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Art of Lean on Problem-Solving, Part 2: Lessons From NBA Coaches

by Lean Leaper & Art Smalley
April 2, 2021

Art of Lean on Problem-Solving, Part 2: Lessons From NBA Coaches

by Lean Leaper & Art Smalley
April 2, 2021 | Comments (1)

In this second part of his series, Art Smalley picks apart a five-second NBA clip into lean-related chunks, surveying how coaching basketball can teach us more about lean than one might expect.

 

 

Hi everyone. This is Art Smalley, President of Art of Lean, Incorporated. Today, on behalf of the Lean Enterprise Institute, I have another short video for you. This is not going to be short. It's going to be a little bit longer, but we're going to go deeper. We're going to take on the world of NBA basketball with coaching and problem solving, studying it through a lean lens and seeing what we can learn, because I think there are things that the NBA could benefit from in the way we coach. But on the flip side, there's a ton I think we should learn from the NBA and the general sports world in terms of coaching as well. So, stick around, I think you're going to like it.

Practice Makes Perfect

In a previous video, I talked about coaching and problem solving and shared with you. I'm going to do a series of videos with LEI and at the conclusion of it, I'll explain my framework again and probably modify it based upon what I learned from going through this process with you. But at minimum, I think coaching involves the recognition of types of problems and situations. The complexity of the problem are low, medium, and high and various skill-will combinations between the coach and the participants.

Of course, beyond that, there's always urgency and there are external leadership noise factors that I won't try and bring into it, but of course they exist. I'm just saying at a minimum, I think about this. Now, let's go first to a five-second NBA video clip and look at an actual problem situation that was coached and practiced and put into play. I’m borrowing heavily from an Atlanta Hawks D-league scout and coach by the name of Dylan Moore. You can study this in more detail if you want, but I'm going to show the five-second video clip, and then we're going to talk about the problem solving and coaching that led up to it.

There was the result of good problem-solving and coaching the defense on slowing it down. Here's a pick and roll situation. A center comes over to set a screen, a defender shows, and they switched back the regular player, the guard has to pass out to the wing. No three-point shot was allowed and no easy roll to the basket was obtained on this possession. So, technically the defense won that little encounter. Okay, and I know that was fast, too fast for a lot of people who don't understand basketball. I'll break it down with slides in a little bit, but first I want to explain all the coaching and thought processes that went into that five seconds of play in an NBA game. Okay. So first off, you've got to understand that problem solving and of course goes on in sports.

More Than Just Passing the Ball

It's just not exactly the language in terms we use. Frankly, I wish the NBA would answer and teams would communicate it in a language that more of us can actually understand for basketball or any sport is a game of situations. It's not a static, one thing in basketball for simplicity, you can say there's offense, defense and special teams. Special situations in offense, you can say there's transition. Fast break plays off of rebounds and steals. There are inbound plays for various types of those. Then there's the traditional half-court offense and in the half-court offense, one thing in particular, you see at all levels, and it's one of the oldest plays in is called the pick and roll.

If you study basketball, it turns out there's types of pick and roll plays. There's a high version of it. There's a side version of it. There are combinations between those two and there's various combinations and permutations between who does it, the point guards, the shooting guards, the forwards, the centers, and some teams play more of a position less style. So, you have got to be prepared for all of that. Now I'm going to invent a specific problem. Again, borrowing heavy from that example I found on medium.com and the Atlanta Hawks D-league coach Dylan Murphy. This is made up, but it's generally true. There's an average of a hundred possessions in an NBA game. The average points per game is now about 112. It's gone up in recent years. The average margin of victory is about 10 points. It varies season by season, but it's been about 10 points. And when you think about it, that means that you need to stop them five more times a game. If you're thinking defensively, I have got to stop them from scoring five, five baskets, five times a game, assuming two-point baskets for now, to knock off that 10-point advantage, I got to score more. They got a score, less, some combination of that has to occur.

The game is won at those tight margins. Now, here's a generic situation that comes up in coaching. They do a lot of data collection, a lot of video analysis, a lot of scouting and databases are built. It's not shown, I wish it was an average opponent. Let's say we're facing next scores. 40 points a game from the pick and roll offense. Maybe 30 points comes from other offensive sets. 20 points comes from the transition game I talked about. 20 points might come from a turnover or excuse me, free throws and things like that. It's always a mixture, but they know opponent by opponent how it's coming. Let's say we're facing an opponent that's really good at the pick and roll and we want to stop them from averaging one point per possession on that pick and roll to something lower than that.

Creating Goals From Past Experience

You know, the top three in scoring in the league have more than one point per possession on the pick and roll. They're very good at it. So like in problem solving, we could, and coaches do this. They set goals for the game. And of course they, generic goal. We all think about is fan is let's, let's safely win the game. Let's not get injured. Let's not go into overtime. Let's just win the game. A more specific goal. The coaches, things of his let's effectively defend the pick and roll this game more specifically, they say, let's specifically defend the side, pick and roll between the point guard and center. If that's what they do. And I'll show an analysis of example where that's true and we'll try and get them down from that one point per play average to 0.8, because you're not going to stop them entirely. But if you can stop even that much across a number of possessions, it adds up and you win.

So, that could be a goal for an upcoming game. To do that, of course, we have to do analysis, and this is what the TV announcers and teams don't show. I wish they did but analyzing each other incredibly and a pick-and-roll analysis might look like this. We see how their opponent scores. On that 40 points that I talked about, they run the high pick and roll 20% of the time, the side pick and roll 80% of the time. And the real numbers will be different. I'm just making an 80-20 rule for this example, inside the side, pick and roll again. The point guard and center combination have done 80% of the time shooting guard center, 15% point guard, 5% small forward; every team's different. You got to know the data, you got to know the details of what you're going to face and how to defend it. That’s what this article by Dylan Murphy explained. I'd encourage anybody who’s a basketball fan to look it up and read it.

Now, just like you have analysis and problem solving in basketball, you have that analysis. Then you have to come up with countermeasures ways to stop the defense. It turns out there are five generic ways to stop the pick and roll. Of course, there are more than that, but you have to think through, are we going to go over the screen. Are you going to teach your player to go under the screen? Are you going to double team and trap the ball? Are you going to switch or are you going to do what's called show, do a show, a switch, and then go back to the style that you started with and all of these have pros and cons?

That’s where you as a coach, you have to know which one’s going to work better for an upcoming game. Good coaching and scouting has to prepare for all of these scenarios, not one, or just ask open-ended questions. Like what do you think the problem is? What's your obstacle? This game. Timeout. Let me read from my card and give you some questions to ask at the higher levels that doesn't work for coaching NBA, or even Toyota are good lean companies.

Breaking the Play Down

Now, for those of you that are curious about the play, I'm going to break it down. Slides, step-by-step, okay? What happened was the point guard dribbled to the side because you can call it, think of this as a high side and in between scenario a high side, pick and roll. Okay. In number two, the center, his center came over to set a screen. Create some confusion for the defense and create a way for the point guard to dribble around and get open, what happens was in the defense. This is what the Dylan Murphy article was explaining. The center jumps out onto the ball, handles the big jumps out on the small and shows that I'm going to switch. They make him think that I'm going to show and in reality, they then switched back because you want the small and the small on the big on the big certain times.

It doesn’t always depend on where the game’s planning and the scouting analysis come in, but they determined in this example that we don't want to go over or under, or switch too fast. We want to show and then switch, and that would give us an advantage of this game. For some reason, they came to believe that through film study, okay. And in this case, they showed the switch, and it looks temporarily like they're out of position, but in reality, as they switch back to number five, slide here, the player actually recovered and stopped the threat. The point guard didn't attempt a three-pointer, the center rolling to the basket was well defended. So the main options off the pick and roll were shut down, right there. There was no easy drive for the guard, no easy three-point shot. And there was no easy center lay-up by rolling to the basket so that you can, you can conclude that it was stopped. Cause he passed at the end of the wing slide. Number of point, number six, here, they pass to the wing meeting in that five second clip. The defense technically won. They won that little battle of exchange and stop the play. And in the game, it's a 24 second clock with iterations.

You have to do that again, and again, and again successfully, if you want to win the game. Doing it once is not enough, you have to do it over and over. At the end of the games, we all look at the scoreboard and say, who won? Let's say generally the team won that we were talking about this time that defended the pick and roll play. The real question. They go home and study the analytics department. The video guys stay up overnight. Sometimes it’s how many points per possession did they get on the pick and roll play? How well did we actually cover it? That was our goal. Maybe we said, we're going to try and hold them to 0.8 points per possession, but they got 0.85. So, we were good at it and better than in the past, but we didn't really achieve our goal, but we still won because it's not a single variant analysis.

There are multiple things going on. Maybe we limited our turnovers and got more points off the fast break or something like that. You know, combinations of things always result in victory or loss. But look, game’s on in 48 hours. Again, NBA's moving. You might have one in 24, 48 or 72 hours. You have got another game and are probably going to face another team's pick and roll and you have to decide which way are we going to defend it. So, they have to up action items every day after a game, they’ve got to review the video game with players and a meeting. They’ve got to review that show technique again and practice with coach Dylan. They’ve got to go over the specific finer points on how to show and what the offense is going to do to counter that. And that's what his article was largely about.

The show, a defensive technique, and then the six counters you got to know which I'll just list here, the slip counter, the split counter, the show and tags show, empty corner, show vs. pick-and-pop, small shows to avoid switches, the things they're going to try and do and confuse you next time. They've got counters for your counters. So, you've got to prepare a video for that film study on various things. You’ve got to practice, practice, practice, and drill the skill repeatedly.

Basketball Coaching Assists in Lean

So, look, I know NBA is very different from the lean world. They get big contracts, big dollars, lots of people to study problems, but I still think can learn a few things from as example. Number one: 82 games, days, and days long season that goes on during the whole year. Just like most of our jobs do in that season. There are many types of coaching, many types of problems and many types of situation and practices that they do, not just one. Second: they make very good use of video and analytics to figure out what to coach. We use analytics and lean to frame the problem definition, frame the analysis in our better examples, but we do not do a great job of using data, video analytics to study what to code, have some questions ready, show up at a meeting and do your best specific game.

Planning is important in the NBA, not just general coaching and problem solving and lean. Number three: we’ve got to get more specific in what we're planning to coach and how to do that. Number four: practice planning with specific situations in mind, Plan for every person, the NBA doesn't coach one player, they don't just coach the guard. You’ve got to coach all five positions on a court and the backups. In lean, I wish we did that better too. Let's just not pretend there's one person we're coaching one style we're coaching. You know, what you want the ops manager to do is different from the lean specialist is different from the quality manager, different from the engineering manager. Of course, they all do generally the same thing, but like in the NBA, you also have role specific things that I think we need to get better at in problem solving.

Number five: there are highly developed standards, situation awareness in basketball because they videotape and study so much. They come up with like five ways to defend the pick and roll. I wish that we did this in lean. We had five ways to frame the problem, five ways to break down the problem definition, five ways to think about your goal statement, five ways to think about your root cause analysis, five ways to think about counter measures that were more standard. Variation is still existent and needs to be thought through. But I wish we would get at that level in our coaching as well. I think the important thing was in that five second clip, you didn't see any coaching when you're successful. You don't see the coaching right on the court. The coaching occurs before adjustments occur during timeout and halftime, in little spurts. What you can do is pretty finite and there's big coaching again after the game. I wish we thought more like that in the lean world that before the problem-solving meeting or before the problem set activity, there's lots of coaching before. There's some refinement during the presentation or the execution, and there's a lot of coaching afterwards and it builds and builds and builds and moves in the right direction.

Number nine: The other thing worth reflecting on is NBA sports, military, Toyota for that matter, coaches are developed internally. That's not to say you can't hire a person from the outside, but extreme emphasis is put on developing and having people grow and learning coaching as part of their job throughout their career. Number ten: different types of coaches exist in the NBA head coach, assistant coach strength, coach offense, coach defense, coach analytic, expert Scouts.

There are people who just do the ball handling there's people that just do the shooting. There's a lot of room for expertise in coaching and in lean, we've got this generic one-size-fits-all, and I think we should get more specific about the type of coaching we're trying to do and the types of coaching we might employ to do that and fully understand. We don't have the big dollar budget of the NBA to do that, but I want us all to think about this, brainstorm, and see what we could do better stealing ideas from the NBA. Hope you enjoyed this video. We're going to do it again next time, except I'm going to drop the sports world and go into martial arts and it might not be what you would.

 

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1 Comment | Post a Comment
James Curcio April 07, 2021

Great post! Not often do you see lean thinking in sports. Touching on things like creating goals from past experience as well as breaking down the play are two great examples of lean thinking in basketball. Breaking something down step by step such as a play is something that is done everyday in lean. In lean, the process must be broken down before figuring out the best solution. 



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Search Posts:
Key Concepts of Lean
David Meier, Ernie Richardson, Joe Murli, Josh Howell, Karl Ohaus, Tom Shuker & Tracey Richardson
Becoming the Change
By John Toussaint, MD, and Kim Barnas
Designing the Future
By James M. Morgan, Jeffrey K. Liker
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