understood the problem and its correction. “You don’t have a pressing team,” I replied. “A team with that size should do no more than just play solid half-court defense because no one will ever get a second shot against you.”
The coach of that team, Marty Fletcher, took my advice, and that team never lost another game. Marty is currently the assistant athletic director and head coach of the men’s and women’s basketball teams at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
If you bend the system to fit the ability of the players, you can then take it one step further and design a system that will get the ball into the hands of your best players most frequently. Set aside at least one special play to accomplish this purpose. If you’re blessed with two or three highly skilled players, then it is wise to have a play for each of them. To keep all the players happy, some coaches have a play isolating each position. Whatever the approach, a coach needs set plays that allow the team to go to its money players in the clutch.
Having advocated flexibility, we must now issue a word of caution: Make sure your system is intelligently flexible. Remember, there is no progress without change, but change does not necessarily mean progress. Study your system, and change only when the talent you have makes it beneficial to do so. Your knowledge and perception of players’ skills and intangibles will help guide you to the type and extent of change, if any, that will be most beneficial.
Thought for the Day
We don’t need more strength, more ability, or greater opportunity. What we need is to use what we have. –Basil S. Walsh