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Texas Basketball, Inside the Numbers: Small ball and the problems with Texas’ big men

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It has been a rough start to the year for Jarrett Allen.

NCAA Basketball: Long Beach State at Texas Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns are coming to the end of their non-conference season. It has been a rocky ride so far — Shaka Smart’s team is 5-4, and has not been very successful playing against the better opponents on its schedule.

I think it is fair for Texas fans to ask why this might be happening, and what can potentially be done about it. An interesting bit of information that points us to some of the issues, and some potential solutions, is hiding in the sorts of lineups Shaka Smart is using, and how these lineups are doing.

Looking at Texas’ potential lineups

Through the first nine games of the season, Texas has had nine available scholarship players.

Three big men: Jarrett Allen, Shaquille Cleare, and James Banks

Five guards: Kerwin Roach, Andrew Jones, Kendal Yancy, Eric Davis, and Jacob Young

One swing man: Tevin Mack

There are a variety of ways that Shaka Smart has mixed and matched lineups with these groups through the early part of the season, but we can broadly classify the various lineups deployed into two groups.

The first group consists of lineups where two of Texas’ three big men play on the floor together; for simplicity I will refer to these as the Longhorns’ “big lineups.” Then there are lineups where Texas has played one big man on the floor with a mix of perimeter players. Nearly all of the time these lineups have included Tevin Mack, which is why I have labeled him as a “swing man” for the purposes of this discussion. For the sake of simplicity I will refer to these lineups with one big man as Texas’ “small lineups.”

Watching games, my impression has been that Texas’ small lineups have been doing pretty well. Given this, I wanted to take a look at the data to see if it backed up my observations.

I have chosen for this analysis to focus on Texas’ games against teams that are currently ranked in the top 100 (out of 351 D-I teams) at kenpom.com. I have done this because these teams are a better reflection of the sorts of teams that the Longhorns will face going forward this season and that the Longhorns cannot simply roll the ball out and expect to physically overwhelm them. Also note that the Longhorns have only one remaining opponent on the schedule currently outside the top 100. So far Shaka Smart’s team hasn’t done very well against top-100 opponents, going just 1-4 against Northwestern, Colorado, UT-Arlington, Alabama, and Michigan.

Over these five games, the Texas offense has scored 0.92 points per possessions (PPP) and has allowed 1.04 PPP. Giving up 1.04 PPP on defense is not a terrible result to have against good teams, but only managing 0.92 PPP on offense is not good.

Things look a little different when we isolate the results from Texas’ small lineups. Using play-by-play data with substitution information, this sort of analysis is possible.

First, an important disclaimer. The sort of analysis I am about to describe is a little messy, because the truth about play-by-play data is that there are errors in the dataset, and these errors are most common in the substitution results. To the extent possible, we can try to mitigate the effects of these errors by devising algorithms that catch obvious ones (such as cases where the substitution data suggests that four or six players are on the floor) and attempt to fix them (by using other information in the play-by-play log to figure out who the correct five players are), but this is still only a partial solution. Still, despite occasional weirdness the substitution data are mostly correct. Provided we view our lineup-based analysis as an estimate and don’t spend a lot of time chasing down really small effects, we should be okay.

By my numbers, Texas’ small lineups in games against top-100 opponents have scored 1.03 PPP while giving up 0.97 PPP. These lineups played just a little under 60 percent of the available possessions. Over the same stretch of games, big lineups (used a bit more than 40 percent of the time) scored 0.78 PPP and allowed opponents to score 1.13 PPP. Sample size here is a concern, but we are at least looking at a total of about 190 possessions for the small lineups (about 2.8 games worth of possessions) and about 140 for the small player groupings (the equivalent of about 2.1 games).

The basic story here is pretty simple — Texas’ small lineups have been decent, making out slightly better than their opponents. Texas’ big lineups have been awful.

Small lineups, frequently featuring a wing player occupying one of the floor positions traditionally occupied by a big man, are currently in vogue in basketball. The idea of a stretch four — basically a big man who can shoot — has gradually given way to teams that lack this sort of player instead playing a taller wing player with perimeter skills in his place.

This frequently helps the offense. Most teams have an easier time finding offensively skilled 6’7 guys than skilled 6’11 guys, and by taking one of your big men off the floor offensive production generally improves. This is both because you get a better offensive player on the floor in his place, and also because it helps open up the interior for penetrating guards.

Playing small can work so well that even the notoriously post-oriented Bill Self is making heavy use of small lineups at Kansas this season. This has been forced on him by circumstances as much as anything, as Self has found himself leading a team with an excess of very good perimeter players that is simultaneously thin inside. And Kansas is a team that looks to be even thinner on the front court given Carlton Bragg’s recent arrest.

The downside of playing small usually comes on the defensive end. All other things being equal, having an extra big guy on the floor tends to help a defense, particularly when it comes to rebounding and defending near the basket. While there are always exceptions to this and specific game circumstances where it is not true, basketball remains a game that favors the very tall.

Texas’ big lineups on defense

Despite what I wrote above, Texas doesn’t seem to be seeing any actual downside on the defensive end when it plays small. It is instructive to consider why. It starts with the fact that Texas’ big lineups aren’t doing a particularly good job of defensive rebounding and protecting the interior, which are the areas where they would be expected to have an advantage. Over the stretch of games we are discussing, Texas opponents converted 52 percent of shots from inside the arc. For the possessions where Allen and Cleare played together, this shooting percentage is 48 percent, while when Allen and Banks have been together it is 52 percent. The Cleare/Banks pairing is omitted for reasons described below. So on average, big lineups are somewhat reducing opponent scoring near the basket, but the reduction is small enough that it doesn’t have much impact.

Texas’ big lineups are actually doing a rather poor job on the defensive glass. Opponents are grabbing 45 percent of their misses against Banks and Allen and 36 percent of their misses against Allen and Cleare. Oddly enough, Texas’ small lineups have actually been better on the glass. When Banks has been on the floor as the lone big man, opponents are hauling in 23 percent of their misses. When Cleare has played as the sole big, opponent offensive rebounding percentage is 25 percent. When Allen plays by himself it work out to 40 percent.

This analysis, which does not reflect favorably on Allen, is potentially a little unfair to the Texas big man. Allen played more minutes than either Cleare or Banks in Texas’ games against Northwestern, Colorado, and UT-Arlington, which were the three opponents in this stretch of games that represented credible threats on the offensive glass.

If we just isolate these three games, and drop the results from the Alabama and Michigan games (both of these teams appear to be mostly punting on attempts to get offensive rebounds), then we find that in possessions where Allen was on the floor Texas opponents recovered 48 percent of their misses. While Allen sat the opponent offensive rebounding rate was 25 percent. So never mind my initial concern, this analysis is totally fair.

When Allen is on the floor, Texas just isn’t doing all that well on the defensive glass. This is at least in part because Allen himself isn’t rebounding all that well. His 14 percent defensive rebounding rate is not great; by comparison Cleare is pulling in about 19 percent of opponent misses so far this season.

It is possible to slice the data a little further. One odd quirk that I have noted is that over these five games Shaka Smart almost never put Shaq Cleare and James Banks on the court together. Virtually all of the big lineups include Jarrett Allen. I point this out mostly as a curiosity; Smart’s substitution patterns can seem almost random to an outsider like myself, so I was frankly surprised to see that there was a particular grouping of players that he appeared to be avoiding.

Meanwhile, Texas’ small lineups are holding their own defensively so far this year. Actually better than holding their own; anytime you hold an opponent to less than one point per possession, you are doing rather well. Texas’ small lineups over a stretch of games where the Longhorns are 1-4 have managed to achieve this.

Offensive issues with big lineups

The bigger gap is on offense. It is not that Texas’ small lineups are highly effective on offense; it is that Texas’ big lineups are a disaster, as 0.78 PPP reflects what has been a total mess for the Longhorns.

The Allen/Cleare pairing probably best demonstrates the struggle. When Allen and Cleare played together over the five-game stretch we are studying, the Texas offense didn’t really do anything well at all. Scoring inside the arc, something that in principle you would hope would go well with two big men on the floor hasn’t really worked, as these lineups shot 34 percent from two-point range. Scoring outside the arc wasn’t better, as the three-point percentage was 21 percent. However, I don’t want to make too much of this number, as sample sizes make it rather hard to draw much in the way of conclusions from it. Meanwhile, the Longhorns turned the ball over in one out of every four possessions.

This combination of factors suggests general offensive dysfunction. I went hunting for examples of that dysfunction, and to be honest I didn’t have to look very hard. I just needed the first four minutes of the Michigan game to show a number of examples of how things are bogging down for Texas. I suspect I could have randomly selected just about any segment of any recent Texas game with two big men on the court and found similar things.

A core issue that Texas is having with two big men on the floor together is that it is crowding the lane and making dribble penetration from the perimeter unproductive. For a team that probably needs to rely on dribble penetration to create productive offense much of the time, this is a big issue.

Let’s take several examples from the early part of the Michigan game to illustrate just what is happening.

Example 1

In our first example, the Longhorns are using a set play that they will often run. The ball has been passed in to Jarrett Allen near the elbow in the figure below, and the point guard is preparing to set a pin down screen for Andrew Jones on the wing.

fig 1

In the next image, we see that screen being set.

fig2

Jones comes off the screen and takes the hand-off from Allen. This brings us to the figure below, where Jones is attempting to penetrate the ball into a crowded defensive interior.

fig3

Advancing the video by one second brings us to the photo below. You cannot see Jones, as he is hidden from view behind Cleare and Cleare’s defender. Jones has been completely bottled up by the defense. He ends up backing the ball out and resetting the offense.

fig 4

Let’s reflect on this sequence above, as it nicely shows issues that Texas is having with two big men on the floor. Texas runs its play well and gets Jones free driving towards the basket, and then ends up with nothing. The extra big man and his defender are getting in the way, making driving the basket more difficult then it would be with a fourth perimeter player on the floor.

There is more to what is going on here than just having one too many big guys on the floor. In this example, Cleare isn’t doing much to help Jones out; put simply, Cleare needs to get the hell out of the way. When a guard dribble-penetrates at a big man in the post, the post player needs to clear out and attempt to find a passing angle where he can potentially receive an easy pass from the guard for a chance to score. That just isn’t happening here.

Example 2

In the next two examples, we see an action that shows up frequently in the Texas offense, and that we detailed in Smart Texas Basketball. After the ball is reversed from an initial ball screen action, it finds its way to the wing, where another ball screen is set. In the photo below, a screen is being set for Tevin Mack, who has the ball at the top of the image.

fig5

Mack penetrates and reverses the ball again to Kerwin Roach. In the image below, that pass is in the air, headed to Roach.

fig6

Roach makes an aggressive play to attack the defense off of the dribble. He is starting his attack in the next picture.

fig7

But shortly after he is bottled up by helping defenders. Both Eric Davis’ man and Jarrett Allen’s man are stopping the attack. And Allen himself. Although on the positive side, Davis appears that he may be open.

fig8

The image below shows what happens in the moments after Roach realizes he may have a chance to make a play for Davis. It turns out that Davis’ defender has recovered, and that option is no longer there. This is outstanding defense. Roach will pass the ball out, and the Texas offense will reset.

fig9

This sequence is in many ways similar to the last one, except that this time Jarrett Allen is playing the role of the statue that does nothing to help, and just gets in the way. It is pretty clear that some time needs to be spent working with the Texas big men on how to clear out and roll on dribble penetration.

Example 3

Want to get another look at the previous example, but just from a different angle? Well, the Texas offense has you covered, as they did the exact same thing less than two minutes later from the opposite side of the court.

Allen is setting the wing ball screen for Mack in our first picture.

fig10

Mack comes off the screen...

fig11

... penetrates into the defense, drawing help...

fig12

... and then passes the ball to Roach. Roach sees a gap in the defense and attacks it...

fig13

... just before slamming into a help defender, dribbling the ball off of his foot, and turning it over. While he is hard to see, Eric Davis is open in the corner here, and the chance that his defender would recover this time is slim.

fig14

While this time Roach might have had a play if he were better under control, we have much of the same story as before. An extra big man is taking away a clean path to the basket, and isn’t really maintaining a proper spacial relationship with the penetrating guard.

Example 4

In principle, playing multiple big men on the floor should create more chances to get the ball inside. The problem is that the Longhorns just aren’t executing very well in these sorts of situations. There are too many different examples showing how things have gone wrong to describe all of them, but many boil down to the fact that Jarrett Allen — Texas’ primary target in the low post — is still a young player who lacks both experience and physical strength.

I have picked out one example that shows a single way that Allen is failing to do something very important in terms of establishing low post position. In the image below, the Longhorns are running a set play that they use often to get the ball inside to Allen. After the ball has come to the wing, Cleare has cleared out of the paint, and Allen is working to establish post position with a lot of space around him.

allen2

Things in that photo look to be well situated for Texas to score. Allen has a clear path to the basket once he gets the ball. But he is not going to get the ball, because of a very subtle thing he is doing wrong. To find it, you need to look at his feet. In general, the feet tell you much of what you need to know about low post play.

It is almost a cliche to say that low post play is a battle for control of the top foot (meaning the foot closer to the mid-court line). If the offensive player has his top foot in front of the defender, then the work of establishing position to receive the ball is usually done. But if the defender can step in front of this foot, the entry pass gets really dicey really quick.

While he otherwise appears to be in good position, Allen’s feet tell a different story. The Michigan defender is in the process of stepping around in front of this foot, and Allen is actually in trouble. He seems to be leaning into his defender to establish position with his upper body, instead of worrying about winning where it matters.

That trouble shows up as Mack attempts to enter the ball. The result is a deflected pass and a turnover.

allen3

This is the sort of play that someone might blame on Mack, for throwing the ball into trouble or not getting the ball in fast enough while Allen was open. But this isn’t really Mack’s fault; Allen didn’t do the early work needed to insure he would stay open long enough for the pass to happen.

This shouldn’t be taken to indicate some sort of permanent flaw in Allen’s game. It is the sort of mistake a young player makes. (When I close my eyes, I hear a former coach screaming at me for this very error.) And it is more than just knowing what to do that will help Allen improve at things like this; more time in the weight room and more time to physically mature will make it easier. Ultimately, post positioning is a game of knowing what to do and being strong enough to make it happen.

So where does this leave Texas?

Shaka Smart has gradually been giving more minutes to his small lineup, and this seems to be the right call. It will at least make Texas more competitive in the coming conference season.

Additionally, Smart and Darrin Horn have their work cut out for them with Texas’ big men. The types of issues that I highlighted above are certainly the sorts of things that coaches can address. The challenge with such a young team is that there are just so many problems that coaches need to address, and not enough time to cover them all. What I have highlighted here may be just a drop in the bucket compared to all of the issues Smart and his staff are currently working through.