NBL: How inconsistency is choking Melbourne United's defense

Melbourne United assistant coach, Mike Kelly vividly remembers his early days in basketball.

“All I wanted to do was play ball and get better.”

Kelly toiled away for five years in Australia’s second tier SEABL league, forging a reputation of being one of the greatest imports to ever play in that league. At the same time, he trained during the day, for no money and at his own risk, with NBL teams North Melbourne Giants and Nunawading Spectres. That's right, Kelly pulled double time in those days, rushing between his day job in the SEABL, to his dream job in the NBL.

Mike Kelly described one of his first talks he had with then South East Melbourne Magic head coach, Brian Goorjian, prior to his first season of NBL in 1996. The Magic had recruited a talented collection of Australia’s brightest young players, including current and future Australian Boomers John Dorge, Sam Mackinnon, Tony Ronaldson and Jason Smith. What Goorjian wanted was a gritty, defensive-minded player that didn’t dominate possessions.

Coach Goorjian had this to say to Kelly. “If you can guard, you can stay in this league.”

Mike Kelly went on to become one of the NBL’s greatest defensive stoppers, and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year with the Magic in his NBL career.

Earlier this NBL season, United were on pace to emulate their assistant coach’s tough defensive style. During their early nine-game win streak, Melbourne were the league’s second best defense, conceding only 97.1 points per game. Coach Dean Demopoulos’ defensive system, one akin to NBA-style defenses, is played mostly in the quarter court. They pressure the ball hard, but largely play in an open stance off the ball, in a bid to guard the lane.

You can see this paint-oriented defense in this clip, where the United bigs sag off the players and plug the foul line area (otherwise known as the nail) which deters cuts and drives through the middle. Meanwhile Goulding and Blanchfield chase over the top of the dribble hand offs to take away the 3-point line from Breakers guards Webster and Abercrombie.

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Recently, United’s defense has dropped off significantly. They dropped three places, and are now the league’s 5th best defense, giving up 110.2 points per 100 possessions. It’s a major difference, and the stats back this up too. According to SpatialJam.com, in Melbourne opponents score at 44.1% and 31.7% on field goals and three-pointers respectively in a United victory. When United loses, their opponents average 48.9% and 46.4% on the same columns, a staggering difference on three-pointers.

From watching United’s games, it's not a schematic change from the coaching staff that is causing the drop off. The difference comes from an inconsistency in the building blocks of elite defense: transition D, ball containment, and rebounding.

Defense starts on transition

Defense starts at the offensive glass. Specifically, how aggressive your team is when going after your own missed shots. The Perth Wildcats, the league's leading offensive rebounding team, grabs a whopping 37% of its missed shots, and gives ample license for all five players to rebound the ball.

In contrast, Melbourne is 7th in the league in offensive rebounding rate, rebounding only 24% of their misses. Instead of swarming the opponent's rim with all five players, their approach is to send their leading rebounder, Majok Majok at the offensive glass, along with an athletic wing like Todd Blanchfield.

Offensive rebounding is not an essential element to being an elite team. There have been many examples of coaches who prefer to be conservative on the offensive glass and instead, drop players back on field goal attempts to build their half-court defense. Doc Rivers, who used to coach the NBA's Boston Celtics comes to mind.

The issue for United is that they are not going for an offensive board, and not getting players back on defense consistently after a field goal attempt. Melbourne's players are frequently camped along the three point line, instead of running back to cover the backcourt.

On top of that, United players often do not sprint back with urgency to set their half court defense, even when the opposing team has secured the defensive rebound. It's no wonder Synergy rates Melbourne as a “poor” team for Defensive Transition, surrendering 1.22 points per possession. It's also worth noting that United has the worst mark in the NBL (Illawarra is the best team, with a mark of 0.89 points per possession in transition).

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Foiling the Burglary

One of the best analogies I have heard, on the importance of keeping the ball out of the paint on defense, was from 36ers guard Brad Davidson. This was back when I was the assistant coach for Adelaide in 2008. During one of our conversations on guarding the ball, the Rat had this to share.

“You can't stop a burglary if the front door is open.” - Brad Davidson

Getting through the “front door” –-especially driving through the middle-- has been one of the first ways opponents created easy points against United.

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Melbourne’s starting perimeter players: Goulding, Blanchfield and Holt, have all shown a capability for elite level defense during this season. You can see in this clip, Goulding’s repeated efforts to keep Breakers guard Corey Webster in check, and then Blanchfield’s use of his body to keep Abercrombie from the middle of the floor, shows that both players have the potential to be excellent two-way players.

[gfycat data_id="TanWelcomeFlamingo"] The problem has been inconsistency. When the trio eased the pedal on defense, their opponents were getting to the basket for layups or foul shots. Per Synergy, Melbourne is rated “poor” at guarding isolations, giving up a league worst 1.07 points per possession (Crocs are league best at 0.698 points per possession).

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Pick and roll coverage: Ice, Ice baby

Melbourne employs the now popular style of pick and roll defense, known as icing the side pick and roll (also known as downing the screen), a strategy made popular by ex-Chicago Bulls head coach, Tom Thibodeau. It involves the on-ball defender pushing the ball away from the screen, whilst the screener’s defender drops below the screen to protect a potential drive from the dribbler.

Watch how United ices the side and mid pick and roll plays, resulting in a contested mid-range jump shot by Webster. https://youtu.be/p0jyoayw7Gk Icing the pick and roll is an excellent way of blowing up the pick and roll play, and stopping any advantage that could be created. However, it does require the defense to be dialled in each play. If the on-ball defender positions himself too far onto the high side of the screen, he could create an opening for the dribbler to split the two defenders. This has been a constant problem for United this season.

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Defensive rebounding

The defensive possession doesn’t stop until the offensive team gains possession. In most cases, this is on a defensive rebound. Unfortunately for Melbourne, they have not finished defensive stands well this season, ranking 7th in league in defensive rebound percentage at 67.5%.

Todd Blanchfield knows too well the rebounding woes the team faces right now. “We’ve just been giving up too many offensive rebounds. Coach says that Perth “shoots to miss” because they have guys like Matty Knight, Shawn Redhage, Greg Hire that just get on the offensive rebounds on us.”

Like most things in basketball, cause and effect are often interrelated. In this clip, Holt begins the possession by getting screened too easily, allowing the ball to be penetrated through the middle. This sets off a chain of events. Hakeem Warwick reacts by reaching at the ball, which gives AJ Ogilvy a straight line to the basket, and he finishes with a tip jam.

[gfycat data_id="SeriousPalatableBlackwidowspider"] Other times, it just has been a matter of young Melbourne big Majok getting forced under the rim or not pushing his player out of rebounding position.

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Changing up the defense: Demopoulos reaches back into his past

In the past few games, including last night's upset loss to the Kings, coach Demopoulos has gone to an alternate plan on defense, extending a 1-2-2 press back to a half court 1-3-1 zone. Demopoulos was once an assistant to fabled zone defensive coach, Don Chaney at Temple University, and you can see some of that philosophy in United’s change in defensive strategy.

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“I’ve always been a multiple defensive person, come from zone (at Temple University), so I like to change defenses up," Demopoulos shared. "But you know, when you are putting in a program in your first year, with just about all brand-new players, it tempers your ability to do that. It's not easy, and we are arriving at that.”

Over here, you see Melbourne successfully use their 1-2-2 press to force the ball out of the primary decision maker's hands, resulting in a turnover by Illawarra’s 5 man, AJ Ogilvy.

[gfycat data_id="LinedSilverBandicoot"] In the next clip, you can see Melbourne’s initial 1-3-1 formation as the ball is brought over half-way by the 36ers. The zone quickly changes to a 2-3 zone once the ball is entered to a wing, causing confusion in the offense because the zone has been both an “odd” and “even” front zone in the same possession.

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It's very difficult to win two playoff series against elite teams if you can't rely on your defense, and I fully expect this end of the floor to be a major focus for Melbourne in the coming days. Perhaps, some clips of their assistant coach Mike Kelly’s defensive exploits could inspire the guys to keep the "front door shut".

At the very least, they could check out this clip of Kelly’s slingshot free throws, important ones that closed out Game 2 of the 1996 NBL Grand Final series. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eW1sGI8XqI&t=4m11s

Can Melbourne United turn things around, and improve its defense this season? Have your say, and share your thoughts with Liam Flynn on Twitter at @CoachFlynn7, and also Mike Kelly at @MCKelly44.