Bonus TBR! What started out as the first bullet for Morning Coffee very quickly became a full-fledged post of its own.
Following up on yesterday's TBR concerning Texas' recent offensive improvement/defensive regression, the Statesman ran prior to yesterday's game a feature story on the Longhorns' improving offensive effectiveness. Said Barnes of his starting point guard Dogus Balbay, "If you watch tape, you see he's a leader. He's talking, directing traffic... For the most part, I think we're getting better. It will be exciting for us if we can continue to build on that."
Undoubtedly true, though there remains the issue at the heart of yesterday's TBR post: the corresponding decline in Texas' defensive efficiency. In the comments, both Billyzane and Jimmer both proposed that the same player responsible for the upswing in offense may be inversely affecting the team on the other end of the floor. After admitting that my impression (that I hadn't considered Balbay's defense as a root cause of the decline) was colored by how much of my viewing attention has been hyper-focused on the offensive end of the floor, a handful of commenters jumped in to agree with Billyzane (Balbay out of position) and Jimmer (Dogus' presence negatively impacts Texas' team size).
Let's trust the wisdom of numbers and assume the consensus opinion on Balbay's defense correct. What's the outlook for the remainder of the season? First, we all seem to agree that the tradeoff is worth it, leaving only the question of whether the defense can be improved in the Balbay-led lineup. Second, I think the two concerns raised -- team size with Balbay in the lineup and Balbay's actual defensive play -- should be analyzed separately.
CLASSIFYING THE PROBLEMS
A useful starting point for questions of this kind is to first classify the weakness on a Can or Cannot Be Taught/Learned scale. On the "Can" end of the spectrum, we find issues like technique (e.g. how properly to set a pick) or familiarity with a playbook. On the other end, the best example is probably size. To bring the scale to life: you can coach Dexter Pittman how he should try to position his body for ideal defensive position, but you can't coach Dexter Pittman's size into anyone. You either got it or you don't.
Or to take another example, particularly apt for this post: When last June I first expressed optimism about Balbay's potential impact on the team, it was rooted in the unanimous praise from his coaches and teammates for his decisiveness. As I put it at the time: "If there's a theme [in the quotes] and throughout the article, it's that Balbay's shot is pretty raw, but he plays the point with confidence and purpose, an evaluation Texas fans should be thrilled to see; among the very hardest things to teach a player is how to play with purpose and never hesitate."
THE DEFENSIVE POSITIONING ISSUES
In light of the above, the two Balbay defensive issues seem to me fundamentally different in kind. The size issue is one thing, but I hesitate to share BZ's skepticism about Balbay's off-ball positioning problems being unresolvable before this season concludes. With the calendar turning over to March this weekend, BZ is probably making the smarter bet, but that this particular problem comfortably falls near the "Can Be Taught" end of the spectrum gives me reason to hope otherwise. Dogus Balbay is overflowing with athleticism and possesses ample speed, quickness, and agility to be where he needs to be on defense for the 'Horns. While most significant improvements develop as a product of experience and repetition, simple awareness has a role to play as well. A steady blast of film review and coaching reminders could lead to enough near-term improvement to make a difference.
Is this just a case of PB wishcasting? (I've discovered that writing about a team every day, year after year, has almost necessitated I develop a hopeful disposition. At least for me, I know that expecting every dark cloud to rain quickly crushes my writing spirit.) Related to BZ's concern that there's simply not enough time to expect Balbay to demonstrate marked improvement, there's another red flag -- mentioned by Big Roy in the comments -- that gives me significant pause: Balbay's sloppiness with fouls.
Dogus is hacking at a clip of roughly 4.2 fouls per 40 minutes, not quite Dexter Pittman territory (7.8-per-40), but almost twice the rate of teammates AJ Abrams (2.2) and Justin Mason (2.4). Though I do not in any way want to suggest that lower foul rates are indicative of better defense, Dogus' markedly elevated rate does raise in my mind the question of whether there's a lot of "un-learning" to be done before his all-around defensive play matches his athleticism in quality. We're wading into high speculative waters here, so I won't indulge the issue in much detail, but given the season's late hour, I would fairly call it a potentially discouraging data point.
All told, Balbay's defense presents an open question worth watching closely, in which discernible improvement would provide for fans a compelling reason to think the team's post-season ceiling has been raised.
TEAM DEFENSE AND BALBAY'S SIZE
The other concern, raised by Jimmer and seconded by Wiggins, relates to the reduction of team size in a Balbay-led lineup. Let's start by comparing some of the pre- and post-Balbay lineups. (Note: Both Atchley and Pittman are 6-10, so I'm combining the two as interchangeable in the fifth slot.)
|Pre-Balbay||OSU, CU, A&M
|AJ Abrams||5-10||AJ Abrams||5-10||AJ Abrams||5-10|
|J Mason||6-2||D Balbay||6-0||D Balbay||6-0|
|G Johnson||6-6||J Mason||6-2||J Mason||6-2|
|D James||6-7||G Johnson||6-6||D James||6-7|
|CD Pitchley||6-10||D James||6-7||D Pittman||6-10|
The middle line up is the one referenced by Wiggins and Jimmer, but it's worth noting that Gary Johnson was healthy for the tip of the Oklahoma game, when Barnes opted to start the bigger lineup seen in the right side of the table. That at least suggests Barnes is reluctant to play with the smaller line up about which both Wiggins and Jimmer worry. The starting line up against Oklahoma does take a height hit with Balbay in for Gary Johnson, but it's not nearly as drastic.
There is a fourth possibility, not yet tried by Barnes, but worth considering -- a lineup of Abrams, Balbay, Johnson, James, and Pittman. (Or, if a more mobile unit is preferred, Atchley in for Pittman.) Would it make sense to send Justin Mason to the bench? I think it's at least worth considering.
In truth, the bulk of Justin Mason's value this season has come from his excellent emergency duty as team point guard. His turnover rate (23%) has remained acceptably low while his assist rate (26.1%) has been excellent. Heading into the season, that was definitely not what Justin "Glue Guy/Stat Stuffer/All-Around Contributor" Mason was known for. And now that Balbay is handling the bulk of the point guard duties, it's worth looking at Justin Mason's production. Is he still "stuffing the stat sheet"? Here are the numbers since Balbay took over at point:
Because I know you're out there, let me start by noting to the pitchfork-wielding "Mason sucks!" fringers that these numbers are solid overall -- particularly the recent steal binge and that healthy AST:TO ratio. Justin Mason: still a solid player.
The question is whether his production is substantial enough to foreclose the possibility of using him as a strong reserve instead of 30 minutes-per-game starter. Offensively, Mason isn't scoring much and is so unimposing an outside shooting threat that his man can sag and pick spots to offer help team defense. Not only could Mason as a reserve contribute value at the same rate, but where he was spelling Balbay himself, his value-created in PG duties has been particularly strong. Moreover, if/when Barnes wanted/needed a smaller line up (both fouls and Pittman stamina necessitate substantial rotation anyway), Mason's perfectly capable of doing alongside Balbay what he's doing right now.
Defensively, the issue is murkier. Certainly when playing a quick, perimeter-oriented team (see: Bruins, UCLA), a bigger starting five might be problematic. Similarly, a team which featured a particularly dangerous 3-guard with 6'2 - 6'5 height (see: Warren, William) might necessitate Mason's presence in the lineup. Some of this analysis simply requires a case-by-case approach, weighing Mason's defensive contributions against a given opponent versus his offensive liabilities. Also to consider would be the offensive and rebounding gains Texas might enjoy because of the bigger lineup.
Alas, sorry fringers: no easy answers from me. Even so, I do think having this discussion is illuminating insofar as it highlights how much more flexibility Rick Barnes has now that Balbay has emerged at point:
- Rick can start big and bring Mason in off the bench.
- Rick can start medium and bring Johnson in off the bench.
- Rick can start small and bring Pittman in off the bench.
With the post-season rapidly approaching, there's real concern that we're past the point where it's realistic to expect Texas to extract the maximum value from the situation. Nevertheless, the answer to the question "Is Texas better positioned now then it was two months ago?" is clearly yes. I also think the answer to the question "Is Texas' hypothetical team ceiling higher now than it was two months ago?" is clearly yes.
In those regards, this is the debate Texas fans were hoping to be having in the final weeks before post-season play. I'll take it.