In "Making Choices", I wrote that it is important for a basketball coach to decide what to emphasize with his limited time and resources. In that post, I shared my current plans for devoting a significant portion of my players' practice and workout time to developing shooting, scoring, ball handling, passing, and defending skills, leaving little time to develop multiple defensive and offensive sets, plans for special situations, and other worthwhile areas. Each coach has unique circumstances to consider in making these kinds of decisions, so my specific plans may not be of much value to someone looking for advice on what drills to run or how to organize practices. But a description of my thought process and the history of my team's development may offer a coach some value if it causes him to think about his situation from a different perspective.
Our varsity boys basketball team is entering its third season. Two years ago, we had few, if any, players who had spent the necessary time practicing and playing to be accomplished players. Also, we were, and still are, very small. We have only had one player during the past two seasons who was taller than six feet, and he has graduated. I have stressed two "big" things during our team's time together. The first was essentially our only focus from the time we formed our team until the midway through our second season: a tough man to man defense. After establishing a defensive minded "culture," I moved on to the next "big thing:" becoming better individual basketball players. In the post that I link to above, I describe my current plans. Here I will outline the team's history and the thought process behind the decisions I have made.
The First "Big Thing" - Defense
Importance of Defense
I believe a poor defensive team cannot be a good basketball team. Because the goal is to be a good team, my first priority was to be good defensively. All teams have hot and cold shooting games. A poor defensive team can usually only win on a hot shooting night or against a bad team. Because good defensive teams consistently hold opponents to lower scores, they have the opportunity to win regardless of whether they are shooting well or not.
I have not had trouble communicating the importance of defense and persuading players to make a sincere effort on the defensive end. One reason may be that I have not made defensive effort an option. No matter how gifted a player may be offensively, he has no role if he does not give maximum effort on defense. I do not require each player to be a great one on one defender. Each simply has to try. I am not a worthy coach if I cannot put a system in place that works with a group of guys giving an honest effort.
Consider the "Weaker Links"
Considering the thoughts and emotions of the team's weaker defenders is another key to developing a strong team defense. Most coaches say that defense is a team effort. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a team defense is not going to be its strongest if the weaker defenders are not put in a position to be successful. I prefer not to "hide" weaker one on one defenders and not to play certain players "when we need defense" and others "when we need offense." We always need defense, and anyone can be a productive member of a defense based on teamwork and effort. It is the players' (including the defensively weak and the defensively strong one on one players) responsibility to give maximum effort, and it is my responsibility to devise and constantly adjust a system suited to their physical and mental capabilities.
Appealing to the Players' Pride; the "Football Analogy"
Appealing to the players' pride and desire for accomplishment is another effective way to build a defensive culture. People tend to assume that most basketball players do not like to play defense. But I believe players that do not like defense have likely been called out for defensive mistakes and weaknesses as opposed to being praised for solid defensive play. Many basketball players have played, or at least watch, football. And football players love, even prefer, to play defense, probably because they like to hit. But stopping the other team, especially a bigger and supposedly more talented team, can be just as macho and motivating to basketball players.
The following anecdote illustrates the conviction our players have about our defensive attack and the pride it has instilled. One month into our first season we were losing in the first round of our holiday tournament. We were playing a zone defense because we had not yet installed the man to man defense we now play. I called a timeout during the second half. After instructing the team to switch to a man to man defense, one of our seniors said, "No coach, we can't play these guys man to man." Needless to say, we lost the game. But we committed ourselves to being better defensively. Almost exactly one year later, in the first round of the same tournament, we led by two points with less than ten seconds remaining. During a timeout, I asked an assistant coach if he thought we should play zone (something we had not done since that game a year earlier) for the last possession because our opponent was going to inbound the ball under their own basket. One of our best players interrupted me, saying, "we don't play zone!"
Moving on to the Next Big Thing
this post). After all, we were consistently putting ourselves in position to win by playing solid defense. So it made sense to me to try to put our players in position to have as few poor scoring games as possible.
I am hopeful that my players and I will figure out how to work on more than one big thing each year. But I will always choose being very good at one or two things over being mediocre at many things. I do not currently know for sure what the next big thing will be, nor when we will be ready to focus on it. My experience has taught me to wait until I have decided that the benefits derived from spending the necessary time and energy to excel in that new area will outweigh the benefits that would have been gained by a continued primary emphasis on defense and skill development.