Adapting Tradition, or Excavating the 45 Degree Angle of Attack on the X-Axis

  • As usual, @HighEliteMajor has pressed my think button on another thread entitled the First Exhibition: Mason Was the Star. The trigger was one of his late adds to the thread he started. And as usual the thinking sends me off on a tangent he, and others, may, or may not find value in.

    Self, you see, is an interesting (and rigorous) mix of adaptability and tradition. In fact, if I were to write a basketball coaching book based on our KU head coach, the title would be “Bill Self: Adapting Tradition.”

    I have written recently about either of his proclivities–his adaptiveness and also about traditionalism, but have left implicate how they interplay.

    Self ALWAYS redistributes roles and duties based on the material he has on hand, as do most coaches, and he always does it in pursuit of achieving that season’s expression “of who we are,” as do most coaches, though his 82% winning percentage and ring indicates he does both, at least in the aggregate, better than most.

    What most distinguishes him is the rich depth of his insight about the past, something he does not dwell upon, but rather acts on in myriad ways, often without calling attention to doing it. But on important occasions, like AFH;s 60th anniversary gathering of a staggeringly unprecedented group of coaches at a single school, he essentially cannot resist the temptation to say, “Hey, look here, I know some of you folks are pretty busy with your everyday lives but LOOK AT THIS TRADITION a moment.” This is too important to overlook, he seems to say, even though its only basketball and you are worrying about the next paycheck and what your kid is doing out late at night. Good traditionalists are like this. They don’t lord the past over you. They call your attention to in once in awhile, when you may be straying from it unwisely. They mention it to remind us the past is implicate in the present; that it teaches, enriches, and sometimes even saves us from our worst enemies. They don’t ever substitute, however. A present with a myopically understood past, is worse than a present with a past forgotten. A present with a lie for a past, or worse an evil for a past, is worse than no past. Traditionalists, I like to think, are progressives with a good memory and a working knowledge of principles of the past and the conditions under which they operated. To be a truly effective progressive, you have to be a traditionalist, because most effective change involves retrofitting old principles to new technologies and materials. Conserving parts of the past has its place, but it is not way to get on with the business getting better in the present.

    Bill Self is to me a traditionalist. And while he may view himself as a conservative, or be viewed as that by others, to me he appears really to be a progressive with a memory. Getting better is progressive. Getting better by finding principles in the past that can be retrofitted to the present is traditionalism.

    Too many coaches copy the past. Self sifts through it and finds the still useful underlying principles of the past and adapts them to present circumstances. Certain great craftsmen in the arts and crafts, in the sciences, and in many professions, possess this rare skill. It invariably aids them in their success.

    Something as avant garde and superficially unorthodox as late 19th and early 20th Century Modernism was fundamentally an act of going back, often waaaaaaay back to before what the then status quo approved of, and discovering the underlying form language principles of forgotten, or misunderstood past eras, especially of classical antiquity, abstracting those principles into forms with modern technologies, and claiming to have “made it new.” Some it was good, and some of it was bad, but all of it was built on at the very least attempted better understanding of excavated ancient principles.

    Most noteworthy movements in human thought and action in fields I am familiar with have ransacked (and repeatedly do so) the past for inspiration and insight in order to escape the straightjacket thinking of the present.

    But, again, there appear to be two approaches to this borrowing, or stealing, from the past in order to find a way to remake that present, which if not broken free of, leaves one a prisoner of repeating within the confines of the Leavenworth of one’s own recent penitentiary experience the immediate past with which we are encumbered, and so blinded by, regarding the emerging opportunities of the moment. And the moment IS where we have to act.

    You can borrow the underlying principles, as modernism did, or you can borrow the surface forms, as post modernism did. (Note: you can also flat out copy the past to hope to preserve and perpetuate it, or you can work from a clean sheet of paper, or even process everything through the randomizer of a Dada lens and not really care what comes out, but Self seems pretty clearly an archaeologist of basketball principles who tooth-brushes them off meticulously, studies their dynamics given their obsolete materials and techniques, and then reapplies certain of them with modern materials and techniques).

    Borrowing underlying principle is not necessarily more successful than borrowing the surface form, because success is really driven mostly by degree of feasible fit of either borrowed surfaces, or principles, with circumstances of emerging complexity in a way that yields attained tactical objectives and an achieved strategic goal.

    But working from underlying principles requires deeper understanding of how things actually work, not just how they fit with the present. It takes a lot of brain case horsepower to do both. Its not for everyone. Hence, those that do it betray a more powerful, searching intellect encumbered with less cynicism IMHO. That is not to say they are bigger winners–winnning is an end, just that they are willing and able to execute more complex means.

    The borrower of surfaces IMHO also doubts there is a depth worth knowing about. The borrower of underlying principle suspects a resonant, empowering continuity under life and an advantage with connecting to the past that goes beyond just not wanting to reinvent the wheel. It goes all the way to a belief in seeking transcendance over the tyranny of time, of seeking a door through the perception of a fiery confining moment into a freeing, liberating universal moment.

    This can mean the difference between giving up and finding a way through.

    It is, frankly, the quest of the classical hero myth, of how to slay the dragon when their appears no way to slay the dragon to the ordinary person unwilling to walk the hero path to underlying insight.

    To be sure borrowing surfaces can be under certain circumstances another kind of hero myth, but it seems a more limiting one. To borrow surfaces is to concede the unknowability of depths. It takes a kind of heroism to operate without knowledge of depths. It is the kind of heroism required to jump into an ocean to save another drowning human being not knowing if the water is full of hungry sharks, or not, to say it does not matter, to say that the drowning person is worth the risk and must be saved by surface knowledge alone. There isn’t time to understand the depths, gauge the risks and find a fitting way to save what needs saving without getting eaten trying.

    But outside such emergency examples, to be satisfied with surfaces, as I said, betrays a peculiar kind of childish narcissism–a kind of arrogant indifference to the depths that can only be partially known–a child like petulance suggesting that if the depths cannot be absolutely known to guaranty success, then to hell with understanding them at all. The virtues of Keep It Simple Stupid and of Ockham’s Razor can become vicious, stupid vices in the hands of of the petulant, impatient narcissist.

    Self has a boyish layer for sure, albeit it one that is being steadily burned away by harsh experience, and the voyage into middle age, but he has never evidenced the childishness of a surface borrower.

    Self seems a student of the past. He seeks the principles of workable solutions to a dynamic present from the basketball past–a past that he was fortunate enough to be richly steeped in from early on (as too were his apparent influential mentors Paul Hansen, Larry Brown and Eddie Sutton), and Self tries to retrofit them to the present, rather than invent something new. Inventing is not really Self’s style. It is not that he will not invent. Inventing rather is not his predilection and it appears he relies on assistants for the new thing, which is necessary utility at the margin, but not the frame work upon which he chooses to build a team capable of exploiting such fungible utility of the new thing along the margin.

    To wit: this year’s team is being formulated in the spitting surface image of his Elite Eight Tulsa team, right down to the three point shooting emphasis and the back up 6-10 big for the short starting big man. One might also say he was borrowing a small surface of the 2008 ring team (Kaun behind DBlock), but if you want a broader surface for what he is doing with this team, see the Tulsa team and forget the 2008 KU team. Swap the Tulsa and KU uniforms, and discount 25% for athleticism, and the teams share virtually the same surfaces. Short. Efficient. Controlling defense without a rim protector, not gambling defense. Great perimeter offense with money on the blocks some times and not others. Lots of trey shooting every game without many great trey shooters. A doughnut team masking its hole in the center.

    But Self is not just borrowing surfaces. He is borrowing the principles of the past he knows so well in order to fit them with the talent he has now.

    We are witnesses to a go-back by Self from the Iba High-Low and its immediate descendant the Carolina passing offense in which the goal was pass the ball, dribble and screen as little as possible, and so force the defensive team to spend more of its energy budget sliding on defense chasing the pass and so have less energy for offense, while at the same time trying to get the ball into the hands of great athletes with passing-triggered impact space to make a play.

    Now we are seeing Self excavate an older principle, or at least a different principle from the past and apply that principle yet within the high-low offense. The principle is efficient passing aimed at each pass moving the ball to a higher and higher percentage shot–an incremental-shot-improvement passing game, if you will. It is subtle to the eye at first, but it is unmistakable when studied a bit.

    Previous Self teams have always loved the long pass that forces the whole defense to shift, to react, to slide–to move the defenders off the spots you eventually come back to by pass than they can slide back to. Around the perimeter and back. In and out. Around the perimeter and back. In and out. Minimal screening. Action only AFTER the other team has been forced to slide side to side and in and out, to give his team’s legs an advantage over the defense’s reacting legs, to put his team’s minds on the offensive and theirs on the defensive, when we finally decide to “run the stuff”, the action, and only then if the long passing itself will not create the impact space needed for “an open look.” (Note: the truth Self Ball is in his language for sure.) And then the action itself is usually long–long fade curls, long wing to baseline drives with cross paint and cross court passes to shooters coming off backside picks, long wing cut alley oops, etc. Long action gives more steps that greater athleticism can use to create more space to shoot more open looks with. Space equals increased shooting accuracy in traditional Self Ball.

    But then was that.

    And now is this…

    The efficient pass to the next higher shooting percentage spot., or to the next line being run to the next higher shooting percentage spot, is the new heuristic. Each pass must raise the scoring risk to the defense a little higher. No more passing for the sake of moving the defenses this way and then that with the ball moving among positions offering the same degree of scoring threat. If the scoring threat does not increase, don’t make the pass. Make another pass that does increase it. Or put in on the deck under control and move with not more than 2-3 dribbles into gap in the defense that is a more threatening spot to the defense from which to take a shot, or look for the next pass to the next higher percentage shot.

    This is Bob Knight with out the screening. Recall the grabbed jersey and the shaken player. Recall the order: pass the ball to the next higher shooting percentage you dummy.

    But it goes farther back.

    This is John Wooden in 1964 in a high low set. Lots of long shots, because when one is short the open long shot is apt to be the highest percentage shot your team will get. Lots of long shots to enable long rebounds that favor the X-axis mobility of lots of springy midsize players. But when ever you do pass, or whenever you do cut, the pass and cuts should be on 45 degree angles, always moving inward to the next higher percentage spot from which to threaten the opponent. This was Wooden’s greatest secret of all he discovered that he never really kept a secret. He told anyone that would listen that the 45 degree angle was the key to basketball; that it derived from the rectilinearity of the court, and the location of the goal at the midpoint of the baseline of the rectangular court. The 45 degree angle movement was the golden rule of basketball. It was Euclid speaking to us down through the years through the Indiana rubber man that had bothered to excavate the game as it was back to what it had been under Iba and Allen and Lambert, because he had played in their eras and for Lambert. Yes, the running, zone pressing, UCLA way was based substantially on the excavated principles of Iba (Wooden said so), who had long had to contend with Allen and had had to find ways to play uber talented Kansas, and others, with many (but not all) teams that were from the doughnut with a hole in the middle mold. The 45 degree angle. Look at the old footage of UCLA. Everyone is always squaring up to shoot, or cut, or pass, at 45 degree angle. It is especially apparent among his teams without Jabbar and Walton, who Wooden bent the rule for when expedient. (Genius understands rules have exceptions). Then look at the old footage of Iba teams. The weave distracts and fools you. Look at what the weave leads to: a 45 degree angle cut to a picker and often another 45 degree angle cut off the picker for the layup, or the dish.

    The most efficient path to the next higher percentage spot is the 45 degree pass, or the 45 degree cut, or the 45 degree dribble, if you do not have bigs so tall that play can go in and out over the tops of opponents. The 45 degree pass, or the 45 degree cut is the most efficient path to the next higher percentage spot, if you aren’t trying to move defenses to buy space for players with overwhelming physical MUA, or overwhelming 3pt shooting accuracy to impact with space.

    The 45 degree pass and cut are ideals. Every pass and cut are not exactly 45s. Every pass and cut cannot always achieve the next higher percentage scoring position either. Defensive pressure and emergent complexity enter in and make the pursuit a praxis, not an ideal type. The 45 degree angle is the Euclidean principle abstracted as a heuristic for decision making within what ever formation you choose to operate from, with whatever action you try to act with, and whatever context your face and try to act within.

    This team is going to be Self sticking to his philosophy of taking what they give us, but the controlled, efficient 45 degree angle of attack principle is a change.

    To become a controlled, 45 degree angle cutting and passing team, in an age of dribble drive, ball-screening, just good enough defense, and hyper athleticism of OAD stacked teams like UK and UA, is to recover the principles of Iba against Allen, of Wooden against the world in 1964 and 1965, of late Indiana Knight against the stacked North Carolina and Kentucky teams, of Self’s 200o Tulsa team against the world of elite programs. And almost certainly of certain Claire Bee teams I sadly did not get to know.

    But it is to recover the principles, not just the surfaces.

    Sometimes the surfaces look similar,

    But then was that (I twist to make the point)

    And now is this.

    And in the authentic hero quest, the one not yet succumbed to cynicism and surfaces only, the underlying principles still matter.

    Have to matter.

    In order to try to make up for the asymmetries of ShoeCo stacking.

    Rock Chalk!!!

  • @jaybate-1.0

    Very interesting read, JB. I really enjoyed your “angle” on playing at a 45-degree angle.

    That concept brought something else into my mind. Self-defense training. When a gunman draws a weapon on you at point-blank range, if you immediately run away from him at a 45% angle, you have less than a 2% chance of being shot and killed. Less than 2% chance. I’m not sure what study was used, and how accurate it is, but the theory makes perfect sense.

    So does that mean it is harder for basketball players to execute passes and other duties at a 45% angle? Makes me wonder.

    A few days ago I had a very brief chat with Bill Self (about 30 seconds long). He just gave a speech and was fretting about having a short team. He was fretting… but we all know Bill now and at this time of the year he always undersells his team. I planted a seed in him, telling him to stop fretting about it and focus on the truth. And the truth is more than 90% of the game of basketball is played at the level of 6’3" to the ground. Frank Mason doesn’t even have to reach up on tiptoes to be a part of over 90% of the game. This is at the very heart of x-axis basketball.

    Bill paused briefly after my comment and then agreed with me.

    Seed #1… planted.

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