Blog: Teachings of NBA Playoffs 2014

These ideas occurred to me when watching the NBA Playoffs 2014. A half of these ideas are gathered from my previous (now deleted) posts, but the other half I have not posted before.

Idolizing Spurs

* Some basketball people now seem to think that all NBA teams should now try to implement the strategy and tactics of Spurs. However, as in any business, this type of imitation is bound to lead to failure.

* Even though Spurs’ tactics worked last season, who says they will be any good this season?

* Think of Lakers in 2011. After winning two championships in a row, they got swept in the playoffs by Mavericks – partly because their famed triangle offense had gotten outdated.

* What happened to idolizing the strategy and tactics of Miami Heat? They have made it to the championship series four times in row and won the championship in 2012 and 2013.

Performance Analysis

* In team sports, the analysis of past performances will never be able to tell what the future performance should be like.

* Performance analysis is an important tool for developing performance, but its importance and predictive power are exaggerated by the PA industry and the media.

* The more precisely and rigidly a team follows the guidelines derived from the analysis of past performances, the more vulnerable it becomes.

Misusage of Terms

* Usually there is nothing extra about an “extra pass” but the term simply refers to a pass that is made by a player, who is in a decent position to shoot, to a teammate, who is in a better position to shoot.

* What are often referred to as “little things” in basketball tend to be not little things but big things that are called little only because they do not appear in the box score.

* The term “look-away pass” is most often literally incorrect, because the passer does not look away but rather keeps facing the basket and sees what the defense does. In other words, he does not turn his shoulder towards the direction of his eventual pass.

Positionless Basketball

* At the highest level of play, any simple-sounding action is hard to execute successfully. The physical, technical, and tactical constraints are strict.

* That is why “positionless basketball” will never happen at the highest level of play. Players must specialize in certain skills to be able to execute them efficiently even where the air is thin.

* A paradox: The more optimally a coach wishes to utilize his players’ unique skills, the more functionally specialized his system should be. Yet the more functionally specialized a system is, the more difficult it becomes to make it functionally integrated.

Watching and Learning

* If a coach watches basketball in order to improve himself as a coach, he shouldn’t watch exclusively NBA basketball (or any other one league).

* Rather, a coach should watch a wide variety of b-ball: different countries, different levels, different age groups, both sexes.

* Exposure to wholly different types of basketball will allow a coach to learn more than watching the NBA teams over and over again.

Blog: Theory and Practice in Children’s Sports

During the past couple of years I have been reading some scientific literature on children’s sports but also following the phenomenon as a parent. The following remarks are some of my observations on the clash between the two worlds, theory and practice.

1) The lure of early specialization and early selection is strong.

Benefits of sampling – doing multiple sports as a kid – have been well shown but the problem is that the greatest benefits become apparent only years later. And the same goes for late selection.

Yet what helps children succeed asap is early specialization, and what helps the children’s team win asap is early selection. That’s obvious to all stakeholders. That is also why early specialization is still often encouraged and why early selection is still a normal procedure.

Also, children’s coaches are often inexperienced. Hence they do not have the first-hand experience of long-term benefits of sampling and late specialization.

2) Games and competitions enhance learning

To fully enjoy the benefits of sampling, a kid should not only practice multiple sports but also compete in them. Meaning, take part in “official” competitions and games.

First, competing is an exciting and memorable activity in itself.

Secondly, the incomparable excitement and purposefulness of competing enhances learning. The games and competitions are learning opportunities as such, but kids also practice more intensely when they know that they are going to compete.

Think about it this way. In an off-season practice, children’s ice hockey team may play soccer to add variety to the training. Is it effective? Or would it be more effective if the children practiced with an actual soccer team in a different social set-up under a real enthusiastic soccer coach to prepare for real exciting games played real uniforms?

3) Changes in weather enhance learning

When it comes to motor learning variability is good, generally speaking. One of the inherent advantages that outdoor sports have over indoor sports is that outdoors, practice conditions inevitably change from practice to practice, often during a single practice. This provides the athletes and coaches an automatic form of contextual interference. Conversely in indoor sports, practice conditions remain more or less the same all through the season.

4) Motor skill teaching is still done old school

Recently, research has changed a lot of assumption about motor learning. Now coaches should consider e.g. external focus of attention, self-controlled practice, random practice, implicit learning and practicing first with the non-dominant limb.

Breakthroughs in research have not yet caused a revolution in the way children are coached. Mainly it is still internal focus, blocked practice, start with the dominant limb and so on.

Blog: Small Forward 2024 Will Handle the Ball And Pick And Roll And Pop

Say, you coach a 14-year-old boy who’ll grow up to be 6-5 to 6-7. What skills should you help him learn now so that he could develop into a high-performance small forward 10 years?

That’s a simple question, isn’t it? Just look at the characteristics of the present top small forwards, analyze what skills the 14-year-old is lacking, and there you have his curriculum. Right?


Unfortunately complex systems, such as basketball, do not change in a linear fashion. Rather “the future of a complex system is under perpetual creation. What emerges is partially something that is known and partially unknown because of the almost indefinite number of variables influencing what is going on.”

In other words, we have no way of telling what high-performance basketball will be like in 2024. That comes from the fact that “the links between cause and effect are lost because the tiniest overlooked, or unknown, variable can escalate into a major force.” Hence “the long-term future is not simply difficult to see. It is unknowable.”

Because the level of competition keeps rising, we can safely assume that top small forwards in 2024 (SF24) will be better than his counterpart in 2014 (SF14). In other words, SF24 must be able to not only execute the same skills that the SF14 executes but to execute them better.

But because the change will not be linear, there is an even more severe complication: SF24 may also be asked to execute skills that are not even in SF14’s repertoire.

The process of change is ubiquitous. Rod Higgins writes “There used to be a time when point guards would bring the ball upcourt, hand it over to their small forward and get out of the way.” “The point forward tendencies of Dejan Bodiroga and Hedo Turkoglu, among others, kept that proud European tradition alive into the 00’s.”

But “then along came the pick and roll and everything changed.” Now small forwards’ “main mission is to create space with their shooting, take advantage of space with their cuts toward the rim and take away space with their help defense.”

This brings about two answers to the question of what SF24 should be learning now.

One answer is that he should be developing general motor learning skills. Those skills will help him meet the new demands of the ever-evolving game over and over again.

The second answer is that we should construct a scenario of the evolvement of the small forward position and, based on that scenario, assess what sport-specific SF24 will need, in addition to the skills of SF14. Here’s my line of thinking on that:

1) Presently, in pick-and-roll oriented offenses, small forward tends to be an underutilized position. SF14 is usually not directly involved in PNR but he’s primarily a spot-up shooter and a slasher.

2) The small forward’s direct involvement in PNR would add to the variety and unpredictability of the offense. However, most SF14 do not have the necessary relevant skills.

3) To improve the offenses, SF24 will be required to take part in PNR both as the ball handler and as the screener. This will take the number of ball handlers and screeners on the floor from two to three.

4) In the present player development, small forwards should be taught PNR offensive skills: using the pick as the ball handler, setting the screen, popping out, rolling to the basket. PNR-related defensive skills should be taught, too.

Naturally, this line of thinking may be based wrong assumptions and thus misguided: in 10 years, basketball may become less PNR-oriented, or small forwards may continue to stay out of the PNR picture. Even if this is the case, PNR-related practice will not be a complete waste of time for SF24, since most of that practice will serve not only PNR-specific purposes but will also be useful basic basketball-specific practice.

Blog: The Future of Player Development Ain’t What It Used to Be

Developing players is a futuristic project. We need to prepare players to face the challenges of high-performance basketball as it is played in the year of 2020. Or 2025. Even 2030 is only sixteen years away…

At the moment, the game is changing at a furious pace due to e.g. the breakthrough of the performance analytics. Looking back just a few years, it was a wholly different game.

So how should we go about developing future top-performance players when we do not know what the future top-performance basketball will be like?

At least these things should be considered:

1) Variability
The tactics and techniques that the players learn today probably will not serve them until the end of their career. Everything must be varied and modified – during a career and, as a reflection of that, during every practice session. Continuous motor learning is a necessity, and hence motor learning skills should be emphasized in player development.

2) Quickness
Whatever else will happen in the evolution of basketball down the lane, the game will probably become quicker and quicker. Hence players must also become quicker – not just physically but also tactically and technically quicker. We should e.g. critically assess every single technique we teach: Is there a quicker way to do this?

3) Specificity
The higher the level of play, the more important it becomes to realize what a player’s future position will be, what the skill requirements will be at that position, and what he will need to do to excel at the required skills.

There have been arguments that in the future, positions will disappear – that all players will be interchangeable. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Here are some comments on the subject.

The next time around I’ll discuss how these predictions, if taken seriously, should affect training at… let’s say #3 position.

Blog: Would You Like to Shoot a Medicine Ball at a 4-meter High Basket – Or Why Children’s Basketball Equipment Needs Modification

At least here in Finland, a lot of basketball people seem emotionally attached to the mini basketball equipment. They seem to think a size 5 ball and a 260cm basket are the “right” equipment for all Under-12 age groups. People often get upset, even angry, should someone suggest using other types of baskets and balls.

What I think we should have is an open discussion about basket height, ball size and other rules in all U12 age groups. The discussion should not be about what is “right” – e.g. what we adults are used to – but about how to best enhance children’s enjoyment, motivation and motor learning.

What I have here is calculations concerning the Finnish boys’ average size at different ages in relation to the basket height, ball size and ball weight. These calculations do not tell us exactly what should be done, but they do provide a basis for an intelligent discussion.

It is quite obvious, though, that some modification definitely need to be made. For starters, consider this:

For an average 6-year-old boy, shooting a mini basketball at a mini basket is like it is for an average a 20-year-old to shoot a 1486g ball with a circumference of 113cm at a 400cm basket.

For the calculations, see this PDF file:

Relative basket height, ball size and ball weight in youth basketball

Blog: What Should Collectivistic Player Development Be Like?

If the good of the team is all that matters, what then separates Collectivistic Youth Basketball (CYB) from Peak by Friday basketball (PFB)? Charlie kind of brought up this point of view in a comment to a blog of mine.

Recently I’ve written about basketball being essentially a collectivistic sport. CYB in a nutshell is: a player’s goal should not be to play well but to help his team succeed optimally.

On the other hand, Brian McCormick has written about PFB: “Winning now is the only thing that matters, and often this stunts the development of players who need time and space to explore, make mistakes and learn.”

Yep, CYB is right and good and PFB is wrong and bad. But they look awfully alike, don’t they? What’s the difference then?

Here are some thoughts on the dilemma.

1) In CYB, the strategy should be to even the odds, so that kids will achieve success in a somewhat even fashion. In PFB this is not done.

2) The odds may be evened in e.g. these ways:
* Constantly change the rosters. In tournaments have players from different clubs play on the same team.
* Use different equipment and rules that favour different types of kids and enhance motor learning. Use ball of different sizes.
* Modify rules so that they keep the final scores close and grow the role of chance. Instead of one game of four seven-minute quarters, have four short games of 7 minutes and change the line-ups between each game.

3) Sometimes in youth sports it is claimed that the main focus is on developing the individuals, not on the good of the team. But what if that attitude actually harms player development? Doesn’t it dismiss the main skill for a player to develop – the skill to co-operate and interact with his teammates for the common good?

4) There are ways to measure the individual impact, too, if need be. Say you run a tournament with short games and constantly changing line-ups. Or you can do this in a team practice. You can keep score on which players’ teams win the most games. This could something to consider e.g. when running a try-out camp.

5) Maybe all other individual statistics but wins should be initially ignored? Maybe collective stats should rather be used as the basis for selecting fields of improvement? Maybe praising players based on their stats (mainly scoring) makes them view them incorrectly, i.e. as an end in itself instead of a means to an end.

6) In CYB the coach does not change the practice schedule or content in order to succeed in the next game. In PFB that is done, as “Peak by Friday” implies.

7) To complement CYB training, it might be a good idea to have individual workouts with one to four players per one coach.

8) The fact that most people will not engage in competitive sports as adults does not mean that they should not do so as kids, as some claim. Isn’t it rather the other way around? Since it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most kids, shouldn’t they be constantly given chances to win all kinds of championships?

9) In order to optimize chances of winning, players need to specialize, i.e. play a certain position. As shown, players of certain size will most probably play certain positions and need certain skills. Yet to optimize improvement in the future, players need good overall general skills. How should a coach solve this problem of specialization and general skills?

10) One suggestion is playing 3-on-3. Relatively more players will have a chance to handle the ball, and the cognitive load is lighter than when playing 5-on-5. Yet all the basic element of the game are there.

Blog: Euroleague Stats and Positional Characteristics

These numbers* from Euroleague 2013-14 by @sJacas tell
1) The minute-weighted positional average height and
2) how high a percentage of all field goal attempts are three-pointers.


According to Jacas, besides #1’s, #2’s also have a lot of play-making responsibility. The average heights are practically the same as in 2010-11.

What does all this imply, then?

1) Instead of bigger, players are becoming quicker and more skillful per inch.

2) #2 should be able to use pick-and-roll.

3) #1 should be able to shoot 3’s off the catch as well as off the dribble.

4) #4 without a 3pt shot is a dying breed.

5) An aspiring #5 could create a competitive edge by developing a dependable 3pt shot and becoming a stretch five.

6) When listing players’ heights, add at least an inch to their actual barefoot heights.

All this partly determines how one should go about developing collectivistic high-performance players. More on that the next time.

* = All data are from @sJacas via Twitter. Jacas is a contributor of In The Game, a web site where Euroleague statistics are discussed in a smart, cautious way.
I have taken 2.4cm off all five positional average player heights originally provided by @sJacas and based on the Euroleague rosters. Then I have approximated the result to the nearest cm.
2.4cm were taken off because @sJacas calculated that players who were in both the EL rosters and the Draft Express bare-feet-measurements database were on the average 2.4cm taller on the EL rosters than in the DE database.