NBL: Dissecting Adelaide's disruptive team defense

When you sign up to play for Joey Wright, you know that means playing disruptive team defense. He wants to get opponents out of their comfort zone.

The 36ers apply intense pressure on the ball handler. Whether that be in the full court in Wright’s 'Run and Jump Defense' (man-to-man defense, trapping the ball handler in specific zones or when they become 'out of control'), or one of his zone presses (usually a 1-2-2 press after free throws, or a 2-3 zone from baseline inbounds), the opposing point guard is who Adelaide chooses to attack.

“There’s a lot of us guys, with a lot of speed and athleticism, that (can) cause some havoc on the defensive end, get up the floor, pressure guys," explained Nathan Sobey. "It can really cause problems for teams that don’t want to play that way. That’s the way we want to play.”

This underpins Wright’s defensive system.

In this clip, the 36ers play full court man-to-man, denying Perth point guard Casey Prather the ball, while enticing forward Shawn Redhage to advance the ball. When the ball finally gets back to Prather, the 36ers trap him and force him to give it up back to Redhage, who then drives into a crowd of players and turns the ball over. Sobey once again is on the scene to make an excellent, athletic play in reaching down to steal the ball.

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After free throws, the 36ers will also use their zone presses, where the team guards designated areas instead of players. In this clip, they use a 1-2-2 press, baiting Cedric Jackson to dribble into a trapping zone, where two 36ers swoop in and force the turnover that result in an easy Ebi Ere layup.

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What is interesting to note defensively, was the change in pick and roll schemes employed from game to game by the 36ers this season. The pick and roll, or ball screen as it is sometimes referred to, is one of the most lethal and highest frequency actions in basketball. When discussing the teams’ different options in guarding this play, Anthony Petrie outlined that, “Sometimes we’ll do what’s best for our group. Other times when you are going against guys who are fantastic in the pick and roll, like Cedric Jackson, then you might want to get it out of his hands and make someone else make plays in their team. We’ve got a variety of looks, we can throw different looks, we can trap, hard hedge, guards can go under or just straight switch.”

In the 36ers' win over New Zealand, Wright’s team played a more conservative style of defense, I refer to as 'Down' or 'Flat' coverage on the pick and roll. 'Down' involves the defender on the ball, forcing the ball handler away from the screen; in affect 'downing' the ball to the baseline. The screener’s defender is waiting below the screen to give him help. You can see in this clip, Brendan Teys forces the dribbler 'down', and Matt Hodgson drops into this space to protect the quick drive to the basket. This defense is very effective in stopping the ball from changing sides of the court while keeping your defense from getting into rotations.

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Conversely, in the Perth and Melbourne games, Adelaide altered their pick and roll coverage to a more aggressive 'Up' coverage (or 'hedge'). In this tactic, the defender on the ball forces the dribbler into the screen. This time the screener’s defender is above the screen and slides out at the dribbler to disrupt his path. When you have quick, mobile front court players, this can be a very effective defensive tactic in forcing the ball further away from the basket. In this clip, Lucas Walker shows great lateral speed to 'up' the dribbler and then recover back to his man. Teys then forces Melbourne's Chris Goulding into a contested deep two-point attempt.

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If however, you have more slow-footed front court personnel playing 'up' coverage – like 36ers center's Matt Hodgson and Daniel Johnson - your defense immediately places 'two on the ball' for a couple of seconds, more than enough time for good teams to move the ball quickly, take a great shot at the basket or find one on the other side of the floor. Alternatively, if the opponent has tall timber who can shoot the three-ball, they can empty out a side of the court and pop the screener into space for an open look. See the link below showing Jesse Wagstaff from Perth, 'picking and popping' for a three-point attempt.

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It can also result in problems on the offensive glass as can be seen in this clip, where Sobey ends up on Perth center Tom Jervis and is unable to keep him off the offensive glass.

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These issues can be overcome in applying 'up' coverage, utilising quick athletes behind the pick and roll (i.e. Walker and Sobey), or smart defenders reading the play ahead of time (i.e. Gibson and Petrie), who then deny or rotate quickly to the first pass out of the pick and roll and create turnovers or take away these easy shots. This is examined in the clip below.

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What is clear is that whatever defensive tactics that Wright chooses to employ, his players will be 'all in' with that choice. Petrie was able to best sum up the bond between the players and coach at the 36ers.

“Everyone says it, but he (Wright) is a player’s coach," shared Petrie. "I know him inside and out. He is a great mate away from the floor. He’s got a really good mix; have a laugh and know when to do it, but I’ve been (on the receiving end) of a few sprays as well, he’s just got a really good balance."

"He’s had good teams over the years, but the thing that is lost is how much he knows, how good he is at teaching the game of basketball. If I was a young guy I would definitely trying to get on one of Joey’s teams”.

And that, is the truth.