Defenses are fighting an uphill battle in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. Facing so many talented and well-prepared attacks, defenses cannot deny all shots and thus must make decisions which shots to put more of an emphasis on defending.
The stretch run is here. With only 10 games remaining for most clubs, it is make-or-break time for teams in the middle of the pack. Interestingly, Round 25 was likely the last round of the season where no two teams in the playoff picture entering the week were set to go head-to-head. Every team in the top eight played a team on the outside looking in, but—as has been the case throughout the 2020-21 regular season—creating separation in the standings remains easier said than done as even with playoff contenders holding court, only four victories separate fifth and 13th place and only two games separate second and eighth place despite the scheduling quirk.
Given how competitive the EuroLeague has been this season and the rise of offensive efficiency as the year has worn on, defense has become an increasingly important differentiator. Shot defense explains the majority of the variance in defensive efficiency; a team’s ability to influence the shots opposing offenses are able to create and to contest the ones they do create drive success on that end of the floor.
One of the more significant choices teams make defensively is what they will attempt to take away in the half-court between quality shots at the rim or on the perimeter. Finishing opportunities make up 32% of all attempts in the half-court and result in 1.25 points per shot. Catch-and-shoot jump shots make up 31% and are converted for an average of 1.15 points per shot including 1.25 points per unguarded attempt. All other shot attempts in the half-court are worth just 1.03 points per attempt. Teams prioritize defending the three-point or the rim to try to force low-value midrange jumpers or runners.
As the graph above suggests, teams that look to chase shooters off the three-point line tend to give up more drives to the rim and teams that pack it in and concede more jump shots tend to be in better position to prevent shots inside. What makes this choice an interesting one in the EuroLeague statistically is how few teams are able to find a way to make meaningful headway in both areas simultaneously. No team in the EuroLeague sees less than 58% of the shots it faces come on high-value attempts and only one team concedes more than 66%. Generally speaking, regardless of where teams choose to be aggressive, they are operating on something of a sliding scale due to how talented and polished offenses are at this point in time.
LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne is perhaps the best example of the challenges associated with defending at this level. Only 22% of the shots it has faced in the half-court this season have been catch-and-shoot jump shots. That is not just an outlier this season as the graph above indicates, it is the top mark this decade dating back to a time before aggressive three-point shooting was even the norm. Achieving such a feat is no small task and requires dogged consistency on the perimeter, but ASVEL ranks last in the EuroLeague by conceding 37% of the shot attempts it faces in the half-court in finishing situations and allows a second-to-last ranked 1.37 points per possession. Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade finds itself in basically the exact opposite situation as even for teams on the historic extremes of this spectrum, EuroLeague offenses are unforgiving.
Real Madrid has been the only team to find substantial balance this season, ranking sixth in the percentage of shots allowed in finishing situations and third in the percentage it faces in catch-and-shoot situations on the perimeter. However, the seven best half-court defenses in the EuroLeague this season in terms of efficiency join Los Blancos in the cluster in the middle of this graph showing that balance has been the calling card of 2020-21’s top units.
Looking ahead to Round 26
The matchup between Zenit St Peterburg and Valencia Basket and the derby featuring Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and Anadolu Efes Istanbul will either help clear up some of the gridlock in the middle of the standings or further complicate the basically endless scenarios in play as we move into the season’s final stretch.