On any team, four offensive players won't have the ball…
December 23, 2011 5:07 AM   Subscribe

Why is off-ball movement such a difficult basketball skill? The more I watch college, and even NBA, basketball and focus on offensive plays rather than just the person with the ball, the more I realize that most of the guys on the court are not moving, and it results in stagnant offenses. So why is off-ball movement such a difficult skill to develop? I would think that, at least in set plays, coaches would script out the off-ball movement for not just the key players (like the person who is going to make the backdoor cut) but for the rest of the team as well. Yet with rare exceptions, you only see one or two players moving at a time. Why?
posted by philosophygeek to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I used to play. There were two reasons:

1) Some players are focused on being in position for a second movement, i.e. after the initial pass, setting a screen, or being ready to rebound or receive a pass themselves.
If you have ever seen a coach draw a play up, there are initial moves and then dependent ones.

2) The point guard can only process so many movements at once and make passes in lanes where there were defenders. Having four people moving doesn't necessarily mean four people who can receive a high percentage pass based on where they are on the court.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 5:15 AM on December 23, 2011

Oops, a typo on my droid:

The point guard can only process so many movements at once and make passes in lanes where there were defenders.

Essentially, there are only so many direct planes to players available, given a defense that is paying attention. Much of what is happening is trying to get separation between a defender and a moving player to open up a lane.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 5:52 AM on December 23, 2011

You'll notice that most plays involve 3 players max because they go through several options, each with a different configuration. If you've got all of your players focused on directly contributing to the offense, they're not going to be in a good position if the first couple options don't work out - or to crash the boards, or to get back on D. And you can only have so many players cutting, anyway, because the court's not a big place and it's super easy to guard clustered offenses. A good offense forces the defense to make choices. If the defender decides I'm not moving enough and cheats in, for example, I could be open for an easy shot.

Not to mention that this stuff takes a lot of effort, and all energy expended needs to be purposeful or else your team is gonna be dead on their feet by the 2nd half.
posted by clipperton at 5:54 AM on December 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

With helpside defense, 2 of the offensive players are generally uncovered anyway, so they don't need to move much once they create the appropriate spacing.
posted by callmejay at 6:12 AM on December 23, 2011

I don't play basketball, but when I watch it I'm always amazed at how much running the players do. My uninformed guess would be that, when they're just standing there, they're resting.
posted by Elly Vortex at 6:30 AM on December 23, 2011

passing is a dying art and has been overtaken by one on one play. Case in point: the 2010 New York Knicks. They started the season with Ray Felton at the point and moved the ball constantly, it was exciting to watch. The had drafted a rookie named Landry Fields who loved to move without the ball, he consistently made plays where he would move around picks and players like Felton and Stoudemire would find him for easy layups. Cue the Carmelo Anthony trade which shipped Felton out and brought in Chauncy Billups who was not familiar with Fields' strengths. The Knicks became more of a half court team with the focus on one on one Carmelo Anthony putting more pressure on Fields to hit open shots when Melo was double-teamed. Little by little Fields has become a statue on offense and my guess is that he'll be shipped out pretty soon which is sad because he brought the kind of play to the Knicks not seen in decades.
posted by any major dude at 6:45 AM on December 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some part of every strategy vs. man defense will involve taking your man away from the play, so he can't fall off you and help defend the ball. Sometimes that means you move away from the action and stay put until it's time for you to crash the boards or move to accept an outlet pass.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:52 AM on December 23, 2011

Especially in the NBA, a lot of offense is based on isolation. The idea is to give the best players a chance to do their thing, and to exploit the weaknesses of the defense.

If all five players were in constant motion, the floor would be a chaos of people moving, cutting, running into each other. In short, it would look like a playground game.

Most basketball "plays" are not like football plays, where every player's movement is scripted. It's much more about reacting to the defense. In fact, the most famous NBA offense of the last 20 years, Tex Winter and Phil Jackson's Triangle, is based almost entirely on "reads" rather than set plays: ie, if defense does A, we do B.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:46 AM on December 23, 2011

Also, the role of certain players is to "spot up" - to be ready to shoot a three pointer when a player driving to the basket or posting up draws their man away. Another huge part of NBA offense is players that are so dominant they can draw double teams, thus opening up teammates for easy shots.

If that spot-up shooter was constantly moving, you'd see a lot more of these passes going out of bounds or to the other team.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:49 AM on December 23, 2011

As a famous example, Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest player of all time. Yet the climactic shots of several of his championships were hit by John Paxon and Steve Kerr, guys who couldn't do much but spot up for open shots.

Everyone knew Jordan would get the ball and draw a huge amount of defensive attention, and Jordan knew Paxon or Kerr would be open and waiting for the ball.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:51 AM on December 23, 2011

Last but not least, it is much much easier to hit a jumpshot if you receive a pass standing still, rather then from a running start.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:53 AM on December 23, 2011

At the NBA level I'd bring up three issues with adding more off-ball movement - there isn't enough space on the court for everyone to be moving, potential fouls and in many cases the stationary player is doing exactly what will give the most benefit to the team.

Space on the court: NBA players are all spectacularly athletic. Defenders can step into a passing lane or reach in to strip a ball faster than you would believe. If the whole team is moving it reduces the window that a place on the court will be open for a pass or drive as there is only so much space in a half court and eight 6'8" guys running around really, really fast takes up a ton of space. It would be like soccer played in only a third of the field - too much movement in too small a space. Which leads into...

Potential fouls: all those running offensive players are moving picks and interference calls waiting to happen. With space at a premium some of those players will be near each other and it just takes someone to be a bit off on their movement - a nudge from a defender, a small slip - and you have collisions. Coaches really hate losing possession to meaningless distractions on the other side of the court to the main show. So players will oftern be instructed to...

Get to your spot and stand still. If your team wants to have the option of running pick plays then you need off-ball players standing still. If you want to keep a defender out of a play then go to the most dangerous point on the court that is away from the called play (in the NBA usually the 3 pt line somewhere on the weak side) and force your defender to stay there to prevent an easy shot from a blown play.

An example of all this would be some of the plays for Reggie Miller the Pacers use to run; it looked like a mess to me until someone pointed out what was happening. The PG would bring the ball to the top of the 3pt arc; two players would set a double screen at the base of the key; one player would camp behind the 3pt arc in one corner and Miller would start somewhere level with the top of the key on the same side of the court. Miller cuts down and around the screens to end up on the other side of the key, the PG throws a simple lob or bounce pass and the best catch-and-shoot player of his time gets an easy look. Only one person is moving but all the off-ball players have a role.
posted by N-stoff at 10:55 AM on December 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you want a more recent example, Richard Hamilton is still playing, and he's been compared to Reggie Miller possibly since birth. Now that he's in a backcourt with Derrick Rose, I wouldn't be shocked if he has a career year. He runs constantly* usually snaking in and out of two or three screens on a given play. That's two or three teammates whose job it is to move very little in order to avoid getting whistled for a moving screen. Depending on the defensive reaction to each screen, Hamilton could curl off any screen for a jumper, or if the defender tries to cover Hamilton, you could have a mismatch near the basket where Noah or Boozer could easily roll to the basket for an easy shot. And there's still Luol Deng and Rose to account for, either of whom can reach the basket in two or three steps from pretty much anywhere along the perimeter. They can't all be moving to get open, or else they'd be running into each other and the other team.

*Hamilton says he trains for his running around the court by chasing his dogs around his yard in the off season. It keeps him moving fast, but also gives him lots of practice at sudden cuts and lateral movement.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:57 PM on December 23, 2011

The answer to your question is, in part, in your initial comment: only one person can have the ball at a time. So, you'll have one player with the ball, and one player trying to get to open space to receive the ball. The other three players are merely trying to make that happen.

In fact, the goal of all offensive plays is to create open space somewhere on the floor, typically either at the basket or outside the 3-point line (strategically, there's not much point in trying to shoot anywhere in between).

That's why, especially in the NBA, you'll see a play called the "clear-out", where 3 or even 4 players will stand on one side of the lane, while one, or at the most, two players will be isolated on the opposite side. They need space.

The more open space there is, the more opportunities there are to get an uncontested shot, which is what offensive plays are trying to create.

If you get 3, 4 or all 5 players moving at the same time, the open space gets filled, and the player with the ball may not be sure which direction to go. In short, it simplifies the decision-making process.
posted by unintelligentlydesigned at 6:30 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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