The Big Bucket - a quicker look at U-BT Cluj Napoca
CLUJ-NAPOCA (Romania) - It’s time we started talking about U-BT Cluj Napoca. The Romanian champs are at the top of their group and look set to make a big impact in the Play-Offs. That isn’t a sentence that any of our website editors have ever written in the Basketball Champions League before but here we are. Not only do they sit at the top of their group but they fully deserve it. Mihal Silvasan’s squad plays some of the craftiest basketball you will see anywhere in Europe and despite possibly having the lowest budget in their group, this is a team that plays precisely to their strengths and over-deliver every week.
If you took a preliminary scan through the box score and advanced stats, you could be forgiven for wondering how they are getting the results that they are. They aren’t top ten in the BCL for Points Per Game (PPG) - in fact, Holon are in their group and sit on top of the entire league for PPG. They aren’t in the top ten for opponent PPG scored either but Darussafaka are - who are also in their group. In fact, they aren’t in the top ten for FG%, eFG%, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, or really any of the key stats that should indicate one of the BCL’s best teams. They are, however, absolutely elite in one area….Buckets. More specifically, getting buckets, at the bucket.
Hopefully, the data viz above tells you most of the story without us having to say much more but to clarify what you are looking at, the more points a team has scored at the rim (not including post-ups) the bigger their bucket needs to be to contain them all. Then, the higher the percentage that they shoot at the bucket, the darker the green color gets on their bucket. The y-axis tells us how often a team attempts to score at the rim (not including post-ups) and the x-axis is showing us how often they score from those attempts. The final point to clarify is that we haven’t included points from post-ups because we are exclusively looking at the ability to generate easy buckets at the rim, and, in this case, the wonderful team-basketball that U-BT Cluj Napoca play in order to create those easy looks.
Before we jump into the video, let’s quickly summarize the data in that viz for Cluj. They have the biggest bucket because they have scored 167 points at the rim already (the next team after them is Kalev/Cramo at 141). They also have the darkest green bucket thanks to shooting 70.4 percent around the rim. They don’t make the most attempts at the bucket or create offense at the rim on the highest percentage of the time (that’s Falco) but they are in the perfect sweet spot for volume and efficiency when it comes to scoring around the rim.
Mihai Silvasan and Patrick Richard, clicking.
Jumping straight into the game tape, we start with the simplest action that Silvasan and Cluj run. What we see in the video below is a “Ram Screen” or a screen for the ball-screener. They almost exclusively run this for #13 Andrija Stipanovic to set the ball-screen. The idea of the ram screen is that Stipanovic’s defender is slightly late to defend the ball-screen and Stipanovic is able to arrive alone and separate for the early pass. The next point is the spacing with both corners filled. Cluj will always be looking for Stipanovic on the short-roll, which means that the next big defending at the rim needs to step up to help. This leaves #14 Bircevic open under the rim for our first example of an easy bucket at the rim.
Of course, it’s not always that simple. In the next video, we see the same action but the ram screen wasn’t as effective and Stipanovic couldn’t arrive alone. That, in turn, means that he wasn’t open for the short-roll pass. As the play continues, we the ball reverse to the other side and more good defense from Holon when they stayed connected on the hand-off. The play looked dead but what we see after is the mastery of Andrija Stipanovic. Watch how quickly he released from the final ball-screen to create separation for the passing angle. Then we see the heads-up pass to a cutting #35, Patrick Richard. A perfect example of the way Cluj dissect teams, even when they play good defense.
The next play is one of the smartest sets we have seen from any team this season. We also see the same early release and release angle from Stipanovic but we need to pay attention to what happens before that. Notice that Patrick Richard is setting an inverted ball-screen for Bircevic (guard to big-man screen). This means that his defender is forced to hedge the ball screen and Richard is then open on the flare screen from Stipanovic. The net result was that Stipanovic’s defender also had to help on the flare screen and the big Bosnian was able to do what he does best.
Almost certainly Mihai Salvasan’s most efficient and highest volume set plays are from his “Horns” package. The option below is "Horns Down" with a very simple “Rip Screen” (back screen) for Bircevic. You see two different clips with two different coverages. The first is a switch on the rip screen and we see why they have #22 Dustin Hogue making the pass. At 6’6” (1.98m) he was able to see over the top and comfortably make the pass where the switching defender couldn’t reach it. In the second clip, we see what happens when the defense can’t switch. Watch the fake to receive the pass from Bircevic before the rip screen. These are the details that make this team so hard to guard.
Now we are looking at Horns Down and the “Flex” option. They are using the flex action to get into a jump shot or pick-and-roll with a wing player like #30 Elijah Stewart or Patrick Richard. Pay attention to the timing of the cut from Bircevic for the dump-off pass in the second clip.
This entire squad is elite at timing cuts off the ball. The chemistry between the cutter and passer is so good.
With this being a quicker look at the way Cluj play, we undoubtedly missed so much of the other ways that this squad is clicking together. Patrick Richard and Adrija Stipanovic may be the guys putting together MVP caliber seasons so far but Cluj have five players averaging double-digit scoring with Stipanovic, Richard, Hogue, Stewart, and Brandon Brown all getting it done. They are also amongst the league’s best teams for Out-of-Bounds plays, especially from the baseline. Watch the timing of every action in the clip below, all the way to the final curl cut after the slipped screen.
U-BT Cluj Napoca may not have been the biggest name club coming into the season and we may not have picked the Romanian club to shine from a group with teams from Turkey, Italy, and Israel but this is what the BCL is all about. We have seen on countless occasions an underdog team come from the Qualifiers and challenge the big guns. In the case of our current champs Hereda San Pablo Burgos, we have seen them ride all the way from the Qualifiers to the confetti.
Cluj have done what they can to put themselves in a position to be the next club to achieve that feat and if they are to do it, it will no doubt be thanks to their ability to generate so many easy looks at the bucket.