Uneven Laboral Kutxa Working Things Out

by Rafael Uehara

Baskonia had an interesting offseason. It sold the rights to Nemanja Bjelica to Fenerbahçe and Maciej Lampe to Barcelona. It also opted not to maintain Zan Tabak at head coach, despite his solid job stabilizing the team after the firing of Dusko Ivanovic midway through last season, at one point winning 17 straight games. The hiring of Sergio Scariolo to fill the post was met with skepticism by some, as Scariolo did not do well on his latest stops at BC Khimki and Olimpia Milano and his work with the Spanish national team was unusually scrutinized despite the high success of the program, but the signings of Walter Hodge and Lamont Hamilton were deemed by most as classic Josean Querejeta high quality low profile findings.

Not that anyone projected this group with a legit chance to contend for the Euroleague final four or dethrone Real Madrid in the domestic side but the .500 winning percentage on 14 games in the Spanish league at the moment can be qualified as disappointing. This is a team that has dealt with several injuries, however. Adam Hanga, Fabien Causeur and Fernando San Emeterio all missed multiple weeks early in the season, which led to the stopgap signings of Rimantas Kaukenas, Daniel Clark and Thomas Kelati, who were all available in October and November for a reason. It can be argued that the reality of this group is a lot closer to the four-game winning streak they are currently on after the weekend home win over Barcelona, a team that’s also been quite uneven.

Now that the group is generally healthier, Scariolo seems to be figuring them out a bit more. Based on the last couple weeks, he is starting to develop a preference for pairing Thomas Huertel with Tibor Pleiss and Hodge with Hamilton. Those are good matches. Huertel is probably the most anonymous highly productive halfcourt playmaker in the planet, having posted 113 assists on 22 games, and though Pleiss isn’t a particularly great pick-and-roll scorer yet, the seven-footer’s 242-pound frame is quite hard to slow down on his way to the rim, where he has scored 54 points on 61% shooting in 193 Euroleague minutes, according to in-the-game.org. Hodge and Hamilton are the most exciting duo, however. It seems Scariolo has given Hodge more freedom to push the ball a bit as of late, which noticeably wasn’t the case early in the season. This is good; this is how the American guard can make a bigger impact. Hamilton is a story of his own, though.

He is probably my favorite player in the globe right now. A center with legit height, body frame and skill-set to generate offense in the post but also capable of parking outside the three-point line and shoot 39% on a significant amount of attempts (38 on 16 games) is extremely rare. The quantity of stretch-fives out there appears to be rising but most of them are either specialists [like Tomas Ress] or simply not as dynamic [like Darjus Lavrinovic (though he’s in a bit of a renascence) or Ioannis Bouroussis]. I honestly can’t think of a player as multi-dimensional as Hamilton at that position. The flexibility he provides Baskonia’s offense is tremendous. On their last two games (versus Barcelona and Unicaja), Laboral Kutxa enjoyed several fourth quarter possessions with the lane open because the opponent had to respect the five outside threats they had on the floor.

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Here Hanga blows by Carlos Suarez on the top of the key and drives to the rim while a very tentative Rafael Hettsheimeir does not help off of Hamilton in the corner. Hettsheimeir should have rotated to protect the rim. The corner shot is the second best look in basketball but the shot at the basket is, well, the first. But the point here is how Hamilton completely takes the opposing center out of the play.

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And here’s another interesting play. Hamilton is once again attracting attention on the weakside corner but after Joey Dorsey was taken off the dribble a couple of times, Lorbek picked up Hamilton on this particular possession, either intentionally or not, which drew Dorsey to the Hodge-Andres Nocioni pick-and-roll here. Dorsey’s instinct is to protect the rim, that’s what he is mostly paid to do, but Nocioni, already a perimeter player by nature, pops free beyond the arc after the slip screen and nails the wing three-pointer. That’s just a pure and simple matchup nightmare.

Baskonia is averaging 112.1 points per 100 possessions in the Spanish league, according to the realgm.com, and 113 in the Euroleague, according to in-the-game.org, ranking in the top five in offensive efficiency in both leagues. Aside the high quality play out of its point guard-center combos, Laboral Kutxa is also counting on terrific performance out of Nocioni, who is at the moment arguably a top five scoring threat in the continent. Nocioni is a stretch four but not as a gunner who was tagged a power forward because of his height. He attracts opposing defenders out in the perimeter because he is very quick off the dribble and even players of similar body frames like Bostjan Nachbar need the extra step closer in order to keep up with his agility. He is averging 1.59 points per shot on 53% shooting combining both leagues. Baskonia is also enjoying outstanding shooting around him, with the team also ranking in the top five in effective shooting in both leagues thanks to much improved three-point shooting in comparison to last season, especially since the arrival of Leo Mainoldi.

As has been the case probably ever since Tiago Splitter departed Victoria, it’s the defensive end that has held Laboral Kutxa back. It has fielded one of the six worst defenses in the Spanish league. Baskonia has allowed 115 or more points per 100 possessions in nine of its 14 appearances in domestic competition, according to realgm.com. It’s reason why they currently post a negative pace-adjusted point differential despite its potent offense, which has led to the underwhelming 7-win, 7-loss bottom line. Among Europe’s elite, they haven’t hemorrhaged points as much and rank a solid 11th in defensive efficiency but the context here is only half of its six opponents scored significantly above league average in their regular season campaigns.

Hamilton’s pick-and-roll defense is much maligned but it must be mentioned Scariolo isn’t necessarily putting him in the best position to succeed. Hamilton is asked to hedge and recover due to his athleticism. One can argue this is an outdated strategy in general but specifically speaking, one that Hamilton often struggles executing with the proper discipline. In the first play below, note how aggressive he is showing on a Brad Oleson pick-and-roll. Oleson is not that much of a threat to turn the corner and attack with much speed. Hamilton did not need to go out as far as he did. Oleson quickly passed to Marcelinho Huertas who quickly hit Ante Tomic five-feet from the rim before Hamilton could recover. That’s especially unfortunate because Hamilton is an intimidating shot blocking threat. Note in the second picture how close to the rim Kostas Papanikolaou is, yet wanted no part of Hamilton preparing to challenge him at the basket and opted to dribble baseline, eventually kicking the ball out to the outside. Asking him to hang back and patrol the lane on high pick-and-rolls would arguably be the best strategy not only for him but Pleiss as well. Note in the video how exposed is the path to the rim once Pleiss is out there in the perimeter. Leveraging his size the way the Pacers do it with Roy Hibbert would be more optimal.

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But Baskonia is still working these things out. Asking for teams to be complete products from the get-go is extremely unfair, especially for one that has dealt with several key injuries very early into the development process. This remains a team with a good collection of talent, with most of the pieces fitting each other. It’s questionable how high is the ceiling of this team with the little defensive pedigree it possesses, even if manages to fix some of the issues that are correctable. But as they get healthier and work on consistency as their players start to get a feel for each other’s game, Laboral Kutxa’s development is definitely something to keep track of.

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