Regardless at whatever level basketball is played it always seems as though there is someone on the opposing team who is their prime “go to” player, the leading scorer, the “clutch” performer. Players and coaches spend endless time searching for the way in which they might subdue the opposition star and thus pave the way for victory.
One of the problems for the tacticians is the fact that quite often the talents of the star scorer and the team methods will vary significantly.
Eddie Palubinskas, one of Australia’s greatest ever scorers usually needed little help from his team-mates and could score equally effectively from close, or long range from the basket. Ian Davies was equally independent, but did most of his scoring from long range. Andrew Gaze has been the most prolific but, although he has great skill in creating his own scoring opportunities, depends more on team structure when racking up big numbers. Oscar Schmidt, the highest scorer ever in Olympic Games, also needed little help from his Brazilian team-mates and when the defence got tougher he just moved further away from the basket.
Perhaps, surprisingly, Australia had one of the best records of success over Brazil during the Oscar Schmidt era. This was mainly due to the emphasis that Australia placed on defending Schmidt. The theory being, if Schmidt is contained then there would not be enough score power from the rest of the team. No doubt other teams had similar intentions, but failed more often because of the spread of talent in the Brazilian line-up and the “conventional” way in which they would defend Schmidt. Oscar would just play further from the basket, receive the ball and blaze away from incredible range and still connect on a high percentage. Meanwhile his team-mates would reap the benefit of extra attention on Oscar and Brazil would be one of the highest scoring teams in international competition.
The Boomers solution to the problem of dealing with a great shooter was to oppose him with a player committed to the task and prepared to use unconventional methods. Mel Dalgleish and Larry Sengstock each had their own way of dealing with the problem. Mel was more physical and Larry was more “cerebral”, but both had a mission to prevent the great scorer from receiving the ball no matter where he was on the court. Other players on the Boomers squad, understanding the prime objective, concentrated on pressuring the ball handlers making any potential pass to Oscar very difficult. Quite often the offence broke down into a series of one on one plays with lower percentage shots, which, on most occasions, worked to the advantage of the Boomers.
The strategy of “starving” great shooters of the ball becomes more difficult when team structure is geared to help the shooter get free and team defence, as compared to individual defence, is vital. The Melbourne Tigers “Shuffle” offence is a typical example. The offence is designed to set up certain players in certain situations and unless the defence does something special players will get free in their preferred positions and it just becomes a matter of whether they can convert the opportunities. Andrew Gaze has been the main force for the Tigers for many years and has experienced just about every different tactic imaginable, but has still managed to average over 30 points per game.
Sometimes defenders choose to “concede” the points of a high scorer and concentrate harder on shutting down the others. An extra effort on players who may usually be the second leading scorer can prove successful. This usually means drawing the extra defensive help from another player who can be an acceptable risk. These tactics work best when teams have rigidly structured and predictable offences, thus allowing well prepared team defences to over play certain elements. The high scorer may still get his “quota” but without a balanced contribution from the others the team will fail.
When describing how to defend great scorers, John Wooden (UCLA) said, “High scorers usually like to get a good start in the game and if they don’t their anxiety can increase and lead to errors. Therefore it is often a good tactic to impose more pressure in the early stages of a game on the “shooter” and see if he has the patience to work through the pressure.” The great Larry Bird, while playing with Boston, was quite often subjected to this kind of pressure and in these circumstances would describe himself as a “decoy”.
It didn’t bother him to be subjected to extra pressure as he would welcome the attention and create more opportunities for his team-mates. His coach also acknowledged that you have to be a very good player to be a good decoy.
Throughout history there have been very few great shooters who could be described as “complete”, i.e. equally effective close the basket or on the perimeter, able to put the ball to the floor on hard drives, or receive on the perimeter and go straight up for the long range jumpers. Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and “Magic” Johnson are a few who could be mentioned. It was rare for them to be contained, no matter what tactics the defenders might use, they would still get their points and still be match winners.
There are others who have built reputations for being among the best, like Kareem Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Rick Barry, Shaquille O’Neil. All were, or are great scorers, but by comparison could almost be described as one dimensional. Kareem had his “sky hook” and during a time when the rules prevented zone defences, his hook shot became virtually indefensible. If the dunk had been barred Wilt Chamberlain would have struggled to earn half the number of points. Similarly “Shaq” has trouble scoring from anything except point blank range.
The mission for defending great scorers like those just mentioned is to force them to do something other than there preferred high percentage play. Of course achieving this is usually much easier said than done. Denying Kareem, or Shaq the ball close to the basket requires huge physical presence and team pressure on the passers. Denying Rick Barry his smooth perimeter jump shot required a similar team effort to that which was necessary for Oscar Schmidt. Teams in our NBL have been trying to stop Ricky Grace from driving left ever since he arrived in Australia a decade ago, but few have succeeded. Ricky goes to his right just enough to keep his opponent honest and unless there is a team defence approach the high scoring guard continues not only to score well himself but create high percentage opportunities for team mates.
The task of the defence to restrict great shooters has always, and probably will remain, very difficult. Players must recognise the special ways in which great shooters create their opportunities and then try to force them to their least preferred options. For players who have the benefit of well structured offences to help them get open the task for the defence is even greater. It requires determined individual pressure and skill and more importantly a coordinated team effort.