The Key to the Raptors' Defence: Offence

GeneContributor INovember 17, 2009

After hearing and reading various interviews from the Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano, I really liked most of what he’s said so far, but there were a few things that I disliked.

One thing that I strongly disagreed with was Triano’s overemphasis of defence.

The Raptors’ previous head coach, Sam Mitchell, constantly exaggerated the importance of defence and often times only got his team to practice defence. Early on in the season, Triano appeared to be taking a similar approach to Mitchell .

After the Raptors’ season-opening victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chris Bosh said, “That's all we talk about is defence, defence, defence.”

The Raptors should dramatically improve their overall level of play, including on defence, if they take a balanced approach to both talking and practicing.


Defence and Offence Are Interrelated

I was thrilled when I learned that Triano wanted to emphasize constantly moving/sharing the basketball. I believe that such a simple strategy can greatly improve the Raptors overall play, not just on the offensive end of the court.

First, it takes a lot less energy to throw a ball than it does to sprint to the location that the ball was thrown. Constantly passing the ball can tire the opposing players by making them run a lot.

So, even if a particular possession where the ball was effectively moved doesn’t result in points scored, it should still greatly benefit futures plays in the game.

Playing against an overly tired team can give the Raptors an advantage on both ends of the floor. On the offensive end of the court, they can take advantage of a tired defence.

On the defensive end, an overly tired opposition is more likely to have their jump shots fall short, be a step late on a drive so that an offensive foul is called on them, etc.  Moreover, overly tired rebounders won’t be as effective, so the Raptors should benefit in that aspect of the game as well.

Thus, constantly moving the ball on offence can significantly improve all aspects of the game, including the defensive statistics.

In addition, constantly moving the ball puts added pressure on the opposition’s defence, increasing the chances of them making mistakes and thereby increasing the chances of the Raptors getting better shots available to them.

Moreover, quickly moving the ball keeps the opposition guessing. It’s far easier to guard against something that you know is coming. If the ball’s quickly moving, it’s a lot harder to get a read on what a team’s trying to do and is thereby a lot harder to defend against it.

Also, sharing the basketball makes it such that players will not force up bad shots because of the belief that if they give up the ball, they might not get it back again.

Now, those last three points may appear to be strictly offensive advantages, but they can significantly help the defensive aspect of the game as well.

Most of the Battle is in the Head

One should never underestimate the importance of the mental aspect of sports.

Even if an NBA player has the most gifted body in the world, it won’t do him any good if he’s in a coma. Why? Without the mind present to control the body, the body can’t do anything. Suffice it to say, the mental aspect of sports is absolutely critical.

One of the keys to the mental aspect of sports is confidence.

Now, for players who are above average offensively but are lacking defensively, only practicing and talking about defence can adversely affect their confidence. And a low confidence level can adversely affect a player’s overall game, both offensively and defensively.

One of the easiest ways to build confidence is to build off of successes and not dwell on failures.

It’s easiest for an NBA player to succeed if he’s doing what he’s best at. So, it’s easier for offensive-oriented players to gain confidence by playing well on offence and it’s easier for defensive-oriented players to gain confidence by playing well on defence.

Also, it’s a lot harder for defensively lacking players to not dwell on their failures if everyone is constantly talking about how bad their defence is.

Confidence is contagious and can spill over into all aspects of players’ games. So, for offensively talented but defensively lacking players, being successful on offense and not having to constantly hear about their bad defence should improve their overall game, including their defence.


Keeping Your Heads Held High

Playing well on offence can also have a demoralizing affect on an opposing team.

This is especially true if the opposing team’s head coach subscribes to a “play good defence or I’ll punish you” philosophy. Especially against such a team, putting on a strong offensive showing can cause players, who don’t have extremely thick skins, to hang their heads and lose focus.

Instead of putting 100 percent focus on the task at hand, the players could start worrying that they’re going to get yelled at, get benched, get embarrassed, have bad things said about them, etc.

Thoughts that lead to anxiety, worry, fear and the like are the worst possible thoughts if a player wants to consistently succeed.

Thinking anti-productive thoughts normally severely hurts players’ overall performance, including on the offensive end of the court. And, of course, an opposing team playing poorly on offense makes the statistics favour your team defensively.

So, especially against certain teams, playing well on offence can drastically improve the Raptors’ defensive statistics.


The Right State of Mind

The best possible mental approach is to be expecting to succeed rather than fearing failure.

If a player misses a shot, misses a defensive assignment, gets a bad call from a referee, etc. he should forget about it. Otherwise, a single bad play or call can snowball into several bad plays.

The best way to forget about the negatives is to concentrate on the positives. A player should put 100 percent focus on the task at hand (the next play) and be thinking thoughts that maximize the chances of success.

Thoughts that lead to a calm, relaxed and peaceful state of mind are the ones that will lead to the most success possible.

When you watch elite players playing the game you seldom, if ever, see fear or anxiety in their eyes. Having the best possible mental approach to the game is a huge part of the reason why such players are elite.

Having and keeping inner-peace is the best way to defeat outer-adversity.

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The average fan normally gets more excited over good offensive plays. When was the last time that you saw that a crowd got excited because their team led the ball-handler into help defence?

So, for home games, putting on a rousing offensive display can more easily raise the energy level in the building. And the home team’s players can feed off of that energy and thereby raise their level of play for all aspects of the game, including on defence.

Similarly, jaw-dropping offensive plays on the road can lead to “oohs and ahs” followed by the sweet sound of silence. This can lead to a gain of confidence for the Raptors and/or a loss of confidence for the opposing team, both of which should improve their overall game, including defensively.

Furthermore, if the Raptors play a brand of basketball that more people want to watch, then they’ll sell more tickets. Having more people in the stands usually increases the energy level in the building, which should further benefit their overall play, including on defence.

Not only that, but more people buying tickets, watching games on television, buying merchandise, etc. increases team revenue. With increased revenue, ownership is more likely to be willing to spend more money, which could improve the team in the future, which would attract even more fans to team, and so on.

Those are some other ways that playing well offensively can improve the overall play of the team, including defensively.


Mixing Business with Pleasure

People tend to enjoy doing things that they’re good at, more so than doing things that they’re not good at. Also, people usually perform better in all aspects of life if they’re happier.

So, something as simple as having fun playing basketball can dramatically improve the overall performance of players.

For offensively gifted but defensively lacking players, only hearing about and practicing defence can take the fun out of the game. That, in turn, can cause those players’ overall game to get worse, including their defence.

Thus, exaggerating the importance of defence can actually make some players play worse defensively.

This season’s version of the Toronto Raptors appears to have a good mix of offensive and defensive players. So, it would be best if a balanced approach was taken with respect to talking about and practicing offence and defence.

Then, coming to the basketball court would feel less like work and more like play for all of the players, instead of just for the above-average defenders. That, in turn, should improve the overall play of all the players, including their play on defence.

Closer to Home for More People

To illustrate the last point, let’s use an example. Let’s say that you’ve excelled at all aspects of your job, except you were poor at public speaking.

But then, your boss starts showing you statistics about how all the best companies in the world have excellent public speakers and says that your company can’t succeed without you being one of the best public speakers in the world.

So, your boss then says that all you’ll be doing from now on is public speaking, which means that you’ll stop doing everything else that you’re excellent at.

On top of that, your boss keeps on repeating every day that you’re bad at public speaking and that you need to improve your public speaking. Your boss then threatens to take you off of all the good projects if you don’t become one of the best public speakers in the world.

Would such an approach make you enjoy your job more? Would such an approach make your job more fun? Would such an approach be the best way for you to improve all aspects of your job?

Or, would such an approach make you hang your head, dread going to work and make you even more nervous about public speaking, so that you stumble over even more words and become even worse at public speaking?

The best approach would be for your boss to acknowledge the truth that everything else that you excel at is really important to your company and that those benefits more than compensate for your poor public speaking.

Next, you should be allowed to continue doing what you do best, so that you can gain more confidence from other successes and be more relaxed when you’re speaking publicly.

Also, the overall problem of poor public speaking should be broken down into smaller sub-problems that can be easily solved. Then, with each small success your confidence will grow and before long your overall problem will be solved.


The Most Important Statistic

A team doesn’t get bonus points in the standings if they win a game by holding their opponents to a low field-goal percentage. A team gets a win if they score more points than their opposition. Period.

The won-loss record is the statistic that is the most important. It’s that statistic that determines playoff seeding and it’s that statistic that ultimately determines who the NBA champions will be.

A team can win a game by putting on a stifling defensive display, but they can also win a game by putting on an offensive clinic.

The easiest way to win a particular game is greatly dependent upon the opposing players and the strategies that they’re trying to execute.  Certain teams will be more of a challenge on the offensive end of the court and others on the defensive end.

Whatever is the easiest way to win a particular game is the way that the Raptors should try to play that game, since that would maximize their chances of winning.

I believe that one of the marks of elite teams is that they will find a way to win even if one or more aspects of their play is lacking in a particular game.

I’d take an “ugly win” over a “pretty loss” any day of the week.

I can currently only think of one type of win that I wouldn’t want: I wouldn’t want a win that’s won unfairly. The (clean) play of the players on the court should determine who wins the game, not things like blown or missed calls.

But, other than something like that, I’d be happy with a win regardless of how it’s done. If it’s mostly through defence, that’s great. If it’s mostly through offence, that’s great too. If it’s mostly through rebounding, low turnovers, foul shooting, etc., that’s great as well.

Being able to win games in a number of different ways is a huge advantage. Having a balanced approach to talking and practicing is one of the keys to maximizing the chances of gaining such a huge advantage.

Keeping the Message True

Finally, I believe that mostly talking about and practicing defence sends the wrong message to the players. It sends the message that they’re good enough offensively, so they don’t have to work on improving that aspect of their games.

Professional athletes should always be trying to improve all aspects of their games.

Even if the Raptors had the same group of players for a decade and they led the league in offence for all those years, I still believe that they should be trying to get better on offence. Since that’s far from the case for the Raptors, I believe that they should even more so be trying to get better on offence.

Defence is an important part of winning games, but so is offence, passing, rebounding, taking care of the ball, moving without the ball, etc. Every aspect of the game is important and the message from the top, both in words and actions, should accurately reflect that truth.

Keeping the message 100 percent true would have the added benefit of making Triano more credible with his players. And being more credible would make it more likely that his players will buy into whatever he’s trying to preach.

Unlike what Mitchell used to do, the players should be praised by their coach if they’re doing good things to help their team win, even if they’re doing good things that are not on the defensive end of the court.

A few good words that let people know that the good that they’re doing hasn’t gone unnoticed, can do tremendous amounts of good. On the other hand, overly criticizing people can do tremendous amounts of harm.

In terms of preaching the right message through actions, practices should include all aspects of the game. Also, players should be given more playing time if they’re doing more good than harm overall in games, not just by how well they’re doing defensively.

Furthermore, the overall performance of the players in real games should be the largest determining factor of who deserves more playing time.

Good performances in practices can be used to give end-of-bench players more opportunities to play in real games, but if they’re not performing well in the real games, then they shouldn’t be given too much playing time.

Practices are important, but real games are by far the most important; practices are important mostly because they can improve the play in real games.

Performing well in real games is what will ultimately determine who the NBA champions will be.


A Small Change Can Lead to Big Results

I really liked most of what Triano has said and done so far this season, but continuing along Mitchell’s path of exaggerating the importance of defence can mask a lot of the good that he’s been doing.

I’ve been very pleased that, after the first few games of this season, Triano has stopped overemphasizing the importance of defence to the media. I hope that he’s taking a similar approach with his players, when he’s speaking to them in private.

I’m unsure of what Triano’s current approach to practicing is. But, if he hasn’t done so already, I hope that he changes from his preseason approach of only getting his team to practice defence.

Such a simple change in philosophy is one of the keys to maximizing the chances of all the Toronto Raptors players playing as well as they’re capable of playing in all aspects of the game, including on the defensive end.


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