Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mike Krzyzewski's Weakness Exposed - Stall Ball

I almost never post about basketball. But I'm an over-the-top Duke fan, and I rearrange my calendar around Duke hoops. I monitor recruiting. I track what the players are doing in the summer. I read every article about Duke basketball on the Internet. I watch every single game on TV, if it is televised. Even with the windows closed, the neighbors can hear me shouting during games. I've been doing this the whole time that Mike Krzyzewski has been at Duke.

Plus, Mike Krzyzewski and I were cadets at West Point at the same time. I'm a HUGE fan.

Duke's legendary coach has more victories than any Division I men's basketball coach in history. He knows how to attract talented and develop them. He knows how to win. He's the ultimate class act in basketball, whether college or pros. He deserves all the adulation he has received.

But he has an Achilles heel. As I write, he has 910 victories and 4 NCAA championships; but if it weren't for this flaw, he'd no doubt have 950 victories and 6 championships. Most of the TV sports announcers know what this flaw is, and all the veteran coaches know, too. And when Coach K implements this ill-advised strategy, as he often does, the coaches have learned how to counter it.

The flaw is "clock management" or "slowing the game down." Many people call it "stall ball." It was invented by legendary UNC coach Dean Smith. He called it "four corners." The idea was to build up a lead and towards the end of the game, just pass the ball around, running the clock down. It drove opposing coaches crazy, because it didn't leave them with enough time to come back and win. It probably drove Coach K crazy, too.

Maybe that's why Coach K loves to use the strategy.

Actually, I do, too.

The problem is, Coach K implements it too soon.

I believe there's a fairly low-risk way to hold the ball and let the clock run down. It's simple mathematics. If the team that's ahead just holds the ball for 30 seconds, misses the shot, and the other team scores right away, that's no problem if the lead is more than 2 points. If you do that twice and stall for 60 seconds, you'd need a lead of more than 4 points. So the rule of thumb is to multiply the number of minutes remaining by 4 to determine the size of lead you need to play no-risk clock management. Hopefully, the leading team will force a turnover or score, which is all to the good. But if a team waits to stall the ball, using this guideline, it's almost impossible to lose.

But Krzyzewski consistently starts managing the clock much too soon, creating unnecessary risks. For example, in the game with Washington on December 10, 2011, he started managing the clock with 4:46 to go. By my calculation, he would need a 19-point lead to work the clock down to a safe victory. But the lead was only 14. With a 14-point lead, to play it safe, you should wait until 3:30 left. Seemingly, he trusts his team to score or create defensive stops or turnovers. And sometimes they do, and Duke wins. But sometimes they don't.

That's because of three things. First, Duke got the comfortable lead by implementing their offense. Shifting to stall ball means the players have to stop doing that. This is a jarring change of pace. It upsets every aspect of the offensive chemistry.

Second, after holding the ball and with only 10 seconds left in the possession, there's only time for one shot; and it's a pressured, well-defended shot because the other team can see it coming. Most of the time, the shot misses because the only available shot is a low-percentage shot. The other team gets the rebound, attacks, scores and closes the gap. If this pattern continues, Duke loses. So this seemingly conservative strategy is actually a very risky one if implemented too soon. And Krzyzewski all too often makes this mistake.

The third and scariest thing is that once Coach K shifts to stall ball, he almost never shifts back to his regular offense, regardless of how much the lead disappears. Why this is so, I don't know. I can only speculate. But it's great news for opposing coaches.

I remember watching a game several years ago when Duke squandered a 30-point lead against Virginia. They began stalling halfway through the second half. Duke kept missing time-pressured low-percentage shots, and Virginia kept slashing and scoring. In the end, Duke's lead was gone and Virginia won. I've never forgotten that game, because the pattern repeated itself in future games.

Ironically, the most conservative way to win is to stay with the aggressive basketball that got you the lead in the first place. Most teams do that. But Mike loves stall ball. I think he truly believes it's one of the reasons he wins so often.

At the 4:46 mark in the Washington game, Duke led 74-60; and they began slowing the game down. But then Washington stole the ball and scored on a fast break. This pattern repeated itself. Duke lost the ball again and Washington scored. At 3:00 the score was 74-64. Stall ball wasn't working. Duke was losing its lead. According to my formula, at 3:00 they would need a 12-point lead to stall safely, but they led by only 10.

But Duke continued to stall. At 2:17 the score was 75-66. They needed a 9-point lead, and they had a 9-point lead. Luckily for Duke, they were fouled repeatedly and they made some free throws. With 0:50 left, the score was 81-72. Mathematically, Duke's victory was all but assured. Washington had to foul deliberately for any chance to win, and Duke made more free throws. Washington made a buzzer-beater 3-point shot, and the game endded 86-80. Coach K made it happen. His gamble paid off in another victory.

But why gamble? Does Coach K enjoy the thrill of the risk? Duke went from a 14-point lead to winning by only 6. "Duke held off Washington," said the reports after the game. Actually, during that final 5-minute stretch Duke did not make a single basket. By contrast, Washington scored 20 points in those five minutes. Scary. But Duke was fouled several times and made about half of some free throws.

If I were to presume to advise the legendary coach, I'd tell him this - "When you get a nice lead, continue with what got you there. Keep playing aggressive basketball until the lead is 4 times the number of minutes remaining. Then - if you must - start slowing the game down. Train your players to protect the ball, because your desperate opponent will try to steal it and break for an easy score. My preference, though, would be to keep on working your offense and try to increase the lead. That's what the players would like to do and it's less risky. But if you absolutely must shift to managing the clock, don't do it too soon."

Coach K - "Thanks for your analysis, Denny. Good food for thought."

Denny - "You're welcome, Coach."

NOTE TO MY REGULAR READERS. Thanks for letting me depart from my usual focus on personal strength, people skills, personal strength and teen development. In a way, this article is about some of that. I know the chance that Coach K will see this article is pretty small, and even smaller that he would give it any credibility if he did read it.

But maybe...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .

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