Chasing 100: Coaching Achievement or Atrocity?

Chasing 100 : Coaching Accomplishment or Atrocity?

I left my junior basketball team at the buzzer to rush off to a meeting after securing a comfortable but relatively disheartening 55-33 win over the league’s  last place team.  The game started late as the visiting team had to travel from downtown in -17 degree temperatures. The referees didn’t show and colleagues had to step in, giving the game a lacklustre feel.  It was the kind of game where the opponent (0-10) has no skilled players, no team structure,  no depth, and no hope of winning.  Most frustrating, perhaps is that a game  like that  provides very few  learning opportunities for my  top players;  I used reserves exclusively and their performance was less than inspiring.   Later in the evening, I checked my twitter stream and saw several self congratulatory posts by our senior team members , who had decimated the  opponent’s equally  dismal senior squad  by a score of 102-38.  Every single tweet mentioned the score as a focal point of accomplishment.  And I get it-for a 16 year old ball player, putting up lots of points is exciting. NBA scores routinely fall in that realm, and scoring 100 seems like a prestigious milestone akin to earning a six figure salary or turning sixteen and getting one’s license.  But let’s face it- in high school basketball, a  win that pads a team’s resume  and paves the way to prestige is always measured by the quality of the opponent, not the margin of victory.  I know I have been on the opposite side of a similar loss , and it  doesn’t feel great for players  or a coaching staff.  If it does nothing for the losers,  what does it do for the victors? For coaches who ultimately determine their team’s style of play, is this a worthwhile goal to pursue against inferior competition?   If so, under what circumstances is chasing the 100 point game  a legitimate and meaningful goal for  a team?

I think before delving into ethical considerations about playing “competitively” or showing mercy, there are two basic and  related  basketball concepts  to understand to put  the 100 point game into perspective. The first is  offensive efficiency and the second is tempo.

Basic basketball metrics knows that the simplest way of measuring how efficient your team is at scoring is to measure the points per possession:

Efficiency= Points/ Posession X 100

Imagine your  team scores 50 points and it has  50 opportunities to do so.  If  it  averages a point per possession (or score one basket every second time up and  down the court), its’ offensive efficiency =100 which is pretty good.   As I write this article, the Portland Trail Blazers  lead the NBA with an 111 efficiency. With younger  players with less polished  skills and high turnovers rates, probably anything above an 80 is pretty good.  But efficiency changes from game to game, because players are inconsistent and can experience bouts of  extreme heat and coldness (especially young players).   The other night, for instance,  Creighton destroyed Villanova by a forty point margin because they shot the lights out and hit 21 3’s. On an off night two thirds of those makes would miss. Coaches have little control over a team’s is hot and cold streaks.

What coaches do have control over is the tempo a team plays at and the number of possessions they will get.  Let’s say my team is averaging about 1 point per possession.  As a coach, I can pretty much predict the score I will achieve by thinking about how many times up and down the court we will go.   All things being equal, If I have 50 offensive posessions I will probably score about 50 points , and if I double those trips up and down the floor, the score will also double.    (Obviously this is within reason. If I push my players to play at a pace well byond their skill level and ask for 200 offensive possessions in a 32 minute game, or I only have 5 players and they have to play the whole game and by half time they are gassed, their efficiency will drop dramatically)

In other words, reaching 100 points says more about the tempo you are playing at then your efficiency (take a look at Grinell College).  My current junior team routinely score in the 70s  (and gets scored on pretty frequently as well) regardless of if we shoot the ball really well because of our fast pace.  We press the whole game, and we run a dumb down Vance Wahlberg  type system that emphasizes driving and quick offensive looks.   I like this developmental system because I coach at a school that has 500 grade nine and ten males and only one junior basketball team. Runing a fast pace requires more subbing and we have more depth than standout talent.  Conversely, I used to coach a team with 8 quality players and our offense worked hard on swinging the ball from side to side and controlling the possession to conserve energy. Our scores were routinely in the high 40’s and low 50’s. The great NCAA coaches  of the 1960’s and 1970’s like Dean Smith understood the importance of  points per possession and tempo, particularly in an age without the 3 pointer, and used the speed of the game to their  team’s advantage. Common understanding was that to win with “less talent”, the best strategy was lengththen possession times as much as possible.   The best teams dictate pace, and force opponents to play at an uncomfortable pace; the most versatile teams can play at enough speeds that it is hard to throw them off their game.

My point? Scoring 100 points is therefore only a helpful indicator for a coach who is trying to establish a high tempo as a team’s style. The indicator  that would be even more relevant to track would actually be trips up and down the floor, but the high score is a solid indicator of tempo.  Given this reality, I could see how hitting a 100 points against a lesser opponent could be a worthwhile pursuit for a coach if:

1)   Early in the season when your team has yet to adopt the style you want and when many players are used to different systems.  If you plan on pressing every possession of every game, it’s a must to practice at a tempo.  Let’s say the game is 70-60 at the end of three.   Finnishing with a strong fourth quarter and pushing players  to keep their pace is a worthwhile cause

2)   You are trying to get a run in for your players and want to use the game as a substituted for sprints.

3) I don’t think there is a three.

Because playing fast against teams that have no depth or talent usually just looks like a series of uncontested layups, which doesn’t really teach anybody anything anyways.   Coaching is a form of teaching, and if there is no learning going on, you need to find some way of establishing some.

On the ethical side, it is pretty clear that when forced to play a game where the two teams are talent levels apart, it is probably in everyone’s best interest  to make the game as competitive as possible.  Any coach who says that they hit 100 points and it wasn’t deliberate is either a) lying b) lacking experience or c) has little integrity and a warped  sense of competition.

For those lacking experience, here are a few very simple strategies to maximize  productivity   against team that is terrible

a)    Talk to the opposing coach about things you would like to work on before the game. Early in my teaching career a coach approached me before a game when we were inevitably going to be obliterated.   He told me frankly that he wasn’t going to run up the score, but would we mind running some man to man defense instead of sitting in a zone, so his team could work on something.  The final was 73-22, and Maurice Walker (now playing for the Minnesota Gophers) sat much of the game.

b)   Play your bench. A lot.   It’s a great opportunity for guys who don’t play a lot to work on things that keep them out of the starting lineup, especially for groups who have a hard time thinking up to speed. Demand they execute schemes that require some IQ.

c)    Communicate your intention to work on half court execution on offense and defense to your players  No matter how much you press, much of the game takes place in the half court.   Demand that the execution be precise.  Reset  the offense several times.

d) The best coaches in the world have imaginative point systems for practice scrimmages to influence and achieve the outcomes they want.   I’ve heard Dave Smart at Carleton say  he makes up point systems from play to play at practice to work on specific schemes or individualized habits (i.e. -2 points every time a post player puts the ball on the floor).   This can also be done in games as well,-on good teams it always is, since the process is more important than the score. Demand that the ball goes into the post and comes out three times to shoot.  Get twenty passes or twenty paint touches.  Since the parameters of the game are not challenging your players, create some that will.

For those who feel like players need to “compete” at 100% and argue  one should never ease up because we are trying to develop winners w….

a) In my opinion, the question is not whether or not you are teaching some life lesson about competition or  killer instinct-neither can be taught except against a worthy competitor.   Even the least mentally tough player has a killer instinct when their own team is destroying competition-it’s a herd mentality,  and classic teenaged (human!) behaviour.

b) A knockout punch in basketball is always achieved in the first quarter.  Send out the starters to play 8 minutes of intense ball, dictate the outcome according to your game plan and style and build that 32-0 lead.  Everybody who walks in the gym will know what is going on.   Once the message has been sent and the  KO has been delivered, it’s time to ease up and something constructive.

You get the point. Coaches in large part control scores depending on the choices they make which affect tempo.  When faced with a game where you have the the upper hand, for your own team’s sake,  create a challenge for them.  Since I began coached in the TDCAA, I have played league power houses  every year.  Our best teams on our best day could  give  them a game , and our worst definitely could not.    Regardless of the disparity in talent,  each game alway ended as  a 20-30 point loss.  To me, that shows more coaching skill than reaching a 100 point milestone, even if it isn’t tweet worthy in the eyes of most players.