Stats Review: The unique defense of UNICS – News

By focusing on the perimeter at the expense of occasionally easy inside baskets, UNICS Kazan is redefining what give-and-take defending means in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague.

High-Gravity Matchup

UNICS Kazan earned a measure of revenge in its matchup with FC Barcelona in Round 22, earning a 70-64 home win exactly a month after falling 111-109 in overtime in perhaps the most exciting game of the season so far. Holding one of just three teams in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague that averages 1.00 points per possession or more to just 29 total points in the second half, UNICS put together a remarkable defensive performance that included 7 steals from John Brown and just 10 assists from the visitors.

The give and take of great defenses

Following the win over Barcelona, UNICS not only ranks first in defensive efficiency this season but is on pace to become the first team in more than five seasons to hold opponents to fewer than 0.90 points per possession. While the team’s proclivity for steals and John Brown’s role in those efforts has been key all season, there’s more to UNICS’s story than that.

The shot chart above reflects the shot attempts against the second- best defensive team since the EuroLeague moved to its modern format, which was the Olympiacos Piraeus team that as a 2016-17 finalist while allowing just 0.91 points per possession.

This shot chart is for UNICS’s defense this season. The differences between the two are apparent on first glance. Despite posting similarly impressive overall defensive efficiency numbers, Olympiacos did a dramatically better job protecting the rim and forced significantly more midrange shots while UNICS who has hung its defensive hat almost exclusively on the perimeter. The gaps in the shooting percentages that these two elite defenses allowed from key areas is a good example of the give and take of great defenses in the EuroLeague.

At many levels of basketball globally, a great defense can be absolutely stifling, giving opponents few quality looks from the inside and out. The EuroLeague evolved beyond that point a long time ago and the modern format made the average game even more competitive, basically eliminating opportunities for teams to pad their stats. It has been hard enough to slow down EuroLeague offenses at all in recent years, let alone tangibly disrupt their performance. As a result, great defense in the EuroLeague means finding ways to take more than you give.

The balance between those things can be more delicate for some teams than others. For example, teams with an elite shot blocker can have their wing defenders take bigger risks on the perimeter. Others, like Olympiacos back in 2016, have personnel to play great position defense in lieu of being aggressive. UNICS has been so effective this season by embracing the extremes of what can be taken away on the perimeter – a novel approach compared to nearly every elite EuroLeague defense of the last decade.

“UNICS still ranks as one of the most efficient defenses in modern EuroLeague history despite being one of its least effective this season at contesting shots around the rim.”

While some teams wrestle with the decision to emphasize either protecting the rim or staying at home to take away catch-and-shoot jump shots along the three-point line, UNICS has not been shy about its priorities. While its defenders may rank fifth in defensive field goal percentage and give up an occasional easy shot inside, they wreak havoc on the perimeter, pressuring the ball well beyond the three-point line, ruining passing angles, and flustering opposing shooters. So successful have those efforts been that UNICS still ranks as one of the most efficient defenses in modern EuroLeague history despite being one of its least effective this season at contesting shots around the rim.

Taking an unconventional route to defensive excellence has made UNICS a particularly difficult matchup this season, resulting in big victories against playoff teams, and has shaped John Brown’s rise as one of the best defenders in EuroLeague history. Only a few games away from eclipsing the EuroLeague’s all-time single-season steals record, Brown was a menace against FC Barcelona and epitomizes the havoc UNICS brings to opposing offenses. There have been no shortage of elite defenders in EuroLeague history, but Brown is something wholly different in a system that works in synergy with his strengths.

Looking ahead to Round 23

Currently clinging to the final playoff spot with 12 games remaining, Anadolu Efes Istanbul travels to take on Zenit St Petersburg in a game with clear implications for the middle of the standings. Sitting two victories behind the rest of the playoff field and sharing its 10 wins with AS Monaco, the defending EuroLeague champions have a lot to gain over the next month with all their games coming against teams in the thick of this season’s postseason push.

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