The Memphis Attack Made Simple

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IFebruary 24, 2009

The newest revolution in big-time basketball is the so-called dribble-drive motion offense. There are too many proponents of the basic offense for me to list them all, but some of the most notable disciples are Doc Rivers (Boston Celtics, NBA), John Calipari (Memphis Tigers, NCAA), and Bob Hurley (St. Anthony’s, high school).


For those scoring at home, that’s the reigning NBA champions, the 2008 NCAA D-I runners-up, and they 2008 mythical high school champs. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, men’s and women’s teams by the dozen are trying to institute the flavor-of-the-month offense, win big and make a splash.


So just what is DDM, or “The Memphis Attack” as it is sometimes known?


The nomenclature—dribble-drive motion—is deliciously simple and descriptive. An offensive player dribbles towards the basket, known for ages in basketball parlance as “driving”, and the other players move.


The dribble-driver then has three options: to take a shot, pass to an open shooter, or reset the offense by dishing to a teammate who will in all likelihood make his own dash into the paint.


What principals, in laymen’s terms, are the foundations of the offense’s success?


The biggest key to running DDM properly is spacing. Without room for the dribble-driver to operate, and without passing lanes (whether obvious or not) to exploit, the whole equation breaks down.


Thus, if two offensive players are within arm’s reach of each other (besides on a screen-and-roll, which we will touch on later), one of them has blown an assignment. The defense gains an advantage.


This places a premium on, to borrow football terms, precise route-running and proper reading of defensive sets. Though uninitiated fans often watch teams running The Memphis Attack and decry the offense as ‘playground ball,’ nothing could be further from the truth. The sets are very intricate and require communication and swift thinking.


When attacking a 2-3 zone defense, for instance, the three wing players who do not have the basketball when the first drive is made have pre-designated positions on the floor to move to as the defense inevitably contorts to repel the attack.


However, if the defense was set in, we’ll say a 2-1-2 zone press, then morphed into a 2-3 zone as the offense crossed half court only to switch quickly to a triangle-and-two ‘junk’ defense, those designated spots on the court would alter dramatically.


The coaching staff, seeing what has developed, would not be compelled to ‘call a play’ so much as to signal in reminders of where the four non-drivers should position themselves on the floor.


Even then, the players will still have subtle decisions to make, based on the movements of each defender and their teammates. If someone errs, everyone has to see it and make simultaneous adjustments.


Do it wrong and the entire offense breaks down. If two players think one way, two others think another way and the fifth player disagrees with all of the others, a turnover is in the offing.


DDM is a conservative variation on Attack-Attack-Skip-Attack-Attack (AASAA), the brainchild of Vance Walberg. The four attackers are stationed on the wings, while the ‘one-in’ post player is ‘skipped’ as an offensive option. His job is to corral rebounds and convert the odd garbage goal.


While coaching at Fresno City College, Walberg once had a pesky guard with an uncanny ability to drive into the lane and finish. This was about all the young man could do effectively, however; the rest of the team was extremely limited, as well.


Walberg literally built an offensive system around the strengths of one basketball player.


He began by eliminating all screens from his sets. He instituted a ‘4 out, 1 in’ system that brought all of his best dribblers out in the open floor. Walberg then spaced his players wide, so that no one defender could impede any two or three of his penetrators at once.


The coup de gras was his insistence on having his one-in post player move to the weak side of the free throw lane—or in the opposite direction from the dribble-driver—in order to maintain as much space between his ballplayers at all times.


This flew in the face of most any offense ever devised.


The main aim of the attack is to carve open driving lanes that would lead to lay-ups. As a necessary bonus, there would be myriad passing lanes, as well. The offense is at its best, though, when there are accurate three-point marksmen who can take a pass, spot up and nail a jumper from long distance.


This forces the defense to spread out even more, which creates more of precisely what the offense needs: space. The space invariably leads to easier drives to the rim.


Walberg’s early teams had a saying: "We like threes, but we love layups!"


Where John Calipari’s Memphis Attack goes conservative is on the high screen-and-rolls it employs. This tool, so effective that it has made Hall of Famers of more men than pure jumping ability ever has, actually brings the post player out to the top of the key (precisely where Walberg did not want his post men originally).


A big man with a pure stroke would have a feast in the Memphis Attack. He had better be in great condition, though, because if the first drive-and-kick failed, he’d typically be hustling for the weak side of the low block to resume being the ‘skip’ player once again.


In the end, DDM unleashes basketball players, isolating them with their defender and allowing them to beat their man off the dribble. Though instincts and reflexes are tremendous advantages, discipline, precision, and condition are even more important.


The principles involved leave the scheme extremely pliable and receptive to tweaking. Even now, the next generation super coach is putting his own fiendish final touches on the offense in his mind, waiting for the opportunity to unleash it from the sideline.