The 36ers make no sense, and they’re winning!
It still feels weird seeing the Adelaide 36ers atop the NBL ladder.
Not so long ago these same 36ers were 3-6, with pundits ready to write off their season. I’m still not sure that most people realise just how good they’ve been, even with the team amidst a 12-wins-from-13 games stretch of straight-up awesome basketball.
We were fools to discount them. Fools!
“People kind of forget that we had Mitch Creek out for that period of time,” said Adelaide 36ers head coach, Joey Wright, when speaking with The Pick and Roll. “We had DJ [Daniel Johnson] out for two of those games as well. They’re pretty major players.”
By the way, the 36ers are miles better when Creek is on the court -- to the tune of 11.5 points per 36 minutes better! They’re minus-2.7 per 36 minutes when he sits. Only Chris Goulding, Jason Cadee and Rob Lowe, amongst major rotation players with at least 200 minutes of court time, boast a better on/off court differential, per Crunchtime Shots.
After a torrid stretch to start the season, when the 36ers dealt with wretched injury luck and managing the growing pains of a young roster, they’ve completely blitzed the competition.
Surely this run will end, we say as we look on in disbelief.
And you know what? It still feels weird after you crunch the numbers because none of it makes any sense.
The 36ers are flat-out torching the league on offence, scoring at a gangbusters 113.3 points per 100 possessions, the top mark in the competition. They also own the highest marks in true shooting and effective field goal percentage.
Yet they’re inflicting all this carnage in unconventional ways.
When you think of the best offences you generally think of free-wheeling, run-and-gun squads that space the floor, play hot-potato-passing to the open man, and launch triples galore. The Illawarra Hawks epitomised this approach last season.
Sure enough, the 36ers lead the league in pace, but here’s where it doesn’t make any sense.
Data from Spatial Jam shows that only 28.19 percent of Adelaide’s shot attempts are 3-pointers (league average is 34.48 percent), with only the Bullets being more adverse from beyond the arc. And it’s not as if the 36ers are extra-efficient with fewer attempts. They shoot those suckers at a 35.5 percent mark, right about league average.
The 36ers not shooting threes seems weird when they appear to have the personnel who are capable. Jerome Randle and Nathan Sobey have consistently canned off-the-bounce triples this season. Mitch Creek and Majok Deng have shot it well, albeit from few attempts.
Anthony Drmic, Terrance Ferguson and Daniel Johnson all have solid strokes. Brendan Teys, whilst not the greatest shooter, should also be a threat.
So, are the 36ers adverse to the 3-ball?
“We’re not a team that likes to shoot a lot of threes,” concedes Wright. “We shoot open threes, but we don’t want to shoot contested threes.”
They’re somehow gorging away on enemy defences without the usual triple-happy diet. They also own the second lowest assist rate in the league; only Melbourne, who are the masters of iso-ball, have a lower assist percentage.
So, what gives?
The 36ers have crafted an offence that is killing opponents with rim runs for one.
“Layups are a lot easier to make than 3-pointers,” Wright says with a chuckle.
Adelaide have taken the fourth most attempts in the restricted area (just behind noted brutes, the Perth Wildcats), and in the paint, per Crunchtime Shots. That’s standard fare for the most efficient offences, who maximise shot opportunities by flinging layups or 3-pointers. It's a philosophy popularised by the advanced stats movement, and famously deployed to the extreme by Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets.
The 36ers recognise that they’re young and vibrant; they’d rather utilise their athletic edge over the relative geezers they face in the league.
“We’d rather get to the rim and make layups than 3-pointers,” says Wright. “So that’s kind of the philosophy we’re working on.”
The Morey Directive also called for less attempts from the least efficient shot in the game – the long 2-pointer.
But that’s precisely what’s supplementing this juggernaut 36ers offence.
Did Joey Wright know that the 36ers were absolutely awesome in the midrange game?
“No, I didn’t,” says Wright with surprise. “I know we’ve got some guys, Jerome [Randle] himself, who’s just unbelievable at midrange pull-ups. Sobey’s unbelievable [too] with midrange pull-ups. So I would assume that we’re pretty good because those guys can knock the midrange down really well.”
Pretty good is probably an understatement.
Data supplied by Crunchtime Shots as of January 10, shows that Adelaide take by far the most attempts from long-two range -- above the free throw line -- and are third in efficiency at an insane 41.4 percent clip. They’re also the top midrange shooting team overall at 41.2 percent, a zone which includes shots below the level of the free throw line.
Jerome Randle, the pint-sized human shouldering an incredible offensive load, is shooting long twos at a bonkers mark of 55.6 percent, and 58.3 percent overall from the midrange area.
Dating back to the 2012/13 season, no one comes remotely close to the Randle’s proficiency and proclivity with the once dreaded long two. Nothing here makes sense – advanced metrics has taught us that it’s the worst shot in basketball! Yet Randle is shooting those suckers at an historic rate.
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36ers opponents are walling off the lane, petrified of Randle scooting into the paint and midrange areas, and are increasingly dropping back into 2-3 zones. The 36ers struggled with this adjustment initially, but they’ve gotten better, if for no other reason than because of the amount of reps that they’ve had.
Fundamentally, zone defences pose a simple question: forget the lane, are you willing to shoot?
But in tune with their weirdo ways, the 36ers are flipping the script and posing a question of their own:
Can you stop us?
Instead of swinging the ball side-to-side, until the shot clock runs down and some poor sap has to heave an outside shot, Joey Wright has his men attack the soft spots of zones.
“That’s probably one of the biggest misnomers for zone,” says Wright in reconciling why teams seemingly settle for long distance chucks against a zone. “Instead of getting layups, people just start to settle and shoot the threes when they see the zone. But you still should still attack the zone.”
Instead, Adelaide bigs will set on-ball screens off side pick-and-roll action, where there isn’t a second guard to help. They’re confident that their water bugs in Randle and Sobey have the burst to get into the lane, effectively nullifying the zone.
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With enemy bigs sitting back in a zone and guarding space, it’s giving Randle and Sobey a big runway to the rim. From there, it’s a race to the rim that they win more often than not.
When Sobey is aggressively seeking the basket, he's damn near unstoppable.
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Matt Hodgson has been huge – figuratively and literally – in the pick-and-roll game. He’s smushing enemy guards and placing enormous pressure on the offensive glass, in a Steven Adams-esque impersonation. Adelaide are third in offensive rebound rate, taking advantage of enemy rebounders not being in position to box out effectively within their zone setup.
For someone so ginormous, Hodgson’s been an energiser bunny.
“He’s a real high energy 7-footer and you just don’t find a lot of guys like that: [he’s] 7-foot and he’s bouncing around, going after every board,” enthuses Wright.
Hodgson probably sets the meanest screens in the league outside of Aleks Maric. Dude is a tireless workhorse, smashing into unsuspecting fools who dare to chase Randle and Sobey in the pick-and-roll, before rumbling into the lane like a madman, searching for o-boards as if his life depended on it.
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His backup, Eric Jacobsen, is just as mean-spirited in hunting enemy bodies to hurt.
Complementing their attack on the basket, the 36ers are feasting on the line. They own a sky-high free throw rate, .302 free throws per field goal attempt. Intuitively, that makes perfect sense; the 36ers are charging at the rim with reckless abandon.
If they maintain that mark, no team has approached that stratospheric level at the charity stripe...ever (at least in RealGM’s database).
There just seems to be this fun vibe with the team at the moment, an infectious energy that is fuelling their self-belief.
“Yeah, I definitely think the guys are enjoying themselves,” says Wright. “They’ve been up-and-down, playing some good defence, shooting the ball well.”
Defence wins championships
The 36ers may be awesome on offence, but it's at the other end where question marks persist.
Can this team defend consistently enough?
Adelaide certainly started off the season poorly defending teams, but they're making progress.
“Very poor initially,” says Wright. “And now we’re getting to the point where we’re doing a pretty good job of defending teams.”
It's not hard to see what the 36ers aspire to be: A high octane squad that leverages their athletic advantage. They’re flying up and down the court at breakneck speed, playing at the league’s fastest pace. But that style of play is also bound to spring leaks, particularly for a young roster maturing on the fly.
Prior to the weekend, the 36ers sported the worst defensive efficiency in the league, allowing 112.7 points per 100 possessions, a disastrous mark. In the past four seasons, no eventual champion has finished outside the top-two in defensive efficiency. Adelaide opponents had an effective field goal percentage of 52.1 percent, only Illawarra owned a worse mark.
“Because we play such an up-tempo game, you’re going to have a high score on both sides, and you’re not going to just completely get stops,” explains Wright. “So that’s why our defensive efficiency sometimes doesn’t look as great because it’s a lot of possessions.”
On some level, that’s true. With more possessions in the game, it also means more opportunities for the defence to screw up, both in the half court and in transition.
According to data from Spatial Jam, 36ers opponents are shooting 35.4 percent from beyond the arc, right on league average, with 3-pointers comprising 39.13 percent of 36ers’ opposition shot attempts. For context, on average, 34.5 percent of shot attempts are comprised of the 3-pointer across the league.
In layman’s terms, the 36ers are allowing enemies to shoot more threes without sacrificing efficiency. Sooner or later, the math doesn’t work.
To compound the issue, when they do get a stop, they’re one of the worst rebounding teams in the league; only the Illawarra Hawks snag defensive caroms at a lower rate. Enemy frontlines are destroying the 36ers on the offensive glass, to the tune of a 36.9 percent o-board rate, easily the worst mark in the league.
Zoom in and the picture doesn’t get any clearer.
Outside of Brisbane, Adelaide starts possibly the slowest frontcourt in the league. Hodgson whilst nimble for a 7-footer, still isn't the quickest cat out there. DJ finds it tough to navigate open plains.
Watch the transition defence here after a made basket by Johnson.
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In the half court, Wright has his big men trapping on-balls for dangerous scoring guards, essentially leading to all sorts of crisis rotations in the backline that have been hit-and-miss.
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“We try as often as we can to get the ball out of their [enemy guards] hands,” says Wright. “But sometimes they’re just too good and you just can’t do it.”
The 36ers have struggled to read that rotation consistently. Weak side help defenders will either stay glued to perimeter shooters and leave enemy bigs an open lane for a dunk, or they'll scramble to the split line and have no choice but to leave a perimeter shooter wide open.
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David Barlow misses the open three here, but those misreads will eventually cost you. It also gives you a snapshot of why the 36ers are allowing so many 3-point attempts: Their scheme is mostly a gambit.
There are times when 36ers players will stay glued to their man, ignoring proper rotations, even if it leaves an open layup to the opposition. Players will also switch needlessly, condemning themselves to mismatches for no real reason.
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There are just a few too many such shoulder-shrug moments that make you second-guess how can they can possibly dial up their defence in time for the cauldron of the playoffs, when every single possession matters.
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Out on the perimeter, Jerome Randle’s attention to detail can wane; he’ll inexplicably stand up out of a defensive stance, and allow his man to penetrate far too easily. Perhaps it’s not a surprise considering his superhuman offensive load.
Terrance Ferguson whilst super athletic, is prone to mental lapses, not uncommon for a young player. Brendan Teys is stout, and tries hard, but he’s often at a speed disadvantage out on the perimeter. Majok Deng is long, but oh so slight.
But team defence is about the collective, and the 36ers as a whole haven't strung together dominant stretches of defence, where everyone is on a string, that would dispel any doubts over their postseason chops.
The good news is that all that can be fixed, particularly as the players and the scheme refine.
“We’ve got some work to do defensively,” says Wright. “Right now we’re probably playing two quarters of really good defence. If we can extend that to three, and then to four, we’ll be really happy.”
The numbers don’t tell the full story either.
I said that Adelaide owned the worst defensive mark before the weekend’s slate of games. They’re now second-from-bottom at 110.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, still not great, but trending in the right direction.
The 36ers have shown glimpses of what they can do on defence -- a scrambling bunch that traps, recovers, amps up the pace and generates fastbreak opportunities. They have shown flashes where they can execute perfectly on defence, and make the right reads on the fly.
The 36ers have seemingly made a habit of overrunning teams in the fourth quarter by dialing up the defensive pressure. But why only then? Why not from the tip?
“I’m not sure,” says Wright with a laugh. (He genuinely isn't sure. Wright thinks part of it might be due to good conditioning and being able to dial up the focus late in games.)
The path to defensive respectability may well have commenced a while ago.
Take away those initial nine games of the season, and the 36ers are conceding on average 20.6 points in fourth quarter action. Their average defensive efficiency over this current 13-game span has been 106.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would top the league!
There’s an added incentive for the defence to improve, apart from stopping the opposition from scoring. When the 36ers get stops, it only fuels their running game.
“When we get stops, we can get out and run, and not allow those guys to setup in a zone,” says Wright.
Mitch Creek has been a jack-of-all-trades on defence, toggling between forward positions depending on what the team needs. Hodgson has struggled defending in space, but he’s been a bloody good rim protector all year, with go-go-gadget arms and a willingness to contest any attempt within sight.
Anthony Drmic’s shooting consistency aside, he’s been a pleasant surprise on defence, showing a willingness to bang with more seasoned bodies, and the sturdiness to hold his ground. Terrance Ferguson can get wild and out of position, but he recovers with his athleticism.
Plus all the young guys will only improve with experience.
Any question marks over Adelaide’s title contention may very well be visceral in nature, rather than empirically based. It feels like they can’t possibly sustain this run, that they’ll falter when the games invariably turn to grind-fests in the postseason. Skeptics will invariably use that currency to downplay their chances:
Surely, teams that rely on offence can’t possibly win the title!
Are they simply a team in the middle of a hot run?
We need to judge teams on the aggregate, and not on select samples.
In that respect, the 36ers still have work to do on the defensive end to assuage fears that their game won’t translate to the playoffs. They’ll have to face the same team over a series, and that opponent will be ready to gameplan specifically for them.
“We want perfect effort. Everybody plays as hard as they possibly can,” says Wright. “We feel like if we play hard, and play good D, we can play with anyone.”
Based on the math alone, the 36ers are courting disaster. But you know what? The 36ers have seemingly been bending the math all season long.
It all feels like unnecessary handwringing over a title contender who are currently torching the league. They may own one of the worst defensive marks in the league at the moment, but they’re also in the midst of a magical run, powered by an insane offence that is flipping efficiency stats on its head.
And none of it makes any sense.