Developing An Offensive Philosophy

When I became the head basketball coach at White Oak my first order of business was to change our philosophy of play but not necessarily how we played.  Under my mentor and coach, Coach Dan Noll, White Oak had primarily used a patterned man offense along with zone sets. We played at a moderately fast pace against weaker teams but tended to slow the game down against teams more talented than we were.  Defensively, we would utilize a full court press back to a 2-3 zone against weaker teams and exclusively a 2-3 zone against better teams.

Being one of the smaller schools in our classification, this was a very common philosophy to use and a solid approach to the game.  Our teams at White Oak under Coach Noll were known for playing with great effort. He was one of the best at motivating his teams to compete at a high level and we all would have run through a wall for him and it was this element that I wanted to maximize when I became the head coach at White Oak.  I just wanted to skin the cat a different way.

In this entry of Coach With A Purpose, I’ll be sharing 10 thoughts on building an overall offensive philosophy.  With that being said, I believe it is critical to understand that the most important factor will never be what you do but rather how you do it.  There are very few offensive schemes today that have not already been utilized in some form or fashion.  We may call them something else but I believe there are very few new concepts being developed today…they just may be new to us.  Finally, I heard Paul Westhead speak at a clinic when he was coaching a Loyola Marymount (and his philosophy of fast tempo was becoming popular) and he said “Only 1 thing is for sure about your philosophy…The opposite has worked just as well.”  I thought this was a great way to express that successful offense has a lot more to do with fitting personnel and execution than a particular scheme.

1) Evaluate The Big Picture

Before choosing an offensive philosophy, these are some of the things I considered:


1) What type of athlete will I have most often?  Is our greatest physical attribute size, quickness, strength, or effort?

2) How much time do I get with my players? How many gyms do we have access to?

3) In general, how knowledgeable are my assistants?

4) How many players will I share with other sports?

5) How much control do I have over the Jr. High programs and youth programs?

6)  Are my players basketball savvy?

At White Oak, though we obviously had exceptions in our best years, I knew we wouldn’t normally be very tall or exceptionally quick but I felt we had one attribute that we had to take advantage of…our kids would play with extreme effort.  I believed we would play as hard as anyone and harder than most and we would base our entire overall basketball philosophy around this one aspect.

I knew we had access to 4 gyms, I would have my straight basketball players in fall and spring offseason, and I would normally get about half my team from football.  I also ran our Little Dribbler program (3rd-6th grade) so I could pound them with fundamentals before they got to Jr. High and I also had total control of our Jr. High program.  For the most part, my assistant coaches did their role and our players were very coachable and had a good knowledge of the game.

2)  How Fast Do You Want To Play?

Tempo may be one of the most stereotypical aspects of basketball….”athletic” teams press and play fast, “non-athletic” teams play zone and play deliberate.  Obviously, a fast tempo usually favors speed and quickness…until someone gets tired. At this point, I believe a fast tempo favors the toughest team. Depth is also a factor to consider along with conditioning.  Most people also believe it is easier to slow down than speed up. From an offensive perspective, this decision will go a long way in determining your team’s offensive identity and will have a major influence on your practice format.

Obviously, the style of play of the opposition can factor into the tempo of the game as well, but I wanted our teams to play fast in order to make effort and conditioning major factors in the outcome of the game.  This would be one way we would attempt to get high percentage shots. Though I knew in East Texas we would play teams faster and more athletic than us, I felt we would run harder for longer and that slowing the game down negated our greatest asset…great effort.

I also feel that fast tempo teams are much less likely to lose to less talented teams because of the increased number of possessions in a game.  However, much of the overall outcome of these types of upsets is determined on the defensive end of the court.

3)  Teach Shooting      

In East Texas, we played a lot of teams that were quick and fast.  For sure, to consistently compete for district championships and to advance in the playoffs, we had to have an equalizer.  Along with exceptional effort, shooting was that equalizer. Without a doubt, we spent more time on shooting than any other skill.  I began teaching shooting to most of our players in 5th grade Little Dribblers and we continued to work on shooting for at least 20-30 minutes per day at every level of our program.

Good shooting makes the defense cover more of the court thus creating more driving lanes and farther rotations, it makes the 3 pt shot a factor along with covering up for a variety of mistakes or other shortcomings.

Because of our shooting ability, it forced teams that played zone to extend farther than they were accustomed or abandon the zone for man defense.  Consequently, we were able to spend more preparation time on our man offenses.

4) How Will You Get “Easy” Baskets?

In most cases, I believe the team that gets the ball to the paint the most wins.  In a world of analytics and every stat imaginable, I believe paint touches is the most influential statistic in the outcome of most games.  Get’em touches on offense and stop’em on defense!

Whether it is through post up, dribble drive, transition offense, offensive rebounding, or forcing turnovers, I believe all championship teams create ways to get the ball to the paint.  It creates high percentage shots in the paint, high percentage 3 pt shots through drive & kick action or kick outs from offensive rebounding, and increases the opportunity to get to the free throw line as well as creating foul trouble for the opponent.  

At White Oak, our philosophy was to create “easy” opportunities through pressure defense and transition offense which capitalized on our kids effort and through attacking the basket via the dribble since we normally were guard heavy teams.

5) How Will You Get To The FT Line?

One of the common statistics associated with most championship teams is making more free throws than the opponent attempts.  When formulating an offensive philosophy, this will usually center around how you attempt to get the ball in the paint (see above).  For my teams, we often had to make sure we did not become too reliant on the 3 pt shot. I didn’t mind taking 25-30 a game but I wanted them to be the result of inside/out action as much as possible.  

6)  Have A 5 on 5 Plan

At some point and time, all teams have to be able to execute in the half court.  Normally, teams that play at a slower pace see this as an advantage situation over faster paced teams and many times they are correct.  Some of the greatest games played at the State Tournament are the classic chess matches between the transition based teams and the half court based teams where each team tries to force their will upon the other.  With no shot clock, it is usually more common to see a team being slowed down than forced to speed up so having a half court plan of attack is crucial for all.

I believe the answers to the questions in “Evaluate The Big Picture” go the farthest in determining a team’s half court plan.  Whether you choose sets, continuity or motion offenses, ball screen action, or isolation as your preferred half court action it must fit the type of player you have most often and what you and your coaches can teach.  Tweaks will be made each year but I believe the best programs have a general plan of attack in mind.

Initially, I wanted us to be a motion offense team similar to the Coach Knight teams at Indiana.  For my first 15 years or so, we ran a version of this but I scrapped it for a modified version of the flex offense my last 10 years or so.  I determined that the amount of time involved in teaching the motion offense was counterproductive to the shots we were getting. The offseason kids I had year around could run it and I could teach it but it was difficult for my assistants who didn’t spend near as much time with it as I did and was also tougher on our kids that came from football.

Consequently, as much as I would have preferred to run a less restrictive motion offense, our general plan was to use a modified version of the flex offense which still had some “read the defense” components of our motion offense but was simpler to teach.  We used this offense to force our opponents to defend movement, screening, and post play. Our other base half court man offense was our version of the dribble drive offense which we used against pressure. This was more of a spacing offense that incorporated dribble drive opportunities, drive and kick action, and post up opportunities. On dead ball situations we would usually have about 4-5 man sets along with a ball screen series and we mainly used sets against zone defense along with a few set plays.

Because transition offense was such a big part of our offensive attack, we almost exclusively ran our sideline break into our secondary break in transition.  I always wanted our first option to be to score in transition so I felt it needed to be kept as simple as possible to allow for maximum pace. If no shot was available, we would then initiate our half court sets.

7) How Much Is Too Much?

At this point of creating an offensive philosophy, I believe it is critical to be able to discern how much is too much.  Again, seeing the big picture is crucial to answering this question along with considering the experience of your team. I’ve always been a proponent of the “simplicity and execution” philosophy so I always preferred to have carryover from year to year and didn’t worry about surprising or tricking our opponents.  Again, with great effort being a staple of our overall philosophy, I felt the simpler I kept the system, the more intense and aggressive we would play. And above all else I wanted intense and aggressive!

8) When Is Winning Time?

With our style of play, one of the factors that I always had to consider was when it was time to take the foot off the gas when we had a lead and play a more conservative style.  With fast tempo teams, taking the foot off the gas too soon can lead to a “playing not to lose” mentality if you’re not careful. I don’t think more deliberate style teams face this dilemma near as much.  For us, I usually used the 2:00 mark of the 4th quarter as gauge for when we would go into our spread offense. If we had a 6 pt or more lead and we were in the bonus, we would definitely go into our spread offense at 2:00.  If the lead was smaller or the opponent was strong on defense then I might wait closer to the 1:30 mark but by this point, our kids knew if we had the ball and the lead it was winning time.

Besides deciding when to go into your delay game, I would also advise the following: 1) practice these situations at least weekly and have a consistent plan of attack that your kids feel confident in 2) Preach being aggressive in the delay game in order to not play passive.  My selling point was even if we screwed up, the other team still had to score against our defense and that wouldn’t be easy 3) Be confident and in control with your words and body language during these situations as well as timeouts because the players will take their cue from you.  Instead of “Don’t panic” say “Play with poise”. Remind them you’ve prepared for situations like this and for them to do what you’ve practiced.

9)  Have A Catch Up Plan

Just as more deliberate teams may have an advantage when it’s time to slow the game down, fast tempo teams have the advantage when playing catch up.  My “catch up” plan normally involved ball screen action or set plays. I rarely tried to do things that we had not practiced so we tried to have baseline, sideline, half court, and full court plays for situations that could arise.  These situations were a staple during our athletic period shoot around on game days and we also tried to practice these situations in practice. We didn’t practice some of the more rare situations but once or twice but I at least wanted us to be able to line up and have a chance to execute if needed, especially if we did not have a timeout.

Obviously, defense has a lot to do with overcoming a disadvantage situation also so practicing scenarios of being behind in late game situations is paramount.  Knowing when to call timeout, having a code word for “foul”, and practicing fouling should all be a part of the plan.

10) Timeout or No Timeout?

I was always a strong believer in preparation.  Some of my favorite parts of coaching were practice planning, scouting, and practice itself.  I think for this reason I always preferred to “play it out” rather than call timeout with the game on the line and the ball in our hands.  To me, this situation favors the team that is most prepared (and has the best players) and that’s who we set out to be. It’s also much harder for the opponent to change defenses and often removes the element of surprise.

So….with :54 seconds remaining, scored tied, and the 2013 Class 2A State Championship on the line, the White Oak Roughnecks decided to play it out and as the clock approached :08 with thousands of fans rising to their feet in the Frank Erwin Special Events Center, Kris Anderson went to work and the ball dropped cleanly through the net…just like we had practiced.

Thanks for reading and Coach With A Purpose!