By: Chris Parsons
HALIFAX, NS–What is causing the Halifax Rainmen early season defensive woes?
When the Halifax Rainmen first announced that Josep Claros Canals would be coaching the team for the 2011-12 season, a big deal was made about his intensity and his commitment to defense.
All the standard cliches were trotted out: defense wins championships, turnovers generate points, controlling the pace is crucial and so on. So it is a bit of a surprise to see that the Rainmen are the second worst defensive team in the league, only edging out the cellar dwelling Moncton Miracles.
How bad is their defense? It’s pretty rough when you see it in person, and the fact that they just crawled up to .500 despite having an experienced front staff, a coach with international success and roster loaded with talent should be an indication that some thing is wrong.
The statistics really bring things into focus: they’ve given up 103.25 points per game through the first four matches (second worst in the league), their opponents hit 45% of their field goal attempts and an unbelievable 46.2% of their three point shot attempts.
How is it that a team that has publicly made such a big deal about defense managed to fail so miserably on the defensive end of the court? The easy answer is that they played their first two games against emerging NBL power house the London Lightning, a team led by minor league coaching veteran and former NBA all star Michael Ray Richardson which sports a roster loaded with minor league veterans and Taylor King, a former Duke and Villanova sharpshooter who is my pick to be the breakout star of the Canadian league this season.
Playing good opponents hasn’t helped, but even against the lowly Miracles the Rainmen gave up 95 points and let Moncton knock down 46% of their three point attempts.
I am willing to argue that there are four things that need to be understood in order to figure out why the Rainmen have struggled to stop other teams from hitting shots.
The first problem that the Rainmen face is something inherent in their defensive philosophy and which will never really change. Coach Pep is committed to playing full court man to man defense with occasional traps for the entire game.
Defending man to man for 94 feet after every basket will inevitably create fast paced, high scoring games and the decision to push the pace is a legitimate one, but the reality is that it is a high risk/high reward decision. When it goes well it has helped them generate more steals than any other team in the league, but it also has led to confusion when they fall back into their half court defense.
It also means that on most possessions they need to play both full court defense and half court defense – that’s two related but separate defensive systems that a team of players on one year contracts who had a short training camp have to learn with minimal in season practice time.
Defense is a lot less conducive to individual creativity than offense, and the realities of the minor leagues make it difficult to impart defensive principles in players.
The second problem they’ve been facing is related to their defensive philosophy broadly and a specific defensive decision in particular. Claros has the team switching on every ball screen in the half court. This means that the other team is easily able to generate mis-matches in the pick and roll game – and minor league teams love the pick and role since it requires relatively little time to teach compared to more complex systems.
The end result is that Halifax’s guards spend a lot of time in the paint trying to defend against big men posting them up. Other Rainmen players are forced to bring a double team to help if the ball goes into the post or the team scrambles to rotate back to their defensive assignments if the ball is swung cross court.
In either case the Rainmen’s opponents end up with wide open shooters camped out around the three point line. Without a better, or at least less predictable way of dealing with ball screens, Halifax will continue to watch opposing teams hit wide open three after wide open three.
The problem of rotations isn’t helped by the composition of Halifax’s roster. The Rainmen lack a shot blocking centre and while they are managing to block shots on paper they’re mostly a result of their long, athletic guards deflecting layup attempts off the dribble in transition.
In the half court, they are forced to collapse too often to defend penetration. Kuso and Crookshank are their only real big men with Justin Johnson and Shawn Hawkins (grandson of basketball legend Connie Hawkins) playing a lot of power forward despite it stretching their natural abilities and limiting their ability to play to their strengths. While the Rainmen haven’t been exploited inside yet, their ability to contain interior scorers and shore up the boards has come at the price of leaving shooters open on the outside.
The final issue for Halifax’s defense is actually a long standing problem that has haunted the franchise for years: the team’s front office staff are unwilling to just leave the roster be. The team has become the butt of many jokes for its constant turnover and the hype and disappoint that accompanies every new signing. Some of this season’s signings have been necessary and positive, like replacing the injured Christian Upshaw with Joey “King Handles” Haywood, but the constant roster moves have led to a situation where a number of key players skipped training camp and the first two games of the season. With the short season and the 32 game schedule, there simply is not enough practice time during the season to get players up to speed when they’re shifted in and out of the city on a weekly basis. The sad part is that it’s likely that we haven’t even seen the tip of the roster move iceberg.
Halifax has some exceptional perimeter defenders, guys like Hawkins, Johnson, Taliek Brown, Darren Dorsey and Joey Haywood that can lock down the perimeter, but until they fix some structural issues surrounding their roster composition and the way their defense is actually designed they will find themselves giving up wide open jump shots and scrambling to make unnecessary rotations for the rest of the season.