We always wonder why a championship has eluded great players. My theory (and this is in no way an authoritative claim) is that while many basketball players have achieved elite-level status as offensive players—cold-blooded long-range bombers, gifted perimeter operators, monster rim finishers, and skilled open-court assassins - very few superstars tasked with the duty of leadership evolved to become mature passers.
Without an awareness and understanding of the language of passing the ball and how it affects the way everyone plays basketball, a component of playing championship-caliber basketball remains missing.
But what is the language of passing the ball? Passing the ball is perhaps one of the most powerful non-verbal forms of communication on the court. A message is sent when you pass the ball, or when you refuse to. How a player passes the ball—crisp, precise, careless, lackadaisical, hesitant, or purposeful and intentional - is not a mere motion; it is a coded signal.
It is not just the superstar’s passing that impacts his or her pursuit of a championship, but the passing culture of the team which the superstar strongly influences, because passing starts from him or her, who is usually the focal point of the offense. It follows that the quality of the team’s passing game reflects not just the leadership of the superstar player, but also his or her esteem towards his or her teammates and their competencies. When the ball is moving around with pace and purpose, you can see the comfort level of superstar players with their teammates, who can also sense and read mistrust based on how the ball is moving.
The passing game of a team and how the superstar facilitates it influences the level of participation and engagement of each player. If you ask them to just stand in a corner and wait for a pass that comes once every 10 possessions, do not be surprised if their energy is low, their rhythm off, their instinct deadened by the lack of touches. The basketball is a touchstone to a sense of belonging, and it is important to always feel that sense of belonging to become deliberate in fulfilling a task and be accountable to it.
Every player wants to be a part of the process of winning, and even if scoring is not for all, just knowing that you help the offense move according to design by becoming a good receiver and passer is enough for role players to be invested, to believe in the power of the hierarchy—system, superstar, support crew. But resentment from when passes do not come and bad passing becomes the norm is the death of it.
Passing is not about equity in shooting opportunities. The truth is you want your best shooters to shoot the ball and that is where your superstars come in. The role of passing is optimizing teamwork. The most dangerous offensive set is when everyone is passing the ball because no defender is fast enough to outpace a pass. And the gains of passing is not just creating scoring opportunities, but also improving the disposition of teammates.
The lack of passing tells the other players their role is inconsequential, that their help is not needed. The result: they are not ready or focused on receiving the pass, so they lose it and turn it over; if they catch it, the pass they will make is with heavy arms and with minimal attention to detail, making it vulnerable to defenders reading the passing lanes; and if they shoot the ball, they shoot with resentment or disinterest. You can say that professional basketball players should not sink to this level of unprofessionalism but they are, after all, human beings swayed by their emotional state.
To elevate to that level of awareness as a basketball player is something not everyone achieves. Very few can see the big picture, the exact correlation of passing and success. I can't blame them. The very nature of basketball makes everyone focus on offense; after all, the winning team is decided by who scored the most, not who made the most number of passes. Basketball was invented in 1891 and it wasn't until the 1946-47 season of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the predecessor of the NBA, that the league started recording assists, making it official that passing is just as important.
This is not new wisdom. Watch the Chicago Bulls and their Triangle Offense. Watch how the champion San Antonio Spurs swung the ball like a hot potato. Watch the Golden State Warriors when they made small ball effective by offsetting height with speed in motion and passing.
Do you know why we hate the ball hog? It’s not because he is taking too many shots. It’s because the ball hog bastardized basketball, cutting off the part where teammates pass the ball to each other. Passing is the true beauty of the sport. Forced shots that went in are impressive because they are difficult. But it is merely showcasing an individual skill. A shot made from a great pass, on the other hand, is just magnificent to behold even if it was just a simple dribble hand-off, an extra pass on the shooter at the wings, an alley-hoop pass, or a drop pass to a cutting teammate. Here, we see the dynamics of team play is in full display.
We often find ourselves exclaiming “Ang ganda ng pasa!” (That was a nice pass!) every time we see one. That is the power of the language of passing: impactful, instantaneous. So think about this; if a good pass speaks to the audience, imagine how a good or bad pass speaks to the players on the court, and how it can quickly turn offense into something good or something terrible.