Basketball 2012 – Some thoughts on the system

There is a twitter argument about whether basketball in the U.S. is broken or whether the development of young stars like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Blake Griffin suggest that it is as good as ever. I think that you can make either point equally well, depending on your perspective. 

The NBA always will have an influx of talent sufficient to meet its needs as the best basketball league in the world, provided that the NBA retains its place as the best organized, most secure, best paying league in the world. The NBA essentially gets to pick 20-30 new players every season from the entire population of basketball players in the world.

However, the NBA comprises a small fraction of the basketball system. The guys who make the NBA, for the most part, could make the NBA out of any system. If guys can survive wars in the Congo to develop into NBA players, teenagers in the U.S. can survive an imperfect system to develop NBA talent, provided that they have the work ethic, drive, size, and opportunity to play, practice, and perform.

Kevin Durant embodies everything right with the U.S. basketball system. He loves to play and he works hard to cultivate his skills and talent. However, geniuses graduate from U.S. school systems every year to start billion-dollar companies, solve complex problems, fight wars, and cure diseases, yet every day someone bemoans the failing educational system. In both cases, there are certainly opportunities and pathways for success. However, in both systems, these tend not to be distributed equally. Those identified early as elite tend to have advantages and opportunities not afforded to all. In some cases, these opportunities can have a negative influence, as much as a positive influence, especially if the chosen one develops a fixed mindset due to the early talent identification.

There are thousands of leagues, events, and more in the United States, and very little structure to organize them. Each has positives and negatives. However, to me, the problem arises when leagues, clubs, or organizations do not define their mission and attempt to be all things to all people.

Exposure events get a bad rap from people, including myself. Exposure events, in and of themselves, are not bad. There are plenty of players who need a chance in a different setting to be seen by a college coach or scout. However, when these events advertise themselves as competitive events or developmental events, problems happen. A showcase event is not the time for a coach to showcase his coaching talent for the college coaches who are assembled. A showcase event is not the time to organize a trapping defense to stifle a team who has never played or practiced together before. A showcase event is an opportunity for players to showcase their skills against other similarly-talented players.

These events can be great. However, they often are not, as the organizer stacks teams to showcase certain players or allows teams to enter and play against groups of individuals organized into a “team” on the day of the event. I sent a couple players to an event once. There were probably 20 teams, or roughly 200 players. The organizer entered his six club teams who practice and play together year-round as teams and allowed a couple of his friends to do the same. The remaining 10 teams were randomly assembled and given a caretaker to substitute players in and out. The organizer’s teams and his friends played to win. They ran traps, zones, plays, etc. The randomly organized teams did not know each other’s names, let alone how to work together against a trap.

To me, this type of event sends mixed messages. Is this an event to showcase all the players’ skills or is it an event to showcase some specific players who play for the organizer? Is the point to win the event or to showcase skills?

Other events advertise as developmental exposure camps. This is an oxymoron. A developmental camp should be focused on learning. Learning would require developing new behaviors – either a completely new skill or the refinement of a previously learned skill to make for a more precise or faster skill execution. Learning requires mistakes, as the player must practice at the edge of his ability.

An evaluation camp focuses on performance. When the focus is on performance, a player does not play on the edge of his ability; instead, he performs already learned and mastered skills. If a player is being judged and ranked, why would he attempt to do things that he is not sure that he can do and risk making mistakes?

Organizations fall victim to the same attempts. I see advertisements that read: “Developmental team needs players. Only need 11-year-olds who are 5’8 or taller.” How is that a developmental team when you are hand-picking players and only choosing those who offer the best opportunity to win?

I watched a “developmental” team practice, and they worked on their zone defense and 5v0 offense for 90% of the practice time. Is that a practice that is developing the players for the future or one that is focused on winning their next game? Winning and developmental do not have to be mutually exclusive. However, a developmental team approaches winning through improving each player individually and collectively, while a team focused on winning focuses only on the things that will make the team the most successful in the next game; this typically means running plays to get the best player the most shots and running a press or zone or some type of defense that most opponents will not have prepared for.

From a competitive standpoint, this gives a team the best chance to win. However, if 90% of your practice is focused on winning the next game, is your team really developmental? Are all the players given an opportunity to improve?

Being a competitive team and striving to win is not bad (depending on age). However, when you’re advertising as a developmental team, but you offer very little time for development, there is a problem.

The influence of coaches can be similarly positive or negative. Some summer games are characterized as glorified pick-up games because of the lack of structure. However, despite the apparent lack of structure and practice time for the teams, the coaches yell and scream and demand players to run plays as if it was the middle of the high school-season play-offs.

One of the best experiences of my playing career was a glorified pick-up league. we did not practice. We played four days a week with the same team for six weeks during the summer. Our coach was a player who played professionally in Asia, and many of the coaches were the same. The officials were the league directors who also officiated high school games during the season. The coaches knew they were not coaches. We had no real offensive or defensive strategy. We played. When I came out of the game, my coach generally had some advice, but it was more like the advice of an experienced player talking to an inexperienced player, than the advice of a coach telling me what to do.

This type of league is a great experience. However, if a league with this type of structure had coaches trying to demonstrate their coaching acumen by calling timeouts and trying to put in plays at halftime, etc. it would not be as effective.

Leagues, organizations, clubs, teams, coaches, parents and players need to know their roles in the overall system. Players need opportunities to play away from their coaches and develop with different coaches or by themselves. They also need to develop in a competitive season where they learn about team elements, game situations, competition, and more. Older players need opportunities to play in front of scouts and college coaches. However, these do not have to be the same event or the same coach or the same organization.

Each is valid for its purpose, but when the mission or purpose becomes confused, then the organization, event, league, or coach receives more criticism, as it fails in some respect. A “developmental exposure” event that really works with players to help them improve, but has no scouts in attendance does not deliver to those expecting to play in front of scouts. It may be a great event, and players may learn a lot, but if it fails to deliver on its promise, it disappoints.

The competitive season is not the best time for individual skill development. That is why the off-season is important. However, currently, there is no off-season, as players move from high school basketball to club basketball and back and forth between the two. Within this system, who develops the player? Does the high school program risk a few losses to spend more time on player development? Does a club team risk losing a player by foregoing the events where scouts are not present to practice and focus on skill development?

Skill development is a long-term process, not a day-long event. There is room for different events, leagues, etc., if each knows its place and the overall system works together. However, in the entrepreneurial system, each organization wants to capture a larger percentage of the pie, and this desire creates dysfunctional programming, and a focus on winning, exposure, games, and short-term results ahead of practice, training, skill development, and long-term development.

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~ by Brian McCormick on January 1, 2012.

7 Responses to “Basketball 2012 – Some thoughts on the system”

  1. [...] Basketball 2012 – Some thoughts on the system [...]

  2. Nice piece…

    I agree on several fronts….I agree whole heatedly on the comment of “there is no off-season”. Yes, you do get better by playing a lot of basketball games, but there are a lot of players out there that would be much better suited to working on skill/strength development, and learning the game. My coach in college flat out told one of our very athletic/strong guys…cut back on the lifting, and I don’t care if you play pick-up, just work your skills…(he should have received that lesson from his coach in the 7th grade)

    As usual, money gets in the way of things. Look at all the awful vertical jump programs out there? Most just to make a quick buck. So many bad ones…air alert, etc… But many are known by name, whereas a quality program like Alan Stein’s is only known to few. Money also has clouded the AAU scene, exposure events, etc…

    I suppose it is all a part of growing up as a sport/league, but as the Euro-style of basketball continues to grow, there will hopefully be a team/coach in the NBA that figures out how to win with a team of fundamental performers operating as a cohesive unit. Perhaps, that will bring some spotlight back to the fundamentals/skills.

    I hate to feel like the old curmudgeon, but I hate to see the skill in the game continue to erode.

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Weren’t the Mavericks a team of fundamental performers operating as a cohesive unit?

      • I’d say they were as close as it gets in the NBA currently. Perhaps that was it, and it won’t do much in terms of changing perspective on how younger basketball players should train and be coached. It was just a passing thought that the right team could turn some focus back toward the fundamentals.

        I hope, as you do, that we as a country can revamp/rebuild the basketball philosophy to correctly develop players…I just found your site, and have been reading bits and pieces over the last few days, and I love a lot of what you have written. I have a lot more of your writing to get through, but one question. I see you propose an age level system for player progression. What do you do with players that obviously are head and shoulders (no pun intended) above their peers as defined by age? Do you simply put them ahead a year or two?

  3. the Euro-style?? I get agitated when I hear this term. In American colleges, they are taught to move the ball, to shift the defense in search of the best shot possible.

  4. Great piece! After working overseas in Sports Development, I became aware of the issues with Basketball “Development” in America. Having come through a nationally ranked prep school and having a son as a freshman currently playing for a ranked school, the systemic flaws are so obvious, and the impact of the money and sponsor influence has been great for the game and is a major setback for youth sports in general. We will see the impact of our week development system on the international level between now and the 2016 Olympics as countries such as Spain, Turkey, China, Serbia and other continue to improve and produce NBA talent out of team-based systems. For a country of our size with youth sports so prevalent in our communities, we do very little to have a true developmental system for our young athletes as highlighted in the blog.

    On a positive note, an interesting program we have in our country today is the US Soccer Development Academy; youth soccer has its own issues but they are making great strides to change and become more competitive internationally and have implemented a controlled development and competition system to develop and improve US Soccer. Again, its still ways away but you must implement a LTAD strategy that at least goes 20 years out.

    During my research on developing a LTAD-based Talent ID System, I couldn’t help but be in impressed of the detailed, systematic approach of the Canadian Sport4Life system ( If this system was applied as a mandatory system to be followed in youth basketball, and other sports in America, I believe we’d ensure our dominance in basketball and other sports for the many decades to come. We need a national body to oversee youth basketball, a system that goes down to the grass roots level, implements a holistic development system that recognizes the need for the necessary pathways for our youth, addresses the professional development needs of coaches and administrators and controls the amount of play in youth basketball.

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