Of discipline and focus: A look at Townsville's defensive schemes
It all starts at the short corner. Take one dribble, turn around and shoot a 15 foot jump shot.
Rebound the ball, begin the process again. The same shot, over and over, with exquisite form, and executed with intense concentration.
Michael Finley had been at it for three hours. Same shot, and for the most part, same result. Meanwhile, Shawn Dennis sat on the sidelines of the San Antonio Spurs training facility that morning in 2006. He was a guest of one of the most successful franchises in modern NBA history, and Finley’s discipline to work on the same shot for hours was a moment he would never forget. It showed Dennis' how discipline and focus, and not buckling under pressure, was the key to success.
It has become a mantra that Dennis preaches to the his youthful wards, namely the Townsville Crocodiles.
“I don’t get upset when (the players) miss a shot. I don’t get upset when they make a mistake within our system. When you break our system, then I’m going to get grumpy, because that doesn’t take skill, that’s just being undisciplined. We’re a team that has to do it (win games) as a group.”
The Crocs have not been able to maintain discipline and work within their defensive system this season, and the problem has been a combination of system and personnel.
Breaking the new defensive system down
The team is most assuredly the NBL’s youngest team, with an average age of 25 years and 7 months.
This year, Dennis has tried to play to the his young energetic team's strengths by being a more aggressive, pressure-oriented defense. Last season, the Crocs embraced the “pack line” defensive mentality. It was a conservative style of defense, where the goal was to keep the ball out of the paint.
Naturally, there wasn’t much of an emphasis in getting out to deny passing lanes. That system was quite contrary to Dennis' nature of wanting his teams to get up the floor and be disruptive.
“We implemented [pack line defense] last year because we felt, with Markovic (we had) a solid defender, but he’s not a lock down defender, and a lot of the guards coming into the league were really quick.
But (this season) I felt we were too timid defensively, and (playing pack line defense) was almost a reason for guys not to play hard on defense, and we weren’t causing enough disruption. So we made the adjustment (to deny passing lanes) and said we need to be far more aggressive.”
The change in defense has had a positive impact on the team’s ability to force turnovers. Last year, when the team was in their “pack line” scheme, they were 7th in the league in forcing turnovers. Their opponents coughed the ball up on 12.1% of their possessions. This season, with a move to the pressure defense system, Townsville opponents are now turning it over on 14.2% of the time, good for 3rd in the league.
Of defensive efficiency and lapses
However, the pressure defense has also contributed to their decline in defensive efficiency in other areas. Last season, the Crocs were 4th best in the league in Defensive Rating (DefRtg) at 107.8 and were first in the league in Defensive Rebounding Rate (DefReb%) at 72.8%. This season, the Crocs are 6th in DefRtg (111.4 PPP) and 6th in DefReb% at 68.5%. This defense, at times, creates defensive lapses like open driving and rolling lanes. The increased space on the floor is often created by Crocs players denying passes far from the confines of the paint.
In this clip, Steindl is too concerned with denying his player (Tim Coenraad) the ball instead of stopping layups by bumping the “roller” (Ogilvy), which leaves a wide open roll and finish.
The Crocs have extend their defense up the floor with mixed results. As mentioned above, it has definitely forced turnovers and created fast break opportunities for Townsville, which is key for the Crocs in keeping the scoreboard ticking over. They are actually a very good zone team when employing a 3/4 court 1-2-2 defense, after free throws that drops back into a 2-3 zone.
They also have a number of different full court man defenses, their “50 Series”, where they trap at various areas of the court. This happens mostly in the corners of the backcourt or just over half way, as seen below.
Their full court defenses however, can leak easy points when they are not forcing turnovers. It also has given their opponents opportunities to get to the foul line, where they concede the highest amount of free throws in the league at 23.0 FTA per game.
Take for example Townsville’s loss in Perth last round. In situations when the Crocs extended their defense (either man or zone) AND trapped the ball, they conceded 26 points at 62% FG and 1.18 points per possession. (Wollongong, the league’s worse defensive team, defends at 1.11 points per possession.)
In this clip below, the Crocs trap the ball just over half court and almost create a turnover. However, the excessive focus on forcing a turnover ended with an opportunistic layup for Kings center Julian Khazzouh.
What tweaks could make the Crocs' defense better?
A more conservative defensive style –-with slightly less trapping and rotating and a return to some “pack line” principles-– may help the Crocs keep the ball off the rim and improve their defensive rebounding.
In this clip, the Crocs make a smart trap in the backcourt to get the ball out of Kings point guard Jason Cadee’s hands. When the turnover isn’t forced, they don’t “over rotate” or deny lanes hard. Kay simply sprints back to his man and the Crocs play solid half court pressure man-to-man defense.
Additionally, when Conklin and Jett packed the middle of the lane instead of denying their players hard, Kings guard Marcus Thornton was forced to stop his drive through the middle, and had to make a low percentage pass that was stolen by Crocs defensive ace Corey Maynard.
Townsville's defensive flaws: The starters
There is also the issue of a starting lineup that features two below average defenders: Jordair Jett and Clint Steindl. When two of your most utilised players (Jett 2nd, Steindl 3rd in minutes per game) are poor defenders, it makes it hard to get stops consistently.
What does Steindl bring to the team?
Crocs small forward Steindl is without question an exciting and unique talent on the offensive end. He has an elite offensive skill; the ability to sprint off screens at full speed and rise up on balance for catch & shoot opportunities.
But his poor body strength, ill-discipline and, at times, complete disinterest in off-ball positioning gives his opponent too many uncontested points on the defensive end. In this clip, Steindl’s low percentage play of trying to jump a passing lane to force a steal. This led to Perth forward Shawn Redhage curling to the basket for an uncontested layup.
A look at Jett's defense
More often than not, Jordair Jett lets his teammates down within their defensive structure. What’s puzzling here, is his history as an exceptional defender. Jordair Jett was the Atlantic 10’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 and a three time member of the All-Conference Defensive Team. It almost seems like Jett never packed his defensive abilities up, when he boarded the plane to Australia.
In this clip, Jett gives up a wide open 3-point shot to Illawarra shooting guard Kirk Penney, by taking a poor “line” over the top of the screen in this “turnout” situation. Look how far away he is from Penney to begin with, an undeniably major flaw guarding elite catch & shoot players.
[gfycat data_id="NegligibleCautiousArmednylonshrimp"] Coach Dennis however, remains very supportive towards his besieged point guard’s defense.
“At times, Jordair has been great on defense. The big issue is he’s carried his hamstring (injury) and it just gets tight, so he doesn’t have the explosiveness that we know he has. His job on Jemaine Beal here (in Townsville) was unbelievable.
The hard part for Jordair, is that he has come out of a system in St Louis where there was a big focus on each individual doing his job. And so sometimes he gets caught up doing that individual job and doesn’t do the team job. I am not disappointed in him.”
I admire that Dennis has stuck with the player he believes “is a talent and a half.” Many coaches, myself included, would have been tempted to cut him and bring in a player who would have joined the team in excellent condition from the beginning.
Dennis is very optimistic of his young team’s abilities to turn their defensive woes around. It has been a huge focus for the team at practice – the Crocs coaches meticulously record every defensive possession of the session to see if they are “contesting” shots or otherwise (the team goal is to only allow 10 uncontested field goals per game). As mentioned previously, they have shown an ability to be a very disruptive defensive team at times this season.
[gfycat data_id="ImmaterialDeepArcticseal"] Maybe a slight tweak here and there, as well as, a well timed rocket being put up a couple of below average defenders might make the Crocs a consistent defensive team. I have no doubt Dennis will find a solution.
After all, a guy who can sit and watch Michael Finley shoot the same jump shot for hours on end, definitely has the discipline to get that done.
Don't forget to read about coach Dennis and the Townsville Crocodiles' offensive schemes in the first part of this two-part series.