Ideas on Building a Fast Fast Break Offense

All solid offenses run breaks that are fast up to a point. In this entry I’m trying to see how we could accelerate the offense beyond the point set by conventional wisdom. This is where the title comes from: “fast fast break offense” refers to an offense that is visibly faster than a solid, reasonable offense on the average.

I am writing and posting entry this piece by piece, chapter by chapter. The 14th and last chapter Improve Relevant Techniques was posted on Friday March 9. Please let me know if you spot loopholes in my thinking or if you want to share some of your ideas.

1) Run All Out

This sounds obvious: of course players need to go all out when running a break. Yet most attempts to build a fast fast break offense start and end right here.

Please take a quick look at a random game tape. Do all your players consistently run all out when there is a slight chance for a fast break? Be brutally honest. Do not make one single excuse. Give the players no benefit of doubt. Pay attention to all the plays and players.

My guess is that your players don’t run all out consistently. That is the case in most basketball teams around the world.  Regarding our own teams, this is painful to notice. It undeniably shows that we’ve been unable to teach the players the most basic element of the game: full effort.

So, if you get your players to run all out your fast break offense will be accelerated. However, this improvement will not happen overnight. That is because the players must start running all out in practices, too. It is the only way to learn the tactical and technical skills necessary to run a fast fast break offense in games.

So please, take a quick look at a random practice tape. Do all your players consistently run all out when there is a slight chance for a fast break? Be honest, make no excuses and so on.

2) Use a Deep Rotation

Why then don’t players run all out? An obvious reason is the playing time. Given the team’s substitution pattern, the players figure out that they are better off reserving energy.

That is a natural tendency – and a beneficial one. It makes sense to get any job done with as little effort as possible. That is an important skill.

However, if you want to build a fast fast break offense your players must sprint full speed in transition more often that they used to sprinting. It is not going to happen if they play too many minutes. If they do, they will either reserve energy or end up exhausted and non-effective. In other words, you must use a deep rotation.

It is not just about the total amount of playing time but also about distributing the minutes. With a seven-player rotation in a 40-minute game, players will get 29 minutes on the average. However, it’s difficult to distribute minutes that evenly so someone will end up playing way over 30 minutes.

Another problem with a seven-player rotation is the length of the stretches on the floor. You will rotate three players in two spots (e.g. inside players #4 and #5) and four player in three spots (outside players #1, #2 and #3). Rotating four players in three spots creates problems. Say your starting #1 is the last player to get a breather. At that point he may have played eight to ten minutes continuously – and that is too much in a fast fast break offense.

With an eight-player-rotation you will be better off with the substitution pattern. That is because you only need to rotate three players in two spots. Your depth chart will be something like:

  • Two point guards rotating at #1.
  • Three outside players rotating at #2 and #3.
  • Three inside players rotating at #4 and #5.

An eight-player rotation still leaves your fast fast break offense very vulnerable. If just one player misses a game or gets into foul trouble, you’re in a seven-player rotation – and it doesn’t fit your offense.

If you want to run a fast fast break offense, you need at least ten capable players for the season. Then you have some protection against injuries and foul trouble. Eleven capable players is better, twelve is luxury.

3) Make Your Transition Offense Tactics Simple

Besides too short a rotation, another thing that keeps your players from running all out is complicated transition offense tactics. So keep them as simple as possible. Radically simple. The rules for players could be something like this:

  1. Run all out in a straight line from our basket towards their basket.
  2. If you have the ball, get it up the court as quickly as possible, either by passing or dribbling.
  3. If there’s no defender in their paint, cut or drive hard to the basket.
  4. Otherwise stay behind the 3P line and away from our other players.
  5. Create an advantage over the defense.
  6. Score at any opportunity.
  7. Initiate the half court offense.

And that’s it.

This type of approach accelerates the fast break for three reasons.

  1. At the start of the break there’s very little tactical thinking required.
  2. Because they run in straight lines, the distance from basket to basket remains as short as possible.
  3. Covering a certain distance in a straight line is quicker than covering the same amount of meters if you are taking turns.

4) Get the Players in Shape

Most often, having well-conditioned players is mentioned as a prerequisite for running fast break effectively. And it is.

However, sometimes the basic idea behind this seems to be misunderstood. Having well-conditioned players allows you to run the break effectively, or fast fast – not to use a short rotation. No matter how hard the players can go for 28 minutes, after the 28 minutes they’ll be tired.

If you want to run a fast fast break, there’s no way around using a deep rotation.

5) Use the Fast Fast Break as a Recruiting Tool

The fast fast break will help your recruiting. Players want to play, and you play a lot of players. So, you have a recruiting tool.

Certainly, you can’t promise them floor time. Every minute needs to be earned. However, the players know that no matter what, many of them will play substantial minutes.

So, it works both ways. You need a lot of capable players to run the fast fast break effectively. But in the long run the fast fast break will help you recruit a lot of capable players.

Because of the pace of the action, it’s rare that your players average more than 30 minutes a game.There’s a downside to this. It will put some recruits off because they want to play more.

6) Keep Running

During the off-season or early in the season, coaches often talk about running the fast break more than before. Usually this talk doesn’t lead to anything.  Either the team never shows any signs of really running, or the tempo of the game gradually slides back to where it was to begin with.

This is easy to understand because running the fast fast break effectively is difficult and hard. Having the players run all out on a consistent basis is just a beginning. This blog entry is basically a long list of thing of things that need to be done.

There will bumps along the way. Turnovers that make you think maybe you should slow down just a little. Injuries that shorten your rotation. Bad plays by the 9th and the 10th player that make you think maybe you stop playing them. Doubts about playing in a way different from what most teams do and from you have done previously.

And who knows, given your situation, playing the fast fast break may be a mistake. However, if you stick with it, you have a decent chance of achieving relative success.

That is because as practices and games pile up, your players will be able to execute the fast fast break faster and faster. You will be able to coach it better and better. Your 9th and 10th players will improve. It will be more and more difficult for the opponents to adjust to what you do because it will be more and more different from what other teams do.

And as mentioned, refusing to stop running will improve your recruiting. So, the real upsides of the fast fast break only appear in the long run.

7) Develop a Consistent Substitution Pattern

During the course of any given basketball game, there are innumerous possible substitutions the coach can make. At any break he can replace any of the players on the floor with any of the players on the bench. How should you deal with this complexity?

The key is to give up trying to figure out the substitutions situation by situation. There are simply too many options. We are not smart enough to make our substitutions fit the play.

Work the other way around: make the game fit your substitutions. Meaning, develop a substitution pattern, get your players used to playing within it, fine-tune the pattern when needed, and stick to it.

As mentioned above, a deep rotation is necessary in order to play the fast fast break effectively. However, just rotating players in and out at random is not enough but there must be a plan. Because we are too dumb to figure out the optimal substitutions one by one, we must develop a pattern. This pattern will then gradually become the optimal way to substitute, more or less.

What may make this work is having the players realize their place and job within the complex system of the team. They know what the team is trying to do and how each individual can help the team do it. They have an idea with whom they will play, when in the game, and for how long. They know what is expected of them and which skills they should improve at practice in order to be able help the team win.

8) Use Heuristics When Substituting

So, you need a deep rotation to run the fast fast break effectively. And you need a consistent substitution pattern to use the deep rotation effectively. How then do you develop and use a consistent substitution pattern?

By using heuristics.

Mousavi et al define (2016) define: “Heuristics are adaptive tools that ignore information to make fast and frugal decisions that are accurate and robust under conditions of uncertainty. A heuristic is considered ecologically rational when it functionally matches the structure of environment.”

In other words, heuristics are rules of thumb you can use to make smart decisions even when there’s little time and information. As when substituting in a basketball game.

Write down a depth chart that goes four players deep at each position as in the picture below. Decide how you rotate at least nine to eleven players according to the depth chart. Plan tentatively the order and timing of substitutions so that the fives on the floor are balanced.

When needed, make game-by-game adjustments to the basic plan. Against a certain opponent you may e.g. want to have your best inside defender on the floor whenever they play their star center. Use a different set of heuristics during the final minute of each quarter and the latter half of the fourth quarter.

When the game is on, follow your heuristics. For example:

  1. Stick to the basic planned rotation.
  2. If a player is not running all out where required, take her out at the next stop of play.
  3. When a player picks up a foul that exceeds the running number of the quarter, take her out immediately. Don’t play her anymore during that quarter.
  4. Don’t play anyone for a stretch longer than six minutes.
  5. When someone comes out, have her rest for at least two minutes.
  6. Stick to the plan even if someone is playing exceptionally well or poorly. (Not running all out is the exception.)

Some coaches say they go with their gut feeling when it comes to substituting. However, they are probably not doing their job at random but rather using some heuristics subconsciously.

There is an important advantage to doing the same thing in a conscious fashion: only after explicitly stating your heuristics can you critically assess them. That is to see if each one “functionally matches the structure of environment” i.e. works. If the they don’t work, you can change them.

9) Do What Fits Your Team

Some probably object to some of the substitution heuristics presented in the previous chapter. And they should.

Those heuristics are not supposed to fit all situations. They are merely suggestions that may help some coaches and teams.

This is true about most things in coaching. Because of this, you have to make your actions fit your context and the goals of your team .

This is obvious, right? So why am I even pointing this out? Because ignoring this is common and leads to a lot of inefficient coaching.

Most coaches watch a lot of elite level basketball, typically men’s NBA or Euroleague. We attend coaching clinics where elite level coaches speak. We read blogs and tweets about elite level basketball.

Because it is human nature to copy what other humans do, we end up copying what elite level coaches do. Men’s NBA and Euroleague serve the default settings of what basketball is – and should be like.

Obviously but quite inconspicuously this may make coaching inefficient. Almost none of us coach in the NBA or Euroleague. What works there, may not work here. And just as importantly: what does not work there or in not even being tried, may work very well here.

Take the fast fast break, for example,  It does matter to you whether they run the fast fast break offense in the NBA or not. What matters to you is if you can make it work for your team, in your context, in your league, against your opponents.

10) Keep Building on the Little Advantage Created by the Break

As mentioned previously, the fast fast break tactics are quite simple. Basically, you just take the ball and run all out.

Unfortunately, regarding the tactics there are tricky parts, too. A tricky part is flowing off the break into the half-court offense.

The efficiency of your fast fast break can not be determined by how many points you score off the break. That is because the number of fast break points depends on multiple things:

  1. How you define fast break.
  2. What your shot selection is like on the break.
  3. How much you gamble on defense in order to create fast break opportunities.
  4. How effective your offense is overall.
  5. How effective your fast break is.

Say you push the fast fast break continuously. Sometimes you manage to create such a big advantage over defense that you end up taking a high-percentage shot right off the break – typically a lay-up or an uncontested 3PA. Sometimes you can’t create any advantage at all, but you must start the half-court fully matched up 5-on-5.

Those two options are the white and black areas: big advantage, no advantage. However, often you will end up in the grey area: the break creates you a little advantage over the defense, but not quite enough to take a high-percentage shot right away. The on-the-ball defender may be half-a-step late, or a weak side defender may be a step too deep in the paint.

In this little advantage situation many coaches want their team to set up the half-court offense. Typically it means getting the ball to the point guard and starting a set play.

On the plus side, this setting up gives the team a chance to run a play in an organized fashion. On the minus side, they give up the little advantage they created by running the break. This is waste of energy, because you have put in a lot of effort into running the break and creating that little advantage.

If you as a coach want to move from the grey area mentioned into setting up a play, you probably should not run the fast fast break offense. Rather, you should do the conventional thing and push the break only when a viable opportunity arises.

Yes, you will miss some fast break points. However, they are compensated for by the energy conserved. Your best players will remain effective for longer stretches. You probably avoid some turnovers. And the efficiency of your half-court offense is enhanced because you settle for it earlier in the shot clock.

What this implies regarding the fast fast break offense is this: you need to have a half-court offense that can be initiated right off the break. This and only this will allow you to maintain the little advantage created by the break – and to keep building on that advantage. In other words, only this may make the outcome worth the energy consumed.

The dribble drive motion is the most obvious choice but by no means the only one.

11) Run With a Slow Team, Too

The traditional thinking is that if you have quick players, you run a fast break offense. And if you have slow players, you concentrate on your half-court offense.

This is not an optimal way to approach the issue. Rather, make the decision based on the number of capable players. If you have ten or more of them, run the fast fast break offense. If you don’t have, don’t run.

Why should this be the case?

  1. All offensive systems are more effective with quick players than with slow ones. If you have really slow players, you’ll be in trouble no matter what. Your fast fast break offense will not be great, but neither will your half court offense. However, if you have a lot of slow players, the fast fast break offense might be your best chance. It allows you to take advantage of your depth, and that may be your only strength compared to your opponents.
  2. Quickness is usually referred to as a physical characteristic – meaning foot speed. However, basketball requires tactical and technical quickness, too. So, even if your players have slow feet, they can be relatively quick in the basketball sense of the word. And if they are not, it’s your job can to help them become quicker.
  3. Quickness is relative. If your team play at a young age group or in a low-level league, the players will be slow in the absolute sense of the word – in other words, compared to elite teams. But you don’t need to worry about those teams. All you need worry about is your team and its opponents.

12) Play Any Type of Defense

Sometimes it is claimed that a fast-breaking team should play a type of defense that enhances their offense. Usually this implies that you should use some kind of full-court pressure.

The rationale is that the defensive pressure speeds up the pace of the game and thus leads to more fast break opportunities. Also, it is assumed that full-court pressure causes turnovers, and turnovers lead to fast breaks.

These claims are correct. Full-court defensive pressure does speed up pace of the game and thus increases the number of fast-break opportunities. That is why it is rational for a team to press when trailing late in the game.

And yes, when properly executed, full-court pressure probably does raise the opponents’ turn-over percentage. And yes, a steal does provide a better opportunity to run a fast break than a defensive rebound does.

However, this does not imply that a fast-breaking team should press full court. That is because the goal of fast-breaking is not to maximize the number of fast breaks. Rather, the goal is to maximize the odds of winning games.

In other words, when choosing  your defensive tactics, you should consider the net effect and the net effect only. As mentioned above, applying full-court pressure probably has pluses. But it will probably have minuses, too. It may lead to extensive fouling, or enable the opponents to have a high FG shooting percentage. And so.

13) Learn to Steal While Limiting Gambling

So, a steal provides a better opportunity to run a fast break than a defensive rebound does. Possessions that start with a steal produce more points per possession. Thus it makes sense to try to enhance your fast break offense by increasing the probability of steals.

Up to a point, that is not hard to do. As discussed previously, you can pressure the opponents full court. Or aggressively overplay the passing lanes. Or double team the post-ups. Or simply tell your players to go for steals. And so.

The problem is that there is a price to be paid for steal attempts. There is usually risk involved. For example, if a player gambles to steal a pass but doesn’t get the ball, he will very likely be out of his designated defensive position. This may open up an easy scoring opportunity for the opponents.

Thus, the question becomes: how do you enhance the net effect of your steal attempts? For some teams the best short-term answer is “by making fewer steal attempts”. Lowering the number of gambles may lead to fewer steals but enhance e.g. the defensive field goal percentage – and thus be net-effective.

For some teams the best short-term answer may be the opposite: for them, the best way to enhance the net effect of steal attempts may be to make more of them. That may be the case if the coach has taught his team to play containing, conservative defense and not to take a slightest risk when attempting steals.

However, In the long term the best way to enhance the net effect of your steal attempts is this: practice stealing while limiting the amount of gambling involved. This practice should include both tactical and technical aspects.

This may sound simple and obvious. But outside practicing pressing and trapping, how often do you see teams practice stealing? Quite rarely, wouldn’t you say  – especially considering the high value of steals.

So, for a lot of teams, some practicing stealing would probably be time and cost efficient. Why then don’t teams practice it? Maybe because:

  1. Practicing steals is not a part of the basketball coaching tradition.
  2. Coaches are worried about encouraging gambling.
  3. Steals are such rare occasions that they are undervalued and perceived as random.
  4. Coaches don’t perceive stealing as a trainable skill.
  5. Tactics and techniques used to get steals are so varied and numerous that it’s hard to figure out which ones to practice.

14) Improve Relevant Techniques

Running the fast fast break effectively is often considered a matter of effort and tactics. And as seen above, up to a certain point it is.

However, it is also a technical matter. Players must be able to execute certain actions while sprinting full speed. While acquiring skills necessary to execute those actions, the players must eventually run full speed at practice, too.

This is sometimes ignored by coaches. Some seemingly assume that technical skills to be used while running full speed may be acquired while always running half speed. Unfortunately, this is flawed thinking. In reality, practice must be game-like.

On the other hand, the players can run full speed for only so long. Practice becomes counter-productive if they get too tired too early. This fact limits the number of repetitions that can be done game speed. A trade-off must be made between the effectiveness of practice and the expenditure of energy.

Relevant technical skills to be practiced in full speed include lay-ups, certain types of passes, and ball handling.

13 thoughts on “Ideas on Building a Fast Fast Break Offense

  1. Pingback: Use a Deep Rotation | Coach Harri Mannonen

  2. Pingback: Make Your Transition Offense Tactics Simple | Coach Harri Mannonen

  3. Pingback: Develop a Consistent Substitution Pattern | Coach Harri Mannonen

  4. Pingback: Use Heuristics When Substituting | Coach Harri Mannonen

  5. Pingback: Do What Fits Your Team | Coach Harri Mannonen

  6. Pingback: Keep Building on the Little Advantage Created by the Break | Coach Harri Mannonen

  7. Pingback: Run With a Slow Team, Too | Coach Harri Mannonen

  8. Larry Bird-slow, Denis Johnson-slow, Kevin McHale-slow, Robert Parrish-slow, yet were a very good fast breaking team.(Boston Celtics-80’s)

  9. Pingback: Play Any Type of Defense | Coach Harri Mannonen

  10. Pingback: Learn to Steal While Limiting Gambling | Coach Harri Mannonen

  11. Pingback: How to Practice Getting Steals | Coach Harri Mannonen

  12. Pingback: Improve Relevant Techniques to Improve the Fast Break | Coach Harri Mannonen

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