Tuesday, May 05, 2009


My high school team did it. And I'm a pretty big proponent. I love the run and gun that results.

Although, probably not for junior high, where I think it should be about more than winning.

Pressing in basketball. Just thinking about it, I bet you envisioned an exciting game. So, is it underused?

Malcom Gladwell thinks so. Definitely read the article. It's moreso an analysis of how an underdog can optimize their chances of success. But very interesting, as always.


Chairman said...

Westy - I'm not going to lie. This whole angle became a lot less interesting to me as soon as I started reading about girl's middle school "basketball." So there's the obvious - he's pressing 12 year old girls. Which means that I've lost a lot of respect for Gladwell, for even commenting on this. And then there's the matter of you working the New Yorker for sports thoughts... the shame of it all :-)

Conceptually, the Gladwell discussion overstates things. There are two levels of analysis that he's not really giving enough attention to, instead choosing to bring in tangential war analogies. At the individual level, it's easier to play defense (which requires only athleticism) than it is to advance a basketball (which requires athleticism plus hand-eye coordination). I'd guess that the advantage for the defense doesn't really get overcome until you get to the level of someone who starts at the men's high school level. At the team level, it's easier to be the first-mover (where you can apply a known strategy) than it is to be a responder (where you have to respond to what someone else is doing).

Think about pickup games where (assuming that there's full effort being exerted) the defense is better than the offense. This comes because you can get away with only being athletic on defense, and that the schemes of the offense are generally crap.

If we accept that's why the press works, now let's look at the example used. With 7th grade girls basketball, do you expect the basic knowledge of the press-breaker to be instilled so as to be automatic? I wouldn't. And how much skill development is there? Are you surprised that it worked? Not really. I'd wager that a team that employed a 3/4 court or a half-court trap would mop up, as well. It's not that the full-court trap is a great scheme. It's that you abuse the lack of individual skill and team organization.

And in fact, I'd argue that the full-court trap is suboptimal in that design. Basketball isn't truly free flowing - you have discrete possessions. And like we talked about a little while back, The single best predictor of winning or losing is how efficient you are with your possessions. Full-court pressing increases the number of possessions in a game.

Basic stats question: If a team that is less efficient with its possessions (i.e., less skilled), is that team's likelihood of victory greater in a game where each team gets 30 possessions or 60 possessions?

You'd have to argue that the act of pressing can reduce a team's efficiency enough so that you can overcome that deficit over the course of an increased number of possessions. Which makes for a rather small set of circumstances. Presses work for extended periods against teams that don't have superior ball handling and/or are stupid. It may work in college, where there's no guarantee of superior ball handling (cf., '07-'08 Fighting Illini Men's Basketball). But in the pros? Not so much, even with a 24-second shot clock and an 8-second violation. And we can flash back to a National Semifinal game in 2005 involving Rick Pitino. He did not press. He didn't even try to play man. He stayed back in zone. Why? Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head = superior ball handling.

Westy said...


I totally agree and still think the press is underused. How's that?

Chairman said...

Pressing more isn't really the same as exclusively pressing, so maybe there's no disconnection.

Teams seem to only press when they get into desperate situations. It's good to mix it up, and press when teams aren't ready for it. But if you only go to it when you're down 12 with 2:30 left to go in the game, it's too late.

Too many coaches let the other team get comfortable with attacking one style, and never make them switch it up. You see all the time how teams often struggle to adjust their offense to attack man or attack zone (one of my constant critiques of Weber). Similarly, you can catch teams off guard with the press.

So, maybe teams should incorporate the press more often, in different circumstances, and before they're in a desperate mode.

Westy said...


I'm a proponent of switching D frequently.

Chairman said...

There are definitely levels of frequency. Part of it is setting the character of your team. Teams seem to take on an identity that's based around their defense. Once that set, you can throw a couple curveballs here and there. Assuming that we agree on that, we can think about how often you switch it up. Each time you switch it up, you probably give away a little bit of your execution (and maybe a bit of your identity), but you surprise the offense, and if that surprise if more than your loss of execution, then you gain an advantage.

Two things continue to come to mind in this discussion - the quality of the players involved, and the number of possessions.

There's a lot to be said for doing one thing and doing it well (i.e., Pitino's press, Boeheim's 2-3 zone, Cheaney's match-up zone, Tark's amoeba D, Bobby Knight's straight man). Of course, as I type that, I notice that those are all college coaches. Maybe at that level (where the system is still superior to individual talent), it's getting a system in place, and then throwing little tweaks in there. And, in theory, the better the players, the quicker a team is to adjust to that change. Of course, the argument may be moot in the pros, where the individual talent seems to have surpassed defensive systems, to the point where you need to gear defenses around plays (i.e., pick and roll defense, post help, etc.). So maybe it pays more to switch it up in college, since the players are inferior, and the first-move advantage is greater.

The other factor is the number of possessions in a game. Let's say that each time you switch it up, it takes the other team some number of possessions to adjust. If you're playing a game in the 60's, those possessions are worth more than if you play a game in the 100's. And there's a diminishing return - if you're a man-to-man team, the first time you switch to a 1-3-1 zone, you'll catch them off guard, but the 2nd time you change back to the 1-3-1, you lose a lot of that edge, since the offense has already seen it, and (presumably figured it out). So to change it up on them more, you have to add a 2nd tactic, say a 2-3, but you can't be as effective in the 2-3 as you are in 1-3-1, so again, the effect of the change is less. Again, in college, where you have fewer possessions, these little advantages carry more weight, and maybe in the NBA, changing D has a little less value, since you have so many more possessions.