The Defense, For A Given Definition Of The Term
Slicing through M's defense with little resistance. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
Do you have a stick? Throw it. Congratuations, you have hit a horrifying Michigan defensive stat.
The Wolverines may have pulled out a victory against a Nebraska team playing without its only viable post player, but they didn't do it by solving any of their problems on defense; the Huskers scored 1.21 points per possession, a hair below the average performance against M's defense in conference play. Michigan is now 185th in adjusted defensive efficiency; their worst finish under John Beilein was 120th in his first year in Ann Arbor.
Through five conference games, Michigan has the worst Big Ten defense by 8.9 points per 100 possessions; B1G opponents are making 52.7% of their twos and 55.3%(!!!) of their threes—and they're rebounding 34.7% of their misses. Michigan is great at not fouling and above-average at stealing the ball; they're somewhere between below-average and terrible at everything else.
Dylan has a post today that goes into further, gruesome detail on Michigan's defense, with one area of focus being the collapse of their pick-and-roll defense:
Michigan’s pick-and-roll defense has completely fallen apart. In the last six games, the Wolverines have allowed .986 points per possession (including pass outs) in the pick-and-roll game. Compared to seasonal numbers across Division I, that would rank 336th nationally.
Only the first half of the Nebraska game is available on the YouTubes, which is probably for the best. This actually came out better than I expected and it's still far from good:
The issue, as Dylan mentions in his post, doesn't appear to be the scheme; no matter how Michigan approaching defending the high screen—usually either with a soft hedge or ICE technique—they're allowing baskets because of individual player breakdowns. Passes into the post, like in the first play, are too easy to make. Blown rotations, like in the second, lead to wide open three-point attempts. Michigan commits the cardinal sin of allowing the P&R ballhandler to split the hedge at the 0:34 mark, something that occurred at least once more in the second half.
They did a little better towards the end of the half, as you can see in the video, but I also forgot to include this abomination:
It was more of the same in the second half. There are two common threads: Michigan has zero rim protection, which allows opponents to attack without fear, and their help/rotation off the ball is awful. I grew up on the suffocating team defense of the mid-aughts Pistons. This is the opposite of that. The problems are so widespread that it's impossible to suggest one or two solutions that could turn things around.
[After THE JUMP: That said...]
HOWEVER, Rim Protection
The problem. [Campredon]
It should be astonishing that a team starting an athletic 6'11" center and even-more-athletic 6'10" power forward is so bad at blocking shots—260th nationally in block rate, 12th in Big Ten play—but that's been Michigan's M.O. under Beilein, who values foul avoidance over rim protection.
I believe this prioritization, more than anything else, is why Beilein's defenses have never been very good. Looking at the NBA, there may not be any correlation between foul rate and adjusted defensive efficiency; on the other hand, there's a much stronger correlation between block rate and adjusted defensive efficiency:
There's probably no surprise that blocks positively affect team defenses. There's a clear linear trend in the graph, and the R² value is high enough that we can be alright with assuming correlation. The data says that, for every block, the team saves about 1.37 points per 100 possessions.
However, this might be underselling the effect of blocks on a team defense. Since we’re looking at such a large sample size – really, it includes every defensive possession of the last 10 years – it doesn’t account for type of defensive possession. For example, a team’s point guard throwing a bad pass that leads to a wide-open dunk is still a defensive possession, but it’s not in the half-court setting and doesn’t really tell us much about blocks, since there was no opportunity for one.
Even still, for there to be a discernible trend even in the midst of the noise, further solidifies the importance of blocks and rim protection to good defenses. Speaking of noise, a statistic like blocks doesn’t measure rim protection perfectly. Roy Hibbert alters shots and deters penetration without racking up blocks like, say, Serge Ibaka does. Both are effective, but the former’s doesn’t necessarily always show up in the box scores.
This blind spot in Beilein's approach to defense manifests in a couple ways. He hasn't prioritized shot-blocking in recruiting, looking more for offensive skill. He coaches his players to avoid fouls, which leads to them contesting fewer shots. He's a strong proponent of taking charges, which does the same. Perhaps most frustratingly, he doesn't seem to take rim protection into account when doling out minutes.
Here are two more horrifying stats, courtesy of hoop-math. Michigan allows the second-highest shooting percentage at the rim (73.5%) of any team in the country; not coincidentally, they block the second-lowest rate of shots at the rim at a mere 3.2%. The national medians for those figures are 59.1% and 10.4%, respectively. Those numbers somehow look even worse in the context of Michigan's style of play, which is to avoid crashing the offensive glass at nearly any cost (dead last in B1G in OR%) in order to prevent easy transition opportunities, which they also do effectively by being one of the best teams in the country at not turning the ball over.
In other words, a Michigan team set up to prevent easy layups in transition is instead giving up easy layups in halfcourt. Their ability to avoid committing fouls isn't a positive in this context; there's little reason for opponents not to attack the basket time and again, because the most threatening thing they may face is a defender squaring up to take a charge.
The solution? [Bryan Fuller]
While this is a difficult issue to fix during the course of the season, there's at least one obvious patch worth trying. In 275 minutes this season, Mark Donnal has three blocks, equal to the output of Duncan Robinson. In 40 minutes this season, behemoth seven-foot freshman Jon Teske has four blocks.
While Teske probably has a ways to go on offense, Donnal hasn't been much of a factor on that end of the floor despite his impressive efficiency. Donnal used 19.3% of the team's possessions when on the court last year with a 19.4% share of shots; those numbers have plummeted to 16.1% and 13.8%, respectively, this season, and they're down to 15.0% and 9.1% in Big Ten play. When Donnal isn't getting putbacks, he isn't doing much of anything; M's guards aren't even looking for him off the high screen at this juncture, even as Moe Wagner's usage skyrockets.
Donnal has no confidence going up at the rim. He has seven offensive rebounds in Big Ten play and six two-point attempts; if it's not an open putback, he's not taking it. His near-nonexistent 2.0 assist rate means his kickouts aren't leading to immediate buckets, either. Even if Teske isn't totally comfortable in the system, he should be functional enough in the offense to be worth putting out there given the alternative.
It took a long time for Beilein to realize that Moe Wagner, now the focal point of his team, needed to start over Donnal, let alone get the lion's share of the minutes. As the season progresses, it's getting harder to believe he's not making the same mistake with Teske. Teske may be an unknown, but at least he's a seven-foot unknown with an excellent reputation as a shot-blocker out of high school. It's time to see if he can live up to that billing against Big Ten competition, even if he takes some lumps along the way.