Sometimes you just have to let the players play

Like most of the basketball fans out there, especially those in the Boston area, I’m sure you have watched the recent 30 for 30, Celtics / Lakers: Best of Enemies. If not, it’s well worth the time to watch.

As I watched the documentary, it got me thinking about a number of things with regards to these teams.

  • First, Red Auerbach and Lakers brass were way ahead of his time with their moves. The amount of high first round picks they received while they were winning championships was insane.
  • Second, both teams ushered in a new era of way the game was played. Russell’s Celtics with their outlet fast break, Lakers with “Showtime” and Bird’s Celtics with free-flowing, pass happy unselfish play.
  • Third, both teams succeeded not because of sets, plays or complicated offenses but by letting the players play and trusting in their abilities to adjust and taking best advantage of their skills.

It’s this 3rd point that I’d like to talk about in this post.

Let the Kids Play

As coaches we like to scheme, draw up plays on FastDraw and implement a variety of named offenses, out of bounds plays and defenses. In all cases, we do it because we love the game and think that they can all help put our players in the best position to succeed.

But I also always try to keep in the back of my head that sometimes we just need to trust the players to make the plays on the court, learn from their mistakes and begin to loosen the reins on plays, systems and schemes. This isn’t chess.

In the 30 for 30, we saw that both the Lakers and Celtics had great success in trusting in their players abilities and opening up the system to cater to these players. Both had two coaches that helped to take them to NBA titles early in Paul Westhead and Bill Fitch but ultimately saw greater success* when two coaches were brought in that loosened the reigns on scheme.

*Paul Westhead and Bill Fitch are both great coaches. With Paul Westhead’s innovative Loyola Maramount teams and Bill Fitch as a NBA Hall of Fame coach.

You know the story. After one title with rookie Magic Johnson and two disappointing playoff losses, Magic Johnson infamously called out Westhead to the media. While not the best decision on Magic’s part, the growing sentiment was that Westhead had buried the most athletic team in basketball in a complicated system that failed to meet expectations.

When fired, Pat Riley became coach of the Lakers and immediately told the team to not worry about sets but to push the pace, run and capitalize on their superior athleticism and transcendent point guard in Magic Johnson. He let the players play and the rest is history.

Boston had a similar story. Bill Fitch was known as a consistently meticulous and detail oriented coach that would push his players to the point of breaking (Bird gives Fitch with a ton of credit for his work ethic in the early days). However, after one title, the consistent pressure put on players by Fitch began to wear thin. Enter K.C. Jones, former running mate with Bill Russell. K.C. Jones had a simple message for the team. He couldn’t do anything for the Celtics team that Fitch couldn’t. This team and their success was what they decided it was. He challenged the players to take ownership over their success while taking a step back on the X’s & O’s. And the result was fun to watch.

In both cases, the new coaches put their trust in the players to lead the way. Loosened control on what happened on the court while focusing on the core identify of the team that they could preach.

Identify first, Details to Follow

I’ve written about basketball identify before and still think the most important area a coach can impact a team is in helping to form and shape the identity. It’s a combination of understanding your team’s strengths (especially in terms of opponents) and building a culture around those strengths. However, that doesn’t happen without player buy-in and ownership of that identity and consistent reinforcement and encouragement both on a team and individual level with your players.

This helps to form trust and a bond between players and coaches as well as builds an unspoken understanding of what is expected on and off the court. It’s about building good team and individual habits that make the right decisions commonplace and those are the best moments in being a coach. When you can just sit back and see your players and team grow to be the best versions of themselves.

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