The Moment When NBA's Best Coaches Give Their Teams Legit Advantages

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IDecember 30, 2019

Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic, left, talks with head coach Rick Carlisle during an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

It happens often. Before a big possession, a coach will call a timeout to ensure their team gets an open shot. They go to their dry-erase clipboard and draw something up, hoping it'll lead to a basket for their team.

The best coaches are able to design plays that give their players the best chance to succeed, regardless of whether it's the first play of the game, in the middle of the contest or when the game is on the line. They know exactly where they want the ball to go and the shot they want to get. 

A lot goes into diagraming a play: time and score, who is available on the court, how the defense has been defending certain actions and, most importantly, whether the players can execute the action. Head coaches Doc Rivers, Mike Budenholzer and Rick Carlisle are three of the best at drawing up plays out of timeouts. 


Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers

Few coaches can match Rivers' status as an X's and O's tactician. He does a great job getting his players the ball in the spots they want. This year, he has more weapons than ever between Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Lou Williams, which keeps defenses guessing where the ball is going. 

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When Rivers wants to get Leonard going to start the game or out of a timeout, he often sets him up with a post isolation. Against the Houston Rockets, Leonard was on the baseline and had the option to use a Patrick Beverley screen but chose to go over the top of Ivica Zubac to get to his position and knock down an and-1 jumper over PJ Tucker.

After a timeout against the Washington Wizards, Rivers dialed up a play for Williams. 

He set up a double stagger screen for Jerome Robinson, who was going to cut backdoor after the first screen and engage Williams' defender for a moment. That cut allowed Montrezl Harrell to set a pindown screen for Williams, who came off it for a wide-open free-throw jumper going to his left. That's almost automatic.

In the same Rockets game, the Clippers were down five and coming out of a timeout in a situation during which they absolutely needed a basket. 

Rivers put the ball in Williams' hands again, but this time as a decoy. As the guard was coming off a Harrell ball screen, JaMychal Green set a hammer screen for George to free up a corner three. After a great catch, George rose up and sank the three to help spark a successful Clippers comeback.

Rivers is one of the few coaches who make defensive calls out of a timeout. Los Angeles often changes its defense from man-to-man to zone, and he made that switch for a few possessions during a rout of the Toronto Raptors.

Coming out of a timeout with 3:43 remaining in the third quarter, the Clippers ran a zone and stayed in it for nearly the rest of the quarter while holding the Raptors scoreless.

"We do it every game for a minute or two, here and there," Rivers said about going zone. "Usually out of timeouts because most teams, when they come out of a timeout, they have a play, and then they see a zone, and they don't run the play."


Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks are sitting on top of the NBA, and Budenholzer is a big reason why. They're scoring 1.02 points per possession after timeouts this season, good for second in the NBA, per Synergy Sports. He uses a variety of setups to get looks at the rim for Giannis Antetokounmpo and open shots for Khris Middleton.

During a big win against the Clippers, Budenholzer set up a play for Antetokounmpo out of a timeout.

The forward started it by swinging the ball to Robin Lopez, who kept it moving to George Hill. Kyle Korver immediately came to set a back pick for Antetokounmpo, and the defender fell down, leading to a Bucks dunk. Even if the defender had stayed upright, the play would have resulted in a deep post catch for the reigning MVP.

Later in the same game, Budenholzer set up a play with two options to keep the defense on its toes.

First, Hill came off a high ball screen from Ersan Ilyasova. At the same time, Middleton came off a baseline Pat Connaughton screen, and Ilyasova went from screening for Hill to freeing Korver. Hill then went with Middleton in the corner. 

In a tight game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Budenholzer drew up another play for Middleton out of a timeout. After Sterling Brown swung the ball, Middleton took a few steps toward him before changing speeds and running off double staggered screens along the baseline for a corner three-ball. 


Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks

Carlisle often gets overlooked in discussions about the league's top coaches, but he has done a masterful job drawing up plays out of timeouts for the Dallas Mavericks. He excels at using all the attention Luka Doncic receives to create opportunities for his teammates. 

In their first play of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Mavs ran an action to get Doncic the ball in the post, but the set was really designed to get Tim Hardaway Jr. a look. Once the ball entered into the post, Dorian Finney-Smith and Dwight Powell set a double staggered screen on the weak side to spring Hardaway, who drove the lane on the catch. 

On a different play against the Pelicans, Carlisle used a Doncic pick-and-roll to set up a shot for Kristaps Porzingis. As Doncic came off the high screen, Porzingis ran along the baseline and used a Finney-Smith baseline screen. He missed the corner three, but a clean look is all a coach can ask for.

Even when Doncic is not in the game, Carlisle is able to use misdirection to create open looks for his players. 

This play started with a dribble handoff to JJ Barea that was immediately followed by a Powell ball screen. On the weak side, Seth Curry set a screen for Finney-Smith and came off a Powell pindown to knock down a clean three in a classic pick-the-picker action designed by Carlisle.

Being a coach is one of the hardest jobs in sports. They have plenty of decisions to make throughout a game. But one of the biggest that yields immediate results comes when calling plays after a timeout. 

Bad coaches can cost their team games. Good coaches don't lose games. Great coaches win games. 

Rivers, Budenholzer and Carlisle are some of the best in the NBA at drawing up plays after timeouts. They use the available time to determine what set will get them a basket and force the defense into a bad position. 

By doing that consistently, they usually put their teams in the best position to win.


Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team.