Basketball Analogies

Basketball can be compared to so many things. I love T-shirt slogans like "Basketball IS Life". When trying to make a point to players it is helpful to offer a fresh perspectives. One player may reached from a different angle than another. Plus, it helps to be a little entertaining over the course of a season and perhaps introduce some cultural aspects. Basketball is like Shakespeare, "To be, or not to be..." applies to hopeful teams vying for state competition. Get the drift? Anyway, this section is just for fun. Hope you like it.

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at

Basketball is Like War

The earliest game is simply mock fighting to develop survival skills. Animals, tame or wild, play the game. Humans developed sports as a means of enjoying competition without killing (and eating?) their opponents. Hence, we have the rules to protect the players and preserve the structure of the game. Teams may defend their territory, invade the opponent's territory, steal the opponent's possession, etc. all within prescribed rules designed to promote safety and fair play. So, as the coach of a team consisting of 10 year old girls, or as the coach of a 40+ over men's basketball team, you are the general of your troops and you have a very specific mission - to win the basketball game (within the rules). Learn the rules by reading the rule book, watching basketball and talking to people who are involved in the game.

Paying attention to basic military strategies can be beneficial. For example, from the Ancient Art of War, Sun Tzu view the text on the internet... There are many parallels in that document, but let's just pick one.

"The contour of the land is an aid to an army; sizing up opponents to determine victory, assessing dangers and distances, is the proper course of action for military leaders. Those who do battle knowing these will win, those who do battle without knowing these will lose."

The contour of our land is the basketball court. While there are regulations governing court dimensions, you may play on anything from a wide open, full size court to a crackerbox, elementary school gym with a stage at one end and a balcony hovering over one edge and ropes dangling from the ceiling on the other side. Size of the court is important. Small courts favor big, slow teams. Fast teams that are well conditioned will rule the large courts if their opponent are out of shape.

Sizing up opponents is also a key strategy. If you are playing young players that cannot pass the ball very far, why spread your defense over the full court? Position the defense within the passing range. If your opponents are fast but don't shoot well from outside, protect your basket and make them shoot long (even unopposed in some cases) and concentrate on rebounds. Are opposing players not ambidextrous? Grossly over play their strong hand (do not allow a right handed dribbler to move to his right). It is amazing how quickly an otherwise effective player can become a liability.

After a few practices, a team's strength's should become apparent. Dangers and distances can be assessed. Some teams cannot shoot effectively if they are not near the basket. Teams that do shoot well from outside still have their limits and should understand them. Players must make decisions with both their strengths and limitations in mind. How often have you seen the biggest kid on the team command the ball at the top of the key and try to play as a point guard? Suddenly everyone is shifted into a less than optimum role. The danger of failure is higher in such circumstances. Another example is players that do not heed their defensive responsibilities and are out of position. They misjudge both danger and distance and allow the opponent to score easy baskets.

Defensively, players must judge how far they can extend their defensive influence. This distance is determined by the player's ability to move and the player's distance from the ball. The further the ball, the more time available to react to the movement of the ball.

For inexperienced teams, we have just covered fundamental points that will play heavily in a game's outcome, and not even mentioned common fundamentals like how to dribble. The point is to consider the obvious strategies first.

More Basketball Tips from the Ancient Art of War

Analogies to basketball from surprising sources. Here are more quotes from the Art of War:

  1. A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.

    ... Basketball teams usually judged by their size, but also by their lack of it as well as the level of competence demonstrated in the warm-up exercises.

  2. Use humility to make them haughty. Tire them by flight. Cause division among them. Attack when they are unprepared, make your move when they do not expect it.

    ...the weakness of the trash talker, the over confident. Such things are weaknesses exposed in the opponent. When confronted by loud people, know that they are hiding their insecurities through intimidation.

  3. When you do battle, even if you are winning, if you continue for a long time it will dull your forces and blunt your edge; if you besiege a citadel, your strength will be exhausted. If you keep your armies out in the field for a long time, your supplies will be insufficient.

    ... the danger of playing many games without practice, or scrimmaging every practice. or using your first line players too much.

  4. So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

    ...the importance of team identity, plan, potential and preparing for specific opponents.

  5. In ancient times skillful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents. Invincibility is in oneself, vulnerability is in the opponent. Therefore skillful warriors are able to be invincible, but they cannot cause opponents to be vulnerable. That is why it is said that victory can be discerned but not manufactured.

    Invincibility in this case is a matter of preparation and mastering fundamentals, then studying your opponent and determining what fundamentals are weak, then attacking that point. An easy example is opposing players that do not dribble well with their weak hand.

  6. In ancient times those known as good warriors prevailed when it was easy to prevail. Therefore the victories of good warriors are not noted for cleverness or bravery. Therefore their victories in battle are not flukes. Their victories are not flukes because they position themselves where they will surely win, prevailing over those who have already lost. So it is that good warriors take their stand on ground where they cannot lose, and do not overlook conditions that make an opponent prone to defeat. Therefore a victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory.

    ... You can win before you reach the court by being thoroughly prepared. If your conditioning is superior, your game plan is solid and your team is striving together, who can stand against you? There is a fallacy in slacking in practice and getting up for games. Players using systematic, thought out approaches succeed without accolades, while those unprepared fail despite heroic efforts.

  7. The rules of the military are five: measurement, assessment, calculation, comparison, and victory. The ground gives rise to measurements, measurements give rise to assessments, assessments give rise to calculations, calculations give rise to comparisons, comparisons give rise to victories

    ...the value of statistics, scouting and self-analysis. Those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it.

  8. Therefore those who skillfully move opponents make formations that opponents are sure to follow, give what opponents are sure to take. They move opponents with the prospect of gain, waiting for them in ambush

    ...ball movement, teasing defense out of place, using fakes

  9. Therefore good warriors seek effectiveness in battle from the force of momentum, not from individual people. Therefore they are able to choose people and let the force of momentum do its work. Getting people to fight by letting the force of momentum work is like rolling logs and rocks. Logs and rocks are still when in a secure place, but roll on an incline; they remain stationary if square, they roll if round. Therefore, when people are skillfully led into battle, the momentum is like that of round rocks rolling down a high mountain -- this is force.

    ...five working in concert create force versus waiting for someone to start the action. Good shooting is contagious, as is defensive pressure. However, when the game is going poorly, it isn't a good idea to start looking for leaders by sending one brave player alone against the defense to make a pressured shot to hopefully inspire his teammates. What actually happens is many shots are missed. The key is to use relentless basic, simple plays and try to build momentum through a series of positive events. Perhaps a play ends in a blown shot, but that isn't negative. Several positive things happened to make the shot possible. Don't get discouraged. Repeat the steps and try again. Once a momentum of positive events is established, the points will come.

  10. So in the case of those who are skilled in attack, their opponents do not know where to defend. In the case of those skilled in defense, their opponents do not know where to attack.

    ... value of offensive and defensive versatility. Put a few comfortable, offensive plans in the playbook, not just one. Practice both zone and man to man and a couple press configurations.

  11. The ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called genius.

    ...self explanatory

  12. Look upon your soldiers as you do infants, and they willingly go into deep valleys with you; look upon your soldiers as beloved children, and they willingly die with you. If you are so nice to them that you cannot employ them, so kind to them that you cannot command them, so casual with them that you cannot establish order, they are like spoiled children, useless.

    ...display responsible compassion for players

The Ancient Art of War, Sun Tzu is quite thought provoking. Many businesses recommend it to their management for competitive strategic thinking.

Basketball is like Chess

This is a great analogy because in chess, white has the first move. The defense must react to white's move. Your point guard is the Chess Master. That first pass, dribble or shot determines black's reaction. With this in mind, the offense can be rather manipulative, if it can play the game and execute the basic moves. The offensive players have opportunities for gambits - if a player wishes to go right, he/she should go left first, enough to make the defense react, then change direction with the defensive player moving away from the ultimate destination.

Defensives ploys, like a full court press, are an illusion of advantage. Black is ignoring White's first move advantage and aggressively attacking the ball or an area on the court. Black leaves the King (basket) vulnerable in its gamble to obtain the ball. Black is hoping White will take the bait. A good press herds the ballhandler into a trap, not by force, but by the illusion of safety. The ballhandler is shown an easy way down the court, and usually follows the path of least resistance, or perhaps a path that promises an easy reward. The path, however, leads straight into a trap. The function of the trap is to minimize the ball handler's options even further. In desperation, the ballhandler may try to dribble through (split the defenders), a move that usually costs a possession. Or, in panic, will choose the few possible passes. The defense again leaves help visible, but defendable.

What has happened is that the White team has forfeited its basic advantage. It started with several options as to how it could get the ball down the floor. The defense was in a totally reactive state, unable to predict anything. By allowing Black to force its movement, White options were decreased until its actions were very predictable. Once White's actions were known, all Black had to do was step in and take the ball.

White should remember that Black has seriously weakened its defense by spreading itself all over the floor. Their "king" is relatively unguarded. White should position its players in the many gaps on the floor. By moving the ball with passes, not dribbles, White has the advantage of knowing where its going (while black must guess) AND can advance the ball faster than black can adjust. With patience, and wisdom (not dribbling into traps!), White should be able to consistently dissect a press and get easy baskets.

Another parallel in chess is that the movements of the pieces are defined. The strongest possible team is one that is balanced and has players that can specialize in needed skills. Players find their roles once they join a team. Perhaps their best contribution is grabbing rebounds or maybe breaking a press. A team loaded with shooters that do not rebound or handle the ball well will find the number of shots available to them severely curtailed. A coach that overplays and depends too much upon the "queen" will be distinctly disadvantaged if that piece is removed from the game. This analogy best serves the offense. Offense always has the power as long as it has the ball because what the offense does dictates the defensive reaction, thereby rendering one team's actions predictable.

Basketball is like Money

The game plan is similar to preparing a budget where expenses and income are planned, only in basketball the idea is to accumulate points instead of dollars. Lets assume a free throw is worth $1, a field goal $2 and a three point basket $3, and we get paid every time we make a shot. Lets also pick a standard to strive for, like we want to make $1 every time we have the ball. Is that possible? Sure. In an average high school game, each team has the ball about 80 times. Each team will take about 60 shots (remember to account for turnovers and offensive rebounds). If we hit 33% of the threes, 60% of the twos and about 75% of the free throws, we'll end up with about 80 points, or a buck a possession. Here's a sample table to demonstrate the factors.

Recordable Action Qty Pct Pts Comments
Possessions 80
Offensive Rebounds 10 Gains a shot
Turnovers 15 Costs a shot
3pt shots 12 33% 12
2pt Shots 48 60% 58 Tot FG% 55%
Free Throws 15 75% 11

Now we can calculate values for many of the things players do to help their team win. Just grabbed a defensive rebound? That's like a dollar in the bank we can go invest in a shot attempt. Knowing that possession has a value, are we going to waste it on a high risk shot or a lazy pass?

Got fouled and going to the line for two shots? Expected value is $1.50 (two chances at a dollar x 75% probability). If you need to foul the other team at the end of the game, these values are very important because each time you foul them, they get points. They might miss a 1:1 the first time but make both shots the next time. In the long run they will get their 75 cents per free throw. That means that if you must overcome a 6 point lead, you better start fouling early because each possession you are exchanging 75cents for them on the free throws for a dollar at your end (assuming you're making at least 50% of your twos and 33% of your threes!). As the game winds down, the situation is much more desperate. The losing team is soon into a situation where they must make all their remaining shots and the winning team must miss most of their free throws in order for the trailing team to prevail. Its like a gambler who is losing at roulette finally placing all his remaining money on his favorite number and hoping he hits the long shot, then turning around and doing it again just to get even. Its possible he'll luck out, but not likely.

It is important for the players to feel that possession of the basketball has a value. The player with the ball is the caretaker and has a special responsibility to the team. Everyone on the team is let down if the ball is carelessly turned over to the opponent. Everyone on the team has made an investment in that possession by working hard on defense, getting a rebound, making a steal.