NBL: Have opponents figured Melbourne United's offenses out?

As mentioned earlier (read: A sneak peek at Melbourne United's offensive sets) United have had a simple, yet very effective offensive package for most of the year, consisting of a multitude of sets with limited screening actions. The problem is that with the large amount of training time and preparation NBL teams have, and the sophistication of scouting, opponents are taking away these "initial" actions.

This results in Melbourne’s offense breaking out into a lot of 1-on-1 play, and therefore contested shooting, which makes putting up a winning score much more challenging. In contrast, an offense which flows from one another action to another, with the ball and bodies moving in sequence, keeps the defense in a constant state of disruption and continues to create opportunities.

Denying the United sets

You see an example of this in Melbourne’s recent game in Illawarra. United ran their new “over/under” set (put in the week of the game) which was defended well. The play then ground to a halt, resulting in a contested 3-point shot by Blanchfield with two seconds on the shot clock.

[gfycat data_id="UniformDelectableBuckeyebutterfly"] Elite defensive teams in the NBL, like the New Zealand Breakers who are first in Defensive Rating at 100.3 points per 100 possessions, have also switched a lot of the screening actions by United, especially ball screens involving Daniel Kickert. The Breakers have versatile players on defense, which causes the mismatches to be less pronounced. This allows them to force Melbourne into long contested jump shots instead.

In this clip, New Zealand switched the early step up screen, putting Breakers' mobile big, Mika Vukona onto Holt, and denied the usual advantage Holt would expect from this defensive strategy. As the play went on, Breakers guard Corey Webster disrupted the ball reversal to Chris Goulding to breaking up the flow of the play. Finally, the Breakers switched the final ball screen, leaving Cedric Jackson to force Goulding into a tough 3-point attempt.

[gfycat data_id="NiftyFatherlyGrayreefshark"] What else could compound this problem further? Melbourne players holding the ball and allowing their opponents to remain “set” for longer parts of the possession. United are dead last in the league in Assist% (45.7%), meaning opponents can load up the weak side of the floor, in anticipation to help a teammate who has to guard one of Melbourne’s elite 1-on-1 players.

Melbourne’s coaches have identified this issue and have made strides to correct it. Says Todd Blanchfield of this concern, “I think we’ve struggled in the last month with the ball “sticking” too much. Coach has really had an emphasis the last couple of practices of moving the ball, the ball doesn’t stay in the same place for too long’.

In their recent loss to the Hawks, you see the seeds of better ball movement start to come to fruition in this gorgeous sequence of unselfish basketball out of their baseline stagger set.

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The pressure is being applied

Turnovers have been a recent phenomenon for United. During their early nine-game win streak, the team averaged a miserly 10.22 miscues per game. Unfortunately, the current trend for Melbourne has been the opposite. In their five losses so far, they have averaged 12 turnovers per game. In their last four matches, this amount has risen to 13.25 per game, a development that is sure to be frustrating head coach Demopoulos.

“The first time I ever met (coach Demopoulous), he said, ‘I’ve got two rules: don’t be late, and don’t mess up ball up.’ He’s got a big thing on looking after the ball. Sometimes we don’t shoot the ball well, but we (only) have six turnovers by the end of the game, so we come away with the win.” says Blanchfield of the United coach’s belief in the value of possession.

Some of the turnovers are a result of opponents pressuring United’s guards, particularly Holt and Goulding. Both are elite scorers and ball handlers, when they have space to work in. But they can both be susceptible to taking quick shots or making poor passing decisions when they are defended tightly in the backcourt, or trapped in pick and rolls in the front court. In fact, this is the strategy that the Hawks employed against United last week – defend United full court, switch any screening action that might result in an advantage and rotate aggressively on any penetration to force quick shots or turnovers. It resulted in United committing a season worst 17 turnovers.

https://youtu.be/VlnRBA1V1g0 No team would want to lose games, particularly multiple losses in a short period of time, but it could be seen as growing pains while Melbourne adjusts to opponent tactics and become more of a complete team on the offensive end. You can see glimpses of their growth in sharing the ball and passing out of pressure in their recent games, even though they have been losses.

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It will be interesting to see how United counters these pressing strategies from opponents and if they can make it a little more easier on themselves by pushing the pace, moving the ball and moving themselves to keep the defense at a disadvantage.

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