Basketball Strategy: There’s No “Right” Way to Play or Coach

By Matt Barnthouse

It’s all about preference – teams with various styles of play are succeeding in today’s game, as evidenced by recent champions.

During the 2019 men’s NCAA Tournament, basketball coaches and fans across the world saw a collection of some of the best games in recent memory. Specifically, the Sweet Sixteen and Eight Eight featured teams with clashing styles faced off with hopes and dreams of making it to Minneapolis. In the end, the lucky programs to make it that far each used a different strategy and style of play to stamp their ticket to college hoops’ biggest stage: The Final Four.

Too often when consulting with coaches, fans, and players alike, I run into a common train of thought – that there is a “right answer” to do anything. A singular “right way” to play, a singular “right way” to coach, a singular “right way” to treat players. 

In reality, there are many “right ways” to go about those things, and the only singular “right way” to play is the way that allows your team finish with more points on the scoreboard. 

Texas Tech and Virginia made the Final Four with grind it out, defense-based schemes that slow the pace down. The Cavaliers took it to the extreme, playing the slowest tempo in college basketball. These teams shattered the idea that slower, defense-based teams are great in regular season, but can’t get it done in March or April. The Red Raider defense excelled at forcing turnovers and playing physical, while UVA did it by focusing less on turnovers and more on defending without fouling. Two different paradigms, but both worked.  

Michigan State made to Minneapolis by being very good just about everywhere. The Spartans’ pace was below average, but only slightly, thanks to quicker offensive possessions and slower defensive possessions. They shot well from nearly all over, and held opponents from scoring just about everywhere. MSU was not the best in the country at anything, but they may just be the best team in the country at doing everything. It worked for the Spartans. 

Meanwhile, Auburn‘s strategy of doubling down on offense allowed it to reach the last weekend of the season. Almost half of the Tigers’ shots came from the three-point line, leading to some inconsistent play at times. There were games in the regular season where they could not miss, and games where they fell to inferior teams largely thanks to shooting woes. However, with its talented shooters and commitment to its core values and freedom of play, Auburn got hot at the right time, and in a single elimination tournament, sometimes that’s all it takes. Auburn got there by sticking to both its core values and its game plan, believing in these and making buckets. 

Take a look at the NBA Finals as well. The Toronto Raptors used a much different style of play under first year head coach Nick Nurse to beat the Golden State Warriors, who have made five consecutive finals relying on spreading the floor with elite shooters.

Going back to my main point, people often look for a “correct answer” when trying to decide what style of play or coaching strategy works for them. It is focused almost on “how can I get the outcome I want?” instead of “what core values do I want my team to have on the court?” Outcome is important. After all, you can’t get to the Final Four without winning games. However, focusing on outcome over core values and process can cloud a coach’s perspective, and lead to making snap judgments that may not take into account the full picture.

The only correct answer, is that there is no correct answer! Perhaps instead of looking for answers, we should be looking for questions. What do I as a coach believe in? What values on and off the court do I want my players to uphold? How will I exemplify those core values in my words and my actions? Will the players and staff buy in? Is this style of play the best fit for our personnel? How do our players, as individuals, learn best? The answer for every team, player, staff member, and fan may be different. And that is OK! In fact, it is freeing. 

By searching for questions, rather than answers, we now have the freedom to adjust our coaching styles and interactions with people to the situation, rather than being stuck in one singular “correct” way to coach or play. There are so many nuances in this beautiful game, both on and off the court, that to restrict ourselves to a “correct” way to play, or a “correct” way to coach is keeping us from reaching our full potential. Maybe we don’t have the answers, and maybe we should not want it any other way.

Continue the discussion: Let us know what you think by leaving a comment.

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Matt Barnthouse

Content Associate at FastModel Sports
Matt Barnthouse is a content associate for FastModel Sports. Barnthouse has over eight years experience working at the youth, high school, and Division I levels of basketball, including four years as a student manager for Ole Miss Men's Basketball from 2013-2017, and volunteer multimedia recruiting assistant for Cincinnati Men's Basketball from 2017-19. Barnthouse became a free agent following the completion of his Master's Degree in 2019, and is looking for a job in basketball. You can follow Barnthouse on Twitter @MattBarnthouse.
March 8, 2019: Virginia Tech Hokies coach Buzz Williams call a play during NCAA basketball action between the Miami (Fl) Hurricanes and the Virginia Tech Hokies at Cassell Coliseum Blacksburg, VA. Virginia Tech defeats Miami (Fl) 84 -70. Jonathan Huff/CSM(Credit Image: © Jonathan Huff/CSM via ZUMA Wire)

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One Comment;

  1. Makis Pilouris said:

    Basically i agree with this article. I only have to add something important for me. A coach have several ways to play and win but has build a style over the years. For instance Mike D’Antoni could play a basketball similar to this of Celtics. But he doesn’t believe in this style so he won’t be successful. Well he might be good but now he is better if that makes sense. If you see basketball in europe you can clearly see that. CSKA is the recent example when we are talking. They won the euroleague with fastpaced basketball based on the individuals of the roster using a lot isolation plays. 3 years ago the same coach, in the same team won with a more “set based” styled close to that of Fenerbahce which what he likes the most. He now returned to this type of basketball. In some cases you can’t play what you like but you must play what you should. I.E Bucks can’t play a slow paced basketball when Giannis Antetokounmpo is their main superstar. You have to adjust your style every time you coach a team with a certain superstar.