Breaking the Mold - Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem's record breaking offense
MADRID (Spain) - With the Basketball Champions League season on a temporary pause, we may not see this Hapoel Jerusalem team return to the ruthless form they exhibited before the stop. Everyone bar their opponents in the September Final 8 will certainly be hoping they can pick things up where they left off.
However, there is no avoiding the fact that the team will unlikely be exactly the same - even if an identical roster returns, the chemistry, and rhythm they had built through a season of shared experiences will be challenging to reboot.
“It’s one of the most creative offensive systems I have ever seen.”
The one thing that we can certainly expect to see from any Hapoel Jerusalem team coached by Oded Kattash, is one of the more unique and lethal offensive systems in European basketball. The NBA is often referred to as the copycat league but in truth, basketball across the world has always been susceptible to following the latest trend. The best coaches and players all study each other and borrow the best bits. The very best coaches and players are also brave enough to completely buck the trend.
In a basketball eco-system obsessed with finding the quickest way to create an advantage in every possession, pace and space offenses built around four, sometimes five perimeter-oriented players, have become the mold from which the majority of teams are cast.
Over the past two seasons in the BCL, we have seen Oded Kattash cut his own mold and find a different groove to implement a version of pace and space unique to Jerusalem. Sometimes you have to go a few steps back if you want to go any further forward - the way Hapoel Jerusalem play basketball is very much a modern system, only with loud echoes of the not-too-distant past.
We will get to the way that Kattash and Jerusalem play but it would be remiss to not discuss the outcomes first - in particular, the record-breaking season they put together offensively. If you explore the data viz below (you can hover your mouse on a desktop or touch a club logo on a mobile device) what you can see is that the Hapoel Jerusalem club logo is in the top right corner. This essentially means that they not only recorded the best Offensive Rating (ORtg) of any team this season, they are also the joint best team (with Turk Telekom) for Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%). For the first time in four BCL seasons, we have a team that is the most efficient shooting team in the league, and also the most efficient offensive team overall! Their respective numbers of 120.2 (ORtg) and 58.5% (eFG%) are both BCL records, beating EWE Baskets Oldenburg (118.3 ORtg) and Pinar Karsiyaka (57.6% eFG%), coincidentally both from the 2017/18 season.
The records don't end there either. If we dive a little deeper into the separate phases of the game and different play types (per Synergy), we a see a very familiar pattern: BCL records with Hapoel Jerusalem written next to them. Oded Kattash's squad have the best ever half-court offense (1.04 points per play), the best ever pick-and-roll offense (1.09 points per play), and the best ever late-clock offense (1.15 points per play).
Instead of me trying to explain what makes Coach Kattash's system so different and fascinating, I reached out to Liam Flynn to try and get a description from as close to the horse's mouth as possible. Liam has been an Assistant Coach at Jerusalem this season, watching Kattash teach the system and reinforcing the style of play through individual film study with the players (he is also an outstanding follow on socials @coachliamflynn).
"Coach Kattash’s offensive system is one of the most unique and efficient styles of play in world basketball. Using three out two In spacing when the rest of the world is going to more four out and five out? Most people would think it’s a traditional post-up heavy system. But we actually have no traditional post-ups in the system - it’s mostly PNR play. And both the bigs and the guards are playmakers in the system. Honestly, It’s one of the most creative offensive systems I have ever seen. And even though we play two bigs inside there is still space created for driving, cutting and rolling lanes." - Liam Flynn.
So, to unpack what Liam has said there we will need some game film. The first place to start is transition. Jerusalem may be the best half-court offensive team in the BCL but that actually starts with the pressure they put on defenses in transition. Every team in the world will look to run the fastbreak after an opponent's miss. In Kattash's system, the bigs are all mobile and are asked to rim-sprint on every possession - make or miss. Watch #17 Suleiman Braimoh react first and beat everyone down the floor. Jerusalem get several of these easy looks every game.
The next step of the development in this system is the way the wings sprint to fill both corners and the second big trails down the middle of the floor. Watch #35 TaShawn Thomas pull the rebound and then trail Braimoh before making the drive and dish to his front-court partner. This clip also starts to explain what Liam meant when he described the bigs as playmakers.
The discipline and consistency that Jerusalem players run their lanes results in pressure on defenders to communicate and often causes mistakes. Mistakes that are regularly capitalized on in Jerusalem's early-offense. Probably the most common early-offense action in basketball is the "Drag Screen". The Drag Screen is also the perfect game-situation to highlight the contrast in the way Coach Kattash's system operates vs the norm. A typical Drag Screen in the modern pace and space style looks like the picture below - five out into four out as the screener rolls to the rim.
Hapoel Jerusalem are one of the few teams in the world that will run a Drag with a post player already in situ after rim-running. The difference is that the post player will lift as the screener rolls. Watch the clip below and notice the challenges this causes the defense as #49 Kupsas lifts, forcing his defender to choose between staying with him or helping on the roller. In this example, the defender stays, this forces Diawara (#35 blue) to leave the corner and help.
Jerusalem will unerringly punish this by finding an open shooter. When that shooter is John Holland (55.6% 3P) or James Feldeine (45.5% 3P) it's almost as bad as giving up a shot at the rim. Also, notice the elite timing of the pass from J'Covan Brown 👀.
When they run that same Drag action with the ball-side corner empty, the decision for the defense becomes even more difficult.
The answer that many teams have tried to use is dropping the screener's defender into the paint on pick-and-rolls - allowing the action to be defended 2v2 with no perimeter help. This may seem an especially good idea as none of Jerusalem's centers are high-level shooters. The system has always had answers for that too.
Watch the clip below and notice the defenders dropping as the screen happens. Jerusalem hit the roller on a "Short-Roll" at the FT line. The big (#20 Zalmanson in this case) can now dribble into a "Free Hit" handoff for a Feldeine to do what he does.
The way this team cuts straight to the most difficult decisions for the defense is a bit like the basketball equivalent of drinking concentrate without adding the water to make squash - no-frills, no fluff, just pure basketball. Even when they do run their more elaborate and creative half-court actions the two post players are still integral to everything
I won't go through the entire playbook but hopefully, if we just look at some of the "Horns" series we can show some more of the ways that this system creates space whilst maintaining two post players. The first play to look at is "Horns Rip" (a "RIP" screen is a back screen, usually from a perimeter player for a post player). The main tenet of the play is freeing up one post player to receive a pass on the perimeter and make the next decision on how the play progresses. In this case, they set the RIP screen for the other post player with a shooter. I should also stress that "Horns RIP" is not what Jerusalem call this play. In fact, there is no call for this particular RIP screen action, it is a read based on #14 Feldeine curling over the screen from #17 Braimoh.
What you can also see in that video is another trait of Kattash's system: FLOW. According to another assistant coach at Jerusalem, Yonatan Alon, the flow of non-stop actions is the most important element of Coach Kattash's system. In the first two clips, notice how they mirror and swap the movement of the wing players. When players understand the reads they are likely to see and flow from option to option until they get an advantage, those are the hallmarks of a well-coached team.
The other high-volume action out of their Horns series is "Horns Ram"(again, not the actual name Jerusalem use). This time they use one post player to screen for the other before setting the pick-and-roll. Again, the primary functionality of the play is built around drawing the best help defenders out of the paint and blurring the rotations for the perimeter defenders.
If we look at another two clips of Jerusalem running this action against San Pablo Burgos, we can also highlight two more important features of the way this team has utilized their post players. In the first example below, watch #17 Braimoh first nail the RAM screen, then, instead of clearing the paint, this time he takes his defender into the paint and seals him off from helping on Feldeine's drive.
Then in this next clip, Burgos play great defense and first deny the entry pass to Braimoh, then deny the next pass to #6 Tamir Blatt. In both cases, Jerusalem flows straight into the counter. It really doesn't matter what side of the floor they run actions, everyone knows their job and what comes next.
From structure comes freedom.
“A big part of our offensive system is to learn how to be great in your role”
When you have a group of people that all understand what direction they are pulling and each one understands each other's roles as well as their own, it also brings about freedom from experimentation. Watch the next video and notice that TaShawn Thomas playing the center position is now the receiver of the ball screen in an inverted pick-and-roll.
Then in this clip, Jerusalem are back in their 3-Out offense but this time using a lineup with three bigs; TaShawn Thomas as the center, with Suleiman Braimoh, and Nimrod Levi as two stretch-forwards. The idea in this play was to cause matchup problems vs AEK's switching zone defense. The outcome was AEK's center (#44 Marcus Slaughter) chasing out to closeout on Levi, thus removing AEK's best rim protector.
The system works because the players perform, the players perform because the system works.
Yonatan Alon is another Assistant Coach at Hapoel Jerusalem. From working in Kattash's system for the past two seasons he has seen the way players develop within it.
"When we choose players we focus on how they developed so far in their career. We sign only guys that we are sure can make big progress with us. As an organization, we demand ourselves to get better every day. A big part of our offensive system is to learn how to be great in your role, therefore, most of our individual workout is breaking down situations from the game and emphasizing the details that the players should be focused on. Sometimes it means new habits for the players and that’s why it shows more with players that are here for the second season." - Yonatan Alon.
TaShawn Thomas may be the most improved player in European basketball. In the two seasons in Israel, he has developed into a player that can guard all five positions and contributes in a myriad of ways on the offensive end - playing the 4 or the 5. The modern big needs to be able to rim run, set screens and roll to the rim for lobs. These are bread and butter for Thomas, but his decision making and elite-level passing from the short roll give him the royal flush as a pick-and-roll big. When you add that all together and then consider this is a player that can also do this 👇👇...
J'Covan Brown, Tamir Blatt, and James Feldeine also returned from last season and have all dramatically improved their games within the Jerusalem system. Brown is known as a combo guard but the way he orchestrated the offense this season it's hard to argue that he is now a true Point Guard within it. Feldeine is another player that grows within every season under Coach Kattash - especially as a playmaker. Feldeine is almost certainly the most deadly shooter in the BCL but when you consider that he ranks #1 in the BCL for pick-and-rolls including passes (per Synergy:1.33PPP) amongst players with more than 50 possessions, it's clear to see his development as a playmaker.
Finally, Tamir Blatt is maturing with every game. From winning the Best Young Player award last season, this son of a famous coach is building his own name as a second coach on the floor. When Blatt makes the final play after a timeout, Jerusalem shoot 55.6%. Whatever Coach Kattash needs, Blatt has been able to get it done all season.
The likes of Suleiman Braimoh, John Holland, and Shelvin Mack have all found their feet seamlessly as well. Between Feldeine, Thomas, Brown, Braimoh, Holland, and Mack Coach Kattash had six players all averaging over 11 PPG when the season shut down. And that is before they fully integrated Emanuel Terry into the rotation.
Having just watched the movie Moneyball to fill a couple of quarantine hours, I have been stuck on the Billy Beane quote "If you lose the last game of the season, nobody gives a shit."
In a way, Hapoel Jerusalem already did win the last game of their season and this team certainly needs to be celebrated for the way they have played thus far but regardless of that, they still need to win three more for it to really matter. To do that, they will need to get the Kattash offensive system purring again, and quickly in September.
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