In Game Adjustments – A Checklist.

As I write, the Detroit Pistons are 5-2 after beating the Hawks, Suns and Trail Blazers on the road and the Jazz and Bulls at home.  Before losing last night at Golden St., sandwiched in the middle was a home loss to the then struggling Pacers.  I was at that game and the Pistons played without the edge they had previously displayed and laid an egg.

However, that game’s most notable statistic was the Pistons’ bench being outscored by the Pacers’ bench 43-2, including a 22-0 run.  Afterwards, Coach Stan Van Gundy proclaimed that he would be searching for an answer.  That came quickly the very next game in a win at Portland when he never played the subs as a unit-always having a couple of starters on the floor as he mixed starters and subs.  As promised, he adjusted and like most adjustments, it was very simple.  After the Portland win, Van Gundy explained, “When you think you’ve found the answer, you find another question.  You’re never there; it’s constant adjustment.”

With that story as a backdrop, let’s look at a checklist of the common questions that coaches would do well to discuss with their staffs to form a general framework for the in-game decisions they’ll face in the upcoming season.  (In a subsequent article, we’ll discuss post-game adjustments).  



  • When and why you generally sub is a matter of philosophy, system and style of play.  Personnel adjustments are simple, common and can be game altering.   Like Coach Van Gundy, prior to the Pacers’ loss, you may have a general substitution pattern.  But there are unique situations that arise that may force your hand otherwise.     
  • Will you alter the pattern like he did afterwards, or beat him to the punch and do it in-game if things aren’t going well?
  • Will you sub to solve a matchup problem that goes deeper than switching a couple of assignments?
  • You obviously sub to solve low energy, body language and behavior issues. But, how do you treat mistakes and missed assignments?  Do you try to sub in these situations in such a way as not to embarrass a player?  Or, do you try to stop potential bleeding with a quick hook?   Do certain players get more “rope” than others?  What are your pet peeves?  Thinking and talking through this package of issues prior to the season can help in-game rationale and consistency.
  • What’s your philosophy on 2 quick fouls?
    Does that player sit the rest of the half? Is your answer firm or are there variables like the player in question, the opponent, the importance of the game, or time left in the half?  What are your similar thoughts when players receive their 3rd and 4th fouls?  You’d be surprised at how often coaches basically “wing” these decision.
  • What’s your philosophy of subbing “offense/defense”?  Everyone thinks of this as a late game strategy but literally this can be done from the start of the game.  That may be excessive but there is a method to this madness if executed on a number of dead balls in a game.  No one but you might know you only sub for “the offensive guy” when the opponent is getting the ball and vice versa when you sub for “defensive guy” when you are getting the ball.


  • Without a shot clock, one can affect offensive tempo dramatically by trying to take as much time off the clock as desired any time one wishes.  Why every high school team isn’t as proficient at this as possible for their personnel is a mystery to me.  Lead preservation is mathematically more plausible with the absence of a shot clock.  With a shot clock, teams can still take the air out of the ball to a degree but need to have a sound “end of clock” plan.  What’s your philosophy on when and how to slow down on offense?
  • Teams normally operate offensively in a certain “tempo range”.  Their range might be on the faster side or the slower side.  But, at a certain time of the game with certain deficits, they might be forced to play faster to coincide with a corresponding defensive tempo uptick.  This needs to be discussed and then worked on in “special situation” practice sessions.  How and when do you want to speed up on offense?  A very common flaw is a team running continuity or slow developing plays when quick hitters are necessary.  In this vein, how do you view 2 for 1 possessions at the end of shot clocks, halves or quarters?
  • How and when do you speed-up tempo on defense-full-Court, ¾ Court, ½ Court, ¼ Court?  No matter how slow or cumbersome a team might be, they have to have a few ways to speed the game up defensively when behind.  Not having tools to speed up a game and adjusting too late are common flaws.
  • Do you have defensive tools to slow a game down- soft press, sagging man, zone?  This strategic adjustment can really mess up a team that likes to play fast-even sometimes when they are ahead.


Easily one of the most enjoyable moments for a coach is getting one’s team into the right offense/play or defense and changing the game’s direction.  Very often though, the downside of frequently changing offenses and defenses a lot is that the players might not firmly believe in any one approach at either end of the floor.  This can lead to groping for answers and a lack of focus.  If you play man defense exclusively, do you make small adjustments like denying reversals, fronting the post or face guarding (if you don’t normally)?  Other than forcing tempo, do you need an alternate defense?  On offense, do you coach a basic offense with some wrinkles and complement it with some plays?  Do you tend to have too little offense or too much offense?  In either case, do you have “go-to” action for tough spots?

The cliché is “The great ones adjust.”  No one would argue with that premise.  The difficult task is when and how to adjust and keeping it simple.  Staffs can concentrate on these issues now and make these tough in-game decisions in a more organized way once the lights go on.

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