As a Euroleague fan, you probably know by now what Crvena Zvezda is really about. Loud and passionate fans, aggressive defense, and a dominant big in the paint. A team that probably has the lowest budget in the competition somehow found its place in the top-8 two seasons ago and on the verge of a playoff berth last season. However, should we still consider Zvezda a good defensive team this season?
One could argue whether Red Star was the best defensive team in Euroleague last season, but we can all agree that Belgrade’s Red and Whites were some kind of Basketball Praetorians — nobody liked facing them. Coach Radonjić’s guys fiercely pressured the ball, trapped pick-and-rolls and, if someone managed to escape with some kind of advantage out of the picks, active help side was always there to correct the problem. When I say pressured the ball, I’m talking enormous pressure, which forced teams to turnover the ball over on 12.2% of their possessions. The same number was the measure of Red Star’s steal percentage meaning the Red and Whites were stealing your lunch money every 8th possession, so any extra dribble was a big NO when facing this team, ‘cuz the chances were that not only are you in danger of making a turnover, but at the same time there was danger of allowing Zvezda to push hard in transition and punish you with an easy lay-up.
You could really say this defensive fortress was a work of art without making an overstatement. The reason being, coach Radonjić didn’t have elite or even above-average bigs who could switch sometimes on pick-and-rolls. Instead, his team had elite perimeter defenders, while the big guys had a job of hedging hard or soft in perfectly timed movements. They could wear down even elite guards like Teodosić or Sloukas. One would probably guess this kind of constant pursuit of the ball took a big toll energy-wise on defense, but Red Star was there to prove you wrong. The team was relying on taking the ball and scoring in transition, which was their 2nd greatest offensive weapon, since they were not the most talented offensive team around.
The Start of a New Cycle
Summer made a huge difference. The club was weakened by the departure of the head coach, additional coaching staff, medical staff and eight key players. Young and promising Dušan Alimpijević was named the head coach of a new Crvena Zvezda team. Coaching staff and club management chose a mixture of young and veteran players and announced that the ABA league is a top priority. Now, let’s get down to business. Coach Alimpijević said that he will continue the basketball philosophy of the former coach defense-wise, but in reality things are not looking great for Zvezda on this side of the floor. Of course, two things mustn’t be overlooked :
- Coach Alimpijević is both a Euroleague and ABA league rookie coach
- Zvezda changed almost all of last year’s main players
Bearing these facts in mind, I would like to point to three problems: I. PNR Defense II. Transition Defense III.Violation of switching late in possession principle
Crvena Zvezda insists on hard hedging as the main (and really only) solution when defending pick-and-rolls. While this is probably the most common and popular way of defending center-of-the-floor picks, hard hedging can leave enormous defensive holes if you don’t really know what you’re doing.
Mathias Lessort is the main target when attacking Zvezda via pick-and-rolls. He’s a small, athletic big with a great long-term upside. However, while he is certainly efficient in physical movements, he is definitely not effective in executing the right plays/making the right decisions. He often leaves a wide open lay-up available or a one-pass-away open shot. How? Well, he either hedges way too high (but not trapping the ball handler) or dances in no man’s land – between a soft hedge and a hard hedge – leaving the ball handler worry free in regards to making a turnover. Oh, he also likes to hunt blocks. He wants to block a contested shot not his man’s) which often results in an easy layup from the guy he is supposed to cover.
No matter who is playing the 5 for Zvezda, it seems like the Red and Whites don’t respect the pick-and-roll duo that is attacking them. When I say respect, I mean recognition of an opponent’s qualities and flaws. Things should change when you’re defending Huertas or Marković compared to defending Shved and Huertel. If you hard hedge somewhat decently against, for example, Marković you’re probably doing him a favor. He is not a lethal or even decent shooter off the dribble, which that hard hedge is supposed to stop, but he is a great ball handler and passer. You can bet that guys like him will come out of the picks with an advantage against a mediocre defense that uses hard hedges and then it’s probably too late to stop the offense from taking a really good shot. That’s a huge problem – Red Star is trying to defend everything! Ball handler’s 3-point shot, pass to the roll man, pass to the side, mid-range shot, pick-and-pop pass, you name it! If you aim to play good defense – you must be a good host and offer something to your guests or else they will get mad and start slicing through your defensive efforts like a knife through cheese. Coach Alimpijević said that because Mathias Lessort is a small big, he cannot cover passing lanes that a larger big can cover thanks to his height and length.
While this statement is certainly true, smaller bigs, (especially Lessort) have one advantage over the slower centers: recovery time. In theory, he should recover quickly leaving the offense to run another pick-and-roll or some other offensive play. But his bad hedging movements take away precious time for a quick recovery. This is the part he and the coaching staff should aim to improve and use to improve the team’s overall defense. We will see if Red Star is ever going to start implementing new ways of defending picks or improving hard hedges. We could see an occasional soft hedge when Pero Antić plays the 5, but we can safely say that’s probably due to his age — running all over the place would wear him down pretty quickly. Red Star also avoids switching, even when the clock is running down, but I’Il get to that later.
Concerning pick-and-roll defense, I would say coach Alimpijević is showing a type of human behavior called escalation of commitment. He is facing increasingly negative outcomes from his pick-and-roll defensive plans but he continues the same behavior. We can all agree that Zvezda has worse individual defensive pieces this year, but we could also say those pieces are not optimally placed. Of course, the bigs shouldn’t take all of the blame, help side should be there to correct the problem sometimes. The bad thing is that help is not coming. If you manage to escape as the attacker and pass the ball to the roller, the chances are he will have an easy walk to the basket.
An amendment to the unsportsmanlike foul rule made the game faster. That’s great news for offense, but bad for defense. You have to be quicker and smarter. Stopping fastbreaks with a foul while having no intention to play defense will give your opponent two shots from the charity line and an extra possession. The traditional basketball dilemma to go for the offensive rebound or run back to protect the basket gets even harder to solve now.
This brings us to the second defensive problem for Crvena Zvezda this year – defending fastbreaks. The Red and Whites often forget to run back immediately after realizing that an offensive rebound is not going to happen. Meanwhile, the likes of Adam Hanga, James Anderson, or Cory Higgins are already behind defenders, taking an easy layup a couple times in a single game.
Violation of switching late in possession principle
This is a rather strange thing. Almost every team chooses to switch on pick-and-rolls when the opponent has under 8 seconds on the clock. The reason is simple: coaches choose to live with the fact that a switch is often going to produce a mismatch simply due to the fact that there is very little time for the opponent to exploit those mismatches. In return, by switching you are stopping guys being open after the pick-and-rolls. I choose to believe Zvezda is often not switching late in possessions because the team is young and inexperienced, vs. the possibility that the coaching staff is making this decision deliberately.
Okay, one time this principle is easy to remember is at the end of quarters. Coaches scream at their players to switch on every pick-and-roll no matter what. But, Zvezda prefers hedging in these situations too:
Weird, isn’t it?
Let’s take a look what the numbers are saying about the CZ defense. Zvezda is the 2nd worst defense in Euroleague according to defensive rating – it allows 117.9 points per 100 possessions! Next, opponents have a 2-point field goal percentage of 59.9% which is the highest allowed in Euroleague. Three-point shots of Zvezda’s opponents hit the target in 37.8% of cases, which is not that bad (5th worst) but it has something to do with the fact that Zvezda cares more about defending the three-point line rather than defending the paint. Pick-and-roll is the most used offensive weapon in basketball. It’s easy to play it, but hard to defend it. Below average and average teams use the picks as a 2 man play. Euroleague teams involve all five players through the pick-and-roll — it’s not enough to stop the ball handler and the roller because the rest of the crew will kill you possession after possession. This is why it is so important to play good defense against picks, especially for low-budget teams like Crvena Zvezda, because they cannot compensate for bad defense with a powerful offense.
Text edited by: Nick Flynt