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How good can Real Madrid’s offense become?

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For a basketball geek like myself, Real Madrid presents a dilemma: should I treat them like a guilty pleasure or is there a method to their madness? Are they a fun – Rudy hitting improbable shots, Pocius attacking the basket, Llull pushing the ball – but not particularly sophisticated team? Or have they actually been built for basketball in April and May, when games slow down, threes are more difficult to make and half court execution matters the most?Maybe it’s too early to have a definitive answer and the potential departure of Fernandez (and Serge Ibaka) once the lockout is resolved makes any type of prediction even harder. However, it is doubtful that their current style will serve them particularly well once the regular season is over. Madrid get most of their wins by simply outscoring their opponents. This means that they have to improve defensively – Bilbao (Boxscore), Milano (Boxscore) and Maccabi (Boxscore) have repeatedly exposed the weak interior defense of the Merengues earlier in the season. But their offense also needs some tinkering. Madrid get most of their points by isolating their slashers and making threes at a breathtaking rate. This strategy produces a truly attractive brand of basketball, but is not a solid foundation for a team that wants to go far.

In the first half of their recent game at Gran Canaria, Madrid found themselves trapped in a half court game. This is not necessarily a problem for them – Pablo Laso has a reputation as a coach who teaches an uptempo offense – yet in this Euroleague season his team gets its 89 points per game on a very modest 73,3 possessions. But as they kept missing shots from the perimeter, the hosts were able to cut off driving lanes which are vital to the games of Pocius and Llull, among others. Their response came in the form of a thirty-point third quarter, anchored by a flurry of three pointers. However, there were other aspects of their game that night which could turn out to be quite useful in the long run. When neither isolation plays nor long – range shooting work, it’s time to execute. Early in the game, though, Madrid found it difficult to change habits.

Let’s start with the good. The first possession is the type of secondary break which has proved quite effective for Madrid in the early stages of the season. Llull brings up the ball in a hurry, Rudy runs a quick pick and pop with Mirotic and turns the corner before Spencer Nelson can get in front of him .

Savane rotates over, Beiran helps the helper, wide open shot. Yes, Suarez should have taken a step back and shoot a three. And yes, Gran Canaria give Madrid a taste of their own medicine a few seconds later, when Nelson hits a wide open three in a similar situation. But explosive one-on-one players like Fernandez (and Llull and Pocius and Caroll) need room to operate. One way to give it to them is attacking early in the shot clock, as long as they take the ball to the basket. Which is exactly what Rudy doesn’t do at the video’s one minute mark. I understand that he has been white-hot from beyond the arc to start the season and that heat checks are part of the whole superstar experience. But Madrid has to take better shots now, so that they will be there for them when it matters the most.

On a more positive note, the missed lay up by Sergio Llull on the previous possession is a good example of a way Laso could balance the skills of his perimeter players with the need for better ball movement (or less improvisation). Once Ante Tomic receives the ball on the low post and doesn’t have a good look, Real Madrid do not resort to Rudy or Llull trying to take their man off their dribble. Instead, they move. Fernandez heads to the top of the key to provide good spacing, along with Nicola Mirotic and Suarez on the weak side. Llull cuts to the basket and gets a great look. Even if Nelson comes over to help (which he should) Mirotic or Suarez have an open three. Also, Fernandez is open and the fact that two Madrid players go after the offensive board shows how balanced this possession was. This is not always the case.

On the last possesion, the ball does not enter the post. The pick and roll between Llull and Tomic is only a misdirection play, which leads to the two man game between Fernandez and Mirotic. The only somewhat acceptable option on this play is a three off the dribble when Mike Bramos goes under the screen. I guess Gran Canaria can live with that. The only purpose this pick and pop serves is to open up a driving lane for Fernandez. Maybe Real should have this first and the Tomic pick and roll second, because once the defense takes away the middle, there is no plan B – even if Rudy had taken the ball to the basket, Tomic’s defender would be waiting. It takes more to beat elite defenders like Bramos, which is evident in the video below.

Again, the decision to quickly establish a big man inside is very wise; it forces the defense to rotate before it even sets up. But this time, after the first option (Reyes with his back to the basket) does not work, Madrid players decide to stand around and watch Rudy do his thing – even though he doesn’t really have anywhere to go.

When Fernadez makes his move, three Gran Canaria players have at least a foot in the paint, not to mention Mike Bramos keeping up with him. This not the way a gifted one-on-one player should be used. Rudy has made some incredible baskets in similar situations because he is that good, but he will not hit enough of them to make up for poor execution. In other words, Madrid need more plays like the one that they run in the second possession of that video. Ettorre Messina used to call a lot of high-lows and it was one of the few things that worked. Tomic has had an admittedly poor start to the season, but he has a reliable mid-range jumper and can pass the ball pretty well. Maybe Laso needs to take a closer look to these aspects of the Croatian’s game. Against Maccabi for instance, I was surprised that Reyes got very few touches on the post against the undersized David Blu.

One could argue that with so many ball-handlers and so few pass-first point guards (please stay awake, Sergio Rodriguez) it is not unreasonable for Laso to put an emphasis on isolation plays. However, it is also true that if Madrid combines the slashing and three point shooting that has worked really well so far with a conscious effort to attack from inside out, then even the best defensive teams will have a hard time adjusting. Even if the player inside is Carlos Suarez. Again, the two possessions below take us back to the Messina days. The only difference is that in the second there are much more options, before Tomic sets a clever back screen for Rudy: Reyes at the post, a Rudy-Tomic pick and roll and of course Suarez taking the shot himself.

The fact that Real Madrid managed 82 points in a reasonably paced game, on the road, against a fellow contender, with Llull, Fernandez, Pocius, Mirotic and Tomic struggling should tell you everything you need to know about their depth. The problem is that their productivity so far results mainly from the individual talent of their players – at Tel Aviv it was Caroll being unconscious from the perimeter, Reyes getting to the free throw line and hitting his mid-range jumpers, Ibaka making the most of loose ball situations. Pablo Laso deserves credit for putting most of his players in a position where they can make the most of their abilities. But if Real Madrid are to get back to the Final Four, he will have to make them work together for more than ten seconds in each possession. Also, he must do something about their defense, but this should be the subject of another post.

Read more analysis from Rod Higgins on Swooshnation in English and and Redhoops in Greek.


Links: Real Madrid Advanced Player Stats, Euroleague Team Stats

Click to access Real Madrid Player Stats


Written by Rod Higgins

November 4th, 2011 at 4:41 pm

  • Κostas

    I cannot “judge” teams which their game relies toο much on players having nba-out clauses inside their contracts. Rudy Fernadez has a signifficant role so far and his presence aspects a lot R.Madrid’s offensive and defensive game. Let’s pretend that the lockout ends tomorrow, that means Rudy and Ibaka are obliged to leave,don’t they? So, everyone has to think about how Real Madrid could look when the season starts becoming tough and the best teams are going to face each other(i mean euroleague’s top16 and Liga Endenssa’s playoffs). That means Rudy’s deal wasn’t good enough? Absolutely no, in his contract there’s a agreement to return next year and play the whole season though. But how about this season, who’s gonna fill Rudy’s shoes and who’s gonna do all these things Rod, rightly, says?
    For me that’s the point, so the thing concerns me more is how Real could react, tactically, after Rudy’s and Ibaka’s potential departures.

  • rodhig

    You make a valid point. It might sound weird, but I think that: a) RM could play better basketball without Rudy and b) Ibaka’s loss could hurt them more.

    Rudy may have been on fire lately (or at least until yesterday), but sometimes he is detrimental to Madrid’s ball movement – quick threes, overdribbling etc. On the other hand, he is so good, that he can be successful even when he is playing outside the offense. Maybe when (if?) he returns to the NBA, Madrid will be forced to adopt a more ‘European’ style of play, which could serve them better at the top 16 or the playoffs – the videos above were an attempt to explain what could work for them in these games and I am not so sure that Rudy’s freelancing is the answer.

    One could argue of course, that Rudy joined RM late in the preseason and needs more time to adjust. And there is no question that Laso will miss his ability to hit the big shot and attack the basket. But with Pocius and Llull handling the ball and Mirotic, Caroll and Suarez spacing the floor, it’s not like RM will suddenly turn to Limoges circa ’93 :p. The question is, will they find enough high – percentage shots in close games, when the 3s are not falling? With or without Rudy.

    On the other hand, their interior D is so soft, that Ibaka’s departure could open a huge hole. Although I have some faith in Nole..

  • Κostas

    You and Etore Messina are the only people who have some faith to Nole’s worth :D
    Back to seriousness, i think Ibaka is the type of player who doesn’t fit in european basketball, so he needs more time to adjust and even if he does i can’t imagine him becoming a top player on both ends of the court. He’s able to do some things at a high level, like defence and rebounding, he’s too useful based on the NBA standards, but a little unnecessary compared to Europe’s. So i believe that his potential departure won’t hurt RM unless he has already been established as a significant defensive-impact player.

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