NBL: A sneak peek at Melbourne United's offensive sets

Invercargill is possibly the coldest and wettest city in the southern hemisphere. A small coastal town surrounded by lush green farmlands, its 51,000 odd inhabitants pass the time by being heavily involved in their sporting teams, one of which being the Southland Sharks, current two-time champions of the New Zealand National Basketball League (NZNBL).

Following the end of the NBL 2014-2015 season, Townsville shooting guard Todd Blanchfield committed his winter season to the Sharks in the NZNBL, replacing his Townsville teammate Leon Henry as the Sharks' starting small forward.

It was in chilly Invercargill, with soon-to-be fiancee Jill, that he made the biggest decision of his basketball career. Wednesday night was an off day for the Sharks, and Blanchfield had just gotten off the phone with Melbourne United CEO, Vince Crivelli. It was official: Blanchfield had finally agreed to join United for the 2015-2016 NBL season.

The move to leave Townsville for United signaled a need to challenge himself, and grow. "(The decision to join United) was huge. I was weighing up leaving a place which was my second home and where I had become comfortable. But I think that was a big reason too: get outside of my comfort zone."

At the same time, Blanchfield also needed a familiar and trusting presence, and who better to provide that, than former Townsville assistant coach Mike Kelly? "Having Kelly already signed there was a reason too," Blanchfield agreed. (He's) someone I know who will tell me what I need to hear."

Creating and exploiting the mismatch

Fast forward five months, and Todd Blanchfield has become an integral part of the league's most dynamic offensive team.

During Melbourne United’s opening nine-game winning streak, their offensive efficiency led the league at 119.3 points per 100 possessions. This number would be better than current league leader Illawarra (at 117.9 points per possession) and historically, better than any of the New Zealand Breakers' three-peat championship teams (109.7 points per 100 possessions).

United has cooled off since that time, and are in third place with an offensive efficiency of 113 points per 100 possessions, but are still converting at the highest effective field goal percentage --a metric that adds weight to three pointers over twos-- at 52.9% - ahead of Illawarra (52.2%) and New Zealand (50.5%).

Melbourne United head coach, Dean Demopoulos, has a simple philosophy on offense.

“We’ve only got 24 seconds. That’s not a whole lot of time. Move the ball, see the open man, get the defense in rotation early, (and) exploit the mismatch if you can find it.”

You can see this philosophy play out in the NBA-centric style of offense the team employs, where they look to create mismatches, and allow their elite scorers to exploit them. United assistant coach, Mike Kelly elaborated. “We try to give our guys freedom and a bit of space to operate in, especially Chris Goulding and Stephen Holt, who have both shown they are very good using the pick. Or when we found (opponents) switching, we’ll just clear it and let those guys go to work.”

Early offense – ball screens and 1-on-1 play

Isolation opportunities appear when United’s opponents are caught in cross matches in transition defense, or after extending their defense to pressure United. (Pressure defense is a strategy that is being employed more against United in recent games – more on that later.)

In this clip, Adelaide defended the floor in a 1-2-2 three-quarter court press. After United broke the press, Blanchfield saw that he was cross-matched on 36ers import Jerome Randle. He promptly took the smaller Randle to the low block and created an opportunity for the easy score.

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The step up screen

Melbourne also uses early ball screens as a way to create “small-big” or “big-small” mismatches. They favour an “empty side” (no wing player in the same corner as the screen), and have their bigs set “step up” screens (flat ball screens) for their guards.

Over here, United combo guard, Stephen Holt used the “step up” to cause a “small-big” mismatch with young New Zealand big Tai Wynyard. Wynyard backed up to protect the paint, and Holt used the space to make the three point basket.

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The double drag screen

Another ball screen option Melbourne use is a “double drag” screen (where two ball screens are set for the ball handler on the fast break, generally in the middle of the floor).

In this clip, United’s bigs, Majok Majok and Daniel Kickert, combined to set the double drag on Holt. A “big-small” mismatch is created with Breakers wing, Thomas Abercrombie, being switched onto Kickert. Kickert then used his size advantage to back Abercrombie down and score in the paint.

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This mentality of creating and using mismatches early in the possession is a delicate balancing act for the first year United coach; he wants to give his talented players enough rein to be aggressive scoring the ball, so that they can put the ball in the hole, even when closely guarded like how Goulding was in this possession.

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It also means coach Demopoulos has to live with questionable shot selection, especially when those contested shots fall short.

United's highest frequency play – “Power”

When the early opportunity to create or exploit a mismatch does not present itself, United runs a smorgasbord of quick hitting sets in the half court.

"Quick hitters" are offensive sets that feature only a small amount of screening “actions” (a screening situation or a offensive movement designed to create a disruption in the defense). Where teams like New Zealand or Cairns might use anywhere from 1 to 8 actions in an offensive possession, United prefers to keep things simple by using 1 to 3 actions and rely on good screening, cutting with pace and incredible shot making to get their points.

Melbourne’s highest frequency set is their “power” series, which is a diamond set. It begins with two screeners on the low post, one wing at the foul line, and one wing under the basket (in a diamond shape). It then spills into a host of different actions looking to craft a shot for one of United’s talented scorers.

Blanchfield believes in the effectiveness of the power series a great deal. “It really works for us in the half court. You got Bubbles (Goulding) turning out. Or Stephen Holt turning out and then straight into a step up on ball. Those guys can get into the middle and create so much for us on the weak side.”

In this clip, Chris Goulding is at the bottom of the diamond, and sprints off the screen from United big, Hakim Warrick, soaring into the air for a catch and shoot three point shot.

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Over here, Goulding makes the same cut, but when Wollongong big man Cody Ellis gives help off the screener to stop a Goulding jump shot, Goulding flips the ball to teammate Kickert for the wide open jump shot.

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As mentioned above, the United guards like to come off the screen and work off a quick step up. When Melbourne’s athletic bigs dive to the basket hard after screening, they create a disruption in the defense.

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Adding more strings to the bow

Demopoulos has also been interested in diversifying his team’s attack even further, by adding more screening actions away from the ball. Says the Melbourne mentor, “We’ve been a heavy pick and roll team, and I am just trying to marry pin downs with the pick and rolls. We are doing it in stages, and now we got to get balance with it because it's half way during the season.”

One of the sets Demopoulos has leaned on to balance this attack is a 1-4 high set (point guard at top of three point line, and four players across the foul line). It has been a very productive set for United, one which puts the defenders in a bind as they try to negotiate through a series of screens around the foul line. With the Melbourne starting backcourt and wings all being elite shooters, it's hard for the defenders to do anything but chase the offensive player over the top of screens. When they do this, it opens up driving lanes to the basket.

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Like any smart coach, Demopoulos has built in some nice little misdirection options in this set. In this clip, he gets the defence to focus in on the cut by Goulding, but instead brings the action back the other way for a three point shot for the second screener (Kickert).

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My favorite wrinkle in this play, is one Melbourne used in a game against New Zealand earlier in the year. This time, the 1-4 high set, flowed into some action that has been really popular in Europe the past two seasons: a mid pick and roll with a back screen on the screener.

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We all know Melbourne United has been an exceptional offensive team, and it is especially true in the half court. Per Synergy, they are rated “excellent” in offensive possessions in this setting. That being said, the team still has room to up its game, and improve their scoring even further.

The fast break woes

This potent United offense has really struggled to get easy points, especially in transition. United plays at one of the slowest paces in the league, and are currently 7th in pace. Even when they run the fast break, they are rated “poor” in converting their fast breaks, measured by Synergy as points scored in transition. United scores at the poorest rate (1.01 points per possession) among the top four teams in the league, behind Illawarra (1.23), Perth (1.09) and NZ Breakers (1.04).

It's something that Demopoulos has identified, and Blanchfield knows for sure. “Coach has emphasised kicking the ball ahead on the break. Trying to get those early looks on the break. We have guys who can get out and go, and can finish on the rim. We want to be able to look at that, and then flow into our half court stuff,” says Blanchfield.

Living and dying by the three

The other issue for United is the amount of three-point field goals they attempt as a percentage of the shots they get at the basket. According to NBL stats guru Mark Slocombe, United averaged more three-point makes (11.4) than any other team since the NBL went to the 40 minute format. The three-pointer might have deserted them last night in the Kings game, but United's 3PT% is still one of the highest since 2010.

In games when their shooting from the 3-point line deserts them, Melbourne needs to be able to get easy points, in particular layups and free throws. These are two avenues United have largely ignored; 42% of the field goals they attempt are three-pointers. This shot selection tops in the NBL, and is a full 11 percentage points better than second place Illawarra (39% of their FGs are 3FGs). United is also fifth in free throw rate, which is the ratio of free throws to field goals. More of these higher percentage baskets will take the pressure off them to make shots in the half court.

Recent games have also displayed a worrying trend: have NBL opponents have started to figure Melbourne United's offenses out (read: Have opponents figured Melbourne United's offenses out?), but there is still room for the team to turn things around by tweaking their shot selection, finishing better on the break, among other things.

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What do you think of Melbourne's offense this season? Share your thoughts on Twitter by tweeting to @CoachFlynn7.