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How Much Does Practice Matter in the NBA?

A reader wants to know whether the Blazers suffered from a lack of practice last year or this. We explore.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

NBA superstar Allen Iverson once responded to a question about practice with...well, you don’t need me to tell you that story. His repeated utterance of, “Practice?!? We’re talking about PRACTICE?!?” has long been enshrined in the pop culture and meme Hall of Fame.

Today we got a question about practice and its relevance in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. Take a look:

I did not think the Blazers or [former Head Coach Terry] Stotts got a fair shake from the media, yourself included because the team that entered the playoffs had next to no practice time together....and it showed. This was the biggest problem in last years playoffs. Norm and Roco looked like they were just guessing what their role was, the team looked all kinds of out of sorts. If the Blazers had and entire season together I think we would have seen a completely different product. Stotts got unfairly judge for his coaching, 80% of coaching happens at practice which he did not get.

If this team has a full year together I think it moves the needle significantly, how about you? How much does practice / time playing together matter?

Coach Wehrley

There are so many parts to this question, I barely know where to begin.

First off, congratulations! After months of reading emails about how I’ve been a Terry Stotts apologist, you’re the first one to suggest I was unfair to him. I love it! It reminds me of the old days at Blazer’s Edge, when I was first starting out. The #1 word used to describe me, Dave... yes, THAT Dave... same Dave as now... was, wait for it... “Pollyanna”. Like pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic Blazers optimist. I kid you not. It just goes to show that you never know how people are going to perceive things. So you just state the truth as you see it, the best way you know how, and let the rest take care of itself.

Having said that, let’s leave aside whether Terry Stotts got a fair shake. It’s water under the bridge now. He’s gone. No amount of postmortem analysis will change that.

We’ll talk about the importance of practice instead. Caveat: I am not an NBA coach, nor will I ever be qualified to be. I’m trying to translate and extrapolate basic concepts, not provide definitive answers. Every coach and franchise will have a different way of navigating these questions. I’m trying to describe the ocean in which they’re all sailing and how it differs from the waters we’re familiar with.

You’re not wrong about practice and continuity making basketball easier. That’s part of the human condition. What we have done often, we often do well. All things being equal, a team that has rehearsed is going to do better than the same team unrehearsed.

You may be overestimating the importance of practice at the NBA level, though. It matters, but not in such a dramatic fashion as at other levels of basketball.

The skill level and experience of players is one factor. High-schoolers are still learning fundamentals. Without practice, most of them won’t be able to prosper individually, let alone play cohesively.

NBA players have not only been playing, but actively training, for this career most of their lives. They don’t play basketball, they ARE basketball. Practice matters to them too, of course, That’s why they drill individual skills and fitness like crazy in the off-season. Ten pounds of muscle and a new three-point shot are practically September clichés because everybody practices in the summer.

When NBA players practice, they’re honing the 97th-99th percentile of their game. The goal isn’t to make a bucket, but to feel like you’re never going to miss. Most NBA players aren’t practicing just to make the team. They’re trying to excel against the best competition in the world in the fourth quarter of a tied game when they’re as tired as heck. That’s when taking 300 shots a day from the exact same spot in the exact same way starts to matter.

Take away that 97th-99th percentile practice and those same NBA players are going to look spotty, but only in comparison to other NBA players in competition mode. Put them on the floor against anybody else—including all those other players practicing their hearts out—and their somewhat-suspect “97th-percentile” game is going to overwhelm everybody else on the court. You can find plenty examples on YouTube.

Yes, NBA players will suffer without practice, but their fall is going to be much less than it would be for anyone else. It shouldn’t be to the point of falling apart or forgetting how to play.

This is also true of group practice.

In most fields, you’re something of an expert if you’ve participated for a decade or more. How many times have you heard a commentator say, “Remember, he only starting playing basketball in 2012?” This is inevitably spoken of a young, super-talented prodigy who is still considered “raw”, even thought 2012 was a full ten years ago and this dude has been playing fairly high-level, organized ball for that whole time. “Only” having played for ten years is a rarity at the professional level. Most of these players have been aiming for, and training for, these games their whole lives. NBA players are not just experts, they’re SUPER experts.

When it comes right down to it, there’s nothing they haven’t seen. That doesn’t mean they’ll execute every scheme perfectly—especially in an unfamiliar situation—but they know what they’re doing. They’re not walking in saying, “I have no idea how to read a screen until I’ve gone through practice here.” You can literally see them adjusting on the fly, in-game, talking to each other about an issue. Then they next play, that issue is fixed.

I would expect players like Robert Covington and Larry Nance, Jr. to be able to join a franchise, have a couple of run-throughs, and grasp the basics of what the team is trying to accomplish as well as their own role in it. They’ve not only played in these schemes before, they’ve played against them. They’ve seen what the Blazers want to do. They understand it already. Repetition will make things smoother, but they shouldn’t be clueless either way.

This is especially true in today’s NBA, where multiple franchises run variations of the screen-and-roll, set up threes offense. Defense has more variation, but most NBA defenses key around players more than schemes. When you play the Milwaukee Bucks, you pay attention to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Everything else flows from that. Each coach will have wrinkles, depending on proclivities and personnel, but Giannis is still Giannis either way. That provides a certain amount of consistency from team to team. There’s no secret formula, just your franchise’s variation of how you try to handle the guy and whether you have the chops to do so.

The rhythm of the NBA also deemphasizes practice somewhat. Most coaches now forego hard, intense practices for video sessions and shoot-arounds. Health and load management are just as important as full-contact scrimmage.

In the regular season, most teams follow their basic scheme with only minor alterations based on opponent. They won’t play one way on Tuesday, then try to shift that wholesale on Wednesday. There’s no time. The payoff—one potential win out of 82—doesn’t justify the effort and risk. In this environment, regular-season games become extended practice-and-familiarity sessions, replacing the practices necessary at lower levels of basketball where games are far less frequent.

The playoffs are different. A franchise’s world narrows down to one, specific opponent. This is where schemes change and preparation matters. But teams actually get practice time in the post-season that they were denied during the regular year. Space in between games and series, plus the ability to prep for a single team, allows for granularity, development, and the repetition necessary to execute them.

Ironically, this is just where the Trail Blazers have fallen apart in recent years. They’ve succeeded in scenarios where practice is less available/important and failed when it was plentiful and mattered more. That probably wasn’t because of lack of familiarity. It’s because players like LeBron James (2020) and Nikola Jokic (2021) provided insurmountable matchup problems no matter how many practice sessions the Blazers ran through.

That’s the way the NBA works. It’s much more player-based than coaching/scheme based, at least compared to the organized basketball the rest of us play.

Obviously things have changed a bit in Portland with a new coach and new system. The Blazers will need time to adjust. Repetition will be correspondingly more valuable. But the learning curve should start to level out by January either way. If they haven’t gotten it by then, either they’re not going to get it or it’s not worth getting. There’s not likely to be a big epiphany in March where the light turns on for everyone because a timer has gone off indicating sufficient time together. They’ll get better with familiarity, but after a certain point, it’s not likely to be dramatic.

Every player and coach will tell you that practice matters. It can give a team the slight edge they need to tilt otherwise-equal games their way, on average, over teams that aren’t as prepared. But talent, scheduling, and a hundred other things factor in too. Experience together won’t, in itself, outweigh those other factors. At this level, neither players nor teams should fall apart solely from lack of practice. Nor will extra practice guarantee success. It’s a thing, but not as big of a differentiator as it is as the high school and college levels.

Thanks for the interesting question, coach! You all can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll see if we can answer.