Gregg Popovich, the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, won NBA titles in 1999 and 2003. He started his NBA career in 1988 as assistant coach of San Antonio, went on to be an assistant coach with Golden State before coming back to San Antonio as the coach and General Manager. He was also assistant coach of the US National team at the FIBA 2002 World Championship.
This article is taken from the Belgrade (Serbia and Montenegro) Clinic 2003, organized by the Yugoslavian Association of Basketball Coaches.
The defensive philosophy of the San Antonio Spurs starts with the answer to the question: At which part of the court do we begin to play defense? Full-court defense, if played from one baseline to the other one, is called “40”; if we play from the free- throw line at the front half of the court we call it “30,” from mid-court is “20,” and in the shooting zone is called “10”.
Coach Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina taught me this very simple way to play defense and I have found that the players easily understand it. If we are playing against a team like the Los Angeles Lakers that is not making too much transition, but relies mainly on the set offense around the lane, then we play a full-court defense to use up their offensive time and change their passing angles. We don’t let them start their famous “triangle offense,” but make them use up time in the front court.
On the other hand, when we play against teams like New Jersey Nets, against whom we played in the NBA Finals last season, our tactics are different. The Nets run an excellent fastbreak, so there will be no full-court pressing, especially when Jason Kidd is playing point guard. Compared to the majority of NBA teams, we play a different half-court defense (diagr. 1). We put pressure on the player with the ball: X1 plays aggressively against 1, and X2, the player, who is one pass away from the ball, plays in a closed stance and doesn’t let 2 receive the ball. X3, the player who is guarding 3, who is two passes away from the ball, slides towards the ball and under the passing line. The passing line is the imaginary line between the player with a ball and 3.
One of the best positions for shooting is when the player is positioned in the corner on the ball side. The majority of coaches want their players to try and stop the penetration by moving the defender X4 to play this defensive role. I do just the opposite. A defender from the angle never helps on penetration because I won’t let the offense make a shot from the corner. This defensive concept is, among other things, one of the reasons why San Antonio was second in the NBA defensive statistics for the lowest percentage of three-point shots made by opponents.
My second rule is that the player with the ball can never penetrate to the middle of the court. Our goal is to always direct him to the baseline. If the defender of the player with the ball lets the penetration into the middle, I will immediatly take that player out of the game. In practice sessions I constantly underline to my players the proper way to approach to the offensive player. This means that the leg of the defender farthest from the baseline must be over the farthest leg of the offensive player. X2, the player, who is one pass away from the ball. must be in a closed stance at the three-point line and, if there’s penetration, he immediately leaves his offensive player and slides down at the help side, to the spot of X3, who must run to stop the penetration and place himself between the player with the ball and his teammmate under the passing line.
Penetration is stopped by going face to face with the player with the ball. X2 goes all the way down, and if there’s a pass, he must go for it. While approaching the player with the ball after he receives the pass, the defender must again force him to the sideline of the court, without letting him penetrate in the middle.
The defender of the player with the ball in the corner must follow the same rule. Also, if there’s penetration of the player with the ball from the corner to the middle, the defender that is the first pass away does not help. He maintains the closed stance. Our goal is to make the most difficult possible situation for the team that wants to take a three-point shot.
There are many players that have a good first step off the dribble and there are the those that jump and shoot well at the end of the penetration. However, there are only a few that can shoot in the space between the start of the dribble and the position they finally reach under the basket. That’s because they have a defender by their side and another one, usually a tall player, that runs towards him to stop penetration to the basket. These shots in the lane are difficult, if not impossible ones to make and usually you will find that the offensive players in these situations will kick the ball out to a teammate. In this situation, the defender who goes to cover the ball, forces the player with ball to the baseline.
In short, we don’t help out defensively if we are one pass away from the ball. Every time we force the player with the ball to the baseline, and we help at the penetration from the help side (i.e. from the lower position, a defender from the baseline), and we approach the offensive players, we apply the same rules, always forcing to the baseline. Naturally, when the ball is passed, a defender must jump to the ball and move to a good defensive position. We practice our defensive rules for 20 to 25 minutes a day, playing four-on-four at both halves of the court. All players run these drills so they become automatic. The following drill is a 4-on-4 (it is called 4-4-4, because there are three teams of four players involved) and it serves to convince players that they don’t win with the offense but rather by playing tough defense, especially in the last quarter of the game. At San Antonio, this drill is run by the youngest team player, Tony Parker, as well as by the oldest player, Kevin Willis, so they clearly understand what is necessary to win.
While running this drill, we typically play up to seven points. The offensive players can play any way they want (diagr. 2). If any of the four players on offense score, they gain a point. If they miss a shot, the defense gains a point. If the offensive players do not score, they play defense against the other team, positioned at mid court. The coach stays under the basket to get the ball if the basket is made and pass it to the next team, which immediately starts to play. The players don’t have time to talk or rest, and they must quickly communicate and decide who they will guard. I use this defensive drill every day and we play with the maximum intensity. In this way, the players gain the self confidence necessary to play a tough defense. They learn to communicate with their teammates and make switches, when necessary, to stop their opponent. As a penalty, the teams that lose the game have to perform extra running drills.
The final item I focus on is rebounding. If the offense takes a shot, misses, and grabs the rebound, the defensive team loses a point. In some cases, a defensive team that keeps losing rebounds can end up with minus points, below zero, putting even more pressure on them to tighten their defense. This drill is a basic part of each practice session and, on average, we spend a third of the practice session performing it.
Let’s now talk about offense. Let’s assume we start the offense with a defensive rebound (diagr 3). The forwards run and the first big man, 4, in this case, runs on the same side of the ball and tries to set himself into the low post position in front of defensive player to get the ball and score. Of course, if the defensive player is behind him, he seals the defender and he can easily receive the ball. However, if the defensive player is contesting the pass, he must push him completely under the basket and look for the ball. Karl Malone of the Los Angeles Lakers is a master of this move. The perimeter players run near the baseline to force the defense to run behind them and to make it possible for the high post player to receive the ball.
If we can’t score off the fastbreak, I believe that the best way to play offense is the inside game (diagr. 4). The ball is passed to 2, the player in the corner, then to the low post, 4. After the pass, 2 runs alongside 4, the player with the ball, near the baseline, and the other post player, 5, goes to the low post position on the opposite side of 4. The player in the other corner, 3, goes to the top of the lane. If there’s no double team by the defensive players, the player with the ball in the low post, 4, can play one-on-one. After the cut of 2, 1 goes in the corner, and then 3 takes the place of 1. After the pass and cut of 2, 1 goes in the corner, and 1 is replaced by 3.
If we do not want to or simply can’t pass the ball in the corner (diagr. 5), the pass is made from 1 to the second trailer, 5, and from him to the other side of the court, a reversal pass, to 3. The first big man, 4, flashes to the other side of the lane to get the ball. After the cut of 4, 1 and 5 make a staggered screen, one screen after the other, for 2, who comes high at the top of the lane. After the first screen, 1 goes to the other side of the court where he and the other two players set a double screen or another staggered screen for the screener. In this last situation, it does not matter what you will do because there are many options which can be signaled with a fist or some other pre-determined signal.
Unless we can give a ball to one of the three players on the same side, we try to pass the ball to the low post player. If we cannot do this, then this player can go to the free-throw line, receive the ball and play one-on-one or else pass the ball back to the player who made the pass and play pick-and-roll with him. This is an excellent situation to use against the teams that pop out vertically to the player from the pick-and-roll.
We have two options to begin our offense. First, the ball goes to the corner and then to the low post. Second, the ball is passed to the other trailer on the other side and then there is a staggered screen. To move the ball effectively, we do not always need to dribble on offense. A lateral pass can be done immediately to get the ball in the corner. This position on offense gives us a lot of possible options. The trailer (5) has to guess the offense: if the ball goes to low post, he goes to the other low post position. If the ball is passed around, he moves to the other side of the court and participates in the staggered screen and later, in the lateral two-on-two play. If we do not manage to get a good situation for shooting and the offense time starts to run out, players should be aware of how much time is left for offense and the ball immediately goes to the side. The players clear out to play one-on-one or pick-and-roll. Tall players have a special responsibility in this situation should always be prepared to start a pick-and-roll as the final seconds tick away. I have already described the basic cutting that allows us numerous options, and now I’d like to focus on just one of these options. 2, the player, in the corner, cuts around the post, 4, and runs to the top of the lane (diagr. 6). The second post, 5, from the top of the lane, screens on 3, the player in the corner, who cuts to the basket. We can call this a sort of offense in a triangle (‘’loop”option). After a screen, the player in the corner does not go towards the basket, but instead goes to screen the player with the ball. They then play pick-and-roll. If the pass to the trailer is not possible, the trailer makes a backdoor cut, goes to the low post position and the player with the ball dribbles to the top of the lane and changes the offense side.
The key issue is that the ball changes the side and defense moves from one side to the other. If there’s penetration along the baseline, we always want to have a player available on the opposite angle for an open pass and shot.
The following five-on-five drill is similar to the previous four-on-four drill but the points are awarded differently. If the offense scores (they don’t have to use any set plays), the offense go on defense and the defense on offense. The team on offense does not win any points for scoring a basket. If offense does not score and the defense rebounds, the defense gets a point and can immediately fastbreak. Should they score off a fastbreak, they earn another point. Even if they don’t score from the fastbreak, the same five players remain on defense, and have the possibility to earn more points. We play until a team scores 10 points. The losing team has to perform extra running drills.
I have always tried to increase the pressure in practice. The Spurs have not been a good free-throw shooting team-we were 26th out of 29 NBA teams last season. What I do is choose one player from the team that lost the game to 10 and have him shoot two free throws. If he scores both free-throws, his teammates do not have to run. If he misses, they all run.
My final thoughts: The team that plays strong defense is going to win. If you can get your team to play tough defense, they will lead you to victory.
Question: How do you get the motion offense started?
There are no special calls for starting the offense. When I was a player, my position was playmaker. I knew that two guards had to run in front of the ball and that the first tall player had to go to low post and that the second trailer came last. Sometimes, while starting offense, a playmaker may call the trailer to begin a pick-and-roll at half court. In such situations, help from the defense most frequently comes from the corner, leaving the shooter alone in the corner. There are no calls on offense and the player with the ball will pass it to the corner or else will bring it to the corner. After the pass, the player in the corner may run behind the tall player. The ball may be returned to the playmaker that also has a few solutions depending on whether the trailer is open for make a pass or not.
Running an offense is based on the defensive situations and the score of the game, and other situations that present themselves on the court. Certainly, in some situations I react. For example, if Tim Duncan hasn’t received the ball for three to four minutes, I will naturally call a play for him.. I am not a coach like Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers, for example, who lets a player run a play for as many as eight times. I will call a timeout if that happens. The cutting that I have described in our offense gives equal opportunities for all the players to score. If it’s not working or getting the results I want, I will call for a special offense.
Question: What’s the best way to force the offensive player to the baseline and how do you practice these situations?
There are various drills we do on defense to push the offensive player to the baseline so he can’t make it to the middle. One of these drills is a full-court one-on-one where the aim is to return to a good defensive position after a penetration. This entails sprinting up to the player and, without pushing, use some hand contact and a good defensive stance to force him to the baseline.
We also use a half-court drill to achieve this objective. After a pass is made, the defensive player runs towards the offensive player and they play one-on-one. The offensive player tries to penetrate in the middle and the defense tries to force him to the sideline (diagr. 7).
Winning basketball teams are those that believe in what they do and stick to what they do best. The key to winning basketball are basic skills performed well. The following drill is a basketball basic and should be performed every day in order to make players pay attention to tbasic details. Three offensive players are placed on the half court, one in the center of the court and the other two on the wings. The two on the wings should get free to receive the ball. After making a pass, the passer goes away from the ball a step or two and then tries to pop out to receive the ball.
Each time, before before receiving the ball, the player should cut away from the ball and then move towards the ball and cut in. A low screen can be made at the opposite side from the ball (diagr. 8), and then the player should roll toward the ball.