Coaches know when to pull their starters during lopsided games

Last week an insightful reader asked me to discuss a very interesting coaching question that has existed for years in basketball and other team sports: “Please discuss when to take the starters from a game? Should they be left in when the team is far ahead and the victory seems to be a reality?”

This question has been around as long as the game and I call it, “when is the right time to call of the dogs”?

I believe that in most levels of basketball, except for Division I college and the NBA, the losing team’s coach sends up the white flag of surrender by taking out all of his starters and sends in five substitutes. The winning team’s coach should then reciprocate.

This is the way it should occur because when the winning team coach subs first, then the losing team will often leave in its starters in an attempt to have its starters make a run against subs.

I have been on both sides of this and it certainly is frustrating when a team with a big lead keeps its starters in, but I have found when I surrender, then the other coach usually accepts and takes out his starters.

Usually the style of play we used never did put us in a position to run up the score, but when we did get ahead by 20 or so, I expected the other coach to wave the white flag.

It’s rare, but some coaches will try to run up the score and reach 100 points. Here is a trick to use if that team keeps in its starters and presses to get to 100.

When they get to 98 points, call a timeout and tell the players to throw the ball inbounds and score at the other team’s basket so that they didn’t get to score the 100th point. Then have the player who scored go over and hand the ball to the opposing coach.

Coaches who try to run up the score or leave in starters can expect to find themselves on the other end of the spectrum from time to time.

Another strategy I employed was to hold the ball when I had surrendered and the other coach still left in his starters. We would hold the ball intentionally so the opponents couldn’t score. At least we could practice our delay game under real game conditions and usually by doing this the other coach got the message and substituted.

In high school basketball, it’s pretty easy to determine when a coach is running up the score for each game. This is when an effective athletic administrator should intervene and meet with the coach to rectify the situation.

Now there is a question as to what is a big enough lead to send up the white flag. With the addition of the 3-point shot in 1987-88, we have seen 20-point leads vanish because the team that is behind can get hot and start hitting 3-pointers. Some coaches are then criticized for sending up the flag too early.

I found out that when my teams were behind by 15 or so and had been playing man-to-man defense,  I would suddenly shift to a zone to see if the opponents wanted to bury us with 3-pointers. If they don’t hit those perimeter shots, they might just shoot us back into the game as they try to run up the score.

This has worked several times and we even got back into the game and actually won a couple of games, coming from 20 points down midway through the third quarter.

There have never been any unwritten rules about running up the score, but I have always felt that good coaches will appropriately address it.