Teaching Traps

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When I first started coaching basketball, facing athletic teams who pressured us with trapping defenses was never fun. At first we were overwhelmed, but with time learned to pass the ball more frequently. Later we figured out how to use the opponent's trap to our own advantage by timing the pass to beat the trap right before it was set and isolate those two defenders behind the ball. The success of our own trapping game was solely dependent upon the athleticism of our players. When I had kids with great quickness and anticipation skills, we were successful. It certainly wasn't anything useful I taught them.

So what changed? Why am I writing an article about how to teach traps? Well, in my current role as assistant boys varsity coach I was asked to take over the defense. I knew we needed a trapping strategy and that I needed to learn more about that facet of the game. One problem is that at this school we did not have an abundance of athletically gifted players. We needed to understand our defensive concepts much better rather than just be bigger, faster and stronger. Trapping was my main interest when I attended the NIKE Coaching Clinic in Las Vegas a few months later. I picked up a lot of good thoughts, went home, and over the course of the summer developed our defensive strategy. You can read that if you like right here.

Over the past two seasons our ability to trap has improved immensely. I credit the following four points of emphasis for making that happen. If you are weak in any one of these your traps will fail and your defense will cost you points. However, if you excel at all of them, your offensive numbers will look a lot better as you score off your defensive successes. A key point is that your defensive strategy is a TEAM play. It takes all five players to make a trap work. In fact, I think its a striking piece of karma how the four points spell TEAM. Unfortunately, putting the points in the order of TEAM isn't the best way to present the information, so we'll just spell out MEAT, OK?

Mechanics of the Trap

Where do you want to trap? You can trap anywhere you like, but the best opportunities are near the outside boundaries of the court. Trapping is a gambit, you know. You are putting two defenders against one offensive player, so you're leaving someone open. Therefore, I feel it is important to mitigate your risk and set your traps near the edge of the floor and/or near the half court line. The sideline, baseline and the half court line act as additional trappers because once the ball has crossed them and gone into play, it cannot go back. That said, the two people engaging the trap should consider the angle and position of the trap relative to the closest boundaries.

The point of the trap is to make the escape pass predictable! It is not to create a held (jump) ball. One of the biggest failures when setting traps is to go through all of the work to stop the ball handler and create a real advantage for your team, only to have it backfire when one of your trappers fouls the ball handler. A properly set trap should give you at least a 75% chance of getting the ball, either by a five second call, a travel or a stolen pass. You only have a 50% chance of getting a held ball plus you run the risk of fouling and suffering the penalties. Its a bad trade.

So, the trick is to position the trappers so that the escape pass goes down court along the sideline, through the seam (passing the ball between the trappers) towards the middle of the floor, or backwards relative to the progress of the ball. A reverse (backwards) pass is a big advantage even when it is completed. Why? because if its in the backcourt, the opponent must use more of their ten second allotment to get across midcourt. Your defense can reset and face a team that is now under more stress to rush. If you are in the front court, a reverse pass will be a turnover if it crosses half court, and even if it does not, the ball is now even further from the basket but in a delightfully more limited playing area.

Your trappers are entitled to a legal defensive position. This means that they can occupy area immediately adjacent to the ball handler. That's another way of saying "up close and personal". Ideally, I like the trappers to be inches away from the ball handler with their hands held high to make an overhead pass very difficult. Passes over the top of a trap are easy to read, often soft and easy to intercept.

The trappers should form an L shape with the open ends of their L facing the nearest court boundaries. The only easy pass option should be out of bounds or maybe backwards out of the trap. With the five second count in effect, the passer will usually choose a predicable path - down court along the side line, to the middle, or backward. This brings us to the next topic of our MEATy traps.

Escape Paths

Once the trap is set, the remaining three defenders should close off the nearest escape routes. They can do this by directly fronting the likely receiver, or by baiting him. A great place for the pass defender to be slightly behind the receiver, waiting for a chance to jump in front and steal the ball I believe the pass to the middle is best defended by fronting the receiver. The reason is that the ball handler will see that and be forced to consider a riskier solution, one that calls for throwing the ball over the trap.

The down court pass is the one that is easiest to intercept except for one major problem. That area of the floor is typically the responsibility of the last man back on your press. He will also feel obligated to stay back and protect the basket. This is a huge judgment error. If you are trapping, the whole team must be in on the gambit. In this moment, all are playing to capture the ball. There is no room left to protect the basket. If you elect the compromise the commitment to the trap, then the trap will not be effective, and if that is the case, why spread your defense out like that? So, on a sideline trap, the back defender should go to the ball side as the trap is being established so he won't miss out on this opportunity. A pass from a sideline trap to a corner is a serious missed opportunity that must be corrected

Now that we covered the down court sideline pass and the middle pass (usually to a post person), its time to discuss the role of our one remaining defender. We have two in the trap, one in the corner and one protecting middle ... and one poor soul left to guard two open offensive players.

Sometimes the gap between the open offensive players is pretty wide. Perhaps one is near the basket and one is at midcourt. Which is the lesser of two evils? Probably the midcourt player. If he gets the ball, the defense can simply reset. That's relatively safe, but nothing was gained. I believe that the offensive player near the basket, the one furthest from the ball, is the hardest to see and the most difficult to pass to. Therefore, I like the last defender to hedge his position, read the trapped ball handler and if his instincts allow him, go for the high pass near mid court.

Yes, it is dangerous, but it is also an easy layup if the steal is successful. That basket leads to the opportunity to press again, only now against a team that has doubts and may become more careful. Careful equals predictable. Predictable is actionable You can see that the last defender must use his judgment and take an educated risk, an education earned in practice, and a risk that is wholly supported by his coach and teammates. Its all part of the team's attitude about defense.

Attitude

The offense has the advantage in basketball. That's why the scores are so high compared to soccer, hockey and baseball where defense has a big edge. Its not logical for the defense to take initiative in basketball, especially the kind of initiative that places two defenders against one ball handler. Its much safer to play conservatively and react to the offense's attempts to score. However, the offense can be very manipulative. The offense can gang up on a defender (by setting a screen for instance) and not incur any significant risk at all, even if the screen fails completely. Its just not fair!

To compensate, the defense can attempt to usurp the inherent advantage in basketball. To make this happen, the defense must plan to exploit the very few situations where the offense becomes predicable. If we know what the offense will probably do next, we can assume a reasonable risk to act on that foreknowledge.

A coach must be able to convince his players that they can succeed in this venture. Some players enjoy taking a chance, but many others prefer to play it safe. It only takes one player holding back to cause your traps to fail. They'll fail, not because of an execution error, but because someone elected not to act (or acted too late) and the opportunity was lost. Once the offense can pass safely out of the trap, the defense may be severely compromised. Rotations can help so much, especially if two defenders are behind the ball scrambling to get back in the action.

Confidence is built in practice. Situations, like traps set in corners, can be staged. Its like a lioness teaching her cubs to hunt by bringing a wounded animal into the den. Once players begin to recognize the signs and can guess where the ball will go out of the trap, they can discover their limits and improve their choices with experience. The coach must be encouraging and supportive when the players stretch too far in games. They'll look bad for a moment and their peers and parents will likely criticize them. Help them believe in the fact that the team has a goal of influencing situations that can be exploited. When that happens, the only mistake they can make is to not exploit the chance given them.

With success, the players will become too eager. This is certainly the case of you encounter a weaker opponent. While the confidence factor goes up, the players may feel that they can take any chance they want. When they meet a stronger, experienced team, they may find that the defense is being exploited every time it tries to take a risk. You cannot pressure every team. You can try and test them for weakness, but an opponent who follows its plan with poise and purpose will hard to rattle.

In the long term pressure defense is best used in small doses. If you try to constantly run and press, you may find that your exciting runs are negated by surges when the opponent solves the mystery of your traps for a while. Another factor is that your players may tire and lose their edge and that is a very dangerous defensive condition. A good time to strike is after a time out when you have a chance to talk with your players about changing the tempo. Another opportunity is following a free throw by your team. Shooting free throws is one of those somewhat predictable situations where you have a chance to align your defense the way you want.

Once you make a basket off your traps, stay in the same mode. Press your advantage as long as the offense allows. Once the other team demonstrates control, its time to back off for while.

Triggers

A trigger is a sign that it is time to start the trap. It can be anything ... the coaching calling the play, the ball handler crossing half court, a pass going to a predetermined spot ... as long as the entire team recognizes the trigger and then acts as one, unified body.

I feel its much easier trapping a dribble than a pass. When players try to jump a receiver, all he needs to do is pass the ball away quickly and the defense is in trouble. However, if the ball defender can play tough, tight defense and encourage his man to dribble, the situation becomes more predictable. If the ball defender can guide the ball to the side, and even better, toward the corner, the predictability factor increases even more. Our trigger to trap is when the ball handler dribble toward the sideline. In that case, the nearest help defender will leave his man to help with trap. Once they manage to stop the ball, the remaining three defenders immediately assume their positions to deny or steal the possible escape passes.

Another important trigger signals the time to retreat. For our team, that trigger is when the ball is passed safely to the middle of the floor and ahead of the trap. If a ball handler breaks out of the trap and is able to dribble to the middle of the floor, that's also a trigger to retreat. As soon as these actions happen, the pressure defense is off and everyone must run back to protect the basket. If the defense is successful in recovering its balance, it may elect to resume trapping depending on the coach's prerogative.

It is absolutely essential that these triggers be observed. Once a trap fails, the chance of the offense scoring become very high. Its not a hopeless condition, but its one that requires extreme urgency to have any hope at all.

Trapping Drills

 

2:1 Full Court Trap

The defense enjoys a clear advantage in this drill. This edge is needed because we want the players to feel empowered and aggressive as well as be able to focus on the drill objective - set a trap!

To that end we allow the offense to dribble on court. he is met by a defender right away. At this point, its like the well-known zig zag drill where the ballhandler drives one direction, crosses over and works up the other direction. You may decide to limit the dribbler's movement to only the right side of the court. Not only does it shorten the chase, it also lets you run the drill starting at the other end of the floor at at the same time.

The D2 defender can leave the center circle as soon as the dribbler is on the court.

 

The defenders have strict roles.

D1's job is to put a lot of pressure on the ball handler. His goal is to make the dribbler drive to the sideline, and NOT to the middle of the floor. To make that happen, he should try to stay a bit ahead. If he gets too far ahead, the dribbler will cross over and get to the middle. If D1 gets too far behind, then there is no pressure anymore. Ideally, D1 can guide the ball to the sideline and make him stop. If that happens, no trap is necessary. We have a one man trap and a pat on the back for D1.

D2 needs to get into a good position to help as shown in the diagram. If D1 is in strong control, D2 stays back and if the one man trap becomes a reality, then D2 can defend against passes out of the trap. I don't see this happen very often, but it may against inexperienced players.

 

If the ball gets ahead of D1, then D2 must stop progress by directly confronting the ball handler. Do not leave him enough room to get by on the sideline. Even though the ball got ahead of D1, he can still prevent the dribbler from going around D2 on the middle side if he hustles upcourt and takes that path away.

 

To escape the trap, the ball handler may reverse direction and try to get to the middle. A good trap leaves only one way out - backwards - so this is a likely scenario.

If the dribbler manages to shake D1, D2's responsibility is to become primary defender versus the ball. That takes some simple communication between the defense, but it crucial. Once D2 is the primary defender, D1 becomes the helper. He takes a position where he can deny progress to the middle and must do so as vigorously as possible. We want the dribble to go up the sideline again so we can get another try to trap him.

3:2 Full Court Trap

Once your players understand how to chase down the ball using the drill above, its time to add another player for each team. The extra people make this drill much more challenging and more fun. We use the whole floor to make it as game-like as we can.

The is inbounded. As soon as it is, D2 and D3 pounce.

OPTION: Bring D2 up and challenge O1 to inbound the ball under pressure.

 


 

The two players who are closest to the ball try to create the trap situation, exactly as in the last drill. D3's job is to deny and intercept any pass out of the trap.

Don't allow the primary defender to back off and watch. Although the offense has only ten seconds in the backcourt, in this drill we want a lot of initiative from the defense. The primary ball defender needs to force the ball handler to dribble. Once he does, then he can be manipulated.


 

It doesn't matter which offense player has the ball, the defensive mission is to trap. So, if O1 and O2 are able to pass to one another, the helper defender adjusts to trap.

If the offense can pass and cut, they will be very difficult to stop. Even with the extra defender, the offense has a lot of room and may win half the battles. You may want to add incentives. For example, if the defense scores, the defense does pushups. We don't let the defense off the floor until they set a good trap. Sometimes they will battle 3-4 pairs until that happens. But, they need to learn how to do this skill. Its not easy, so don't be easy on the players.