Archives For Basketball Strategy


Gatinho —  September 12, 2008

In these days where the lobe of our brain that is all things Lakers is like a forlorn castaway on a desert island longing for a sip of fresh water, we can look back on some vids and articles that can fill in the time and simultaneously slake and whet our thirst for even a simple pre-season tilt

Hit the links and enjoy some Lakerology

Speaking of pre-season, this may be one of the more interesting in recent memory. The Return, The Prelude, starring Young Andrew Bynum

What are the effects of a Phil Jackson training camp on Pau Gasol?

Phil Jackson explains the Triangle… “In His Own Words”:

“If your holding the ball longer than 2 seconds, your holding up your team…” Phil Jackson breaks down the offense for the fans.

Tex explains what to do if the defense is sagging in the post, aka the “Two Pass” or “Pinch Post”… where we should see Pau and Kobe a lot this season…

“The Moment of Truth” in the offense… when a players gets within 3 feet of his defender, the rest of the offense needs to move. This is something the regular fan actually can look for in a game. If Kobe’s jab stepping at the top of the key and there are no cutters…there should be a “pressure release” aka “The Blind Pig”…

Creating a triangle in a way that is inconspicuous to the defense… and another triangle axiom, “The player with the ball hits the first open man. It is an offense predicated on player and ball movement with a purpose

“The first principle is penetration.” Another point the layman can look for…How fast do they get into the triangle?… and they are not called “plays”, they are called “a series of options”. And why don’t the coaches huddle with the players at the beginning of time outs?

Jordan Farmar:

A Peace Player, in Israel making a change in the world with a hoop, a ball, and some Woodenesque ideas on teamwork…

…and if you don’t know who the Fanhouse’s Elie Seckback is… you should check him out

From the vault… where they have archived and allowed access to some of the greatest sports writing and sports writers…

The young, exciting, and surging 1995 Lakers…

What did the Lakers know that nobody else did?…That 6’6″ rookie guard Eddie Jones , out of Temple , the NBA ‘s 10th draft choice overall, would outplay other lottery picks with contracts $50 million richer than his six-year, $13.5 million deal? That Cedric Ceballos , a career backup with the Phoenix Suns , would make the Laker faithful forget recently retired James Worthy? That point guard Nick Van Exel would help them forget Magic Johnson? That through Sunday they would be 21-11, on a 54-victory pace and in third place in the rugged Pacific Division?

Kermit Washington’s infamous punch…

For all his reputation as one of …the strongest, most dangerous customers in the game, off the court Washington is a gentle, sensitive, family man who is popular with both teammates and opponents…

The Immortal Chick Hearn…

…From high above the western sideline of the Los Angeles Forum, the world’s most beautiful sports theater, hello again, everybody, this is Chick Hearn.”

The voice was steady and sure of itself, and it caught the ear. The voice was made for radio, painting pictures in the dark. “Wow, what a tempo! Magic back and forth like a windshield wiper with the dribble drive, he throws up a prayer…air ball. Rebound left side taken by McAdoo, he goes right back up—a frozen rope that time, no arch, but it melted right in the hole…

The announcement that caused the Lakers to trade Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the 13th pick in the draft…

…Bryant , a 6’6″ shuffler—except on a basketball court, where he moves like lightning—ambled up to the podium in a vent-less sport coat and fine dress trousers bought at the last minute and in need of a tailor, his sunglasses positioned on the top of his shiny shaved head. His coat had puffy shoulders, masking his frame, which at 190 pounds is as skinny and malleable as a strand of cooked spaghetti. He leaned his goofy kid’s mouth toward the microphone, mockingly brought his fingers to his unblemished chin as if he were still pondering his decision, and delivered the news that insiders had been expecting for a week.

“I’ve decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA ,” Bryant said.

And finally…

…for what it’s worth. I don’t get out to many shows these days. But Beck in Reno was the highlight of my summer


The Dark Lord

Gatinho —  June 9, 2008

Previously unheralded outside of hardcore hoops circles, Tom Thibodeau is now being feted as a defensive genius and the architect behind the resurgence of the Boston Celtics. As Karl Rove was to GWB, TT is to Doc Rivers. How else do you explain it? A bottom rung defensive team, populated with defensive sieves like Paul Pierce, supplemented by the likes of Ray Allen transformed into the basketball equivalent of the Steel Curtain. Sure KG had been a fine defensive player and Posey certainly helps. But it takes talent, tactics, and time to become a great defensive team. How can any coach take a brand new group of guys and implement a defensive system in one training camp that is more effective than the vaunted Spurs defense who’ve played together for years?

You have to cheat.

Michael Johnson had supreme talent, and dedicated a decade of hard work to become the best sprinter of our age. In a few short years Trevor Graham juiced up an undersized sprinter in Tim Mongomery, deficient in raw talent, into a world record holder. Much like Trevor Graham, Thibodeau weighed his options. “I don’t have years to turn this team into a defensive juggernaut, their window is too short. I need a short-cut”.

But of course in Thibodeau’s case, he didn’t really cheat. He gamed the system. We’ve been there before. A new tax code comes out. It is clear what the spirit of the code is, the intent. Still, only a fool doesn’t try to find the inevitable loophole to defeat the law’s intentions. Tom Thibodeau is no fool.

Imagine, as the statistician-turned GM Daryl Morey has done, that you digitized every possession of every game. Tagged every sequence and ran it through a massively parallel computing environment. You could search for the most effective plays versus certain defensive schemes, the most efficient player combinations, or other helpful metrics. But this would still require long-term, painful work to improve personnel incrementally. You need a faster solution.

What if you could run the following query through Morey’s machine – as Thibodeau had ample opportunity to do while at Houston. Which fouls are optimum? In other words, which fouls are the refs most likely to call and which fouls are they least likely to call. Even more subtle, which actions that are not really fouls draw fouls and which actions that are really fouls not draw foul calls?

Can such a query be performed on Morey’s server farm? Undoubtedly. What would the results be and would a team trained on fouling without being called have an advantage on defense?

The results might show that statistically speaking the refs tend to call fouls (whether actual contact was made or not) where a defensive player makes an obvious swipe at the ball. Our hunter/carnivore past has blessed humans with a cerebral motor control areas and an occipital lobe designed to focus on motion – much like cats. A wide swipe at the ball whether for steals or blocks (read, Ronny) draws attention and fouls – contact or not. Thus the Celtics rarely swipe at the ball. What they do is grab arms, wrists, jerseys with the minimum of motion – much like a master jujitsu artist. Kobe gets by Pierce on his way to the hoop. Pierce doesn’t swipe, he grabs Kobe’s right wrist. That Kobe twists in air and shoots and scores with his Left hand is a testament to Kobe. That Pierce almost stopped Kobe’s score and didn’t pick up a foul is a testament to Thibodeau.

Contact with the hands, however incidental on a player with the ball draws a foul. Swiveling your hip into the player to throw off him off stride rarely gets called. In fact, on the play, you can clearly see Paul Pierce swiveling his haps ala Shakira into Kobe’s torso as Kobe rises for the running jumper. Maybe Karma rewarded this display by depositing Perkin’s heft onto the back of Pierce’s knee. The Celtics don’t hand check. They hip check.

Morely’s computers might show that off-the ball moving screens are rarely called. In fact, if Ray Allen and Pierce are running around screens. Don’t just set a stationary screen. Like a pulling guard, jut hips, elbows, and shoulders to pick off the defender. If you lay him out great. If he has to fight extra hard or take a more circumnavigatory route, acceptable. Now on this play every once in awhile you’ll be called for a foul. Do it every single play and the percentage of calls drops to a basis point.

These are only the obvious differences between the Celtic’s defensive tactics than others. Undoubtedly Master Thibodeau is employing many more subtle tricks. Of course, while not being illegal (going by the dictum that if the refs don’t call it, it is not a foul – unless Derek Fisher is landing on Brent Barry) this gaming of the system is insidious and ugly. San Antonio actually played great defense against Kobe without fouling him. What if you could play great defense AND foul him without being called. Wouldn’t the Spurs have won a few more games then?

Maybe it is the sign of the times. Belicheck coaches the best football team of the decade but still feels the need to cheat. Yeah, you can play great zone defense (disguised but still zone) with great late help. But isn’t it nice to be able to hip check or hold if all else fails?

Phil Jackson alluded to this in his post game press conference. The Celtics defense is “illusory”. A foul doesn’t appear like a foul and isn’t called one. Just because you didn’t see the ninja doesn’t mean a dagger isn’t in your belly.

So where do you go from here? The NBA is full of copy cats. In the zenith of 7 Seconds or Less, a dozen teams were busy remaking their teams to emulate the Suns. If the Celtics win the title, how many teams will study the tape and incorporate the off-the ball moving screen, the wrist hold, and the hip check into their defensive repertoire?

Much like the success of the Detroit Bad Boys heralded an era of ugly, brutal defensive ball – exemplified by Riley’s Knicks, Thibodeau’s success might lead the league, unexpectedly, into an period of low percentage shooting. The hope is that the server farm is a force for good and light as it has been a force of darkness, that the league office will notice the blatant subterfuge and instruct the officials with video tutorials for next season. A little too late for the Lakers this season. They just have to be twice as good.

-Bill Bridges

I must apologize in advance for this post. Normally, Forum Blue And Gold is a great source of basketball analysis. Today you shall have none. The few posts I have written here tend to have a lot of statistics. Today my spreadsheet is empty. No, with the playoffs only seven games away I have found my mind drifting to the psychological. Or to put it bluntly: the mind games.

“You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage; you’re confusing courage with wisdom. ” -The Wizard of Oz

Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza have not arrived back on court. They have gone beyond the initial diagnosis time line. A lot of fans assume either: A. the injuries were more severe than the Lakers initially let on or B. Gary Vitti doesn’t have the same magic pixie dust they have in Detroit. One of those scenarios is fairly plausible, but those are not the only options. It is possible the Lakers have held back Andrew and Trevor after they fully recovered. There are two very good reasons to do this. Once the Gasol trade happens and clicks, the need to rush Andrew and Trevor back to make the playoffs recedes. This sets the stage for the first very good reason to sit on their return: Bynum’s the franchise when Kobe retires. While his knee subluxation seemed like bad luck, in a way it was very, very good luck. Just ask any Clippers fan. Dr. Buss was not going to risk bringing Andrew back too soon. Remember, he wanted Kobe to have finger surgery (or did he?) which would have most likely killed the Lakers’ playoff chances for this season. Trevor could be around for awhile too; so why damage two players in your potential post-Kobe nucleus?

Of course, this doesn’t really explain why you’d keep them out this freaking long. And I did promise you two very good reasons.

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable…” -Sun Tzu

Humor me and count the number of times you’ve read an article about a treadmill before this season. Please, take your time. (No, that piece in Men’s Health doesn’t count.) Now count how many times you’ve heard about that miracle/monster/timemachine/torturedevice. Sure, some of that is PR for the fan base. “Look, we’ve bought a treadmill that’s worth three years of the average fan’s salary! We mean business!” But come on. It’s almost like some coach with a reputation for Mind Games was writing a movie for Gene Hackman to star in: Bynum’s so messed up only anti-gravity can save him! Trevor’s still in a humidity controlled boot! Kobe’s finger is going to fall off!

So yes, the second very good reason to hold them back is to play opossum. Though not necessarily in the strictest sense of the term. If those cats have been good to go for awhile, I’m sure the other NBA teams know. But the one thing nobody knows, which coincidentally has Lakers fans tied up in knots, is how will Bynum and Gasol play together. This is the key. Not a single team has faced that Lakers squad. No one knows what that looks like. That is what they call the element of surprise.

“It was all very well to say ‘Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry: ‘no, I’ll, look first,’ she said, ‘and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not…” -Lewis Carroll

But that makes no sense. Even the Lakers don’t know what will happen with Andrew and Pau on the floor. That’s just playing Russian roulette. The thing is, the Lakers do have a good idea of what those two will do together. First, Andrew knows the triangle. He passes well within the system, blocks shots and can put the ball in the basket from the post. Second, Pau has had a crash course in the triangle from the center position. He has been at the end of the line of deployment, getting dished to. Now, all he will have to do is think from the other end of the line of deployment he’s been playing on. (The line of deployment runs from the center to the forward on the wing.) In a way, having Pau start the triangle from the center then move to forward has probably quickened his learning curve. It has given him time to absorb the motion while still contributing to the team in a meaningful way. There is no reason to think that, at this point, Pau and Bynum can’t click on first team like Pau did with the rest of the team. If that happens you’re talking about a massive win streak until teams can figure out the weakness. And if you can see that possibility and could choose the timing of it…well, who wants to be the NBA version of the Colorado Rockies?

“East, West, just points of the compass, each as stupid as the other.” -Dr. No

Which brings me to the diabolical genius that is Biz Markie Phil Jackson. My entire line of thinking may be delusional, probably is. But at the very least Phil has taken actual uncertainty about the team’s health and played with it in the press. Given Phil’s history this creates doubt in the opposing team’s minds. “Maybe he is up to something?” He has taken a perceived weakness and used it as a weapon. Not many coaches bother to even try doing stuff like that.

This whole post is so speculative, I almost didn’t put it up. I fully realize it’s the pop psychology version of the trade machine.

But I’ve got this feeling we should pay attention to that man behind the curtain, because in this version of the story, I think his hot air balloon can take all of us home.

-Rob L.

Who Starts?

Kurt —  November 28, 2007

It’s been the question in the comments recently — start Bynum or bring him off the bench?

He’s the best offensive center the Lakers have by far, and plays good defense for the most part (opposing centers are shooting just 37.5% and have a PER of 13.5). On the other hand, he averages 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes and starting him means risking having to sit him with foul trouble at key points. Plus, without him the second unit that was such a force for the team early on is dramatically weakened (and the current starting unit with him is not tearing it up).

However, as Rob L. brought up, the question here is really bigger than just Bynum:

Should a coach go with the best starting five athletes, or find the best complementary starting five? Is the answer to this question absolute? Or does it change from team to team? Shouldn’t a coach be able to take the best five athletes and meld them into a cohesive starting five?

I’m going to email this to a couple basketball people and see what they think, and post the responses as updates. What are your thoughts?

UPDATE #1: From Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty and AOL Fanhouse:

I think you absolutely have to go with the best complementary starting five. Look at San Antonio, with Michael Finley starting over Manu Ginobili. Ginobili is one of the best five two-guards in the league (and Finley might be in the bottom quartile among rotation-level SGs), but he fits the team better coming off the bench and not necessarily playing all of his minutes with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Manu played 62% of his minutes with Parker on the floor last year. In that other 38%, the Spurs had a net per-48 +/- of +11.5, which is comparable with the Manu + Parker +/- of +13.3. Finley’s +/- without Parker: +1.89 points per 48 (versus +6.9 with Parker). It’s not just the starting lineup you have to worry about when constructing a rotation — those eight minutes which straddle the first quarter break count too. And this says nothing of the benefits of subbing a roleplaying rebounder (Chuck Hayes?) for a scoring power forward (Luis Scola) in the starting lineup, even though Scola’s a better player. A basketball starting lineup isn’t like a baseball batting order; the pieces need to fit. Starting your five best players usually doesn’t do that.

UPDATE #2: Next up are some great points from Henry of the legen-(wait for it)-dary True Hoop:

Oh man, I am SQUARELY against the “best five players” approach, and so is Gregg Popovich!

I could write a novel about why. Here are some highlights:
• Who starts is not about who deserves honor. It’s a strategy.

• Pretty much no matter what, you always need at least one big man and at least one real deal point guard. On a lot of teams, that rule alone would defeat the “best five” argument.

• As Daryl Morey explained in a Houston Press interview recently, thanks to substitution patterns, you can think of an NBA game as a series of mini-games. Every time there’s a different lineup, a new mini-game begins, and it lasts until the next substitution. As coach, you have to have a plan to win more than your fair share of those mini games. You have to be able to put effective combinations on the floor at all times. So your beginning game strategy must not crap upon our mid-game strategy. Which is why there is a long history of great players — Manu Ginobili, Adrian Dantley, Vinnie Johnson, Bill Walton in Boston — coming off the bench.

• In trying to win a team game, you have to find combinations of players that work. For instance, Shane Battier is not all that great compared to a lot of players, but when he’s on the floor, statistics show the team is good. 82games has examples of player combinations that are highly effective, like last year Kyle Lowry and Mike Miller were, per 48 minutes, the best combination in the NBA. If the sample size is big enough, that kind of stuff is all you need to know. Guys who beat the other team consistently are your best lineup, whether you consider them your best players or not. So, as coach, I think you need to seek lineups that demonstrate they can perform at a high level together. Not lineups that look like you think lineups are supposed to look, feature the highly paid players, etc. If you want to win, play the guys who are in the habit of scoring more points than the other team.

UPDATE #3: Mike from Knickerblogger says the Knicks are struggling with some of the same issues:

In New York, this is the exact problem the Knicks have. For argument sakes, let’s assume that the starting five are the best five players on the team (Marbury, Crawford, Richardson, Zach, and Curry). While there are some that might disagree with this statement, there are enough Knick fans that would play Zach and Curry over Lee, and just as many that would play Marbury/Crawford over Nate Robinson. (And I’m sure Quentin Richardson’s mom still thinks her son should be starting over Balkman). In any case Isiah has put these guys on the court (when possible) at the start of each game. The problem is these players don’t complement each other in the least, and at least 4 of the 5 starters are poor defenders who need the ball to be effective. The Knicks would be better served to play some of their guys that can contribute without the ball and can play defense (Balkman, Lee, Jeffries, Robinson, etc.)

Basketball isn’t baseball where for the most part it doesn’t matter how you fill in your lineup card, as long as you’re not putting your pitcher up after Barry Bonds. Baseball matchups are mostly mano-a-mano events. Think about it, how many times do basketball players acknowledge a good pass that led to an easy basket? Dozens in each game. Now when was the last time anyone hit a homerun and credited the batter behind him for setting up the pitcher? Ummm never? In basketball the parts on the court have to fit together. A prime exampltes are the Spurs who bring Manu off the bench.