Risk Management

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach'sNotebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

Evaluating Decisions through Risk Management

The secret to making consistent, productive decisions on the court is to understand the risks involved behind each action. As in regular life, every action taken on the court has a consequence. The winner of the game is determined by the sum of all the positive/negative consequences incurred by each team. The important thing for players to learn is that they have endless choices to make while they are on the floor. If they will acknowledge that there are risks with each choice, and that one must assume a risk to gain something worthwhile (like a basket!) it is usually pretty easy to recognize the most rewarding consequence. The concept I like to use from the business world is Risk Management. Its not necessary to keep a head full of percentages and statistics, either.

For illustrative purposes, imagine a player with the ball on the perimeter who has 1) a questionable opening to take a 3 point shot; 2) a open, casually guarded player in the corner; 3) a well-defended player in the high post position calling for the ball; 4) a player open in the point guard spot, and 5) a low post player who is behind enemy lines but hidden from the ball handler. The choices ranked from high risk to low risk are:

  1. Pass to the low post player. Risk is high due to 3 defenders in passing lane. Payoff for successful pass is easy 2 pt shot. (0.02)
  2. Pass to the high post player. Risk moderate, but payoff is a difficult shot or a pass back outside - no gain.
  3. Pass to man in corner. Risk is low but payoff is a difficult shot or a pass back outside - no gain
  4. Shoot the ball. Risk is high. Potential success mitigated by defensive coverage (questionable opening). Possible payoff is 3 points.
  5. Pass to point guard. Risk is low and point guard has visibility to low post player. Payoff is easy 2 pt shot.

If you like playing with numbers, you can assign values to the risks and payoffs and determine possible payoff value (pass risk*FG%*pts). Note: it would be ridiculous for a player to try and calculate odds during a basketball game. The pace is much too quick. But it is valuable to analyze these situations in practice so the players understand that it makes a difference what they decide to do. Once the concept is instilled, players can make judgements that are more complex and meaningful than any formulae can convey. With experience, reactions to common situations become instinctive. With understanding, players reach the level of instinctive behavior much more quickly than they would through trial and error.

Here is a simple table showing arbitrary values for each action in the example above. In this case, rerouting the ball through the point guard to the low post player has the highest potential payoff. Of course, as soon as you explain this, a kid will throw a high, arching pass over the defense to the low post player who then makes a nice tip in. Does that instance prove the risk management concept wrong? No, not if you play the odds over the course of the season. If this scenario is repeated 100 times, option 5 isn't just better, it is dramatically better (128 points vs 60...). Or you could settle for 18 points with the risky pass that wowed the crowd 9 times and turned the ball over to the other team 91 times.

The percentages represent the action's estimated chances of success
Option 1st Pass 2nd Pass Shot Points Value
1 10% na 90% 2 .18
2 65% na 30% 2 .39
3 90% na 30% 2 .54
4 na na 20% 3 .60
5 95% 75% 90% 2 1.28

Factor Failure into Expectations

While one should strive to make all shots, 100% is not an achievable goal. Players miss shots, that's a fact of life. Passes have a risk factor as well. Sometimes easy passes are just mishandled. Sometimes unguarded dribblers bounce the ball off their foot. The point is, a coach must plan for and expect players to fail once in awhile. Expecting players to make every lay-up, for instance, and yelling at the shooter who misses a lay-up in the game is like preparing your budget by only listing expected income and then being shocked and upset when the bills come in.

Demonstrating emotional displays of disappointment when players don't execute a common play only serves to make the player hesitant to try a second time. Once players become "risk-adverse" because the consequences of failure are too great, the game is no longer fun and impossible to win. It's much more fun to take a chance, to try and create an opportunity and enjoy the reward when it is earned.

TIP: The coach's job is to help the players reduce errors through education and refinement of skills. In practice, encourage the players to seek perfection in performing simple tasks, such as screens, cuts, lay-ups. In shooting drills, have the players see how many shots can be made in a row. If players are missing shots because of lack of concentration or improper execution, focus criticism and corrective measures on those causes.

Tools to Measure Success

The coaching staff should use different tools to measure the success of their team. The ultimate statistic is the team's win/loss percentage because the objective of the game is to win. However, it is true that winning covers up many faults. As long as the team is winning, no one usually cares about the process and there is little motivation to correct deficiencies. Ultimately, those deficiencies will be exposed, generally by the test of tougher competition. If a team is in a league that offers little competition, you can expect the team's performance to gradually erode to the level of the opponents, and then the deficiencies will surface. So, it is beneficial to look past the win/loss column to improve the team. The best tool I know of is the video tape. If the players are mature enough and you have the facility, show them the game tapes and explain what you see. It is difficult to describe certain situations to players, whereas they can see it plainly on the television set.

The next best tool is a shot chart that indicates by player number, where a shot was taken, and if it was made (circle the player number). At the end of a half, trends are sometimes vivid on paper but oblivious to the players. For example, the shot chart may show that 20 three point attempts were taken, but only three were made (15%). Meanwhile, your opponent didn't take any 3-point shots, and instead made 50% of their twenty 2-pointshots. If you compare those 20 possessions, our team was scoring .45 points per possession while the opponent scored 1 point per possession, or a total of 9 points versus 20. The shot chart can also illustrate where on the floor the team is particular effective or ineffective and can help dictate a defensive change.

Basketball is 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 60shots (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 80points, or a buck a possession. Here's a sample table to demonstrate the factors.

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
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 75centsfor 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 or making a steal.