Duke Basketball: Why five-out motion offense may not work for Blue Devils

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

The five-out motion offense works seamlessly for the Golden State Warriors, but does the 2018-19 Duke basketball team have the right tools to use it effectively?

When Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski implements any new plan of attack, more times than not it will be successful — 1,100 wins and five national championships are evidence of that. But there are no guarantees in life, and that applies to games played on hardwood.

Actually, a large part of what makes Coach K the GOAT is his willingness to adjust — rather than stubbornly adhering to his initial plan — when strategies don’t play out the way he thought they would. This was the case after he refused, for many years, to recruit players who intended to stay in college for only one season. And it was also the case last season when he all but abandoned the aggressive man-to-man defense that had been his staple since he arrived in Durham in 1980.

Now, as Krzyzewski enters his 39th season at the helm of the Duke basketball program, he has more than just tweaked his offensive playbook; he claims, according to Steve Wiseman of the News & Observer, the five-out motion offense will be in place “for as long as I am coaching here.” (Remember, though, the all-time winningest college basketball coach at one time seemed just as adamant about never pursuing a one-and-done prospect.)

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First, what does the five-out motion offense look like?

Simply put, all five players spend most of their time during each possession spread around the three-point arc in order to maximize empty space in the paint — in theory to naturally create wide-open driving lanes. But the players don’t stay put in one spot; they pass, cut, screen, and rotate, constantly staying in motion while making sure no player stays in the paint for more than a brief moment.

Now, why does it work so well for the reigning NBA champions in Golden State?

The primary reason is the existence of surefire shooters Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant, whose sweet strokes prevent defenses from clogging the interior. Also, even if the Warriors are ice-cold from downtown on any given night, the NBA’s three-second rule for defenses — no player can remain in the paint for more than three seconds at a time, essentially preventing teams from playing a 2-3 zone — makes it nearly impossible for the opposition to stuff the paint to dissuade them from driving to the basket.

And this brings us to why the Blue Devils — based on their shooting stats from the Blue-White scrimmage last Friday and three-game Canada Tour back in August — may discover that a five-out motion offense is not the best answer this season.

Based on all evidence available to date, Duke has no issue jacking up threes; however, getting those shots to fall through the net has been an issue. The team has made just 34 of 108 attempts — albeit the guy whose stroke is supposed to be the smoothest, freshman Cam Reddish, did not play in Canada due to injury and was limited during the scrimmage by a fractured rib.

And shooting just 31 percent from beyond the arc won’t cut it when trying to take advantage of the benefits of a five-out motion offense in the college game. See, all the opponent has to do to negate the open driving lanes is to play a tight zone — or, in the case of Virginia, a pack-line defense — and dare the Blue Devils to keep launching long-range misses.

Sure, if Duke can improve its shooting, the new offense should have no problem devastating defenses. After all, the squad has the athletic drivers in the form of four freshmen — Reddish, Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Tre Jones — to take full advantage of the lanes that will be created.

But, again, the lanes won’t be available if the shooters can’t knock down enough shots to keep defenses honest.

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Also, when threes regularly clang off the rim, another disadvantage of the five-out motion offense presents itself. Because there are no offensive players in the paint to box out — and because there is a defender between every offensive player and the basket — offensive rebounding becomes a daunting task.

So while the new offense sounds like a perfect idea simply because it came out of the mouth of Krzyzewski and has worked for Curry and Co. in the NBA, this serves as a warning that the reality for Duke may not turn out as peachy as the theory.

And so if it does become apparent that the scheme won’t pan out once the season starts on Nov. 6 against Kentucky, what will be the best plan of attack for the Blue Devils on offense?

Well, Duke basketball fans should just look to the five championship banners hanging in Cameron Indoor Stadium as proof that the GOAT will be both willing to adjust and smart enough to figure out the best solution on his own.

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If all else fails, though, the simplest — and possibly most effective — option would be to let Williamson drive full steam ahead to the basket on every possession, no matter where his teammates are on the court, daring any defender to stand in his way.