Designing a Great Offense

Cranjis McBasketball —  August 15, 2017

No matter your personnel’s skill or experience, there are principles about designing a schematically sound offense that are consistent everywhere. Incorporating some of these principles can make your offense good. Having most of them can make it great. Having all of them can make it elite.

I’ve been openly critical about how poor the Lakers have been in many of these areas, so I decided I’d bring some potential solutions to the table. Below is a link to a PDF of a Laker playbook that’d match their current personnel and would be much better than what they currently run. It’s comprised of plays from other teams, as well as many plays that I designed or are from plays I diagrammed that other teams run that I made adjustments to (that follow the principles below).

Link to Ideal Laker Playbook:

Action Over Motion

Motion is movement. Action is movement that creates an advantage for the offense. Passing from the point to the wing and then that point player relocating to the opposite corner is motion. A ball screen is action. A split cut, where after a post feed two players come together for a combination of a flare screen and a cut to the rim, is action. Ram action, where you set a screen for the big man about to set a ball screen, is action. Hammer action, where a flare screen is set for a player running to the corner, is action. A flare screen is action. General rule = if it has a violent name, it’s probably an action.

This following play is the first couple seconds of one Knicks set, and you should be upset about that. This wasn’t one instance of the team just setting up the play. This is part of the play. All motion and no action.

To generate good scoring chances consistently, you NEED to have action, and lots of it.

This is rampant among the lower levels of basketball and I even see it a decent amount at the college level. You can have motion, meaning players moving around, without accomplishing much. “Pass and cut” doesn’t do a whole lot if everything that’s being generated on offense is trying to face cut people and beating players off the dribble and beating bad closeouts.

Weak Side Action

Having action in the form of a ball screen is great, but if that’s the only action in a play, it’s not a great play. In basketball you have 24/30 seconds to launch as many attacks on the defense as you can to get the best shot you can and score. So use weak side action whenever possible.

Without lots of action, you’ll end up taking worse shots. With no shot clock, this isn’t an issue. But a shot clock changes things. The “we’ll run our stuff and eventually something will open up” approach you can take in high school (in the states without a shot clock) doesn’t work in the NBA/NCAA. You need to launch as many attacks in as short a period of time as you can to get the best shots possible and be as efficient as possible.

Not only does weak side action create opportunities to score from that action, but it also impacts the primary action positively. That additional movement occupies defenders that would otherwise just be able to play in their shell defensive positions and help on the primary action. Now, they either are out of the picture and you have less/no help defenders for your primary action, or you’ll have wide open guys weak side on that action because those defenders fall asleep and stay in help position.

Guess which of these is a 76ers play and which one is a solid play?

Play 1:

Play 2:

Run Action the Right Way

It’s not just about having an action in your play. It has to be run in a way that genuinely creates a scoring opportunity. Running with the ball in the opposite post and that player’s back to the action doesn’t do anything for you. In general, if the playmaker can’t see the scoring opportunities, they’re not scoring opportunities.

Here’s an example of that from a 76er play from this past season. In the second frame, 1 is dribbling away from the pin down on the left side of the court. By the time 3 gets the ball on the handoff, 2’s defender will have recovered to him and that pin down will have yielded no real scoring opportunity.

Likewise, running a UCLA cut right can make a big difference. A UCLA cut is where a player cuts from the top of the key off of a screen around the free throw line toward the basket. If there are already other players standing in the paint next to the basket, it doesn’t have the spacing you’ll need to actually have good looks from that cut. If you don’t run these actions right, you’re wasting valuable shot clock time and wasting possessions.

This Bucks play is well designed by having the UCLA screener follow into a ball screen (which we’ll cover in the next section), but the fact that there’s no spacing for the UCLA cut to actually work well by having 4 and 5’s defenders be able to clog the paint makes this not as great of a play as it could be.

Here’s my version of that same play (which is in the playbook) that solves this issue and enhances that UCLA cut and the ball screen so much. It’s such a small change, but it makes a huge difference in the effectiveness of that UCLA cut.

If you’re going to incur the opportunity cost of not doing something else with your time that could create a scoring chance, make sure the action you’re running is designed and executed in a way that will yield the intended results.

Synergistic Action

The next step of having more than one action at the same time is finding the combinations that take advantage of the anticipated defensive response on the first action, or on concurrent action both attack the same defender in the pressure they’re creating. It’s about understanding how to shut down Action A, then diagramming Action B right after Action A that exploits that defensive game plan.

An example of this is taking the screener on a UCLA cut, whose man will likely sag down to help on the cut (if the UCLA cut is run right, as discussed above). To exploit this, have that screener immediately set another off-ball screen or, even better, set a ball screen right after setting the UCLA screen. That results in you having a ball screen where the screener’s man isn’t in position to execute any game planned defensive coverage. That will get you great looks.

Here’s an example of that:

Or really get your tits lit by having a player, as seen below, set a UCLA cut screen, then a ball screen, then a pin down, one after another. That makes the defense’s job very hard.

One play you should definitely check out is “Split Spain Flare” from the Houston Rockets, which is in this playbook and I’ve shown below. It does this like 4 times in a couple seconds, really disabling the defense. When you have that much going on, you’ll need a ball handler that can make quick decisions *cough Lonzo cough*.

That Houston play is one of the few plays in this playbook where the ball handler really needs to be an exemplary decision maker or I wouldn’t consider running the play. The rest of these aren’t rocket science (tehe) and you don’t have the “young team” excuse. And even with that play, it’s about one guy being able to run it. The rest of the team can be rookies.

“Complicated plays” is the most illegitimate excuse in basketball at the professional level. You can’t run a lot of this in middle school and expect the players to remember it all and execute it well, but for professionals or college players you’re lying to yourself if you think it’s a legitimate excuse to run bad offense.

Spacing & Usage of Personnel

The way plays are designed from an alignment standpoint is critical. A 4-out 1-in lineup can have great spacing or bleh spacing with the same 5 guys on the court. Understanding that the 4 doesn’t have perimeter gravity is important when designing these plays. To keep the floor spaced well, he needs to be inside or close enough to be a lob threat.

Creatively designing sets that understand that lack of strength and working around it turn okay plays into great plays.

For LA, four starters can shoot from deep well and the PF (Randle/Nance) cannot. The backup 5 also cannot, so that needs to be taken into account and the sets need to either still be effective with long 2s instead from that player (Zubac) or here need to be enough plays that you can run for a lineup with two non-shooting bigs.

Here’s are some quick illustrations of the limitations of personnel when diagramming plays and how you can counteract those limitations.

First, we’ll look at how having a 4 that can’t shoot can make offense hard. Just one way that can impact you is how they have low gravity when off ball, meaning that when they don’t have the ball, or even when they do have the ball but are far from the basket, their defender can sag off of them because they aren’t a shooting threat.

Let’s look at the following diagram. On the left is a look at how 4’s defender, x4, may sag off of 4 and make passing to 5 in the post difficult. The offense can move 4 away from 5 to try to make this an easier post feed, or they can try to exploit this defensive adjustment. On the right is one way to exploit that sagging, where 4 sets a ball screen for 1. If x4 is out of position 1 may have an open pull up 3. 4 can follow up that ball screen with a flare screen for 2, potentially creating another open shot if x4 isn’t in position.

In general, if your players’ defenders are sagging off of them it can make your normal offense hard to run. If you don’t change anything, you’ll have difficulty scoring. If you take action to exploit that (perhaps by having that player set screens for teammates) you can either get scoring opportunities or force that player’s defender to stop sagging off of them.

If we have this same setup, but 4 is in the opposite corner, the defense has a huge advantage here as well. They can sag way off of 4 and front 5 in the post, completely taking him out of the equation. To counter this, we can have 4 set a hammer flare screen for 2.

If you want to run a 4-out 1-in play with this current Laker team, the following alignment may be optimal. 5 (Lopez) has gravity, and 4 (Randle/Nance) doesn’t quite (or didn’t when we last saw them). Putting the player with low gravity on the inside completely eliminates that issue.

Because of this, Lopez (5) won’t have a ton of post ups by design in the plays in this playbook. He easily could, but you have to work around Randle’s inability to stretch the floor. We can do this with some of the options shown above.

But without that design, and if Randle were to just hang out around the paint or on the perimeter, Lopez scoring in the post would be much more difficult with an added doubling or stunting post defender.

Be Unscoutable & Beat Adjustments

You can have plays that work well for a couple games but then become shut down easily by defensive adjustments. To counteract this, your plays must keep the defense on its heels through disguising of sets, and you’ll need to be prepared to take advantage of defensive adjustments.

Disguising Plays

If I know that every time a team ran horns they’d run a ball screen and hammer action, because that’s the only play they ever ran from horns, I could game plan around that. Prevent this from happening and make your playbook harder to scout by disguising plays.

Having multiple plays per “series” (or alignment/formation) is an absolute must. Then from 1 formation you can be running any of 5-10 plays and the defense will have a harder time shutting those plays down.

Having multiple series that flow into each other is a nice bonus to disguise even more plays, and is something that I do in general for the playbooks I design for teams and is something I did for this playbook.

As seen below, the horns, 1-4 high, and box series all start out the same, then flow into those alignments. There’s also quickstrike motion built into that flowing motion so that every time your run a play from any of those sets you’re not only disguising your plays, but the defense can’t fall asleep or you’re getting an open 3 or a dunk.

Because of this, now one formation at the start flows into different series. The defense won’t have enough time to recognize the setup until it’s too late. That one formation can disguise 15-30 plays easily.

Set Counters & In-play Counters

Set play counters are like the play action plays in football. They’re designed. And it’s pretty fun to execute them and see the defense think they’re about to stop you, then be completely out of position when the counter hits them.

Here’s a very simple example of a called counter in a portion of a Kansas Jayhawk play. In the first play, after 3 sets a cross screen he runs off of a screen from 4. The defense may attempt to “cheat” this action with an adjustment to their defense.

They could have 4’s defender help defend 3 after the catch, may have 3’s defender try to run in the passing lane between 1 and where 3 is running, and may even have 3 and 4 switch if their personnel allows it.

To counteract any of these anticipated adjustments, in the second play 3 sets a back screen for 4 after the cross screen instead of 4 setting a screen. This could lead to an easy lob for a dunk from 4.

Play 1:

Play 2:

But much more important than the called counters are in-play counters, which are the “read and react” decisions that take what the defense gives you. The play just needs to be set up in a way that those decisions can happen, and when they do, the alignment and spacing is such that those reactions will be effective.

A great example is on ball screens. The defense can defend them by blitzing/switching/icing/et cetera those screens. A good play will allow you to react in an effective manner to any of those defensive coverages. If your play is set up to take advantage of blitzes but not icing the screen, a smart defense will completely shut your play down by icing that screen.

Being in position to react to other defense adjustments is also key. If the defense is going to pressure off-ball immensely, an offense needs to have the right alignment (and coach your players in practices and during the game) to take advantage of that. Have the spacing for blind pig (back cut) action. Have rip screens, flare screens, and cross screens along with other action that takes advantage of this defensive scheme.

Below is a play from the Kansas Jayhawk playbook that includes all three of these actions that’s a perfect counter to high pressure defense. Kansas has numerous variations of this same play to give them great options when a defense plays them tight.

It won’t just happen, and there are sets that you can run where it’s harder to do these things to react to the defense’s game plan. Being prepared to react with tweaks to current plays and pull other plays out of your toolbox, like this Kansas play or other types of counters, are one of the key differences in ability between okay schematic coaches and great schematic coaches.

Boom Shakalaka

So there it is. Follow those principles and you can draw yourself up some thicc plays that have high efficiency in your half court offensive sets.

Hit me up on Twitter with questions and hate mail @T1m_NBA. Keep an eye out for tons of scheme and analytics focused work from me this upcoming season on I’ll be doing breakdowns of the plays in the ideal Laker playbook I assembled over the coming weeks.

As always, stay efficient.

– Cranjy McB

Cranjis McBasketball


to Designing a Great Offense

  1. the other Stephen August 15, 2017 at 9:48 am

    great post!


  2. I’d love to see you write about the general / conceptual differences between your ideal Laker playbook compared to what the Lakers run under Walton. For instance, action vs. motion?


  3. Now I can see what Pete was talking about during his game analyses last season. He was not happy about the lack of weak side actions. This is a great explanation of what the Lakers could be doing and where the problems may come from. Lonzo should be terrific at running these kinds of plays. The ideal Lakers playbook is a nice addition.


  4. It would be great to get video with these plays.


  5. A Horse With No Name August 15, 2017 at 7:37 pm

    It would be interesting to hear what Walton’s response would be to these suggestions. My guess is that it would be something like “we don’t want to be predictable, if we run, cut and pass to the open man, we will create actions out of that unscripted movement that will yield advantages.” Or I could be dead wrong . . . . but you’all knew that too!


  6. I love this! I love learning further about the game I’ve come to adore- thank you!


  7. Innovative af! Always searching for solutions to optimize each of these guys on the court. Hella impressive bro


  8. Good post! I like this stuff… Now, please don’t think of my words below as criticism but rather an informed discussion on basketball plays.

    In Synergistic Action, second frame, you have the 1 setting consecutive picks for a 3 (running full speed) and a 5. On my teams (I’m not coaching in a competitive league anymore) and the leagues I played and coached in never had the size of players the NBA has. Having a 1 set screens to significantly larger players will cause a lot of wear and tear and will take a away his lower body strength faster than it should. Even in my eagle flex schemes, by late game I was tweaking some screens in order to keep the PG’s legs a bit fresher. Did you have the same problem with your teams?

    In Spacing & Usage of Personnel, that 4out-1in set seems to lack some movement but I assume you can insert movement at will, so it’s not an issue. However, in the last frame you have 4O in the low post and 5O in the strong side corner. This is an undesirable situation because any shot taken in that setup would complicate transition defense. If 5O is there, his counterpart will beat him down the floor more than 90% of the time, which in the NBA means an open path to a 7′ trailer. Again, I can see this open in the college game and lower tier european basketball but not in the NBA.

    In Set Counters & In-play Counters, you demonstrate a Jayhwaks play with little to no spacing inside the box – two players on the low block and on at the FT line. While the counters and reactions seem logical, I would argue that if you can beat your man off the dribble you should do it. It’s the single action that causes more defensive havoc and this play takes that away. A proper defense can switch 3D and 2D in every pick involving them and 4D is close enough to prevent any lob action. Furthermore, the option where 2 just slides away to weakside 45º can be almost ignored, allowing 2D to stay a little bit longer in the box. This means that there is no advantage to beating your man off the dribble when you have so much help in the box. You can obviously use it as a counter, feed the open man in the box or even kick it out to the man standing outside the 3pt line but it seems that it will have a lower success rate when compared to other plays as you are driving to a bunch of trees with really long branches…

    And last but not least, with D-Lo I thought the best half court offense possible would have a lot of high pick and roll with 4 and a lot of set plays. Lonzo is so different in his game approach that I don’t think set plays will maximize this team’s potential, especially when the starting lineup is on the floor. Having a continuous system may work to the Lakers advantage as that tempo will increase. The ball will be on the offensive court faster (DLo never seemed to care about setting up fast) and the team will have more time to get an open look at the basket. Having some sort of system that takes elements from the princeton and from the flex offenses (lots of ball movement, lots of weakside action with players making the decision where to pass or where to cut) seems to fit better than specific set plays, at least to me. As long as every action generates two options – an off ball player can choose to either screen or cut or decide on which way to cut and the on ball player has the option to pass to player A or B because he know those two options will be available – the offense will remain unpredictable as the players’ IQ will sort out most problems. You can still have some set plays, depending on lineups, hot hand (it’s real), opposition or playing Lebron in a gym with no AC, but as long as you have a system, you’ll have options. Now, what I ask you is this: what should the Lakers emphasize?

    a) a scheme that empowers the ball handler to make the decision – passing to A or B will result in different outcomes on the play and the off ball players adjust to the pass being made (Hi Phil Jackson)
    b) a scheme that empowers the off ball players to make the decisions – cutting to X spot or Y spot will force the ball handler’s options (Hi John Calipari)

    Given the current Lakers overall basketball IQ, I’d choose a) for now…


  9. Thanks for this Darius!
    For those of us who are long time fans of the NBA(Lakers really), but are technically illiterate (me), this is very welcome indeed. Please give us more. I have wanted for sometime to be able to view games more in depth, with more analysis, but without a coaching background I’m stuck playing catchup to what Stu says in game, most times not really seeing what he sees. I have not been a student of the game, but that is changing, especially now with a potential playmaker like Lonzo. You may have found an avenue for posts to fill up the dreaded August blight.
    Anyone suggest a good book to get started with to,prep for this season?


  10. Oops….thank you Cranjis McB!


  11. TheNumberOfFlopsIsTooDamnHigh August 17, 2017 at 5:51 am

    A bit off topic, but I think Cranjy just exploded Byron Scotts’ mind, lol.


  12. Nice write-up sir!