NBA Basketball Practice: Coaching Notes from NBA Training Camps

When NBA training camps started in September I was fortunate to be able to attend a number of NBA basketball practices in person. I attended two practices with the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and one practice and one pre-training camp workout with the Detroit Pistons. Below are my observations that came from all the NBA basketball practices. There were similarities, differences and stuff I like, and stuff I didn’t.

The number of notes I share is less a reflection of what I learned at each practice, and more a reflection the day I attended the NBA basketball practice. I did catalog all the NBA basketball practice drills and plays they ran through, but I am only sharing the ones that seemed different, or reflected an overall philosophy.

All the coaches coached their players in a respectful way. The practice environments were positive and professional. I would describe the coaches as demanding without being demeaning. At no point did I see any behavior from a player, or coach, that seemed detrimental to the team trying to improve.

Not every NBA basketball practice was the same. Sometimes the perception is that each NBA team does things identically. While there were some similarities, there were more differences. There were differences in terminology, philosophy and the same play run by different teams had different names. One of the interesting differences I saw was the difference in how the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks handled the player rolling on a ball screen. The Cleveland Cavaliers tag (cover the ball screen roll when the ball screen defender is involved in stopping the dribbler) from a low weak side player. The Milwaukee Bucks tag the ball screen roll with a player high on the weak side of the floor. Their goal is to tag the ball screen roll above the free throw line. I demonstrated both ball screen coverages with some thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of each philosophy here:

Common NBA Basketball Practice Plan

NBA Basketball Practice

NBA Basketball Practice: Milwaukee Bucks Practice

  • Anyone outside the three-point line automatically gets back in transition on defense on a shot.
  • They had an international flag hanging from their practice court representing the home country of each player on the roster.
  • “Kick Out” is the term they use for the first big back in transition bumping the guard covering the basket to the weak side.
  • They play no denial. They always want to “show their help” on defense.
  • Force all deep corner catches to the baseline and front the post.
  • The goal is to have a high tag (weak side defender tags the ball screen roller) above the free throw line.
  • Attacking “Ice” Ball Screen defensive coverage with a full fill around to prevent the tag from the weak side.

NBA Basketball ice

  • One assistant taught defense (for example, high ball screen defense), followed by another assistant teaching the offence out of the same situation (for example high ball screen offence). 
  • When teaching the butt front on post defense, they want players to “lock in” to a player by holding the offensive player with both arms reaching back.
  • The post player defending the player going to set the ball screen is in charge of the defensive call.
  • When the player defending the ball on a ball screen clears the screen, they must get their both hands up in the air. They want the possibility of deflections and disruptions as usually when a pass is made, it is made after clearing the screen.
  • Each person (coaches, staff, visiting coaches, and players not involved in the drill) holds their two arms up in the air for a full 24 seconds of a shot clock when the team works on its 5-on-5 defensive shell drill. “Cup” is another term (load/slant) for doubling or controlling the ball from the trail players defender in defensive transition.
  • During their 5 Trips 5-on-0 Transition drill, four coaches stood on the court in a diamond formation. The stationary coaches forced the offense to throw more game like passes and the players off the ball had to position themselves in open spaces.

NBA Basketball Practice

NBA Basketball Practice: Detroit Pistons:

  • One-on-one post defense teaching points: Use the weak side arm as an arm bar, and the ball side arm and hand to take away the pass. 
  • Use a butt front with high hands and early contact to disrupt a post flash from the weak side block to the strong side block. Hold the front until the cutter is outside the lane than adjust to a behind position.
  • Communication should be aggressive.
  • “Boomerang” is the term they use for a pass and pass back action on offence.
  • To work ball screen offence and defense run a guided to live three ball screen drill.NBA Basketball play
  • Uncertainty kills defense. If you are going to be wrong, be aggressive wrong.
  • The best teams can navigate through the grey.
  • When a cutter crosses the lane, they deny the cutter until the cutter is outside the lane. This prevents any paint touches. This is instead of “smash the flash” when a cutter is just hit as they cross the lane. They full butt denial until the cutter clears.
  • A player can’t get better unless they acknowledge their responsibility to get better.
  • Going to have bad stretches in a game. Need to stay with what you are supposed to do.
  • Blitz ball screen (double team) teaching points: The defender blitzing the ball screen should stay with the blitz until the ball is picked up. The defender blitzing the ball screen always recovers to the basket (recover to your check as your teammates are just covering for you).
  • Offense vs. a blitz: The first two looks for the player dribbling the ball vs. a blitz are to the player rolling and the player cutting on the snap back.
  • Inside and Weak Side: On a catch by a player on a snap back pass their look is to the inside and then to the weak side. Take the shot if open, but prepare for not having a shot on the first pass vs a blitz or shock.
  • All 5-on-0 repetitions were followed by a job back to half-court to simulate transition defense recovery.
  • When scrimmaged, went back and forth 5-on-5 with one assistant coach, coaching the offense, and one coaching the defense, for each team. They stopped and coached when necessary. Since you have to be able to make adjustments on the fly in the game, players need to get used to it in the scrimmages so they worked it into scrimmage.
  • To communicate who they are doubling in the post, they call the double call followed by the number of the player they are doubling. For example, Red #5.
  • Discussed the specificity of decisions: “For Drummond we can throw it up for him to get. For Boban we need to put it right in his hands.”

NBA Basketball Practice Cleveland Cavaliers:

  • Emphasized situational denial on defense.
  • When the ball is above the free throw line it triggers the situational denial.
  • Tag the roll with the low defender on a pick and roll.
  • The middle pick and roll call is “weak” or “strong” depending on where the ball is coming from (send it weak hand or strong hand).
  • When the ball goes into the post, they recover strong side to their check, and give up space on the weak side.
  • Any perimeter screening action after a post entry they switch.
  • Spent a lot of time on “split” rotations on passes to the roll vs. their “blitz” pick and roll defensive coverage.

NBA Basketball

Attending an NBA basketball practice is a rare and invaluable opportunity for any aspiring basketball coach. It offers a firsthand glimpse into the inner workings of a professional basketball team and provides insights that can’t be gained anywhere else. As we’ve explored throughout this blog, there are several key strategies to maximize the benefits of this experience.

First and foremost, approach the opportunity with humility and an eagerness to learn. Take advantage of every moment to observe and absorb the teachings of the coaching staff and players. Pay close attention to the drills, tactics, and communication strategies employed by the coaching staff, and consider how you can incorporate these insights into your own coaching philosophy.

Additionally, don’t hesitate to ask questions and seek clarification on any concepts or strategies that may be unclear. Engage in meaningful conversations with the coaching staff and fellow attendees to gain different perspectives and deepen your understanding of the game.

Finally, be proactive in documenting your observations and reflections. Take detailed notes, capture video footage if permitted, and reflect on how the lessons learned can be applied to your own coaching journey.

By approaching the opportunity with curiosity, humility, and a commitment to continuous learning, attending an NBA training camp practice can be a transformative experience that propels your coaching career to new heights. Embrace the opportunity and make the most of every moment to grow and evolve as a coach.

How to Attend and Watch Basketball Practices to Learn

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