No N’Dong, no Vazquez, no problem: after the departure of their defensive cornerstones and a rocky start to the 2012/13 season, Xavi Pascual’s FC Barcelona Regal are back on track. They have won ten of their last eleven in Euroleague and ACB play combined.
Xavi Pascual appeared to be in for a long and frustrating opening third of the season after Barça fell 71-78 to Valladolid in their home opener and 77-78 on ACB Day 2 a few days later in Bilbao. Fittingly, it was a center (Nedžad Sinanović) who downed Barça on Day 1, revealing their glaring hole in interior defense. Pascual, after all, had just replaced defensive cornerstones Boniface N’Dong, Fran Vázquez and Kosta Perović with Nathan Jawai, a colossus of a man whose lack of footspeed had led to way-too-deep positioning in pick and roll defense throughout two seasons with Partizan and Unics, and Ante Tomić, who had failed to shake off the “soft” tag during his Real Madrid years.
And yet, thirteen games into the season, Barça is again back to a 92.6 defensive rating in ACB and Euroleague combined.
Watching video of Tomić’s and Jawai’s defensive performance, one draws this simple yet significant conclusion: They are making very little mistakes. If there’s one thing Pascual shares with his Žalgiris colleague Joan Plaza, it’s that magic is not in his repertoire. Tomić will never be Joey Dorsey, Jawai won’t turn into Boni N’Dong. But has Tomić ever played with such focus on positioning, timely help and recover on the defensive end? Has Jawai’s lack of footspeed ever been so little exposed?
Granted, there are specific matchups that should hurt this Barça defense more than others. Jawai’s still-too-deep positioning (although he’s coming further out than in previous years) is waiting to be exposed by an off-the-dribble three point threat (example: Sergio Llull). But the overall performance is highly encouraging. The center duo is certainly not anchoring this defense, but Pascual has worked them into the lineup without much of a drop off.
Mickeal: DPOY candidate?
Anchoring this defense, however, are Barça’s long wing defenders Pete Mickeal and Joe Ingles. Both are not only shutting down offensive players but also collapsing on the ballhandler as help defenders before quickly recovering to their matchups, who are usually long range threats.
Play-by-play derived defensive stats can mislead, but in Mickeal’s case they are extreme and therefore indicative: In Mickeal’s 130 floor minutes so far this Euroleague season, opponent small forwards are scoring a meagre 3.4 points per 28 minutes pace-adjusted* on 25.0 percent true shooting; A combined PER of 1.6 and an offensive rebound percentage of 1.6. More: Barça’s defensive rating drops to 83.9 points per 100 possessions in Mickeal’s floor time, the equivalent of 58.7 points in a Euro-paced 70 possessions game. Mickeal must be an early contender for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Ingles has been shifting between shooting guard (37 percent of his minutes) and small forward (63 percent) so far this season, with opponent matchup numbers (according to lineup sorting) amounting to 8.2 points per 28 minutes pace-adjusted and 40 percent true shooting.
Pascual has further elite-level defensive role players at his disposal, namely Victor Sada on point guard and C.J. Wallace on power forward.
The offense is producing at a 111.0 offensive rating in Euroleague and ACB combined, outperforming its 2011/12 Euroleague predecessor by two percentage points as it is slowly recovering from ice-cold shooting in the season’s early going. Barça’s three point percentage now stands at 32.2 after 13 games.
Brose Baskets: A lot of Nachbar, but not enough Nachbar
Barça’s Thursday opponent Brose Baskets are in good position to advance to Top16 despite the recent loss: A single home win over Partizan would likely see them through, but a young Partizan roster that is hoping for improved backcourt performance with the arrival of Nemanja Gordić will not go down without a fight. Partizan’s curve has been turning upwards in recent weeks, especially on the offensive end.
In Brose’s mini preview I considered the decision to add a 5/4 (Ford) instead of a Fleming-typical stretch 4/3 in what appeared to be a lack of trust in their young center tandem Zirbes/Neumann (who have been playing well, Zirbes in particular), to be potentially costing them Top16 participation. I will stick to this version. If they go out, it is because of that.
Ford didn’t suddenly turn into a poor basketball player during his off year, he’s just no power forward. Although he is making the occasional three point shot to satisfy spacing needs, Ford’s perimeter game is otherwise nonexistent, neither possessing the passing game nor the ballhandling to play power forward in Fleming’s four-out setting. Isolating power forward minutes (71 percent of his total minutes) from center minutes (29 percent) through play-by-play and lineup data makes this more than evident: 5.3 points per 28 minutes on 26.4 percent true shooting, 4.4 turnovers per 28, minus 1.9 PER, 92.5 team offensive rating while playing the four. Center numbers amount to a 11.2 PER in a small 25 minute sample: far from satisfying, but not disastrous either.
Brose Baskets need a whole lot of Boštjan Nachbar, and they need him on the four. Nachbar was productive in 33 small forward minutes (19 percent of his total minutes) so far this season, but the four is where he really makes a difference – firstly because he is a matchup nightmare, secondly because there is noone else on the roster to effectively play the position.
Nachbar was immense in Thursday’s first half, often initiating offense through the 4/5 high pick and roll that Barça had loads of trouble dealing with but Brose surprisingly went away from in the second half. As Mickeal explained post-game, defending Nachbar is a collective effort since he can pull up but is also excellent driving either side. Whenever Nachbar is not playing power forward, Brose’s offensive rating collapses to a frightening 89.4 points per 100 possessions. Ideally, Nachbar would play power forward exclusively, for up to 35 minutes a game.
Around the League
Stephane Lasme is a game-changer for Panathinaikos. Panathinaikos has an elite-level 88.9 defensive rating in Lasme’s 93 small-sample floor minutes. He’s averaging 3.2 blocks per 28 minutes pace-adjusted, allowing backcourt players to play the passing lanes and fly out in transition. With Lasme around, there is no reason to play Hilton Armstrong and Gaios Skordilis any center minutes.
Fenerbahçe is ranking second from bottom in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage after Thursday’s last-second defeat in Moscow. Since backboard trumps clock, that one is settled, by the way.
Baskonia fans booed their team (specifically Lampe and Ivanovic) off the floor in a 71-89 home loss to Olympiacos. Difficult to say what exactly is going wrong in Vitoria-Gasteiz, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Baskonia recovered and developed into an ACB Finals contender in the second half of the season. By then, however, it would be too late for international success. Euroleague exit would further downgrade Baskonia’s standing in the three year ranking.
Discussion topic: Is Kyle Hines (18 points in 19 minutes on Friday) a top five center in the league?
*They are, in fact, not adjusted to minutes, but to 52.5 team possessions