As overtime was coming to a rather anti-climatic end in the final game of 2014 at the Martin Carpena Arena, there was only one question left to ask. It wasn’t about refereeing, even though Real Madrid players had a few queries after free throw shooting bumped late-game heroics or proper execution off center stage. The only question that mattered was if Unicaja Malaga are for real this season.
After beating Madrid at home, Joan Plaza’s team sits alone at the top of the table of the ACB league, enjoying a two-win advantage over the three teams that are tied for second place. Their schedule has been somewhat soft - they visit Barcelona next week, in what will be only their second away game against a top five team, after losing to Badalona in early November - but they boast the best offense and the second best point differential per a hundred possessions in the league. However, their numbers do not look as promising in Euroleague play, where Unicaja opened their Top 16 campaign with an ugly 69-61 home loss to Olympiacos, and looked underwhelming during much of the regular season.
Figuring out which of these trends is sustainable in the long run can be a tricky task. For instance, their three point shooting has been solid in ACB play, but downright awful against European competition - after eleven Euroleague games, Unicaja rank dead last in three-point field goal percentage. Part of that discrepancy is pure randomness. Game tape does not reveal a dramatic difference between domestic and international competitions as far as the quality of shots is concerned. Caleb Green’s shooting behind arc drops from 34% in Spain to 28% in Euroleague. Kostas Vasileiadis, coming off an excellent shooting season at Efes, is experiencing similar lows. Jon Stefansson is currently posting the worst percentage of his career. The same goes for Carlos Suarez.
Given the shooting history of their personnel, not to mention the comparable degree of difficulty between the two leagues, it’s reasonable to expect an uptick in Malaga’s continental shooting efficiency - at least when it comes to knocking down open looks. In order to generate enough of those, however, they will probably have to diversify their offense. Jayson Granger and Stefan Markovic account for nearly half of Unicaja’s assists. Markovic had been his usual self before an injury sidelined him, rewarding off the ball movement and keeping his options open on the pick and roll thanks to his pinpoint passing to the weak side. Granger has emerged as one of the most versatile passers in Europe.
Going under on Granger
The Uruguayan point guard can punish hedge out defensive schemes in a variety of ways: splitting the trap, turning the corner on his man toward the middle of the floor if the trap pushes him sideways, throwing a lob for a Vazquez dunk or a pocket pass for a Vazquez mid-range jumper, spotting the open shooter on the other side of the floor etc. Unicaja side pick and rolls in particular allow this versatility to shine through. Granger’s performance against Madrid was both electrifying - alley oops, clutch drives, pull up threes - and clinical - perfectly timed bounce passes against the hedging big man, keeping his dribble alive under pressure, taking advantage of different openings in Madrid’s trapping attempts.
The problem is that sooner or later, opponents will start going under the screen. Granger is a mediocre shooter, which makes a super aggressive defensive approach unnecessary if not flat out wrong. And if the defense doesn’t rotate, fewer passing options will open up. Granger’s physical style should allow him to challenge a big man’s flat coverage in the paint. However, he is an inconsistent finisher at the rim and his effective floater alone will not turn him into the type of volume scorer that will draw opposing centers outside their comfort zone. Instead, Unicaja will need more plays like this beauty:
Joan Plaza didn’t build the top offense in Spain by rolling out the ball for his shot creators or riding a streak of hot shooting. Unicaja’s three pillars of success are movement off the ball, drawing fouls and attacking the offensive glass. The gif above provides plenty of insights into all three elements. Kyle Hines drops back against the pick and roll between Granger and Vladimir Golubovic. Aaron Jackson recovers in time and Granger is forced to kick the ball out to Kuzminskas - hardly a back breaking pass.
Kuzminskas is a typical Unicaja wing, meaning that in pick and roll situations he can’t really act as the release player who will attack a rotating defense off the bounce. Ryan Toolson can do that, but he is a bit turnover prone and lacks the explosiveness to finish a play in traffic. Stefan Markovic, shooting the ball surprisingly well in Euroleague action, makes good reads but doesn’t play many minutes alongside Granger. Vasileiadis and Suarez are simply struggling.
This where one of the Dragic brothers would come in handy. Short of that, Unicaja resort to a flurry of activity. On the above play, Vladimir Golubovic establishes position inside. Green sets a back screen for Vasileiadis, which is enough to cause a momentary lapse in communication between Nando de Colo and Andrei Vorontsevich. Once Golubovic catches the entry pass, Green has already made the cut toward the hoop. The Unicaja center doesn’t have to draw a double team in order to make a quality pass from the low post. That’s two close range touches already, which increase the likelihood of drawing contact. Vazquez, Golubovic, Green and Suarez get fouled a lot in these situations, making Granger’s drives much more difficult to deal with.
On this play nobody gets fouled, but Vasileiadis get an open three. Also notice how three Unicaja players are in position to go after a potential missed shot. That’s a sign of an elite offensive rebounding team. Kuzminskas is one of those players. The Lithuanian forward has thrived in Plaza’s hyperkinetic schemes, making the most of his size as a cutter (also notice how Will Thomas’ movement in front of him takes Sasha Kaun out of the play)
Uncial suffering in transition
Sloan Sports Conference panelists would tell you that there is no clear correlation between high ambitions on the offensive glass and poor transition defense. However, certain spatial aspects of Unicaja’s offense have hurt their ability to get back properly. The main issue is not plays like the one below, where Green’s attempt at an offensive rebound opens up a trailing path for his man on the other end, leaving Suarez in a gray area between a three point shooter and a close range threat:
Unicaja have been rewarded on the offensive glass, so that’s a risk they have to take. A much more serious problem arises when all three frontcourt players gravitate toward the paint and Toolson is coming off screens off the ball in the corner three areas. The American guard is making a serious case for best shooter in Europe this season and Plaza has every reason to give him as many good looks as possible. But having four players below the break is hardly a recipe for defensive balance. Then again, a cost/benefit analysis could also justify this risk. What Unicaja can’t afford is poor communication when they do get back:
Kuzminskas and Granger worry too much about Jackson - not the most dangerous of shooters - leaving de Colo free to roam along the baseline. This is only an example of Malaga defenders getting their lines crossed. Both Olympiacos and Madrid took advantage of such instances of miscommunication, which only exacerbate the risks taken by Unicaja on the offensive glass.
Half court pressure
In a half court setting, opponents have to deal with a typical Plaza defense. The ball handler is pressured (often full court); passes are denied; pick and rolls are met on the perimeter. This often leaves them vulnerable to the same back cuts they thrive on and most importantly to open threes. Plaza doesn’t have his bigs hedge out as hard and as far away from the basket as he used to at Zalgiris. But his weakside defenders still cheat and often overhelp when it comes to rotating toward the paint. This leaves opponents with plenty of tasty skip pass options.
Even worse, perimeter defenders often allow guards to reject the screen, draw help from the strong side and make an easy short pass to an open shooter (photo via giorgospanou.blogspot.gr/ ). Vasileiadis and Toolson, in particular, often struggle to force their man toward the help. Malaga work hard to contest those shots, but this effort also opens up driving lanes - their Euroleague opponents have not been hitting their threes, but score at alarming rates inside. Meanwhile, Unicaja allow the sixth highest three point field goal percentage among ACB teams.
Plaza will surely remember the drop off in Zalgiris’ defensive efficiency between the Regular Season and the Top 16 in 2013. A more conservative positioning of his big men could help - and it would definitely benefit the foul prone Vazquez - but it would not solve the structural issue of defense on the ball . Since Granger has a heavy load to carry on offense, his pairing with Markovic - an above average defender - could help Malaga in this area. According to baloncestostatsacb.es Unicaja have posted monster numbers on both ends in the few minutes that those two have shared the backcourt.
Unfortunately, such an arrangement could hurt spacing on offense, with opponents giving Markovic the Sada treatment. Depth is another issue. Markovic is a valuable shot creator for the second unit. Unless Vasileiadis rediscovers the playmaking instincts he had flashed at Bilbao or Toolson becomes a more efficient ball handler on the pick and roll, Malaga’s bench would be spread thin. Again, this is where Zoran Dragic’s loss really hurts - even if he wasn’t able to shoot the ball as well as he did last Euroleague season, he’d still help this team play to its strengths.
Without him, Plaza’s rotation is pretty much set. And the big question about Malaga’s status as a contender is broken down into smaller ones: will they hide the weak links on their perimeter defense? Will their off the ball game and post up actions create enough quality looks to offset their limited creativity with the ball? Can they strike a better balance between crashing the boards and getting back?
Given their financial resources, Unicaja will most likely have to come up with answers from within. Homecourt advantage in the ACB playoffs is in their reach. Their Top 16 group is still open. Their path toward the upper echelon has just begun.