05 October, 2021
15 May, 2022
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Release the pressure - a closer look at MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg

MIES (Switzerland) – The last time MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg played in the 2018 Final Four, they had started the season in the Qualifying Rounds and were very much the underdog that very few had expected to make it that far. This time they have recorded season sweeps over previous champions Lenovo Tenerife, Turkish Giants Galatasaray, and last year's Final Eight'ers JDA Dijon.  And what's more, throughout the season, none of those results have felt anything but completely expected. If that doesn't speak volumes about the progress of this club in recent times, what does?  In fact, since the start of the Basketball Champions League, only Tenerife, San Pablo Burgos, and AEK have reached the Final Four more often than John Patrick's Ludwigsburg.

How They Play

John Patrick is notorious for his trigger-happy sub rotations and in reality, the starting five matters very little for Ludwigsburg. The three players we can confidently predict to start - and play big minutes - are Jordan Hulls, Jonah Radebaugh, and Justin Simon. Given the length and mobility of their opponent's center Ismael Bako, it wouldn't be a shock to see Ethan Happ's impressive performances in the Quarter-Finals earn him the start alongside Yorman Polas Bartolo in the frontcourt. 

No matter which five is on the floor, the brand of basketball doesn't change and it's as relentless as it is consistent. Put simply, there isn’t a more physical team in the world. They press full court like a pack of wolves, they crash the offensive glass like a Viking raid, in the half-court they are looking to trap and get in every passing lane they possibly can. Then, they want to push the ball up the floor as quickly as possible on offense and force the tempo for the entire 40 minutes.

This clip below is a great example of "The Ludwigsburg Experience". The play starts with Cluj Napoca inbounding the ball and Ludwigsburg's #5, Justin Simon with his back to the inbounder. The purpose of this is to prevent Cluj from catching the pass in the middle of the floor. If Ludwigsburg can force teams to either side of the floor, that's when they are able to set their traps. On this occasion, there is no trap but Simon ends up switching onto the ball-handler and uses his long arms to dispossess him and instantly throw the ball down. Highlights are more like normal lights when Justin Simon is around because he just does stuff like this so often. Not every play where they press full court ends up in a steal but the energy it takes to beat the pressure often ends up wearing teams down until they make mistakes of their own accord.


The pressure doesn't wait for teams to inbound the ball either. Where Ludwigsburg are really at their best is in the transitions between the phases of the game. The most visible example of that is the way they attack the offensive glass and apply pressure to teams, even whilst the shot is still in the air. Unlike a lot of teams, Ludwigsburg don't wait to play defense, they play offense when they are on defense and attack you before the defensive possession even begins. It's counterintuitive for a team that plays so much small-ball to be the best offensive rebounding team in the BCL but that is what they do.

Watch the clip below and notice that they often only need to hunt in packs of two or three but they always react first to the shot going up and like to position themselves behind a defensive player, almost pushing them closer to the rim. This allows them to get a better read on the flight of the ball and get an arm out to tap the ball to a teammate or catch it cleanly. The last rebound in this video by Jordan Hulls was monumental in the context of the game and at the same time entirely typical of the relentless way this team plays. 



Five Out

Out of all four teams traveling to Bilbao, John Patrick's squad are almost certainly the hardest team to prepare for, and not just because of the pressure defense and offensive rebounding. On the offensive end, they play a lot of five-out basketball and for the most part, they are playing off reads as much as they are relying on sets to get them good shots. The best way to understand this is to look at their empty corner "Drag" screen action in transition. 

Watch the clip below and notice that #24, Ethan Happ sets the ball screen but he's not rolling to the rim. Instead, he's staying high on the perimeter so that the action on the other side of the floor has a completely unprotected area under the basket if they are able to crack the shell of the defense. As it happens, in this clip they do crack the shell with a pass to the short-roll. Happ's positioning at the top of the key means his defender has to take several steps to help so he has an open road in front of him to cut to the basket. Aside from Happ's position, none of this is scripted by the set play, it's all about players making reads.

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One of the more common reads we will likely see from Ludwigsburg - in this set and almost all of their offensive actions - is the cut from the weakside corner. One important thing about five-out spacing is that it means both corners are filled by the offensive team. This also results in the defensive help always coming from the lowest defender on the weakside. Ludwigsburg may not be stacked with shooters that can knock down that shot at a high clip but what they do have is guys like Justin Simon, Yorman Polas Bartolo, and Tremell Darden that will cut hard from the corner and if they have space to get up to full speed, there is nothing that the defense can really do to stop them.


The clip below is a very clear example of what "The Ludwigsburg Experience" does to teams. We start the clip with John Patrick calling the play holding his thumb up. Cluj Napoca could have done all the advanced scouting in the world to know what that call means but it wouldn't change the outcome. Pay attention to #13 Polas Bartolo who is playing the stretch four role at the top of the key. His defender is Dustin Hogue who is instinctively in the paint to be ready for the pick-and-roll.

Hogue loses focus for a split-second and that means Polas Bartolo is wide open and another Cluj defender needs to rotate off Jonah Radebaugh. Radebaugh makes the read to cut to the basket and they get an easy score. Not only is this action also not scripted but the loss of focus from Dustin Hogue is a clear example of the physical and attrition it takes to play against Ludwigsburg. Hogue played excellent defense all season but with the small ball, five out, constant pressure defense, and crashing the glass, there is little doubt that Ludwigsburg's style takes its toll the most on the opposition's frontcourt. 


Ethan Happ is proving to be a real asset for Ludwigsburg when they want to play five out. His size means that they don't give up much defensively to teams that want to use bigger lineups and his combination of skill and decision-making mean he can both score as well as create for them. The fact that Happ is averaging over 2 assists is just as impactful as his 10 points and 6.4 rebounds. Wolfarth-Botterman or Wobo to his friends (and everyone else reading the back of his shirt) is also able to fulfill the same role, almost acting as the bridge player between four and five out basketball but he's much more likely to be a screener and finisher than a creator.



Four Out

In this next clip, we see that Ludwigsburg are also able to employ their frontcourt as traditional bigs. This time Happ is screening and actually rolling to the rim to look for deep positions to seal his defender. You will probably notice that it's the same cut again from the corner by #21 Darden. 


The "Horns" set in the clips below is probably Ludwigsburg's most common halfcourt play. Certainly if they are using 4 out spacing alignments. Also, we really just wanted an excuse to show you how tough it is to guard Jonah Radebaugh. In the first clip, he starts as the primary ball-handler and forces a switch against Dustin Hogue. Hogue actually played great defense but it didn't matter. In the second clip, he's starting the play off the ball and doesn't need a defensive switch to go and get a bucket. 



Data Story

Ludwigsburg have the best defense in the entire league, conceding just 99 points per 100 possessions  (the only team in the league to give up less than 100). They also not only have the highest Steal Percentage at the Final Four with 11.4 - meaning that they record a steal on 11.4 percent of their opponent’s possessions - but they also have the lowest opposition Steal Percentage at 7.8 percent. This translates to 14.6 second-chance points scored and just 9.5 points conceded, which are both also league-leading stats.

They pull down 28.6 percent of the offensive rebounds available from their own misses, which is the best percentage amongst Final Four teams and they also score more points in the paint than any team in Bilbao with 34.2. If that wasn’t a complete enough picture of their physical dominance, they block a shot on ten percent of their opponents’ possessions, also top-ranked at the Final Four. This squad literally dominates every statistical category related to physicality.

When we consider that their opponents BAXI Manresa have the second-best Defensive Rating in the BCL and also love to force a high tempo, it really does make for an eye-watering encounter. 

The chart above shows you the data story of Ludwigsburg's season so far. You have four tabs to explore; Efficiency Ratings, Shooting, Possession, and Pace. You can see that each column corresponds to a Gameday from the season and colored lines represent the relative stat they recorded for that game. You can also filter by home or road games and wins or losses. Whilst the axes and labels are left blank to avoid cluttering the visual, you can hover over each point on the chart to see the labels. 

You can adjust the filters and switch tabs to analyze the data for yourselves but we picked out some filter settings that might give us some insights in the charts below. The first thing that really stands out is how much of an outlier Game 3 of the Quarter-Finals was for Ludwigsburg in terms of getting to the free throw line. Free Throw Ratio is calculated by dividing total field goal attempts by total free throw attempts. In the chart below we have selected the "Shooting" tab and we can see that in the decisive game of the Quarter-Finals, Ludwigsburg recorded a free throw attempt for 38 percent of their field goal attempts. If that doesn't sound like a team that knows how to find ways to win, then what does?

In this next chart we are looking at the "Pace" chart. Black bars relate to games with less possessions and yellow to high possession games. We can clearly see that since the start of the Round of 16, Ludwigsburg have been more consistent in terms of maintaining a higher possession count in games but also that their road loss to Holon was their lowest number of possessions all season. 

Season Story

The season started with three wins on the bounce against Dinamo Sassari, Prometey, and Tenerife. Jonah Radebaugh introduced himself to the European stage with 24 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists against Sassari on Gameday 1. There was also 2 steals in that individual box score and a strong hint towards the coming arrival of one of the most remarkable two-way guards to enter the scene in some time. If the first game was about introducing Jonah Radebaugh to the BCL, then the Prometey game was all about illustrating exactly how well Justin Simon fits in the John Patrick system. He recorded 18 points, 12 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. This kind of complete box score contribution would continue for the rest of the season. Their first loss didn’t come until the road game in Sardegna against Sassari but they bounced straight back with a dominant 83-99 win over Tenerife, in the Santiago Martin. Radebaugh was impressive again with 20 points but seven players scored double-digits in the game and youngster Jacob Patrick also put up an impressive 13 points. 

The Round of 16 started in equally dominant fashion with a 22-point win over JDA Dijon. Justin Simon’s 22 point and 12 rebound double-double stood out as they forced their opponents to make 19 turnovers and had their best shooting night of the season with 55 percent from three and 50.8 percent overall. As dominant as they looked against Dijon, the opposite couldn’t have been further from the truth in the next game against Holon, as they only scored 51 points, their lowest of the season. They bounced back with two wins on the bounce against Dijon and Galatasaray. Radebaugh again displayed his multi-faceted way of impacting the game as a guard with 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists against Galatasaray. After losing to Holon again, qualification to the Quarter-Finals had gone from being a formality, to very much in doubt. Ludwigsburg responded with one of their best defensive performances of the season, holding the free-scoring Galatasary to just 58 points. They again forced 19 turnovers and Justin Simon put up a huge double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds. 

The Quarter-Finals against U-BT Cluj was the only series that went to 3 games and was packed with drama. Their Romanian opponents were enjoying the best European season of any Romanian club, possibly ever. Packed houses of more than 10,000 fans awaited Ludwigsburg on both occasions they visited Cluj, as they needed to win on the road twice to make it to Bilbao. It required the full depth of this Ludwigsburg squad to get through the series as they got big contributions from Ethan Happ - who proved to be a huge matchup problem for Cluj - and in the decider, Jordan Hulls had his best game of the season with 21 points and several huge hustle plays.

Game 1 of the series was a close 76-73 win for Cluj but the tide turned completely in Game 2. John Patrick’s squad picked up a 92-75 win, riding huge performances from Simon, Radebaugh, Polas Bartolo, and Happ. Whenever this team has needed a result to release the pressure, they have responded by turning up the heat on their own pressure defense. Game 2 was no different as they forced 21 Cluj turnovers. If that wasn’t enough, they then forced 25 turnovers in the decisive game 3 and picked up a 73-79 win, on the road, in the most emotional of environments. If there were any doubters left before that game, there can be nobody that still has question marks about this team’s threat at the Final Four.

Up Next

BAXI Manresa, Friday May 6, 21:00 (GMT+2). This is the battle of the two most rapid and aggressive teams in the BCL this season. The last time Ludwigsburg came to the Final Four, they traveled to Athens rocked by injuries and struggling with recent fixture schedules in the German BBL. This time they have no games on the schedule after the first of May and will make the two-hour flight to Bilbao fresh and rested. Manresa will also have had a solid rest in the lead-up to the game and the journey to Bilbao will have been even shorter. These two teams play the most physical basketball in the BCL and will both be at full tilt. 


Diccon Lloyd-Smeath

Diccon Lloyd-Smeath

Diccon is a basketball coach and analyst living in Madrid. Constantly digging in the crates of box scores and clicking through hours of game footage. Diccon is on the hunt for the stories within the stories. If you like to get a closer look at what’s going in the Basketball Champions League, you have found it.