The Principles Offense at West Point

Last month West Point assistant coach Heather Stec spoke about the Noah LaRoche offensive principles. Last week I did a fireside chat with Benjamin Chase who happens to be another West Point assistant coach. The more I learn about the offense, the more intrigued I am. Coach Chase told us they refer to the offense as “principles.” The best way I can describe it is that it is a combination of read and react and dribble drive.

The format of fireside chat added to the depth of the conversation. There were sixteen people on the call in total, so we got a variety of great questions. Here were the key takeaways from the conversation.

Why Run Principles?

St. Joseph’s in Maine went from being a middle of the pack offense in points per possession to one of the best in the country after implementing this offense. West Point ran it with a roster of predominantly freshmen and sophomores and did not take a step back from a more experienced team the previous season. And they were peaking late in the year suggesting that the best is yet to come. The offense generates the gold standard of analytical basketball: lay-ups and catch and shoot three’s.

Coach Chase began running a variation of Principles while playing under Hank Smith at Division 3 Emerson. Today, Coach Smith works for the Oklahoma City Thunder and many of his former players (including Coach Chase) are working in basketball. The team did not have a player much taller than six feet, so they knew they needed to seek out quickness advantages by spacing the floor and moving the ball.

Players Enjoy Principles

Coach Chase loved playing in the system. The players at West Point also enjoy it. Much of it is the system itself, but I also think the way they are coached has something to do with it. Think of the monotony of a drill after it is done for the twelfth time as a player or a coach. The drill is no longer effective. If a player is in a 3 on 3 competition, their passion is sustainable after the fortieth practice.

The primary means that players learn this offense is through small-sided games where decisions are random and getting quick feedback from coaches. Coach Chase told us coaches have a rule of five words or less. If what they tell the players takes more time than that, they need to wait until a moment in practice presents itself where players can be pulled to the side. The combination of getting players to make decisions and coaches to talk less is deadly. Players will enjoy the game more and improvement always follows passion.

Call the Offense What You Like

The name “principles” may need a little rebranding in my opinion. A group of adolescents or college kids might roll their eyes when they hear their offense is going to be called “principles.” Maybe call it “Firepower” or “T-Rex Superhero”. Or if you’re boring call it “Space” because it is the wave of the future and the chief advantage of the offense is the spacing it generates. Brand it how you like. It honestly does not matter since any team that makes a full commitment to this offense will not run another play or action. Principles is just simply the offense whether you face man or zone.

Coach Chase told us “principles” is more appropriate than “rules” because rules are incapable of being broken. There is some gray area within this offense and coaches need to trust players to have autonomy.

The Spacing and Roles of Each Player

St. Joseph’s in Maine morphs from a 5 out in transition into a 4 out with a player in the dunker spot. Coach Chase describes it as 3 on the baseline and 2 in the slots. Coach Chase’s phrasing excites me more because of the open space players have in transition.

One of our assistants found this excellent description of transition offense from Radius Athletics on Trae Young a few years back and we preach these principles to players. Cracking the shell is the terminology we use when the point guard dribbles inside the three-point line. Coach Chase calls it piercing the three-point line. In any case, getting three players spaced all the way to the baseline essentially guarantees the point guard cracks the shell.

Dunker Spot

The dunker spot player almost touches the baseline with her heels. She must face the ball at all times. Initially the player sets up further from the ball. If it is a drive right, she moves to her right.

The image to the right indicates that 1 will space out to the corner. Coach Chase suggests that the 1 needs to read the play. If multiple helpers sink to the paint, it seems logical for the dunker spot to move as the diagram indicates. If only the defender on the 1 sinks to help, 1 should try to find a pocket near the rim so that 2 can make a pass for a potential lay-up. Getting players to understand this read and many reads like it is probably the greatest challenge of principles. Many small-sided games are required to train players on the optimal read.

In the image to the right, the dunker spot needs to make a decision based on the defense. She can stay home if two recognizes that help comes early and there is a passing lane to dish it. Alternatively, she might move to the other side of the rim. Cutting behind her defender puts the help in an awkward spot of slowing down the ball or stopping their own player at the rim. The third option is to rotate out to the three-point line. Her rotation to the three-point line combined with the other players on the floor looks like the image below.

Does the Dunker Have to Be Positionless?

One of the people in the chat asked a question that crossed my mind too. Does the dunker spot have to be positionless? Coach Chase told us that a professional team tried that adjustment this past season because of the skills of their personnel. It is not ideal for two reasons. First, one of the strengths of the offense is that every player is in motion. The defenders simultaneously react to the ball and man as they are in motion. Second, one of the main goals of the offense is to exploit quickness mismatches. A player that is stuck in the dunker spot because of their skill set is probably not a great fit for this system.

Slots and Corners

Villanova refers to the four on the perimeter as being in the slots and wings in their spread offense. Principles is slightly different. Players are closer to the corner than the wing. This bigger gap allows for a little more for the slot players to attack. The diagrams Coach Chase offered us features the corner players even with the block. In that way, they can still rip with some room on the baseline and not worry about stepping out of bounds.

In general, the players follow the template of move left on a dribble left with one crucial exception. If the ball is dribbled from a wing to the strong-side, the corner player stays home. That player is the 2 in the image below. Once the kick out happens here, the 3 can move into the dunker spot.

Playmaker Spot

Coach Chase told us that Noah LaRoche considers the playmaker spot the dessert and the rest of the offense the main course. It is designed for literally any player, but works best with a quickness mismatch. As the YouTube video from Coach Daniel explains it is not a traditional post-up. It occurs on the mid-post as opposed to the low-post. And it generally involves a player facing up instead of backing down.

The key teaching point for players in the playmaker spot is patience. The offense is generally predicated around quick decisions. Once it reaches the office of the playmaker, the philosophy changes. Whoever made the initial pass to the playmaker needs to cut and clear out. Then, a second cut will likely occur and this player will filter into the dunker spot. After two players are at least given an opportunity to cut, the playmaker finally can attack. And all the other principles remain when that player attacks.

Required Skill Sets for Principles Offense

As noted earlier, slower and less athletic players will struggle in this offense. It is best for players that can shoot and drive well. Height is less important than other types of offenses. I asked Coach Chase where they prioritize certain skill sets in making decisions around roster construction and playing time. Here are there five biggest priorities.

Competitiveness

West Point will let players that are 5 foot 9 act as the top post defender in some lineups. They are willing to sacrifice height because of the advantages they can derive with smaller lineups and quickness on the offensive end.

Quick Mind

Being a fast decision maker is an invaluable skill in the Principles offense. Coach Chase referenced one player they love because everything she does, she does decisively. Even when the player takes the wrong shot in the framework of the offense, she follows through with conviction and does not hesitate. When one of the main priorities of their offense is not holding the ball, a quick mind is essential. Players need to anticipate a pass ahead of where they will be, where their teammates will be, and where the defense is going to be. For any offense that is used to pick and roll, this is a huge adjustment because so much of that offense relies on patience in letting a screener get set.

Quick Body

No real need to elaborate too much here. What I will say is that five players with quick minds and what Coach Chase called a “collective mind” are going to seem physically quick as well. Players with average quickness can be much quicker with a high IQ. Players with above average quickness are much less effective if they are driving at the wrong times. 

Passing > Shooting > Dribbling

Passing is a more important offensive skill than shooting or dribbling according to West Point coaches. The offense is predicated on lay-ups and catch and shoot three-pointers. It is much easier to take these shots when passes are made at the right time and in optimal spots. Given how fast the ball moves and the low amount of time players are taking to make decisions, dribbling takes on less importance. Straight line drives and ripping in the opposite direction of a catch are the most common “moves.” 

Versatility

Defensive versatility is especially important because the offense is truly positionless. When West Point defends, their priorities again shift back to the first attribute they value (competitiveness). Players that traditionally only cover perimeter players are forced into positions where they are guarding opponents that are five or six inches taller in the post. Perhaps the most difficult job for these players is keeping their player off the glass.

How to Develop Principles in Practice

The very first point that Coach Chase made is that West Point did not do traditional basketball drills. Learning to apply quick decisions is best done by maximizing competition and game-like scenarios in practice.

In terms of that competition, Coach Chase advocates for more of the 3 on 3 or 4 on 4 scenarios than 5 on 5. The quality of reps for both the players and the coaches in these environments is better. More space allows players to see the benefits of making good decisions. Coaches are able to narrow their focus in smaller games as well. With every player in motion at such high frequency, coaches are challenged in the offense too.

Small-Sided Games

One of his favorite constraints is playing 3 on 3 without players dribbling. My team always calls this small-sided game 3v3 Euro. In order to score players either need to make a great cut or fill. Players quickly learn that once they commit one step toward a backdoor cut, they cannot go back on it. Lessons such as cutting with conviction came gradually to the team over the course of the season. Coach Chase implored all the coaches on our Zoom that it took the players almost the whole season to adjust to the style of play. For high school coaches with less time and resources, you cannot expect immediate gratification with this offense.

They used 2 on 2, 4 on 4, 4 on 3, etc. Many times they started the offense with an advantage. Newburyport Coach Dave Clay likes to tell the player covering the ball to start with their back to the offense and see how the defense and offense adjusts once it is live. In some games West Point included the dunker spot position, but in some they did not. The constraints are based on where the team needs to grow at any given moment in a season. For instance, they might emphasize that a player that drives after getting a kickout is an automatic turnover because it contradicts their principles.

Involving All Players in Practice

Given that only one hoop is required for these small-sided games, West Point always took advantage of multiple hoops. This past season their roster included eighteen players. To keep all players engaged and enjoying practice, they wanted as many as possible playing simultaneously. Their practices frequently made use of three hoops at a time. Assistants like Coach Chase and Coach Stec are more involved as a result. The head coach, Dave Magarity, walked from hoop to hoop.

Almost as much as the offensive system, coaches can learn the structure of West Point practices. There are many coaches out there that only go six or seven players deep. In systems such as these, it is very easy for the back end of the roster to be disengaged and become energy vampires. By keeping feedback extremely short and minimizing the number of players that are spectators, I gained the impression that West Point practices flew by for all players. Even the kids that are unhappy with their playing time in games must appreciate getting a chance to play in a game-like environment at practice.

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