Defensive Transition: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

I originally started writing this blog as a summary of a FIBA Coaching Library video on Defensive Transition by Andrej Lemanis. Coach Lemanis is the Australian national team coach and the video is excellent. I have summarized his drills and teaching points in this blog but I also wanted to add more detail on the topic of transition defense, which was a request from a newsletter reader. 

I know this is one of the frustrations of learning through DVDs and clinics. As a learner you are left wanting more, and not fully comprehending the concepts. Too often these DVDs and clinics provide too much fluff and not even specificity. I will do my best to fully detail Coach Lemanis’ coverage of transition defense along with my views on how you should teach transition defense. 

Defensive Transition Ideas from Andrej Lemanis

Teaching Points:

  • Learning is also about going through the experience of “I don’t agree with that as a coach.”
  • To practice a 1,000 shots with no defense is useless. He considers one-on-one games to be shooting games.
  • The real skill in coaching is letting players play one-on-one and then step in when necessary to coach.
  • Players learn how to play by having coaches put them in situations where they learn how to play.
  • Speaking is a skill. It is something you bring to the group. It’s a way you help the team. Talking to your teammates and helping them stay organized is a way you help the team.
  • One of the things you need to sort out as a coach with your transition defense is what your offensive rebounding rules are going to be. That is a coach’s decision that must be taught. He has used a variety of concepts depending on his team’s strengths. For example he has allowed the 1, 2 and 3 players to make a decision. If they think they can get the offensive rebound then they are allowed to go to the offensive boards. He allows them to be decision-makers.
  • Anybody has anybody. You don’t run to your check. Transition defense is a scramble situation. 
  • Adapt the drill to your offensive and defensive philosophies.
  • Working on defensive transition is good for offensive transition too. You can also emphasize different things at the front of your defense if you are a pressing team.

3-on-3 Conversion Drill (2:41)

The drill is explained and demonstrated. Coach Lemanis uses this drill to develop his transition defense concepts.

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Coach Oliver Note: Teach the drill, then teach the skills. An effective way to teach is to focus on the drill first, then once the drill is understood, teach the skills. This reduces the amount of talking time a coach uses when introducing a drill. If the coach introduces a drill, and the teaching points at the same time, then too much talking is taking place. The problem with talking is that it takes away from physically practicing which is the time when players actually learn. Players improve through physical practice so we want to maximize their time on task. The explanation of the 3-on-3 Conversion drill by Coach Lemanis is an excellent demonstration of this concept (2:41)

Transition Defense Concepts from Coach Lemanis

1. Cover the Ball

  • The first thing he wants to do is to get the basketball under control.
  • He wants the ball to get challenged as early as possible. The communication cue is, “I got it.”
  • If you are guarding the ball, he wants you to slow it down and keep the ball on the ‘split court’ (His terminology for keeping the ball on a side and out of the middle).
  • If you take the ball you have responsibility for it. No reaches on the ball. Keep it in front.

Coach Oliver Note: Throughout the video Coach Lemanis provides an excellent example of teaching in short bursts (8:56-9:48). Players get instruction and then get to apply that instruction. He does not teach everything at one time. He focuses the learner on one thing and then has them learn it through doing it.

2. Basket 

  • The second most important thing is to cover the basket.
  • The player at the basket is the eyes of the whole defense.

Coach Oliver Note: Having used 3-on-3 conversion I can attest that it is an effective small-sided game that can be used to coach basketball through a games approach. Many teachable moments come up in the flow of the play so each time you run the drill new and important teaching moments will come up. The drill keeps all players involved and is competitive. I encourage you to look at it further as a method of creating realistic advantage/disadvantage situations, as well as developing your transition defensive system.

3. Nail Spot

  • The player that gives help to the player covering the ball.
  • The nail spot is in the middle of the free throw line.

Coach Oliver Note: We call this the ‘Slant’ spot. It is this player’s responsibility to prevent the ball from splitting them and the player covering the ball. We also force the ball middle out of transition into this slant. The slant is usually the player covering the inbounder or a trail player.

How does it translate to 5-on-5?

He uses a competitive 5-on-5 situation to work on his transition defense concepts and to make the action more game-like.

5-on-5 Turnouts (13:05)

  • He starts the action out of a Turnout (but you can run any offensive action to start the 5-on-5).
  • Whoever shoots the ball on offense has to touch the baseline before getting back in transition.
  • Nobody has to touch the baseline on a turnover.
  • The offense does not have to inbound a made shot. They are allowed to just grab the ball and go in transition as fast as they can. (This puts more pressure on the defensive transition.)
  • He plays one trip of the floor (but obviously you can play as many trips as you like).
  • The person who touches out of bounds will end up covering a check on the weak side of the floor. (This simulates a game where the last player back usually picks up the weak side.)
  • He counts down a shot clock if the initial offensive possession is going too slow in order to speed up the simulations.

Communication Warm-Up (21:52)

This is a drill designed to work on a team’s communication and teamwork. It ties in nicely with the communication requirements of being an effective transition defensive team. The drill starts with players jogging around. A coach calls a number. Whatever number the coach calls indicates the size of the groups the team must break off and form. If a player doesn’t get in a group then they get two push-ups.

Coach Oliver’s Note: This is similar to our 5-on-0 Transition Defense Drill we use sometimes at the beginning of our practices to create communication. It is working on our communication system more than any specific technical or tactical areas. I am curious if I, or one of the readers, can come up with a way to make the Communication Warm-Up even more practical?

What and How I Teach Defensive Transition?

We have five defensive transition responsibilities for our players.

  1. Get to the Ball
  • We want to get to the ball and force it middle into the slant.
  • The player covering the ball should gap, not get beat and slow the ball down by bluffing and recovering at the ball.
  1. Cover the Basket
  • The first post back releases the get back player who initially covers the rim.
  • The first post back is responsible for covering the middle runner and any offensive post player at the basket.
  • They should not wait for an offensive post player to come to them. If a middle runner is running the floor then we want the first post back to meet that runner with what we call early work. Early work is when a defender hits (or gets in the way) of an offensive cutter to prevent them from going to the spot on the floor they desire.
  1. Fill the Slant
  • The player in the slant prevents the ball from splitting two defenders into the middle of the floor.
  • They should be deeper than the ball and in a ‘ball, you, check’ positioning. They should also bluff like they are attacking the dribbler. This fake will slow the dribbler down.
  • It is easier to stop the ball from the slant because their check is usually behind the ball so we want to take advantage of this numbers advantage.
  • We force middle into the slant because we feel the most congestion in transition happens in the middle of the floor.
  • Also the easiest hit ahead pass, and penetrate and kickout pass, is to the ballside wing so we want to prevent those offensive opportunities.
  1. Deny the Ballside Wing
  • We want to prevent any hit ahead passes to the ballside wing. The second guard back gets to the ballside wing and denies.
  • We also don’t want help off the ballside wing so this fits our defensive philosophy.
  • Our rationale is the ball moves slower up the floor off the dribble so we want to force the dribble middle into our help and not allow any quick passes up the floor that could put more pressure on our recovery.
  1. Cover the Weakside (The Get Back)
  • The get back player is responsible for the basket until the first post back releases them of that responsibility. They usually then cover the weakside wing.
  • An important teaching point is to remind this player to remain in help and not recover to their check as they are on the helpside of the floor.
  • We designate the get back player. Typically it is our point guard but we have had point guards who are better offensive rebounders than our other guards so a communication happens to designate who is responsible.
  • The get back player has get back responsibilities wherever they are on the floor. That way responsibility cannot be passed on to someone else. We found too often the get back would say that they were in the corner so it was the second get back player’s responsibility. We removed that doubt. Even if they shoot they have get back. Now the other players, through emphasis and development through game situations, must identify good and bad offensive rebounding situations. A bad offensive rebounding situation would be, 1. They have no chance of getting the rebound, and 2. The get back player is in a bad position.

Regardless of what I teach in our transition defensive system, it never happens perfectly that way.

Defensive transition is always messy. It rarely unfolds perfectly the way we teach it. That is why we do no breakdown drills to develop transition defense. We use a games approach to coaching where we play a lot of 5-on-5 and 4-on-4 with multiple trips. This creates natural transition defensive situations to coach. One of the problems with breaking down transition defense is that it often creates unrealistic scripted situations that do not happen in a game. Here is a sample games approach 5-on-5 drill we use to start three trips.

5-on-5 Closeout ReboundingCloseout ReboundingWe also use a 4-0n-4 Transition Drill and the 5-0n-0 Transition Communication Drill to teach our concepts. Otherwise all of our transition drills, whether they are 5-on-5 or 4-on-4, have a defensive transition component that we are constantly coaching. 

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