Ettore Messina started his coaching career with the youth teams of Reyer Venezia, when he was only 16 years old. From 1980 to 1982, he was responsible for youth teams at Mestre and in 1982/83 he was assistant coach at Udine. In 1983 he goes to Virtus Bologna, as responsible for youth teams and assistant coach of the main team. As head coach in Italy, he coached Virtus Bologna (1989-93 1998-2002) and Benetton Treviso (20022005), winning four Italian Championships, two Euroleague titles, eight Italian Cups and one Cup of Cups. From 1993 to 1997 he coached Italian National team, winning the gold medal at the Mediterranean Games and the silver medal at the Goodwill Games and at the European Championship in Barcelona. Since 2005, he coaches CSKA Moscow, where he won three Russian Championships, two Euroleague titles (2006 and 2008) and two Russian Cups (2006 and 2007). This season he coaches Real Madrid.
Lele Molin started to coach in 1978 as assistant coach of the youth team at Mestre. From 1985 to 2000 he works at Benetton Treviso, alternatively as head coach of the youth team (1985-88 and 1992-95) and as assistant coach of the main team (1988-92 and 1995-2000). Since 2000 he's assistant coach of Ettore Messina, first at Virtus Bologna (one Italian title, two Italian Cups, one Euroleague), at Treviso (one Italian title, three Italian Cups, one SuperCup), then at CSKA Moscow (three Russian titles, two Russian cups and two Euroleague) and now at Real Madrid.
The offensive system we adopted last year can sometimes appear complicated for our players, because it demands mental attention and a good mastery of individual offensive fundamentals. In this article, we’d like to examine the guidelines of this particular offensive system.
For starters, we don’t think that our offensive system is all that original. What makes it different are not the plays, but how the players apply the various ideas that are behind each play.
Our coaching staff spends a lot of time trying to figure out how we can utilize the best characteristics of our players on offense. This is a long process and sometimes we can’t find an exact role for each of our players right away. We strongly believe that, beyond the offensive choices, we have to take care of the players’ improvement, putting them into the best conditions to be dangerous on offense: we want to be effective using the players’ skills.
The general idea of the CSKA offensive system that eventually led us to our system of play was the conviction that it is certainly not the set play or playing free that makes the difference in a game. Rather, is was the ability of our players to understand what the defense was doing and to always be conscious of any changes that they were making. Our players must be able to read the defensive behavior of their opponents. Any offense can be original, but if the player on offense is not able to understand what the defense does, he loses effectiveness and our offense slows down. The strength of our offense depends on the options that the players have at their disposal after reading (and attacking) the defense. This special knowledge takes a while to be completely understood by our players.
Let’s take the example a shooter who’s coming off a low screen. Our player has to understand the defensive pressure he is under. He can react as written in the books or in the team playbook: If the defender trails, make a curl. If the defender slides through the screen, he makes a fade away. He has to be aware of the various options. It’s our job as coaches to provide the players the space and the time to better understand what the defense is doing. It is important to have an offensive system where the players can read the defense and react in the best way.
One rule that pushed us to simplify our offensive system was the introduction of the 24-second clock. We simplified our offensive situations and our goal became to try and attack immediately after getting possession of the ball. We were convinced that maybe only with the very weak teams on defense, it was possible to score a basket off the first offensive option. Too often, however, we are confronted with the correct defensive answer to our offense. That being the case, we need to notice this immediately and come up with an instant strategy to get around the defense.
Let’s take as an example of pick-and-roll in transition (diagr. 1). This situation provokes a reaction of the defense, so assuming that they don’t give up an easy basket on the drive and kick out on the strong side, we must have the time to read their defensive answer to this situation and exploit the spacing on the court and the timing of our passes.
Ten years ago, with the 30-second clock, many teams played the first part of their possession without really attacking the basket. We are not saying that we never took a shot as the the first option of the offense; if there was a shot with a wide and free space, then we took it, but what we really were interested in was provoking a reaction and then playing accordingly, finding our 1-on-1 options, our passes, and our movement.
This is a concept we developed over the years and it always helped us, especially when we played games when the ball was “heavy” (important game endings, for example) and when attacking a set defense became difficult, because our opponents were ready to cover the strong points of our offense. Understandably, our offensive percentages went down a lot.
We make great use of offensive transition, the changing phase from defense to offense. These are not simple phases of a primary and secondary fastbreak, but an offense that is run full court with no interruptions. Our team has to move like a wave, where our players run at medium-high speed, occupying our offensive spots and trying to get any advantage they can before the defense is set.
At least 80% of the teams in Europe play transition pick-and-roll, and we did too, especially when we had Theo Papaloukas as a point guard. He was so good, not only at finding easy shots or for his ability to get fouled, but because he could find free teammates for the open shot.
The main goal of the offensive transition is not to try for a shot on the first option, but to attack before the defense has a chance to set up, making sure to get the ball moving around.
These are the general ideas that worked as a premise for all of our plays on offense. For us, the primary fastbreak is a clear situation for outnumbering (2-on-1, 4-on-3, for example) the defense and it starts from a recovered or stolen ball. Other times, the action begins from a defensive rebound or after an opponent’s scored basket. We play an organized transition, changing the ball side, and finally getting the ball inside to the center.
Playing in transition is the distinguishing mark of a team that plays the more interesting basketball to watch, but to play in this way it is necessary for players to understand basketball fundamentals and to have an extreme awareness of the rhythm of the game. To control this kind of situation, especially when we play away from home, we play in transition. Our first goal is to give the ball to the center after penetrating inside the defense. In this way, we create a situation where the defense must react and where we now have a precise rhythm for our offense after the ball has gone inside.
With the ball in the low post, teammates typically stop and see what happens. This short moment of pause determines the correct timing of the action next to come. We carefully took the statistic of how many times we bring the ball into the heart of the defense (diagr. 2), either with a pass or a dribble penetration.
For our offensive rhythm, it is critical that the ball find its way to our inside player. Playing the ball only on the perimeter creates a lot of difficulties for our offense and, as a result, it becomes harder to win games. On the other hand, getting the ball inside gives us balance and allows us to attack the heart of the defense, where we know that the opposing teams have a defensive organization ready to counteract. Therefore, we must be ready to play against this reaction in order to take an advantage and get an uncontested shot at the basket.
Over the years, we realized that we must aim to have at least 20 shots coming from these low-post situations. Moreover, in the initial phases of the games where the referees are very demanding, our powerful inside game causes many of the opposing big men to get into early foul trouble. This limits their time on the court and we look to take advantage of that. Losing a defensive big man or two early in the game frees us to make more penetrations to the basket.
Another goal of our offense is to attack their best scorers. We want that their best scorer working hard on defense to therefore limit him and put him in possible penalty situations. By getting this player in foul trouble, we gain another advantage while the opposition loses one.
In short, our offensive aim is not just to take a shot, but to find various ways to produce even more shots. We don’t want to take a shot that the defense wants us to take. Rather, we want to take advantage of our offense, keep the players moving on the court, and increase scoring opportunities with several passes.
In our practice sessions, we stress the great importance of being able to pass and receive the ball. This has always been our job. When we were at Virtus Bologna (Italy), with Ginobili and Jaric, we worked a lot on passing: When and how to pass the ball was a primary goal and we quickly saw that it helped improve our game. We worked on passing into the center playing in the low post. We taught our players how to get the ball in that delicate situation, and how to reverse the ball side. Getting back to what we were saying at the beginning, the play itself is not the important thing. Rather, it’s how players react to the defense and make use of the fundamentals at particular parts of the game.
Players must understand what needs to be done after the defense gets to work. They need to know what happens when the center is double teamed, how to move off the pick-and-roll, and how to position themselves in order to attack the weak points of their opponents. This is not an immediate process, but something that is built gradually as the young players learn the game. They must come to learn that at every ball possession,we must produce something, whether it be through a series of well-executed passes, or by reading a mismatch on the court and quickly exploiting it.
Our teams are known for getting the ball into the low post. Here is a typical situation where we make use of a screen. (diagr. 3). Whoever is at the top of the key must clear out after having passed the ball to the player who has cut. This allows the second big man to take his place. Moving this way is not only important for providing the most scoring options but also causes the defense to become unbalanced against a quick reverse on the ball side. The fundamental thing is the timing of all this action. The player who sets the screen must be able to use all the necessary fundamentals in order to take a good position inside the area. Let’s review the initial setup (diagr. 4). With the ball going to the wing, and with the low post strongly guarded by his defender, the first thing we can do is drive aggressively to the baseline. Seeing this, 5 will react by sealing his defender with a “self screen,” while one of our shooters will go to the corner on the weak side. This is a valid rule for all the spacings in all the offensive plays we use. Whoever reaches the top of the key will then “shadow.” This means that he will go behind the teammate who has penetrated and the other player on the weak side will open the passing lane to punish the defender who is trying to help out on this penetration. The player with the ball must beat the pressure by driving aggressively to the basket.
If, on the other hand, the defender on the ball contains the drive, and the defender on the post is behind, and the defender at the top of the key then float down, we use the offensive triangle to get the ball to the low post (diagr. 5).
On the pass from the wing to the top of the key, and with the defender of the post who jams inside the area, we can bring the ball back into the area while the post goes inside the area to “steal” space for a deeper reception (diagr. 6).
We use the same rules and principles for another offensive situation where we have double exits. This has become one of our most effective offense sets. The first goal is to move our players on the perimeter and then use the center. This causes the defense to move and then we react to their reaction (diagr. 7). We could have Langdon, our shooting guard, come off the screens (diagr. 8), but we often used Siskauskas, the forward, as a cutter, because he was very good on coming back from the first screen (diagr. 9).
Let’s go back to the example of Langdon, who cuts and comes out on the wing, on the left side of our offense. When Langdon receives the ball on he wing, the forward, 4, makes a flash cut to the high post, while 1 clears to the corner on the weak side. However, if the guard, 2, makes a curl on the screen on the left, and receives the ball on the elbow, 4 will clear in the corner of the weak side (diagr. 10).
In the first case, 2 will try to shoot or play with the center. In the case of the curl, 5 will go to the mid-post position. Then, we will continue on playing to maintain the advantage, but everything starts from the fact that the two big men have played well in the spaces.
Pay attention to the fact that we always play by reading what the defense does! If, on the first screen of 4 for 2, X2 defends high on him, then 4 will screen in order to help the low cut of 2 (diagr. 11). Alternatively, 4 will screen to help the high cut into the area of the teammate (diagr. 12). When 2 receives the ball, he can shoot or drive to the basket. In this particular case, if 2 drives to the middle, on the eventual help of X5 with 5, who is not a good shooter from the perimeter, we will move as shown in diagram 13. As you see, we are taking advantage of situations that offer dynamic 1-on-1 plays. That is one of the fundamental points of our offense.
In our system, 4 must be a player with a great knowledge of the game, and he helps the point guard, 1, in deciding the construction of the offensive game.
Let’s look at the application of the same concepts with another setup we often used when 4 was already positioned at the top of the key.
With the ball on the left, 1 passes to 4 (diagr. 14), and, while the ball is in the air, 5 sets a horizontal screen for 3, who makes a hard cut to the basket. 5, immediately after the screen, moves to open an effective second passing line. Don’t forget we are always talking of creating possibilities for getting the ball to the center.
Let’s look now at the case where 3 passes the ball to 5 (diagr. 15). The center must not immediately put the ball on the floor, except if he sees that there is an immediate advantage for him to beat his defender. However, if X5 is behind his back, 5 must play with great calm and look for a free teammate to pass the ball. For this reason, his teammates will move on the perimeter to get the ball back from him so he doesn’t always have the burden of going 1-on-1 with his defender.
First, we will have a hard cut of 2 from the weak side, and, if the defense floats and jams the area, it will be possible to pass the ball to 1, who gets free, using the screen of 4 (diagr. 16). The cut of 2 has to be deep, because just in the final phase of the cut we will have more chances to pass the ball. The important thing in all the action is the timing, especially with 5 and 2, who must avoid attacking the same space at the same time (diagr. 17).
5 quickly gets the ball, 2 cuts hard, and 1 moves. After a moment (one second), if we haven’t found free passes, because the defense is tightly covering our players, then it will be the moment for 5 to attack, putting the ball on the floor with his teammates now well spaced and away from him.
It’s clear that the defense will counteract our movements. 3, after having passed the ball, must fake as if he were moving towards the middle, and then cut hard to the corner. He cannot go towards the middle because X2 could easily double-team the ball.
However, on the cut of 2, the defense can react with a “bump” of X2 that will effectively stop the cut by pushing 2 to the middle of the area where X4 jams. At the same time, X1 will go to the midline of the lane so that X4 will guard the initial part of the cut, with X1 taking over for the final part (diagr. 18). When 1 cuts, X2 is already ready to anticipate him. This is a classic adjustment against this offensive play, and is an anticipated and aggressive switch.
What is our rule when we face this defensive switch? We make a “cage” for 1 with 2 (who does not cut) and 4. 5 can kick out the ball to 1 (diagr. 19). This is a collaboration that must take place very quickly. Thus, when the defense makes its switches, 2 plays 1-on-1 against his defender. After the screen, 3 and 4 will also be open to offer two more passing lines. The idea is not to play in the way the defense wants us to. We have to force other situations to occur that will give us the advantage in the offensive game.
Let’s assume that the defense decides to immediately double team 5 just as he gets the ball, with X4. 5 will react by squaring up to the basket, while 4 will cut hard to the basket to receive the ball from 5 and shoot (diagr. 20). If the defense moves to the weak side, “zoning” inside the area to steal space, it’s obvious that 4’s cut will no longer be effective. However, 4 can make a screen for setting 1 free, or else he can fake the cut and go back to his initial position to receive a pass from 5 for an easy shot (diagr. 21). Finally, if 4 calls for the ball and X2 quickly goes to contest the passing lane, there will be more space for the cut of 2 into the lane. These are situations that, as you can see, do not need to involve the players on the weak side. But, by simply getting the ball to the low post, we make the defensive reads doesn't start immediatly.
If the double-team of X4 is made when 4 screens for 1 (diagr. 22), then we react by sending 4 to move to the weak side and get the ball from 5.
Often, defenses mix and hide their moves, and this requires that our players be skilled in reading and immediately reacting to what the defense presents.
Let’s see what we do if we have 4 in low post and 5 at the top of the key (diagr. 23). With the ball in the low post, 5 will always go up beyond the free-throw line. If he receives the ball from 4, very often 5, who may not be a good long-distance shooter, will refuse to shoot. X5, knowing this, will stay inside the three-second lane. But 5 can still be dangerous up high and punish this this defensive situation by making a hand-off with 2 (diagr. 24).
However, if 2 is guarded aggressively by X2, then we will have the cut of 2, the pass to 1, who replaces him, and then a pick-and-roll between 5 and 1 (diagr. 25).
5 still has other options on the weak side (diagr. 26) for 1. After the screen, 5 will cut hard into the lane, and just after that, respecting our timing rules, it will be the moment for 4 to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket. Remember that we never want two players attacking the same space at the same time!
On the pass of 4 to the weak side, 5 steals space by offensively “boxing out” X5 (diagr. 27).
These spacing rules also must be used when we play a post-up with a perimeter player. With the ball with 3, 4 in high post, and 5 in low post, we will not make cuts from the weak side, because cutting against a bigger player (diagr. 28) would not make any sense. This is different than the previous situation when 5 had the ball. Now, X5 is on the help side. There are two logical things to do: if 3 drives to the baseline, 5 cuts into the lane and 2 goes to the corner (diagr. 29). On the other hand, if 3 drives to the middle, 5 will cut along the baseline into the lane, 2 will always go to the corner, and 4 to the wing on the weak side (diagr. 30).
We have shown what to do using the low post and the need to apply simple principles of spacing and timing when reading the various defenses. The key is to be flexible and quick to change, depending on what the defense does. Maintain proper spacing and play-pick-and roll as needed. As a final note, remember that the skills your players need to develop concern the proper utilization of timing and spacing. You can help by working hard in practice with simple situations like 2-on-0 and 3-on0 and then bringing in more complex situations. By having your players see and practice against these defensive situations, and learning all the various solutions to them, when it finally comes to game day, you can be confident that they will be ready for everything that the defense has to offer.