05 October, 2021
15 May, 2022
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Tofas and its shape-shifter defense

The growth of the Basketball Champions League saw a rise in media coverage in all of Europe. This week, we hand the floor over to Kemal Rutkay Ozcan from TrendBasket, who will give us his insights on Tofas Bursa.

ISTANBUL (Turkey) - "We want to create a team that not only gains something from defense but also creates advantages in the open court, shares, and is out there to cover one another's shortcomings. This already is there at a certain level. It's not like it was awful before, these exist at a certain level. We are among the 3-4 teams that allow the most points, we'd like to lower that with defense. We have the roster to do so."

Tofas head coach Ahmet Caki made this statement in one BCL podcast episode he joined, shortly after taking over at Bursa. Throughout our conversation, he had emphasized the importance of defense and toughness. As far as I followed, he has many post-game quotes in that direction. The team from Bursa made it to the BCL Quarter-Finals while continuing its quest for a playoff berth in the Turkish League. Underneath Tofas' acceleration in the BCL campaign, which wasn't too bad under the former head coach Hakan Demir after the coaching change, lies the realization of the quote above.

Per Viziball data, Tofas has allowed 106,9 points per 100 possession in the BCL between October 4 and January 1. From January 1, though, this number dipped to 101,5 points per 100 possession. Therefore, Tofas has become one of the four most efficient defenses in 2022, despite ranking 18th during the previous period.

The first and foremost reason for this is the shape-shifting nature of the Tofas defense. As stated by Nenad Markovic, the head coach of JDA Dijon, which left the tournament after the Top 16 phase, in another episode of BCL Podcast, it's hard for teams to move forward in European competitions with only one defensive scheme. And here lies the success of Tofas. Applying different defensive strategies very smoothly reduced the defensive efficiency by 5 points since January, when the whole team got accustomed to each other.

For instance, they drop against Ismael Bako; they hedge against Luke Maye; they switch when the ballhandler goes up top. And they do all these in the span of one defensive possession. We see them generally stay on the court with sizeable lineups. This allows them to cover miles in a second when needed. And sometimes, it allows for them to remain narrow to create a traffic jam in the paint.

And the interesting thing is that there are no fancy zone schemes here. Nor do we see shiny defensive trickery that can endorse a coach at Tofas. It's all about solid pre-game preparation and players who individually defend well.

Stars within their roles

My greatest luck here is that the staff both knows the team inside out and supports me, whereas the players are well-mannered, positive people. They tried to adapt swiftly to what was said and what we’d like to do. When you take over a team midseason, it would be a wrong decision to change 100% everything. You’d better adapt at 50-60% and try to change the rest slowly.

One of the main notes emphasized by Çaki in our conversation was the personnel put together by Tofas before he arrived. Everybody who has worked on a giant project or a small office knows that being harmonious and the star within your role are two keys to success. And we're at the section of the article where I praise some of the players individually. Do not worry, I won't be too long.

Jeremy Simmons, who is in his second season with the club, became the cornerstone of the defense, thanks to his skills to carry out all the ways in the book to defend the pick-and-roll. Having joined the team as a tough-as-nails rebound machine, Simmons became a defender polished enough to take on BCL's most dangerous bigs and guards one-on-one. He transformed himself as Chris Singleton did with Anadolu Efes.

Elgin Cook, who was struggling at the beginning of the season, found his role over time and became the star within the glue-guy role. Already one of the top guards in Turkey, Berk Ugurlu found himself at Tofas as a pesky defender pressuring both the ball and the off-ball man, combining it with improved decision-making on the offense.

In the bench unit, Muhsin "Turkish Steven Adams" Yasar, son of a carpenter from Yalova, uses his brute strength and improved basketball IQ to give wing to his team in the second quarter. Yigit Arslan, another name mentioned repeatedly during the interview by coach Çaki, improved his toughness and concentration on the defensive end this season.

I know I left out a Mexican and a tall dude from Croatia, but their job is mostly on the other side of the court.

Gotta give the coach props. He was righteous not to try to put his signature to a team he took over midseason. In addition, I appreciate him for playing pragmatic basketball based on the roster he has without showing off his tactical skills. Also, in this post-Moneyball era that pervades every sport, teams are now gaining a competitive advantage with success in player development. And Ahmet Çaki was successful in the development of his players like Cook, Yigit, and Muhsin in his limited time at Tofas.

Right in the nail

We have high expectations of Yigit in terms of defense and toughness. If a player is to join the team, he must be a player who will give the toughness we cannot get from Kasey and Pako or toughness close to Elgin. However, I believe that you first have to maximize the efficiency of your players.

Tyler Ennis is the crankshaft of 2022 Tofas that I liken to the title-winning Toronto team due to everyone on both teams playing their fair part on the defensive end. Having been signed on January 10 as the defensive guard Çaki spoke of, Ennis is a perfect match with the positive, well-mannered player pool of Tofas, above all. I can confirm this based on my personal interactions with him. Besides, Ennis puts many things on the court that his team is looking for.

To begin with, he turned out to be the answer Çaki is looking for in a defensive, combative guard. Even though his athleticism diminished upon injuries, he's still pretty good at ball pressure and chasing off-ball guys. His motor is exquisite, as evidenced by the extra tick he puts on his performance in the fourth quarter of the games. However, the meatier part of his contribution comes from a surprise area.

Tyler Ennis is Tofas' most influential player in 2022, per Viziball data. He averaged 7 fourth-quarter points per game in his last five BCL games. An impressive stat in Europe. Caught the eyes with his slashing ability, the Canadian has made 4.5 field goals per game from inside the arc with a 65,9% accuracy.

At the same time, he's one of the BCL players who draw more fouls than most. He's eleventh in the whole competition in free throws (3.7) per game; he's among top-30 in free throw rate (FTA/FGA: %42.9). With 86.4% accuracy from the line, Ennis functions as the locksmith for Tofas with his efficiency in one-point and two-point attempts.

All these combine to have the team that scored more points of turnovers and allows fewer field goals than any other team in the BCL. I don't know if all these are enough to win at least once in Tenerife. But I do know that anywhere is a battlefield for the Bursa boys. And only a few Europeans get the memo.

Kemal Rutkay Ozcan