With five minutes remaining in their Euroleague Week Four home game with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid were staring down the barrel of a 1-3 record. Down ten points, unable to get a stop against the Bavarians’ relentless high screen and roll attack, even if a defeat would have been far from fatal to their Top 16 chances it would definitely have ramped up the pressure. They pulled off a win, but it was a false dawn. Losing in Strasbourg and Belgrade has put them in real trouble and on the brink of elimination.
Vulnerability in pick and roll defense isn’t new in the Laso-era. Remember when Tyrese Rice and Alex Tyus carved their way to an upset Euroleague title? Even last year, there were times when a lot of people thought it would be their undoing, and it pretty much did for Ioannis Bourousis’ place in the rotation (thereby laying the pre-conditions for The Bouroussance).
This time last year, they had Marcus Slaughter sitting patiently behind glass that said ‘break in case of emergency’. They smashed it and he stabilised their ability to defend against teams with quick, slashing guards. His ability to switch onto perimeter guys was one of the main reasons that Darussafaka Dogus tempted him to leave by doubling his salary in the summer.
Whether this could have been avoided or not depends on a few different questions. Madrid signed Trey Thompkins early in the summer, with Gustavo Ayon as the other EXT (non-European, non-Cotonou) player permitted by ACB rules. Like KC Rivers, once Slaughter lost his Cotonou status, the value of someone who could only play in Euroleague or force them to sit either Thompkins or Ayon was limited, even for a club of Madrid’s resources. Certainly less than the million euros he’s trousering in Turkey.
The question isn’t whether Thompkins is a good player - of course he is, we’ve a whole season’s video of smooth baseline pick and pop shooting and smart passing in Novgorod. It’s more whether he was really what Madrid needed. The signs after seven weeks of Euroleague are that he really wasn’t. Especially with Hernangomez stepping into Salah Mejri’s spot as the third centre, there’s just too much finesse and not enough F-you handed out to opposing scorers. No amount of creative passing and clever finishing can stop the other guys from running up 113.1 points per 100 possessions. The only teams with a worse defensive rating? Maccabi Tel Aviv and Dinamo Sassari, with a collective 1-13 record.
Slaughter shaped hole
One thing that is certain is nobody has filled the Slaughter-shaped hole in the defense. On top of that problem, Gustavo Ayon was never a stopper but it looks like he’s regressed this season, and seems paralysed by indecision when it comes to trying to protect his own hoop.
This week, Crvena Zvezda put up 28 points in the first quarter, shooting 9-of-12 inside the arc and 3-of-4 beyond it. Almost all of those 12 field goals involved Ayon in some way, either backpedalling in high pick-and-roll or reacting slowly after the initial pass. The Serbian team targetted him relentlessly, and that 10 minute period summed up exactly why Madrid find themselves in this precarious situation.
Ayon lacks the footspeed to contain a quick dribbler one on one, but he’s been dropping back so far on his heels that the mid-range jumper is there pretty much whenever, and he’s been earthbound in the paint, rarely challenging shots or deterring penetration. Laso has previously shown himself to be willing to leave the paint open if it means minimising rotations, but in the absence of a shotblocker and switch-defender like Slaughter he might need to reconsider.
Willy Hernangomez is another really skilled big man, a great finisher and not someone who takes plays off, but he has struggled big time on defense, which might have been expected, and he seems to be out of the rotation, which wasn’t. He doesn’t have great positioning instincts at the moment, often a step too high above the screen and on his heels, too upright and unable to contain penetrating guards.
Summer of mistakes
Jeffery Taylor arrived in the summer on a one-year deal from the Charlotte Hornets, where he played on mediocre teams, seeing time in only 29 and 26 games over the last two seasons. He also had ‘off-court issues’ which is a questionably appropriate euphemism for pleading guily to misdemeanour domestic assault and property destruction charges, resulting in a 24-game suspension.
I don’t say this to pile on, but he hasn’t offered any signs of being a useful player on this team yet, and when you add that to the character issues its worth wondering out loud how long he should be in the rotation.
He catches the ball on offense and takes his sweet time deciding whether to shoot or drive (rarely to pass). Defensively, he’s also been a negative, giving up on rotations, most notably on Marko Guduric’s dunk with a minute to go in the game on Friday - check from 1:20 on the video above.
I didn’t see much of him in his three-year NBA career, but the kind of bad habits that might go unnoticed on a team that’s not expected to win have been lit up like a freaking military searchlight so far. On the odd occasion he’s burst to the rim and thrown down you can see how the athletic tools in his arsenal could make him a really powerful offensive weapon, but the good has been heavily outweighed by the bad so far.
Another defensive miscue that raises its ugly head from time to time is transition. It’s not so much that they don’t run back down the floor, but there’s little organisation. They gave up three transition threes against Bayern through guys just not finding their man - it’s something of a Faustian pact if you love Rudy crashing the glass for those tip dunks he loves so much, and nobody wants those to stop. OK, quite a lot of people would love Rudy to just… stop, but I’m not one of them. Similarly against Crvena Zvezda they were beaten down the floor on runouts several times - more than enough for it to be concerning.
Three games to save the season
With three games left to avoid becoming the first team since CSKA Moscow in 2011 to miss the Top 16 having been in the previous Final Four, there doesn’t seem to be anything dramatic Pablo Laso can do to patch up his defense. He just has to hope they can pull out some big offensive games and win with the score in the 90s. However, sending Taylor to the bench and giving more minutes to Jonas Maciulis would be a good start in improving both sides of the ball.
El Chapu had a vicious dunk over Quincy Miller during the Madrid fightback and he’ll at least go down fighting, although maybe keep him away from the refs…
Away from Xs and Os there seems to be a disbelief that this is really happening amongst the team - as if they’ve been doing what always worked so well before and can’t believe they’re losing. It’s time to wake up and realise this isn’t a nightmare, it’s very real. Laso can try and change the tone mentally, but it’s tough to pin bad personnel decisions on him. This roster looks flawed in its construction, not just in execution.
Lima too late?
As part of their deal with Augusto Lima, they can bring him over from UCAM Murcia in January, and his rim running and shot blocking would be the perfect solution, but by then it might be too late - the front office will not see a Eurocup tilt as any consolation.
Week 8 doesn’t offer any relief, with Fenerbahçe visiting the Palacio de los Deportes. One sliver of light from behind a rapidly closing door is that their defense didn’t buckle in their first game. Kostas Sloukas isn’t a slashing, rim attacking point guard like Renfroe, but they’ll need to stop Bobby Dixon from easing into that sweet spot between the three-point line and the paint. On the downside, Ekpe Udoh and Jan Vesely ate Ayon and Thompkins up in a physical battle inside in that win.
There have been very few signs Madrid is capable of winning next week, but they should still be capable of beating Bayern and Strasbourg. That would leave them on 6-4 and hoping for a favourable tie break situation. If they beat the French team by eight or more they’d have the head-to-head on both. They still have the tiebreak over Crvena Zvezda by virtue of a 27-point win in Week Two.
But they are a game back on all three of those teams, and a mini-league could still get dicey. They still need to leapfrog two of the four teams above them - assuming Khimki and Fenerbahçe are long gone. At the very least they need to finish level with either Crvena Zvezda or Bayern, or Strasbourg if they get back the tiebreak. The Serbs have to visit Istanbul and host Khimki, whilst Bayern also have to go to Strasbourg and Belgrade.
There’s a lot still left to happen, but for a team of Real Madrid’s budget and pedigree to even be in this position is a huge surprise. Given the new league being set up, it might be the last one we ever see. So pay attention for the next three weeks, we could be in for some history.