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Brad's film room: Breaking down the Perth Wildcats' seemingly unstoppable offence
At this point in NBL history, it’s beyond comical to write off the Perth Wildcats.
Having made the finals every year since the inception of basketball, thinking that Perth are anything less than title contenders in any given year is foolish. You’d be better served loaning your hard earned cash to Ater Majok, than bet against the Wildcats.
Their unprecedented level of success turns the rest of us into psychopaths, who try to predict when their dynasty will finally come crashing down. Just look at poor Homicide — he’s going mental. In the offseason, Corey claimed he would never underestimate the Wildcats again. Of course, just two weeks into the season, he made this glorious proclamation.
(Perth beat Melbourne two days later to finish the weekend 1-1)
I shouldn’t clown Homicide too much, though. During the preseason I had Perth making the playoffs, but I also pegged them as the top four team most likely to miss the postseason. I know better than to underestimate the Wildcats. We all do.
But at the time, with key rotation pieces headed for the exit, it seemed logical to think that the Wildcats would take a step back. After losing the likes of Tom Jervis and Greg Hire, I expected their first-ranked defence from a year ago to regress, and that they wouldn’t be able to make that loss up with an improvement on the other end of the court. After all, Perth’s offence ranked fourth last year and didn’t add any extra firepower personnel-wise. It was hard to see any reasonable path towards an upgrade.
Boy, was I wrong.
Perth’s defence has indeed fallen off (dropping to third in defensive rating). However, their offensive output has elevated by over five points per 100 possessions. That's enough of an improvement to rank as the league’s very best, per SpatialJam. Scoring at a whopping rate of over 120 points per 100 possessions, Perth’s offence is now historically great. According to the Spatial Jam database, you’d have to go all the way back to 1991 to find a team able to match their ridiculous efficiency.
Even if you watch the Wildcats week in, week out, that factoid has to be confuzzling. Outside of Bryce Cotton, Trevor Gleeson has little off the dribble shot creation on his roster. Instead of deploying a second shot-creator, they leverage Cotton’s insane gravitational pull and movement to uncork set defences. The mere threat of Cotton running along the baseline can create wide open triples.
Perth has a similar shot location profile to a lot of squads around the league, but the way they get to their spots on the floor is quite unique. Check out how the frequency of some of their key play types differs from the league average (all play type data from jordanmcnbl.com, as always).
Play TypeTransitionPick and Roll Ball HandlerPost UpSpot UpCutOff ScreenPerth Frequency (% of Plays)6.7139.418.97.810.2League-Average Frequency 11.3188.8.131.52.34.1
They run so much more off-ball screen action than any other team, it’s like Gleeson coaches a different sport. To drive home this point, between Cotton, Steindl, and Terrico White, Perth have three of the four most frequent off-screen play-type users in the league.
Weirder still, Perth plays with the slowest pace in the league. They are last by a mile when it comes to generating transition opportunities, with just 6.2% of their shot attempts coming in transition. This is where most teams (including the high tempo Adelaide 36ers, who have dominated the offensive standings for years) try to do as much of their damage as possible. Not the Wildcats. They’re picky about their transition opportunities, because Gleeson knows how dominant his side can be in a half-court setting.
Gleeson’s off-ball screen plays are tough to defend, not necessarily because of his play designs, but because of the Wildcats’ precision and attention to detail. There’s not a hair out of place during any of their movements. There’s no half-hearted running around screens, either — their shooters fly in and out of them with Sonic the Hedgehog-esque verve.
On top of this, they keep defences on their toes by changing up their timing. It's practically impossible to predict when Bryce Cotton or Clint Steindl is going to fly off a bruising Nick Kay pick. Fall asleep for a millisecond and you’re dead. Cotton probably leads the league in brushing his hair and pretending he’s disinterested, before sprinting away from his defender.
There is a long list of painful things I would rather do, than guard Cotton for 40 minutes.
Gleeson’s squad open most of their sets, especially for the first three quarters, with Cotton springing off a screen just like in the above example. If Cotton doesn’t immediately get an open look, they’ll usually just read and react from there.
If opposing teams can shut down their off-ball screen game at the start of their sets, they’ll see the Wildcats’ offensive progressions get thrown way out of whack. Without their usual uninterrupted rhythm, you have a shot at minimising the damage inflicted by their rampaging offence. With Gleeson’s systemic offence reaching historic levels, every wannabe contender needs to figure out exactly how they’re going to try and do this in a three or five game series.
It seems most coaches have decided that the best way of dealing with the Wildcats’ off-ball screens is to ‘lock and trail’, trying to turn would-be three-point looks into contested mid-range jumpers. Doing this has obvious benefits, but it’s also risky — if the shooter’s defender isn’t fully attached, Perth will cook. The Wildcats often add in hand-offs when teams do this to add another layer of meat that Cotton’s defenders have to fight through.
On the above play, Nate Jawai is stuck in no man’s land — he knows he has to be somewhere in Cotton’s vicinity but doesn’t want to risk being put on skates. Had Jawai come up a touch higher to try and ‘blitz’ Cotton, Cairns would have been in even greater strife. As I wrote earlier in the year, this used to be the preferred method of defending these actions. Perth now seen this so many times, that they are experts at diagnosing it from a mile away.
These off-ball actions are such a problem that, in some circumstances, teams have recently even turned to just switching them. Although this poses the obvious issue of mismatches, it has the potential to take all space away from Perth’s shooters. The problem is that few teams (Cairns, Brisbane, and the Breakers) around the league are athletic and versatile enough across the board to switch everything with any real conviction.
The Breakers found some success last night by switching practically everything for most of the contest. Cotton and Plumlee still piled up counting stats and picked on mismatches but the Breakers as a team managed to hold the Wildcats to just 15 three-point attempts, 14 below their average.
The Taipans and Bullets have dabbled in switching against the Wildcats recently but haven’t been quite brave enough to deploy it for any meaningful length of time. Still, the small sample size has yielded reasonably promising results. Here’s a good example of Brisbane blowing up an entire Wildcats possession just by switching a Steindl pin-down.
Those results are what teams should strive for against Perth in the postseason. Should Cairns, Brisbane, or New Zealand play Perth in the semi-finals, switching is absolutely worth giving it a look. Will any coach actually have the cojones to do it for an
extended period? I'm not sure. One coach that likely does, is Dean Vickerman. Rather than employing a switching scheme, though, Vickerman has his squad go into full ball denial mode against Cotton and the Cats. This strategy has downsides and few teams have enough quality perimeter defenders to pull it off for 40 minutes. United, with Mitch McCarron, Shea Ili, and Melo Trimble (who was awesome against Cotton in their last encounter), are one team who might have just enough to throw at Perth.
Ili is perhaps the only player in the league nimble enough to match Cotton’s, dare I say it, cat-like movements.
When Vickerman's side get this right, they can deny Cotton the ball, and shut down Perth’s normal offensive progressions, forcing them to make stuff up on the fly. The stuff they make up on the fly, though, isn't bad at all. Their favourite counter to denial defence is to dump the ball to Kay at the top of the key and break into a hand-off.
What makes Perth even scarier, is that even if you do manage to throw them off their normal rhythm and get them away from their diet of off-ball screens and cuts, they can just give it to Bryce freaking Cotton to produce some magic off the dribble. It's not exactly a bad plan B, and it's what Perth pivot to at the end of close games. The numbers don’t really bear it out, but it sure seems like Cotton in pick and roll is pretty much unstoppable. Much like with their off-ball screen offence, there are a bunch of defences teams can employ, but whether any of them stand up against Cotton’s flamethrower is a whole other story. Go under the screen and Cotton will torch you. Alternatively, we’ve already seen what trailing him can result in.
Sydney’s style of pick and roll defence is an interesting proposition, even if it has encountered undeserved scrutiny the season. Will Weaver's Kings are giving up just 0.9 points per possession against pick and roll ball-handlers this season with their drop coverage. They know the math and they’re happy conceding a ton of relatively open mid-range looks, as long as those mid-range shots don’t turn into threes.
But, as Tony Loedi pointed out last month, Perth have discovered better, more exciting ways to attack this style of defence than just dribbling into 16-footer after 16-footer. During their last encounter they set step-up screens high up the court so that they could dribble into threes instead of twos and employed drag screens in semi-transition to catch Bogut napping in the paint.
As Tony notes, during that meeting, Sydney had early success switching Bogut preemptively off the screen-setter whenever Cotton approached. It’s was a marvellous adjustment from Weaver until Gleeson found away around it. By downsizing with Kay at centre and running sideline pick and roll with Bogut involved, Perth didn't allow any preemptive switches and controlled the contest from that point on.
In contrast, Vickerman’s favoured scheme is the ‘hedge and recover’, wherein Melbourne’s bigs come up high to crowd Cotton before falling back to guard their normal assignment. This seems like a good middle ground until Perth's bigs start to mix it up by slipping screens so they can get a bunch of wide open layups. This defensive alignment will only become more cumbersome once Miles Plumlee gets fully integrated.
The strategy that I think has the most potential is blitzing the ball screen, combined with bringing over a third defender who ditches Perth's weak side shooter. In this scenario, the weak side help defender prevents Kay from being given an open floor in four-on-three situations, where he is deadly. When the shooter the opposition helps off is Damian Martin, it’s automatically a win for the defence.
As always, Perth are prepared for this defensive adjustment. Gleeson can easily yank Martin for a superior shooter or even have him operate as the ball-handler, with Steindl or White parked in the corner.
When leaving Damian Martin open from downtown turns out to be an easy strategy for the Wildcats to get around, you know that the rest of the NBL is in trouble. Even when you think you’ve got them pinned down with nowhere to go, they have some sort of intelligent, thought-out counter to unleash. You can’t take everything away from these Wildcats — they are the definition of a pick-your-poison team.
Because Gleeson has had this group together for so damn long, no team is better at reading and reacting to different coverages. The Wildcats have seen every possible defensive alignment thrown in their direction and they know exactly how they want to attack it on any possession. They know every possible counter to each of the defensive philosophies thrown their way. If anyone thinks that continuity doesn’t help to breed success in the NBL, the Wildcats are the perfect counterargument.
Come playoff time, I find it hard to believe that any coach will figure out how to put the clamps on the Wildcats for an entire series.
Some will point out that the playoffs are a different beast with its tendency to slow right down and devolve into a war of attrition. Yet, the Wildcats are more prepared for a playoff battle than anyone. Their offence is producing its historic heights whilst playing with the slowest pace in the league — they’re essentially already playing playoff basketball now. It doesn’t hurt that they have more finals experience than they know what to do with, either.
I wouldn’t displace Sydney as championship favourites — they’ve more than earnt that distinction. But betting against this version of the Wildcats is downright asinine. And this is coming from a diehard Breakers fan and a guy who thought the Bullets would be better than them this season.
No matter how many of us want to predict the end of their dynasty, it’s pretty clear that the Wildcats empire has a long way to go before it comes crashing down.
All stats are accurate as of the start of round 17.