Where has Maccabi’s defense gone?

Welcome back on Hack a Stat! In the past Euroleague season, among the many interesting things to follow, there was certainly the Maccabi’s defense. I had in fact written an article about it, precisely because I had been impressed by the efficiency of its defensive phase. This year, however, that defense is struggling; more generally, the Maccabi is struggling. Let’s analyze some data to understand the reasons behind the current record of the Israeli team.

ITALIAN VERSION: https://www.backdoorpodcast.com/hack-a-stat-e-la-difesa-del-maccabi/


The Maccabi is currently 14th in the standings, with a record of 3-7. A record perhaps too severe: six of the seven defeats have a difference of 5 points or fewer. So apart from a single loss (the one with Real), the Tel Aviv team has always played until the end, almost never managing to find that effort to win the game (it happened only against the Khimki). Having said that, however, the data still show that this season’s Maccabi has problems that have not been solved so far.

The Defensive Ratings

First of all, let’s take a look at the past and current season ratings chart.

maccabi's defense rating chart
maccabi's defense rating chart

Last season Maccabi held the best Defensive Rating (106,4 compared to a League average of 113,6); this year, on the other hand, the same data is 109,7 compared to a League average of 111,7. The two Defensive Rating values taken individually do not show major changes, but what counts in this case is the “distance” from the League average, which broadly describes the defensive skills of a team compared to the others: this difference was 7,2 the last year, while it is currently 2.

Playtype differences in Maccabi’s defense

This makes us guess that something has happened to the yellow-blue team’s defensive mechanisms: but what? Let’s use some data from Instat to better understand where the problem may lie.

maccabi's defense rating frequencies

In the table above, I have reported the frequencies of the opponent’s attacks based on the playtypes. I highlighted what are the most notable changes, which are the big men’s plays after a screen (roll or pop) and the isolations; iso falls in favor of the other two.
The frequencies alone suggest that the defensive decline of the Maccabi may lie among the big men’s duties: probably the data for a careful eye was not even necessary, given that the Maccabi replaced the starting couple of last year, Acy and Black, with Zizic and Bender. Skills and athletic differences of these two couples are in fact the main reason for that decline.

Big men’s defensive efforts

Zizic is certainly a strong big man, who is very good in post-up situations and contending offensive rebounds. The Croatian, however, is not as quick as Tarik Black, the starting center of last season. Although he only played 11 games due to some injuries, the American center’s skills were crucial for Sfairopoulos’ defensive system. And that system was also valid when Hunter was on the court, the other center of last season; Hunter, of course, is still on the roster. Then, there were two other centers, Reynolds and Stoudemire, which I will not take into consideration. The first had not played enough minutes per game, the second only played 6 games (only 5 minutes per game).
The choice that had made Maccabi’s defense so efficient was to keep the big men in the area as much as possible, to contest the rim shots. Thanks to Hunter’s and Black’s dynamism, the Maccabi was able to contest many shots near the rim: the two big men were almost always near to the basket and used their speed and their timing to be in the right place at the right moment contesting shots. It is not surprising to find Maccabi first in percentages allowed at the rim last year (46%); this year, on the other hand, it grants 51%, making it third.

Pick and roll defense

To allow this, Maccabi almost never performed a show in pick and roll situations. Instead, the big man performs almost every time a drop in order to keep a fixed presence in the area; also, Black and Hunter were good at denying opponents to get the ball after the screen, both in roll and in pop situations. Obviously, there was also great work by the backcourt players: these two things created a very good defensive system and functional to the characteristics of the players on the roster.

If, however, the backcourt players of the past season are more or less the same and have kept that defensive level, the same cannot be said for the new big men. In fact, the system has remained the same (bigs drop in PNR situation and the center is almost always in the area), but the players have changed: Zizic, in particular, does not guarantee the same dynamism as Black and Hunter and therefore the points allowed are increased. As we have seen, opponents have improved in terms of rim shot percentages from one season to another; the change of center certainly influences this aspect. If we look at the allowed rim shot percentages of just the two players, instead of the team ones, this fact will is even clearer: 53% with 47 attempts for Zizic, 28% (!) with 76 attempts for Black.

Guarding the big men

Furthermore, comparing the two centers through the playtypes, the differences between them are even more noticeable:

Zizic is much worse than Black in both roll and pop situations (the frequency of pop situation suggests that the opposing teams, when possible, take advantage of Zizic’s impossibility to contest 3-point shots). He also allows more in second-chance points after a rebound (putbacks).

The same can be said for Bender: compared to Acy, he is much more static and his defensive rotations are often delayed. In a system in which the center has to contest as many rim shots as possible, the second big man must be good at rotating to prevent an easy offensive rebound of the opposing center; Acy was incredibly good at this, just as he was good at guarding backcourt players when switching. Bender, instead, has not shown so far these defensive skills.

Let’s look at the Advanced Roles of the two couples to summarize what has been said so far:

Black is a “Rim Protector”, with an excellent S in percentages allowed at the basket; Zizic, on the other hand, does not guarantee the same efficiency and in fact, falls into the “Average Interior Defender” category, with a D- in the percentages allowed at the rim. Bender and Acy, instead, both fall into the same category with slight differences in percentiles.
Let’s now look at the Impacts:

The Defensive Rating with Black on-court improved by 8 points. Zizic instead has a negative balance between on and off-court, equal to 6,4.
For Bender and Acy, the data are more similar than one might expect, but the eye test suggests that Acy’s defensive impact is not comparable to Bender’s.
Perhaps the difference between these two players can be seen in the percentages allowed at the rim: for Bender, it is 50% (40 attempts), for Acy, it is instead 43% (120 attempts).

How can Sfairopoulos find again Maccabi’s defense?

So how can Maccabi overcome these defensive problems? Sfairopoulos is trying to avoid these problems by using Caloiaro as stretch-four; the numbers suggest that with Hunter and the winger as second big man, Maccabi’s defense improves slightly.

This is clearly a slight improvement, as it remains a negative value; on the other hand, the Hunter – Caloiaro couple also guarantees greater efficiency during the offensive phase. In general, Caloiaro is more functional than Bender in the game.

Sfairopoulos had also tried to play with Zizic and Hunter together: the solution was immediately discarded because the rotations of the centers then became more complicated to manage. However, it could be explored again. The offensive spacing will certainly not be optimal, but at least this configuration would give to Zizic a more reliable side-kick under the basket.

A big hand could be given by Acy’s comeback. He would certainly be an important addition for Maccabi, who would gain a flexible player both defensively (as we have seen) and offensively. Moreover, the depth chart would be better.

In conclusion, therefore, it is quite clear through these data where the problems of Maccabi’s defense lie this season: the change in the front-court has not helped and Sfairopoulos will have to find new defensive balances. Said that Zizic’s drop is still the best option, the solutions are not many others: Acy’s comeback could certainly help, as well as a get back Hunter in a good shape (he has not always appeared at his best so far). The backcourt players, which I have not deliberately talked about, are already doing a good job on the perimeter. Even with the presence of Jones (not exactly the best defender on the perimeter), the backcourt is maintaining a pretty good defensive level. We will see in the continuation of the season.

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