Continuity - a closer look at SIG Strasbourg
STRASBOURG (France) - SIG Strasbourg's season in the Basketball Champions League sits at a crossroads. This is the club that caused an upset by reaching the Final 8 last year. Then caused an even bigger upset by shocking Lenovo Tenerife to reach the Semi-Final. With many of the core members returning, the goal to start the season was to turn that shock into the norm. For DeAndre Lansdowne, the goal is to go even further again.
When the team started the season with two wins, it seemed everything was going perfectly to plan. Fast forward to today and back-to-back losses against Tofas Bursa have left head coach Lassi Tuovi and SIG Strasbourg in a precarious position in Group F. Whilst they are still in a good position to reach the Round of 16, it looks most likely they will need to get there via the Play-In. And to even be sure of reaching the Play-In, they may need to win both of their last two games.
If you always work more than the guy next to you, something good will happen.
As with all things, however, context is king. Reaching the Final 4 was the club’s best-ever season in the BCL and they did so in the first year of the rebuild after moving on from the Vincent Collet era. Collet, after all, is almost certainly the most successful coach in the club’s history and even in departing, Collet’s legacy continued when his protégé Lassi Tuovi took the reins. As soon as the young Fin took his seat at the end of the bench he brought in fresh wind and impetus - not only to the club but also the European basketball coaching scene. Whilst absolutely the master of his own work, Tuovi is still very quick to credit his mentor for his part in helping him develop. “For me, the relationship was special and the way he treated me and shared with me. This I have always said to anybody who asked that" he said.
Like all great mentors, the role extended even outside the borders of the club. “We didn't hide anything even when we played against each other in the opening game of the 2017 Eurobasket, we still shared things earlier, things about how to guard this and what to do in certain situations. It was really an honest situation and an opportunity to learn at all times,” said Tuovi, describing the experience of playing against France and Collet as an assistant coach with the Finnish National Team under another of his big influences, Henrik Dettmann. It was, ironically, Dettmann that brought Tuovi to Strasbourg in the first place and advised him to stay and learn under Collet. “Coach Dettmann pushed me to stay (in Strasbourg) and, kind of, didn’t even give me an option to leave. He said that ‘You need to take all the opportunities and learning possibilities here," Tuovi remembered.
Vincent Collet and Lassi Tuovi taking the timeout
Whilst it might sound strange to many of us to think of opposing team coaches discussing how to guard each other’s teams in specific situations, directly before competing against each other, this culture of honest, self-analysis was an important idea that Tuovi took from the Collet era into his own philosophy. More so than any set play or tactical scheme. “It's not the systems, it's not the tactics. It's more like how you build your philosophy. Maybe the most interesting thing I have learned (from Coach Collet) and what I will keep as a key point is that you know, I love to analyze my own offense and defense on how I would play against it,” stated Tuovi. Of course, most teams analyze their own performances but what Tuovi described here is akin to teaching players the best way to play against the team’s own system and how they can adjust to that: “The day before the games against an opponent, we played the game but from the perspective of ‘What if they are smart enough to do this?´ ‘How do we need to adapt?’ At the same time, you teach yourself and play the game against your own IQ.”
Whilst Tuovi is crediting his time with Collet for helping to build his philosophy, it’s clear that coaches don’t often reach this level so early in their careers and there must have been something different about this young Finnish coach that caught the eye of his early mentors. It’s clear that this analytical gene was already present from the start. Coaching was a case of love at first sight for 17-year-old Lassi Tuovi. “I was smart enough to realize when I was a player for Lappeenranta (Finland) that I was not very talented but I fell in love with the coaching side, the teaching side. I picked it up very quickly that I had talent, I had that 3D-thing that I could pick up the tactical side of the game very quickly,” he said. It was whilst watching endless hours of VHS tapes and learning how coaches built their offenses that the inspiration came for the system that we see on the floor with Strasbourg today. “I remember one key moment watching Khimik with Zvezdan Mitrovic when they played Lappeenrannan NMKY in the FIBA Eurocup Challenge and I could still draw their motion offense today. There were a lot of screens and so many nice continuations. I took it as a challenge to pick up and understand how to build this kind of system,” Tuovi said.
If we dive into Strasbourg film we see the particular relevance of that word 'continuation' in the way that they play. This first video is actually from the Semi-Final of last season’s Final 8 in Nizhny Novgorod but it is possibly the best representation we could look for in terms of “nice continuations”. The play enters with a pick-and-roll on the slot (lane line and above) and then flows into baseline screening actions and another wing pick-and-roll, finally continuing into a post-split for the cutter.
If we rewind back to Monaco in 2017, we can see Mitrovic was still running a system with noticeable similarities in the flow of actions. The entry pick-and-roll into the baseline staggered screens are more than an echo.
Fast forward back to this season and we see those same staggered screens again here in the next video. Only now, we also see the action starts from a screen away entry and involves an extra continuation into a middle pick-and-roll.
In both of the Strasbourg videos we reviewed so far, you will notice that the action is not the final generator of the shot. The set play only serves to create an opportunity for the players to read the situation and capitalize. In the first video, it was #23 Jean-Baptiste Maille that noticed his defender had looked away and made the cut to the basket. In the second video, it was #9 DeAndre Lansdowne reading the defense collapsing for the kick out and #11 Matt Mitchell seeing that his defender had been pulled away from him to hedge at an open Lansdowne, leaving him an advantage to attack 1v1.
Actually set plays and actions in nowadays, top-level basketball, they only give you advantages, not the best possible shot.
Next up we are looking at two clips of Strasbourg’s most simple but possibly most difficult to guard action; a step up ball screen in transition. Most teams run this as “Drag Screen” to the middle, the difference in angle does all the damage for Strasbourg. But above all notice that the read and type of shot created is very different in each clip.
These are all teachable moments in Tuovi’s system. “Actually set plays and actions in nowadays, top-level basketball, they only give you advantages, not the best possible shot. If you stand and watch the (defensive) rotations, many times you get a contested shot. To create open shots after those advantages you need to be able to move (continue) after those advantages but this is something that is difficult to teach,” he explained. In fact, according to Tuovi, as a coach you can’t really teach the ability to read and move, it’s more about guiding players to discover themselves. “It’s not even possible to teach it,” he continued “but you can put the players in those situations every day where they need to find a solution because in a game you can’t call it.” This style of guided discovery learning often referred to as “Athlete Centered” is something that Tuovi references back to his time learning under Henrik Dettman: “This is one of the many things I learned from coach Dettmann, that when you learn something for yourself it’s much stronger than when somebody tells you.”
What Tuovi is describing here is the job of teaching the game of basketball and will likely have coaches from youth levels all the way up to professionals nodding their heads. Most basketball people will be aware of some of the more common “Automatics” or reads that you will find in all levels of basketball, such as a back-door cut when your defender denies you the ball, as you see from #17 Jaromir Bohacik in the clip below.
Where pro teams differ, especially in this case for SIG Strasbourg, is that they will employ screening actions within their set of automatic rules. “whatever defense does, after that we must find the continuations, we keep on playing. Then you need to make the right choice, whether that is either flare screen or back-door cut or flash or, whatever,” Tuovi explained.
The clip below illustrates Tuovi's quote perfectly. Strasbourg were in early offense and as the ball swings across the floor the first time, no advantage was created and the defense was winning. Then, as Bohacik pulls the ball out again for another pick-and-roll, this triggered the flare screen for Lansdowne and they got a wide-open shot.
In this next video, we see another one of Tuovi's most effective sets. The play starts with a Horns set that flows into “Miami” action or a dribble handoff into a ball screen. We also see another trademark of this Strasbourg playing style in both clips; interior passing.
If we look at their play type data (per Synergy), we can see that 11.5 percent of Strasbourg’s scoring opportunities come in the form of “Cuts”. Only Holon and Oostende generate more scoring opportunities from interior passing.
The other area where Strasbourg have been very strong is out-of-bounds plays, especially baseline out-of-bounds plays. They score an excellent 1.3 points per play from the baseline, behind only Holon and Unicaja.
If we take a general look at efficiency data after four games, we can see that there is work to do if Strasbourg are to reach the levels that took them to the Final 4 last season, especially on the defensive end. They have an Offensive Rating of 109.7 per 100 possessions, putting them above average but they have struggled a little on the defensive end, allowing 111 points per 100.
For Tuovi this is a process and it’s about hard work. Whereas his players are direct about discussing targets for the season, Tuovi is more focused on the here and now. “As a young coach, the main thing is that whatever I ask the players to do, I need to be ready to do the same thing. I expect my players to work daily and if you always work more than the guy next to you, something good will happen.”
Up next for Tuovi and Strasbourg is newcomers Kalev/Cramo, followed by what promises to be an absolute thriller to finish the season against Filou Oostende. These two clubs have history for drama late in the Regular Season, there is every chance we are headed for more fireworks on the last Gameday before the Christmas break.