20 October, 2020
09 May, 2021
3 Isaiah Pineiro (RIGA)
18/12/2020
Long Read
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In Tune - a closer look at VEF Riga

RIGA (Latvia) - When Group E drew VEF Riga against Peristeri, Rytas Vilnius, and SIG Strasbourg, very few neutral observers would have expected the Latvians to progress from Regular Season. Yet here we are at the halfway point in the group with coach Gailitis squad second in the group and holding a joint-best (2-1) record with group leaders SIG Strasbourg.

What’s more, they have achieved this playing some of the most eye-catching basketball in the league this season. Let’s take a closer look at how they have done it, with some help from head coach Janis Gailitis.

Stats

On a surface scan of the advanced stats, VEF Riga are just about league-average or better on offense and defense. For Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating, the average is 112.8 points per 100 possessions*. Riga have scored at 113 points per 100 and conceded only 110.7 per 100 possessions. The area for concern for the Latvians statistically has been looking after the ball. They turn the ball over on a league-worst 20.8 per cent of their possessions. They have, however, made up for that with the way they have shot the ball so far. With an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 59.5%, they rank eighth in the Basketball Champions League.

*Use the team filter in the viz to select VEF Riga and League Average if needed.

If we take a slightly deeper dive, we see that coach Gailitis squad are in this position because they have excelled in some key areas. They rank ninth for transition offense, scoring 1.3 points per play (per Synergy) and lead the league in points per play from put-backs (1.67) and points from cutters (1.79).

Style of Play

Coach Gailitis spoke about what makes his squad such a threat in transition.

He said, "Honestly, this is about the blend of skills and traits in players we have. Many guys know how to handle, and pass, and also how to do it at a good speed. Combine that with the understanding that passing is the fastest way and playing together is much easier and brings joy."

One of the players that best personifies those words is Isaiah Pineiro. The Puerto Rican generally starts at the Small Forward position, but at 6’7” (2.07m) he gives coach Gailitis the option of playing both forward positions with the ability to bring that blend of skills and traits that enable uptempo basketball.

In the video below you see Pineiro playing the Power Forward in smaller lineups. The first clip he made a play on the defensive end to block a shot at the end of the shot-clock, then took the ball coast to coast with the kind of aggression, tempo, and skillset that Rytas weren’t able to handle defensively. The second clip he pulled the rebound and instantly looked to push again without having to find a guard. This enabled Skele (another excellent transition player) to get out and sprint the wing for an easy two - passing is the fastest way...


Finally, we see Pineiro at the Power Forward again in this clip against Peristeri and we can see how he personifies VEF Riga's desire to play fast. At the time of the Peristeri turnover, Pineiro was the lowest defender on the baseline. By the time the pass was made, there were three Riga players ahead of the entire Peristeri team. 


Pineiro is far from the only forward making the most of life in coach Gailitis' system. Both Alexander Madsen and Michale Kyser are regularly on the receiving end of well-timed passes for easy finishes. If you play one of the post positions in this offense, you must know that if you cut to the basket good things will happen for you. Whilst none of the Riga forwards are the type of stretch-bigs that we often see in BCL teams, coach Gailitis spoke about how they have learned to stretch the floor by cutting to the basket against defenders stepping off them to defend the paint.

"I think Madsen and Pineiro are players you would not like to leave open without reason. Of course, they must also learn how to play off the ball. They have to cut, screen and attack close-outs in different ways. We play with 5’s who cut to stretch the court." said Gailitis

The two clips in the video below are excellent illustrations of what he is talking about. The two plays are almost identical with Kyser in the ball screen action and the two other forwards spaced in the corners. In both plays, Pineiro and Madsen respectively read that their defenders have been sucked in to defend the short-roll and made the dive to the basket. The pass from Kyser in the second clip is out of his hands almost as soon as he touches it. This kind of instinctive pass without having to look is a clear sign of a well-coached team that knows what they are doing. 


Without question, the creator in chief for the VEF Riga bigs is Kyle Allman. Michale Kyser has been box office, finishing lobs and dunking everything that comes his way but it's clear to see how much easier his life is made by Allman - eleven of Kyser’s seventeen made field goals so far, have come from an Allman assist. The former Cal State Fullerton guard is so explosive off the dribble and the relationship between the two is so intuitive. Anytime Allman creates advantage off the dribble, he knows exactly where his partner will be.


It would be amiss to discuss VEF Riga’s style of play and not talk directly about coach Gailitis and how well this team is executing his ideas from the tactics board. Riga are sixth in the BCL for scoring after a timeout and right from the very first play of the season Gailitis put the league on notice for his intentions with this squad.

The play in the clip below was as creative as it was direct. You don’t often see a double, angle pick-and-roll but the key here was the timing of the second screen from Pineiro. Just as Zorik’s defender got back in position after going under the first screen, Pineiro arrived late to screen him again. The outcome was that the defender was forced under for the second time, only this time with Zoriks in shooting range. If we didn’t know then about Zoriks shooting ability off the dribble, we do now.


Then against Peristeri Gailitis called the same play with an even more creative twist. Watch how they put Allman as the second ball screen, then Kyser sets the back screen for Allman to cut backdoor. The clearout from the weakside corner removed any kind of help in the paint and left Riga with an open layup. 

 

Key Players

The starting five have been the same in both of the games that VEF Riga have won; Kyle Allman, Kristers Zoriks, Isaiah Pineiro, Michale Kyser, and Alexander Madsen. That five-man unit consists of the only players averaging over 25 minutes per game. After that Artis Ate, Aigars Skele, and Marcis Vitols are the only other men playing more than 10 minutes per game.

This isn’t a roster that boasts the depth to match the BCL's biggest clubs but they have found a way to maximise the quality they do have. We asked coach Gailitis about his young backcourt of Allman and Zoriks. 

"Kristers is a guy every coach would love, he understands what and when you want and is capable of executing. We also need to notice that this is his first year as a pro." He said

In fact, Zor