Whether or not we as coaches consciously think of basketball in terms of space and time, we would be hard-pressed to argue against the notion that all games are inherently founded on acquiring and defending space and very often in miniscule periods of time and in extremely small spaces. A quick hoops example to illustrate would be a pocket pass to a teammate through a brief, small opening.
There are obviously countless other examples and we’ll cite further examples in a follow up article but before we do, it’s essential to discuss the ongoing revolution in our game centered around 3 point arcs at the high school level and above and shot clocks at the college and pro levels.
It’s certainly not news that the NBA in general and the Steve Kerr coached Golden St. Warriors in particular have spawned the trend that this past season led to the highest scoring NBA season in twenty years. The reasons for the increase are quite simple- Pace and Effective FG% (which really means more made treys). In short, NBA teams are shooting and making more triples and shooting and making all of their shots quicker these days.
Along with the shot clock and the arc, another significant trend is the absence of traditional post men clogging the lane. Stretch #4 and #5 men add to the space that needs to be covered by defenders. We can thank the international game for that development.
While the NBA and the international game have paved the way, the college game isn’t far behind. One only has to be reminded of Villanova’s recent NCAA championship in a season where they led the nation in scoring and made triples, topped off by a new Final Four game record vs. Kansas in the semis of 18 triples (made by 7 different players, by the way). They actually broke the record with over 3 minutes left in the first half! Villanova’s success and exposure almost assuredly guarantees imitation.
So, what are the implications for coaches going forward?
The trend is real. Even if arcs are pushed back at various levels, the reward for 3 points is too great to ignore.
The modern “big man” wants to be part of the trend. The Milwaukee Bucks’ 7-1 Thon Maker is taking and making triples (5 of 10 to date) in the current opening round series against the Celtics.
Many coaches are already on trend and understand the implications at both ends of the court.
Whether or not a coach wants to embrace the “space and fire away” trend, that same coach will HAVE to find ways to defend the tactic. One example is the so-called “Euro-foul”-again borrowed from our international friends which has a defender intentionally fouling the player with the ball in a fast break situation with the offense having numbers. Obviously, this maneuver has to be explained and practiced before it can be recognized and implemented in a before-the-bonus game situation.
Other defensive responses to the trend are sending as many as 5 players back on D on a shot and the various versions of Pack-Line Defenses, which at their essence attempt to dictate from where and whom a contested triple is attempted.
This past season, I spent some time tracking every point scored against teams. Without fail, 60-70% of points scored in most games were from the results of four categories: 1) Ball Containment; 2) Closing on Triple Attempts; 3) Screen/Roll or Pop; 4) Transition. All are the result of Space and Pace play.
As a result of this kind of stat, coaches have to ask themselves if they spend 60-70% of their defensive practice time on these 4 categories. To a large degree, these actions have generally replaced cuts, off-ball screens and post-ups. It’s not that offenses don’t include these actions anymore; it’s just that they are used less often in Space and Pace.
Because of this trend, there is more space to cover and obviously space equals time. Defenders have farther to get to shooters than ever before and consequently less time. Getting to as many as 4 spot up shooters is a challenge. I read an article the other day that basically said that the Cavs’ offense should be Lebron and 4 shooters getting out of his way. This sounds too simplistic but in actuality, defending that scheme would be very problematic.
“Help” as we once we knew it isn’t as easy to scheme as it previously was. In my recent analysis, when points were scored (or should have been scored), the breakdown often occurred in “isolation” because the floor was spread so much and/or the defenders had no choice but to be a step or two closer to their man in order to close. Ironically, the fear of giving up a good triple attempt often leads to more good triple attempts because the floor keeps getting stretched. More defenders are “on islands” than ever before.
Quite simply, a staff analysis and evaluation of Space and Pace methods and how they impact one’s personnel, system and program is certainly a worthwhile off-season endeavor.