Arriving - a closer look at S.L. Benfica
LISBON (Portugal) - Developing markets in basketball. Whenever the topic arises of which market European basketball needs to develop most, without fail the first names you will hear are Paris, France, or London, England. Often followed by a list of the bigger cities on the continent. And of course, that's all true, the growth of the game in those places would undoubtedly be good for the sport. However, one country and market that perhaps gets forgotten - even neglected - is Portugal and to be more specific, in this case, S.L. Benfica. The overarching sports club has over 250,000 members and an estimated 14 million fans worldwide. If that isn't a market with the potential to develop the sport on this continent, then what is?
Like the football club, Benfica basketball club is historically the most successful in Portugal. They have 82 domestic titles (leagues, cups, super cups) and are, of course, the current Portuguese champions. They were also the home for Portugal's first-ever player to be drafted, Neemias Queta. Without a doubt, the club's golden years were in the 80's and 90's, when they won 10 national titles and competed regularly in the European Champions Cup, recording victories against heavyweights like Panathinaikos, Real Madrid, and Partizan. It could be argued that a name with the sporting pedigree of Benfica belongs in a list like that but in the recent past the basketball club hasn't been able to put together a team that could do it. It was only the 2019/20 season that saw Benfica come up just short in the BCL Qualifiers. If the start of the 2022/23 season is anything to go by, maybe just maybe that type of team is finally arriving in Lisbon.
Including this year's BCL Qualifying Rounds, Benfica started the season with eight wins and zero losses across all competitions. It all began with a very comfortable 92-67 win over Golden Eagle YLLI. Jose Barbosa put up 15 points on 71 percent shooting and Terrell Carter's 15 points and 5 rebounds also let everyone know what kind of problems he was going to pose for defenses. Next up was Keravnos from Cyprus, a team that knows what it takes to get to the Regular Season. Keravnos certainly provided a stiffer test but ultimately the result was never really in doubt. From the second quarter onwards Benfica had the lead for 23 minutes and won every statistical category. Most of the damage was done by Ivan Almeida's 20 points and 36 points from the bench.
The final boss of the QR's that needed to be defeated was Brose Bamberg and as far as the BCL Qualifiers go, the Germans are exactly the level of club that would have been expected to make it through to the big league. Benfica and Ivan Almeida, however, had other ideas. The Cape Verdean put up an absurd 39 points and pulled eight rebounds as Benfica stormed into the Regular Season on the back of a shock 87-73 win.
Ivan Almeida was monstrous in the QR Final against Brose Bamberg.
The Regular Season has seen the entire roster take it up a notch. The opener against VEF Riga saw five players record double-digit scoring; Toney Douglas (17), Ivan Almeida (16), Aaron Broussard (15), Betinho Gomes (12), and Maik Zirbes (10). The combined effort saw them score 89 points on the road, shooting 52 percent overall but perhaps most tellingly 41 percent from deep (more on this later). Also of note was the 44 points they scored in the paint. In fact, all of their made baskets came in the paint or outside the 3-point line. A final score of 76-89 in favor of the Portuguese was a more than accurate reflection of a performance that was completely dominant and also one in which Benfica held the lead for the entire fourth quarter.
The road win in Limoges that followed was a stark contrast. Norberto Alves' squad had to scrape and scrap for everything. Again, they had four players in double figures; Broussard (17), Gomes (15), Almeida (12), and Terrell Carter (10). They also shot the ball very well from deep again at 39 percent on 13 made 3-pointers, but perhaps the perfect representation of the win was that Toney Douglas made only one shot in the game (from eight attempts) but that one shot was the game-winner. This team can be slick at times but they are also showing that when they really need it, they have the grit as well.
It really is way too early to garner much from the data on the season so far. We aren't even at the stage where every team has played twice but...Well, actually there isn't a but. We just want to point out that Benfica are shooting 40 percent from deep on over 30 attempts across those two games in the Regular Season and they shot the ball just as well in the QR's. This is clearly a team that can fill it up. Their Net Rating of 10.9 points per 100 possessions ranks them only below BAXI Manresa and Galatasaray Nef amongst teams that have played twice.
How They Play
As good as Benfica have been on the offensive end, it would be amiss if we didn't start looking at the way they play on the defensive end. This team leads the league in steals, with an outrageous 13.5 steals per game so far. This average will almost certainly come down as the season progresses - only Monaco in 2017/18 averaged over 10 steals across a full season - but regardless it makes sense to start with what has been working to generate so many steals for Norberto Alves and the team (hint, the Cape Verdean connection of Almeida and Gomes are two major reasons).
On almost every defensive possession you will see Benfica pick the ball up no later than half-court. This team is long, fleet-footed, and full of players that want to get in passing lanes. Every time down the floor they want to prevent the ball-handler from crossing half-court without at least forcing a half turn. Once they have the player turned, they are great at shrinking the middle of the floor and then reading the eyes to see where the obvious pass is. At times, especially when Ivan Almeida is involved, they only need one defender to cause serious problems for the offense.
This is also a sneaky press team in the full-court. They don't press often but when they do the minimum outcome they achieve is disruption and time off the shot clock. In the clip below, we see them press, trap, and then once Limoges escape, there are only 10 seconds left on the clock by the time they can organize an offense. Then watch how #96, Ivan Almeida peels off his man when he gets beaten off the dribble and instantly reads that the pass is going to where the help defender came from. From there he has the length and quickness to actually get there in time to make the steal. Betinho Gomes, the other Cape Verdean on the roster, also plays in the Forward spots and is equally adept at this same knack. Between them, they have averaged nine of those 13.5 steals so far.
On the offensive end, Benfica are predominately a half-court team. Per Synergy, 88 percent of their possessions are used in the half-court. However, that isn't to say this is a walk down and pound it in the post, team. Far from it. Zirbes and Carter play around 20 minutes each at the Center position and then Makram Ben Romdhane is the closest to a traditional Power Forward but even then, he's versatile enough to step out and play on the perimeter.
This team does use the post but primarily to create. In his 12.7 minutes on the floor, Romdhane is producing 2.5 assists (which is high). Almost all of them from passes in the post or on the interior. Pretty much every team uses the post for inside to outside passes, especially to shooters. Interior passing requires a bit more chemistry and timing. The fact that Benfica are already regularly finding each other on the interior at this early stage of the season, is a great sign for Norberto Alves.
As we said, this is far from a slow team. This is much more a team that wants to spread the floor and get into their offense as early as possible. Easily their most effective action so far this season has been a simple "Drag Screen" (pick-and-roll in transition) with an empty corner on the ball side. This allows them to twist the angle of the screen and put their creators like Toney Douglas and Aaron Broussard in a position to attack the defense before it can set.
This next "Horns" set gives us a pretty decent window into how this team operates when they can't attack teams in early offense or semi-transition. Watch how #32, Carter slips the screen and sprints to the front of the rim. Now we have Carter deep in the paint and four perimeter players around him, with both corners filled. #1, Broussard's defender is forced to bump down to prevent an easy high-low pass to Carter, so Broussard lifts to make the pass shorter and the recovery closeout longer.
We see more of the same with this "Diamond" set in the next clip. This time #33, Zirbes is the screener and the pass goes to the weak side as he sucks the defense to him on the roll. The pass is off the mark so there is no open shot. No problem for Benfica, they get straight into another spread pick-and-roll. #23, Douglas reads the defense and finds Zirbes with the pocket pass.
This final clip is some of their best execution this season. When Douglas catches the ball on the wing, instead of setting the screen on the ball, Carter screens Broussard's defender who had pinched in. This creates the driving lane for Broussard which collapses the defense. Almeida drives and finds Gomes relocating to the opposite corner. This is exactly the type of play that illustrates how this team generates so many high-percentage looks from behind the arc.
BAXI Manresa is up next for Benfica and what could be their real "Welcome to the Basketball Champions League" moment. The ACB team was a finalist last season and whilst no game is easy at this level - especially not road trips to Latvia and France - this is a team that unquestionably presents their toughest challenge yet. In terms of playing style, there are more than a few similarities. Like Benfica, Manresa are going to try and get into early offense whenever possible and space teams out with relentless, spread pick-and-roll. Pedro Martinez's squad is also very active in passing lanes on the defensive end and have averaged 10 steals themselves so far. Where the Spaniards may have the edge is how often they have been able to generate offense in full transition. Not least because of how often and effectively they have used their full-court press this season. Tip-Off is 18:30 CET in the Pavilhao Fidelidade on the 25th of October. This will also be the first opportunity for those Benfica fans to show that they can create a great European basketball atmosphere as well.
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