Fit matters: Dissecting Melbourne United's offensive woes, and how the Brisbane Bullets figured it out
At the halfway point of the season, Melbourne United were sitting at 8-6, with four of those six losses coming by five points or less. They looked like a top four lock. Better yet, they were in the process of integrating Casey freaking Prather into their lineup. Melbourne was cruising.
After 14 games, Melbourne’s offence was dominant. In my last article, I marvelled at a Perth Wildcats offence on track to become, by the numbers, the NBL’s greatest since 1991. Melbourne’s offence over those first 14 fixtures was on track to be even better. They were blowing the doors off defences, scoring an absurd 122.5 points per 100 possessions, according to Spatial Jam.
Their difficulties were on the other end of the court, where they were leaking a ghastly 118.8 points per 100. That mark had them pegged as the sixth-best in the league, ahead of just the Adelaide 36ers, South East Melbourne Phoenix, and Illawarra Hawks — three teams not exactly renowned for their defensive capabilities. Most believed that if they could become something resembling competent on that end, they’d be unstoppable.
In the 11 games since that point of the season, Melbourne have been better than competent on defence. Since December 8th, United only allowed a pristine 111.9 points per 100 possessions. That mark ranks behind only the superhuman Kings in that span. Dean Vickerman is a warlock, but even he couldn’t have seen this coming. Had I known their defence would improve that drastically, I would’ve placed a Tacko Fall-sized wager on United to win the title.
In complete contrast to their defence, however, their once-historic offence has cratered. Over their past 11 games, Melbourne have produced just 108.2 points per 100 possessions, good for 8th in that span. A 14 point per 100 possession discrepancy in offensive efficiency is so ludicrous that it feels like a rounding error.
To quote Stephen A. Smith.
So what gives? Did the Monstars notice the NBL’s Looney Tunes round and pay a visit to Melbourne? Did Vickerman sell the playbook to take his fashion game to new heights?
An easy explanation for the discrepancy in numbers is that Melbourne have had to endure two open roof games since mid-season. Using some back of the envelope calculations, if you discount those low-scoring fixtures, Melbourne’s defensive efficiency over the second half of the season drops to somewhere in the middle of the pack. However, even when discounting those games, Melbourne’s offensive rating barely improves from its lowly standing. In fact, it stays grounded in eighth.
If the open roof fixtures aren’t to blame, the next most obvious explanation for their inexplicable offensive slide, can be put down to their three-point shooting percentages. As we know, long-range shooting is extremely variable. Due to the prevalence of three-point shooting in today’s game, seasons can be defined by whether they make or miss open triples. This is especially relevant in the NBL, due to the tiny sample size of a 28 game season, where a hot or cold streak can throw your entire season off-course.
In Melbourne’s case, over the first half of the season, their 3-point percentage was cruising at just above 38%, way above the league-average. Over the last 11 games, that number has sat at just 33%, according to Spatial Jam.
There’s something deeper here than Melbourne just getting unlucky, though. Three-point shooting is variable, but United make efficient three-point shooting tough to achieve with their style of play. The eye test tells me that Melbourne generate a disproportionate amount of off the dribble, low quality looks. Their bottom-ranked assist rate definitely backs this idea up.
The lack of a passable assist rate can be put down to who Melbourne have built their team around. Shawn Long and Melo Trimble are rare talents at the NBL level but both are ball-dominant, high-usage stars. When those two share the floor, they dominate possessions, running a ton of pick and roll, post-ups, isolations, and other play types which relegate United’s non-superstars to floor spacing roles.
Per jordanmcnbl.com, Trimble ranks seventh league-wide in total isolations and third in possessions as a pick and roll ball-handler. Only Jerome Randle matches his frequency in both columns. On a normal team, having a ball-dominant player like Trimble is a necessity, but United already have Shawn Long, who himself commands the ball. Long ranks first by a mile in post-up plays this season, with a staggering 43 post-up possessions more than his nearest challenger.
The two are no doubt great players but having both feels redundant. When they share the floor, any ball-movement seems to die and United get trapped in ball movement droughts. Possessions like this are way too common:
Check out how Chris Goulding and David Barlow park themselves in the corner and are asked to do nothing throughout the entire possession. Stints like these are why Mitch McCarron, a stud approaching the meat of his prime, has the third-lowest usage rate in the league (among players registering more than 300 minutes).
It does need to be said that it’s not impossible to have a free-flowing offence with two ball-dominant threats. One only needs to look at this season’s Brisbane Bullets, with Nathan Sobey and Lamar Patterson. In fact, Sobey and Patterson have a combined usage rate greater than that of Long and Trimble, per Spatial Jam. Despite this, their offence has peaked at the right time of the season.
There are a few key distinctions between the pairings. The first being that Brisbane’s stars are both above-average playmakers. In terms of assist percentage, Patterson ranks amongst the league’s five best. While Sobey almost always makes the right pass and keeps the ball moving, he's actually been a little bit too unselfish for my liking this season.
Conversely, Long, because of his back to the basket tendencies, adds nothing of real value when creating for others. Trimble is an excellent distributor when he wants to be, but he doesn't always act as one. The ball can stick in his hands for long periods, resulting in unforced late shot clock situations. If Melbourne had just one of them on the team, this wouldn’t really be an issue. But Trimble and Long together absorb so many possessions with their high-usage style, that the lack of playmaking between them is problematic.
On top of these negatives, Melbourne still haven’t found an alpha dog between Long and Trimble. This seems like a tedious point but having a clear 1A option is important. Going back to Brisbane, Patterson and Sobey struggled to find the right balance earlier in the season, but the former has since taken over in the 1A role. Most of Brisbane’s possessions come from his playmaking and their role players know exactly how possessions are meant to progress from there.
In Melbourne, neither Long nor Trimble have assumed the burden as the team’s true offensive fulcrum that others revolve around. Instead, they are the epitome of a ‘your turn, my turn’ team, as the two wrestle possessions off each other with no real rhythm to the offence. Others are often forced to stand clueless and motionless in the corners.
Lastly, Brisbane’s duo have a level of off-ball activity that Long and Trimble don’t. As the 1B option in the offence who doesn’t always have the ball in his hands, Sobey has had to diversify his game from his Adelaide tenure. As a result, he has evolved into a fairly devastating off-ball threat. He runs into handoffs hard, cuts with purpose, and is more than willing to bomb away from downtown. Per jordanmcnbl.com, over 40% of Sobey’s offensive possessions come from spot-ups, hand-offs, cuts, or off-screen action — all play-types that don’t rely on his shot creation.
In Melbourne, both Long and Trimble struggle without the ball in their hands. Long doesn’t shoot enough threes (and isn’t dangerous enough) to be labelled a floor spacer and, as you’d expect from any big man, doesn’t do much else when he’s not scoring, barring setting screens. That leaves Trimble, who isn’t particularly active at all away from the ball. In comparison to Sobey’s mark, just 24% of Trimble’s possessions come from the aforementioned play types.
While there is a roadmap to fitting ball-dominant, high-usage guys into successful offences, Trimble and Long aren’t the right jigsaw pieces. Of course, it should be noted, that Melbourne got away with Trimble and Long playing this exact way at the start of the season. Their usage rates were still sky-high and United's assist rate remained deflated. Yet, their offensive rating was through the roof.
Here’s my best, simplest explanation for this: at the start of the season: talent wins. It takes teams time to gel and more time to grow familiar with defending each of the other eight teams. If you have the type of NBL-proven talent that United have, logic dictates that you can get a headstart of sorts. This is while other, less talented teams have to use up the first few rounds to learn how to play as a unit.
The Cairns Taipans, for example, have been an inverse of United this season. Compared to Melbourne, their talent with NBL experience was non-existent. They have since grown with each other to turn into a well-oiled machine on both ends.
Melbourne has gone in the complete opposite direction. When other teams figured out how best to defend their basic, individualistic offence, they didn’t evolve. Instead, they continued to rely on their sheer talent and simplistic actions, something other teams have figured out.
In saying that, those simplistic actions with Long and Trimble should still be fairly devastating. The Trimble-Long pick and roll, for instance, was supposed to destroy defences. In reality, Melbourne rank as a below league-average efficiency pick and roll team, as shown by jordanmcnbl.com’s numbers.
In some lineups, that pick and roll combination has been as devastating as expected. When they are surrounded by three good shooters, defences have few options at their disposal.
Melbourne’s usual starting five of Trimble, Goulding, McCarron, Barlow, and Long, is decimating teams, scoring nearly 125 points per 100 possessions, per Spatial Jam. When teams are forced to choose between helping off one of Melbourne’s deadly shooters or letting Trimble and Long attack in space, United destroys. Problems arise when Vickerman is forced to sub out Goulding, McCarron, or Barlow. When United take the latter out for Jo Lual-Acuil or Tohi Smith-Milner, the impact is profound. According to Spatial Jam, United’s offensive rating drops by 14 points per 100 possessions with Jo Lual-Acuil or Tohi Smith-Milner in the game, even with the other four members of United’s usual starting five on the floor.
Outside of new arrival Stanton Kidd (whose stats in Europe indicate that his shooting numbers are about to drop off), Vickerman’s only really got Shea Ili, Lual-Acuil, and Smith-Milner, to sub into lineups around Trimble and Long. None of those three are remotely threatening from deep at this point in their respective careers. Combined this season, they are draining a hair over 30% of their threes on five attempts per contest.
When even one of them is on the floor next to Trimble and Long, Melbourne’s spacing is thrown into a state of flux - teams are happy to give each of them a toned-down version of the Tony Allen treatment.
As the season has gone on, teams have gradually become more aggressive when helping off Melbourne's non-shooters. To my eye, this has contributed significantly to the disparity in offensive rating between the first and second halves of the season. In their most recent encounter, Brisbane paid basically no attention to Ili in order to clog up the Trimble-Long pick and roll.
On top of their superstar-laden pick and roll being shut down, in lineups without requisite spacing, Long’s post-ups and Trimble’s slashing game have had the life sucked out of them. Long’s is facing a collection of behemoths at the rim, contributing to his post ups generating just 0.89 points per possession. With a more cramped lane, Trimble’s three-point shot has become more important than ever. Instead, since the season’s mid-point, Trimble is hitting just 27.6% of his looks from downtown. In an offensive system that is heavily dependent on Trimble and Long for shot-making, this is death.
Melbourne's reliance on Trimble and Long for shot-creation is particularly bad due to the absence of Casey Prather. McCarron and Goulding are amazing players, but neither can carry the load of an offence. When Long and Trimble are both out of the game, United's offensive numbers crumble due to their lack of off the dribble creators.
There is some form of irony in that Melbourne’s offence can’t live up to its talent because of the fit issues between Long and Trimble, but are also terrible without them. It speaks to a flawed team building strategy. If Prather returned and was fully fit, their squad may look completely different, but as discussed a couple months ago, there should've been concerns about his fit as well.
What’s gone wrong in Melbourne is not the fault of their superstars. This is absolutely a fit issue rather than any talent issue. Both Trimble and Long are amazing talents that the NBL is lucky to have. They just probably don’t belong on this team, with this particular group of players, and this offensive system. Long and Trimble are still good players to build around, maybe just not in conjunction with one another on a team that lacks a deep collection of floor spacers.
United (and all NBL observers, including myself) should have seen this coming when they signed the pair. As two high-usage stars who are dependent on low-efficiency play types and don’t do much away from the ball, problems were always going to arise. Melbourne’s blisteringly hot first half of the season merely papered over the cracks, while other teams built more cohesive units.
Melbourne United's season isn't officially over yet, but they are as close to eliminated as you could be. Ultimately, this is the latest chapter in NBL examples of how talent and money don’t always win out. In a vacuum, signing two studs away from rivals is a fool-proof plan.
But basketball isn’t played in a vacuum — the fit matters.