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Tournament Classic:

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

How To Watch (Chart) A Game BEFORE Criticizing Your Coach

Fans love to criticize coaches, but they usually do it for the wrong reasons. To say, "He should've played a zone" after a losing game is not intelligent criticism. Of course it is true that, after a loss, any number of things may have altered the game's outcome, but in most cases there are valid reasons for one strategy and valid reasons for another. So the coach had to choose. Hindsight is always 20-20, but the intelligent fan will eschew such post-game pot shots and instead concern himself with the same kind of statistics that coaches watch for:

Who got better shots?
Who showed greater patience offensively?
Who controlled the tempo?
Who played the smartest basketball?

The answer to these and numerous other questions can be obtained by keeping a simple chart (see below) during the game. What you do is chart what happens on each possession. There will be about 80 possessions for each team — if they average about 15 seconds each time they have the ball. A fast-paced ACC game will show each team with well over a hundred possessions, a slow-paced game will put each team in the sixties. (The shot clock stops the historic 20-possession games, but there will still be a marked difference between fast and slow paced games.)

The chart shows two basic things. "How many passes does a team throw after crossing mid-court, and at what distance do they take their shot each time they have the ball. A good team is more patient and throws passes until getting a shot closer to the basket or an unguarded shot from outside. Patience and shot selection or shot opportunity are the two key ingredients. If the opposition can consistently score on your team with a pass or two, you team plays poor defense. And if your team is inclined to fire up bad shots instead of passing more to get good shots, the coach isn't doing his job.

Note in the chart above that "we" threw six passes on our first possession and ended up with a shot from 14 feet. But "they" passed the ball just three times and got a layup (a one-footer). The shot distance you estimate quickly, keeping in mind that the free throw line is fifteen feet away, the three arc at the top of the circle is around 20 feet (measured at 19 feet 9 inches).

Note the use (under possession #9 and #10) of the letters "F" and "T." These denote "fast break" and "turnover" respectively. Fast beaks are of course good for your team, unless your team is giving them up. An "F" is sufficient notation, since the number of passes thrown is incidental. You don't want to let the effort of counting ruin your enjoyment of the game. A fast break is a fast break - if your team is getting them, your coach is doing something right. If you're giving them up, he's doing something wrong. To take your criticism an intelligent step further, you may want to make a notation besides the "T's," to distinguish between NOTHING-turnovers and GOOD IDEA (or mere failure-to-execute) turnovers. Good idea turnovers don't hurt a team. In fact, the team with more of them most often wins. But nothing-turnovers kill a team and indicate poor coaching, since it is up to the coach to condition his players not to take any risks which, even if successful, will result in nothing. For example, a pass to the side to start the offense should never be thrown away because if the pass arrives, nothing happens. On the other hand, a pass to a player cutting backdoor is a good idea. If he gets it, he usually scores. Therefore, the attempt is a good idea and it is mere failure to execute - not poor coaching-which prevented the score.

In addition to T's and F's, the following notations are helpful for seeing at a glance some patterns of play as they develop through the game.


With Chart III you can see that "we" scored only three points in seven possessions, scoring an eight footer, but taking four bad shots, two of them going away from the basket. Ideally, a team would like to take all shots on balance with no hand in the shooter's face. Inside shots are likely to have hands up and incidental contact, so with them the slash (/) is not as important as the X showing that the shot was a fade-away.

Pure and simple, fade-aways are coaching errors. If a coach does not require better shots, or if his offense can not produce them in thirty seconds, then he is overpaid and deserves criticism. Some fade-aways will naturally be successful, but the coach who permits them will live to suffer for his tolerance. He who lives by the sword dies by it - fade-aways work in easy games and then lose for you in the tough ones. It is the responsibility of the coach to require habits of intelligent play that can be effective in all games, not merely in the easy ones.

The beauty of this chart is that you will begin to recognize patterns that you otherwise never would have noticed. A flurry of arrows with those black spaces above them show immediately the devastating effects of letting "them" get offensive rebounds. In the same way, the sudden appearance of several F's one way or the other, or T's or /s or X's — all of these tip off breakdowns for your team or for them.

Note the action in Chart IV. "We" were doing fine on offense, passing at least four times on each possession (except when we snuck a quick pass inside for a layup that we missed in possession #2) and we got close shots and hit three of them. Missing the two layups hurt, especially the unmolested fast break layup on #5, but our defense is what is likely to hurt us more. Despite our 6-4 lead, we haven't gotten a hand in the shooter's face yet. We're giving up easy, close-in shots after only one or two passes. We look patient on offense but very poor on defense. Let's turn to a few more examples before going off to criticize the world.

Here the chart keeper didn't bother with the opponent's passes, but still the chart tells an interesting story. We missed four straight shots, but they were all good shots (on balance, no hand in the face) and the offense remained patient. Although they have scored three of their last five possessions and we only one of the last five, the score in this stretch is just 8-6, and there is every reason to believe that things will turn around for us. They hit a fade-away from 18 feet and though they scored a layup, apparently we at least converged on him and got a hand in his face. No panic button should be pushed here. The coach and the team seem to be just on the verge of pulling ahead - as soon as the shots start dropping. The problem is that often a pattern like the one above leads to the panic button. Players want to stop the decline, and the result you can see below, is suddenly bad shots taken after a pass or two, as each player leaves the team concept and hopes to change the tide personally.

Throwing up quick, ill-advised shots often leads to fast break opportunities for them as well as offensive rebounds, since the defense becomes disorganized. Very often a tight game is broken open because one team loses its poise during a stretch of five or six possessions. The importance of NOT falling victim to these bad spurts may well be THE single factor most important to winning basketball. This statistic is what is most impressive about "well coached" teams. These teams don't beat themselves. They don't have short spurts where individuals try to make the comebacks single-handedly. Year after year, (chartingly speaking...) there are more passes ABOVE well coached team's shots, fewer slashes BESIDE their shots and consequently more circles AROUND their shots.

You may find you are more comfortable charting only your team's passes and shots, or you may decide, especially if you suspect that your team gives up too many easy shots, only to keep the other team's offense. Whatever you do, you will find the effort of charting very helpful. It will inform you of what really is turning the tide out on the court. Does your team have a tendency to get sloppy near the end of the first half? A look at your charts will give you some perspectives you've never had before.

What about that team that averages four or five passes per possession but rarely gets an open shot? They must have poor offensive patterns or stand around after passing the ball. How about a team that averages two passes per possession and 17 feet per shot? They surely are not patient enough.

Who gets a hand in the shooter's face more often? Who is getting the most "extra" possessions via offensive rebounds? Who has the most needless turnovers? Which team permits a spurt of impatient, quick shots which almost always lead to fast breaks for the opposition.

When you begin to watch a game like a coach, you'll be in a much better position to criticize - or appreciate - what you see.

Good luck!

— Dick DeVenzio; Duke '71, former Sports Journal Arm-Chair Coach


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