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Olympiakos, too, restore defensive order

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The suffocating Olympiakos defense that had held Montepaschi (94.9 points per 100 possessions through four games), Barcelona and CSKA (88.7 combined in two) to incredibly poor offensive performances during last season’s unprecedented title run-in was nowhere to be found in the 2012/13 season’s early going. After edging Žalgiris 77-63 in Kaunas, however, the champs are right back where they belong.

Žalgiris came into Friday’s top clash with a league-leading 123.1 offensive rating. Against Olympiakos, they finished with 63 points on 65 possessions, a product of a combination of Olympiakos’ mobile, distinctively active defense, Žalgiris’ inability to finish a handful of quality looks inside and a complete off-night from leading scorer Marko Popovic – also influenced by the excellent Olympiakos defense he faced throughout the entire night.

Although the lack of competitive games both Greek top teams appear in after the A1’s downgrading in recent years makes it relatively difficult to identify trends (as opposed to Euroleague teams that play in the ACB or VTB League), I am somewhat confident about the legitimacy of this one: During their first four games (three of those at home), Olympiakos held a defensive rating of 118.4. During their last four? 91.8 – close to Barcelona’s full-season performance (87.8) against far less productive opposition.

The narrative applied to Olympiakos’ early-season turnaround inevitably centers around Joey Dorsey’s mess-up and departure after the home blowout loss to Žalgiris. Whether or not that is fair I am not qualified to answer, and I wonder if anyone is: Sometimes a campaign takes its own dynamic and direction. Not everything has an explanation.

What is relevant, though, is the very real improvement of defensive performance ever since. Combine that with Spanoulis’ ever-so-creative playmaking and Papanikolaou’s deadly three point shooting akin to his outstanding 2012 Final Four performance, and you are looking at an inner-circle title contender.

The trademark of this team still is the incredibly quick and active help defense applied by guards and wing players, with quick and athletic close outs once the ball is kicked to the weak side. There is little-to-no miscommunication or missed rotations. What was notable in Kaunas, however, was the lack of switching in pick and roll defense: Almost every ballscreen was defended conventionally. That also goes for Žalgiris, whose big men unexpectedly did not hedge hard and trap against the Spanoulis-pick and roll, except for the very first defensive possession.

Spanoulis’ timeouts: Understood and accepted

The 2/5 pick and roll is central to Žalgiris’ success this season, therefore the decision to attack Spanoulis in pick and roll even more than usual was an easy call to make for Joan Plaza. Georgios Bartzokas reacted only late by switching Mantzaris on Kaukenas/Popovic for fourth quarter stretches. As a consequence, Ibrahim Jaaber took more initiative making Spanoulis work on defense.

From what I’ve looked at in depth so far this season, Spanoulis is Olympiakos’ worst-performing defender. His defensive effort level does not compare to Mantzaris’, Law’s and Sloukas’, but can it be expected to? There is hardly a top Euroleague team that is carried in the same way as Spanoulis dominates the Olympiakos offense. Spanoulis is runaway leader league-wide in shots created (unassisted field goals plus assists; 10.7 per 28 minutes pace-adjusted), he is at the heart of every move except for early-possession post ups on both forward positions, and that takes a lot of effort, concentration and energy. This fact seems to be understood and accepted.

Mantzaris: The perfect backcourt complement

Vangelis Mantzaris is and has always been an off-ball-player in the Olympiakos half court offense – the perfect complement to the ball-dominant Spanoulis. He is 38th of 39 qualified point guards (minute-minimum: 80) in shots created (3.6 per 28 p.a.), bottom in individual creation percentage (4.8% – meaning that just 4.8 percent of the shots he created, he created for himself rather than his teammates) and has 90 percent of his Euroleague field goals assisted.

The advantage he holds over similarly-used point guards like Barcelona’s Victor Sada: an improving three point shot. Mantzaris is 8 for 18 from deep for the season, a corner option opponents have to respect when dealing with the Spanoulis pick and roll. Above all, Mantzaris has been almost entirely error-free in delivering the ball and making decisions in close out situations, committing just three turnovers so far this season, or 0.5 per 28 minutes pace-adjusted, best among qualified Euroleague point guards. Lineups including the Mantzaris/Spanoulis tandem (77.1% of Mantzaris’ total minutes) hold a +15.2 net oncourt/offcourt rating over all remaining lineups.

Powell: If he excesses in mid range shooting, don’t place him there

New addition Josh Powell’s 2010/11 NBA shot chart is hardly a piece of art. In fact it documents excessive mid range gunning: 145 two point jump shots in 653 minutes, that is 6.2 attempts per 28 minutes. As we all know, nobody wants you to take that shot except the defense. European coaches have long understood that.

There is a simple yet effective measure to reduce a mid range gunner’s attempts from low-efficiency areas: Just don’t place him there. That may be a little more difficult with your on-ball decision makers, but with a pure finisher like Powell it is well doable. Therefore Powell made just four catches in total in the long two area. Out of those four, he let it fly twice immediately. Give him 15 touches out there and you have problem. Bartzokas is unlikely to let it happen.

Olympiakos will finish the regular season with games in Zagreb and at home against Milano.

Around the League

Bamberg’s 22-year-old center Maik Zirbes is top five in the league in putback percentage at 33.3, meaning that one third of his made field goals came immediately after an offensive rebound. David Hein recently devoted a piece to Zirbes, with good quotes from his coaches.

Drew Gordon is a Youtube sensation. Why folks have to engage in bashing instead of simply appreciating this unique outburst of comedic competence, though, is beyond me.

The league’s top five in shots created per 28 minutes pace-adjusted (definition see above): 1 Spanoulis (10.7), 2 Planinic (9.9), 3 Waters (9.5), 4 B.Brown (8.8), 5 S.Rodriguez (8.6)

Written by sJacas

December 2nd, 2012 at 1:54 pm

  • rodhig

    I guess I have to comment on this one.

    To me Olympiacos’ defensive improvement is a combination of the team stepping up after an awful start, Bartzokas making a few adjustments and a couple of key players finding their rhythm.

    Against Milano we saw a sense of urgency that simply was not there at the first four games of the season. The two major problems for Oly had been transition defense and guarding the three point line. At Milano, everyone made a conscious effort of getting back in time, while strong individual defense against Langford and Hairston meant that defensive rotations and open looks on the weak side were kept to a minimum. These trends have continued against teams that now how to run (Caja Laboral, even though the pace in their games is not that high) and players that know how to create their own shot (most notably Jordan Farmar).

    At the same time, Bartzokas decided to go with a defensive strategy that he’s more comfortable with. Early on he was trying to find a balance between last season’s principles and his own ideas. But as you mentioned, he has gradually moved away from the switches that were featured heavily last season toward more rotation-centric defensive strategy. By my count, switches were not the reason for Oly’s breakdowns (at least that’s what ppp conceded in these situations say). However, by working exclusively on a different set-up (more hedging out and a slightly altered version of last season’s flat coverage, with the big man waiting on the FT line) the team as a whole seem to think less and move their feet more.

    Of course execution matters and Oly have simply been more aggressive in pressuring the ball and denying passes. This has improved their rotations because help defenders have more time to respond. Finally, Acie Law is slowly getting his legs back after a preseason injury and Pero Antic has been much sharper over the past few weeks. Their contributions on the defensive end have been huge.

    Can Oly sustain this type of effort? I think so. Spanoulis has been pretty poor defensively, but the coaching staff is doing a good job keeping his playing time in check. This conservation should pay dividends on the defensive end later on. Also Olympiacos have a very young roster so energy and effort should not be an issue. If there is one question mark, it has to be Josh Powell’s ability to defend the pick and roll (I’m cool with his shot selection for what it’s worth). But if Hines can keep up his early season defensive effort, the champs should be fine.

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