While Robert is pounding away at his keyboard working on his Signing Day post, I want to talk basketball. Specifically, this: we don’t have a point guard. I’m sure you’ve heard. That’s what our narrative as fans has come down to in Groce’s time as head coach. He has not been able to recruit the score first lead guard that should unlock the potential of his dream spread pick and roll offense. That player isn’t on the team now. That much is obvious. Much of the burden of orchestrating the offense has fallen to Malcolm Hill. To his credit, he’s done the job admirably as Tyler illustrated in his recent article.
What isn’t obvious is why we continue to play a nominal point guard at all times? Given the load Malcolm shoulders, would that roster spot be better served by a player that creates better harmony with him? I propose a thought experiment in which we do not play Jaylon Tate or Khalid Lewis for significant stretches. What would that team look like?
First we must ask ourselves “what functions or roles does a point guard fulfill?” A point guard traditionally does more or less the following:
– Advance the ball to the front court
– Initiate the offense
– Create good shots for teammates
– Create good shots for himself
– Take care of the ball
– Dictate the pace and tempo
That list is in no way exhaustive, but it fleshes out the broadstrokes tasks a point guard has been traditionally asked to fulfill on offense.
Now ask yourself, what would the offense look like if we couldn’t play Tate or Lewis? What do those two players provide in our current state that no other player can? We would struggle to bring the ball up the floor, particularly against defenses that like to set up pressure off of makes. Tate and Lewis are our two strongest ball handlers without much question. Would anything else suffer? I tend to think not.
Initiating the offense is a simple matter: pass to or execute a dribble handoff with Malcolm/Kendrick. The issue with Tate and Lewis is that once that action is complete they no longer threaten the defense. Stashing either player on the weak side of some action invites their defender to sink into the lane and crowd the spaces our scorers want to operate in. Aaron Jordan or Jalen Coleman Lands could just as easily execute the pass that gets us into our set and then become a much more menacing agent lurking in the weak side corner. They generate spacing as defenders can’t so easily abandon them, and if left alone they become an outlet that leads to a high value shot rather than a reset.
I don’t think I need to touch on Tate and Lewis’ inability to create their own offense. Tate has been openly passing up shots at the rim over the past few games. Lewis turned down a wide open three against Wisconsin. To Lewis’ credit, he made three or so strong runs to the rim in the second half, but he was unable to finish. Let’s put some numbers to this. In the 2015-2016 season, Tate and Lewis have made 16 and 25 field goals respectively. Leron Black has made 15.
In terms of setting up teammates, both Tate and Lewis have put up solid assist numbers. Malcolm leads the team in assist per game, but he logs significantly more minutes than either player. Malcolm gets his 3.18 assists over 35 minutes, while Tate gets 3 in 21 and Lewis chips in 2.7 in 21 minutes per game; however, a non-trivial number of those assists come from waiting at the top of the key while Kendrick Nunn skids around multiple screens for threes. Those are easily replicated by another player. The tougher set ups to replace come off the pick and roll. Mav, in particular, has benefited from Tate and Lewis’ ability to time passes and hit teammates in the shooting pocket.
I believe that in a vacuum Malcolm creates higher value on a pick and roll than Tate or Lewis. The question becomes, whether he can shoulder those extra plays given he’s already doing so much. It would be a serious burden. Can AJ, JCL, and Nunn take a few of those plays each? I tend to think so. I don’t love JCL’s handle, but he’s a threat to throw it in with even a whisker of space. AJ has had several nice takes at the rim this year, including a strong move against Wisconsin where he put his shoulder into Nigel Hayes. We’ve gotten away from the Nunn/Finke left wing pick and roll, which feels like it should be a staple. The turnovers on these plays would certainly go up. AJ and JCL are particularly prone to give aways. But would the additional scoring punch offset the occasional loss of possession? Given Tate and Lewis are near zero threats to score on those plays, I think it’s at worst a wash if you give all of their pick and roll action to one of AJ, JCL, or Nunn.
So where have I come out here? It seems to me that since Malcolm already shoulders so much of what we consider the traditional point guard role, there is little drop off in turning the remaining auxiliary duties over to our bevy of wings. In fact, I believe it would ease the burden on Malcolm by creating better spacing for the times he goes to work one on one. It’s the exact reason we had so much success getting to the rim against Purdue. The Boilers had their point guards glued to non-threats, and with Finke pulling Hammons 18 feet from the hoop no one could stop Hill and Nunn from romping to the bucket all night. That same effect can be created against savvier teams by placing an additional shooting threat on the floor rather than using a nominal “point guard” for the sake of time honored traditions.
Now all that said, I’m not in practices. Maybe Groce has tried this. It could be the case that what they saw was “wow we turn the ball over way too much without Tate or Lewis to take care of it for 8 -10 seconds every possession!” That’s a totally plausible scenario. Even if that’s the case, at this point in the season I would like to see it tried. My biggest personal struggle with Groce has been that he was touted as a “math guy.” I majored in Math at U of I. I analyze data for a living. I worship at the alter of Thomas Bayes. Groce’s strategies have been distinctly not math-y.
Numbers demand the strict pursuit of a polarized strategy on offense: shots at the rim or threes. The only reason to take any other shot is to create the illusion of the need to guard a place other than the rim or the arc. This illusion generates space for more shots at the rim or threes. We haven’t really moved in that direction at all. In our stagnant state against Wisconsin, JCL and Nunn piled up bricks from 15-18 feet. Then there’s the matter of lineup optimization. Groce’s deployment of a traditional point guard when it seems possible to better optimize the lineup without one leaves me scratching my head. If Malcolm does the majority of the point guard things and the rest can be done by committee then get another shooter out there.
In all honesty, I imagine shake ups to the norm like this do more harm than good. A strictly polarized offense or funky line up optimization probably leads to questions from your players or assistants. At the end of the day the players have to play. If you don’t have an aligned and motivated unit then strategy doesn’t really matter. You’ll never execute.
I guess what I’m really struggling for is something to keep this season interesting. Like Tyler said in his recent article, it’s hard to keep writing the same story about the awful defense or our disjointed offense. So please Coach Groce, give me 10 minutes of AJ, JCL, Nunn, Hill, and Finke. What’s the worst that could happen?