CLEMSON — Motion offense is built on trust. Players run and sweat without the ball to create space and opportunities for teammates.
They give up the ball expecting to get it back if they have an open shot.
Motion offense is built on selflessness. Big men are expected to move away from the basket to set screens. Passes are generally preferred to dribbling.
Motion offense is built on knowledge. There are no set plays. Players must read defenses, anticipate where teammates will be and understand concepts.
Motion offense is disappearing.
Former Indiana coach Bob Knight is largely responsible for popularizing the philosophy, leading the Hoosiers to three national titles in the 1970s and 1980s. Knight’s motion offense influenced high school coaches across the Midwest, and future coaches like Clemson’s Brad Brownell, an Indiana native. But in the last decade, Brownell noticed the offense was losing basketball market share to more individual expressions of the game: pick-and-roll and dribble-drive schemes.
“Mike D’Antoni kind of got the ball-screen stuff going back with the (Phoenix) Suns with Steve Nash,” Brownell said. “They were doing well. People looked at that as a simpler way to play, a fun way to play, and so that started to spread into the college game. And now some people have seen they have had success and like it, and there are more and more teams that like to do that.
“I think there are probably less people doing (motion) and it becomes more and more difficult for coaches to teach it at different levels.”
Basketball is more and more becoming a game of isolation, a ball-handler trying to beat his man off the dribble. Increasingly a player who begins a possession with the ball finishes the possession with a shot.
Less ball movement dampens the motivation for a player to move without the ball, as he is less likely to have the ball returned.
“There’s times when guys want to make plays right away off the first screen when sometimes all you need to do is pass and make them defend a few things,” Brownell said.
“The problem is you have to trust that you are going to get it back at some point and guys aren’t used to playing that way.”
Brownell rarely finds players on the recruiting trail who have experience in the motion offense.
“They don’t play that way at many places anymore,” Brownell said. “At AAU, in high schools, the ball doesn’t move very much. A guy wants to make a play when he gets it.
“He doesn’t want to keep it moving and try to keep working. He doesn’t trust that it’s going to get back to him again.”
Clemson forward Milton Jennings had little exposure to motion offense until he reached Clemson.
“I remember in AAU I touched the ball every single time and I was the focal point on my team,” said Jennings, who played at Pinewood Prep.
With fewer high school players familiar with motion offenses, coaches wonder if they can be successful running it.
“The pressure to win comes early,” Brownell said. “You do worry about it because it takes time to get good at (motion offense).”
Even Brownell is running less motion offense and more set plays this season.
“Sometimes ball-screen stuff and spacing seems a little easier to master as there aren’t as many moving parts, which is why we do some of that,” Brownell said.
‘What’s in it for me?’
Following his post-game radio show at Clemson earlier this month, long after the last fans had departed, Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik sat in Littlejohn Coliseum studying a stat sheet.
His team had shot 24.6 percent from the field — a record low for an opponent at Clemson. The shooting was terrible, and so was the passing. Wake Forest had just three assists.
Bzdelik said running a motion offense and sharing the ball is more difficult because of cultural trends.
“To run any kind of offense where you have to cut hard for someone, and screen hard for someone, and move the basketball, that’s a real challenge, because our society is not programmed to be unselfish,” Bzdelik said. “Our society is programmed to be `what’s in it for me?’ Our society is programmed to be individualist.”
The NBA hasn’t helped breed a concept of team play. The pro game is all about one-and-done and isolation offenses.
Weber State coach Randy Rahe explained to Sports Illustrated why the pick-and-roll is such a big part of his offense.
“The pick-and-roll is such a big part of the NBA, so it only made sense to add more of it to our offense.”
Weber State guard Damian Lillard averaged 24.5 points per game last season in the heavy pick-and-roll offense. Lillard has made a smooth transition to the NBA where he is a candidate for rookie of the year.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has turned out many star players with a simple dribble-drive based offense.
“(Motion) is not gone. It’s more of challenge,” Bzdelik said. “Challenge is the word to say.”
Brownell isn’t giving up on the motion offense, either.
For starters, he sees the philosophy as a fit for mid-major programs. With a motion offense, a team is not dependent upon one player.
“I think it can still be relevant because it’s an equalizer of talent,” Brownell said. “You can dictate tempo with it. You can grind another team by making them defend multiple actions.”
The players also have much to gain from learning the motion offense, Brownell said.
“There’s a lot of reading by the offense, so kids that play in a motion system learn how to play the game,” Brownell said. “They learn how to play rather than just learning the plays.”