04 October, 2022
14 May, 2023
33 Ignacio Rosa (BILB), 9 Iñigo Betolaza (BILB), 11 Agustin Ubal (BILB), 19 Emir Sulejmanovic (BILB)
Diccon Lloyd-Smeath's Champions League Insider
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Tactics Board - Bilbao Onion Peel

MADRID (Spain) - Surne Bilbao have a chance to be really good on defense. Really, really good. Amongst the pre-season buzz and predictions in both the Basketball Champions League and the ACB, Jaume Ponsarnau's Bilbao were largely overlooked. That is almost certainly about to change. They started the ACB season 3-1, taking out Joventut and Valencia in the process, and have been arguably even more impressive on their way to 2-0 in the BCL. 

In his Seven Takeaways from Tuesday, Igor Curkovic wrote: "There are different kinds of defensive pressure in basketball, and for Surne Bilbao, it is not about forcing turnovers or getting steals to start this season. It's about contesting the shots and making life difficult for the opponent."

Then continued to back up that observation by quoting Bilbao's opponent shooting numbers from each of their wins so far in the BCL and ACB. Bilbao are holding teams to just 38 percent shooting overall in the BCL and 42 percent in the ACB. In the stingiest of those games, they only allowed Nymburk to shoot 48 percent from inside the arc and a meager 22 percent from deep. 

If we peel back another layer (yes, we really are going with an onion analogy for this whole column), we see that Ponsarnau's system has been particularly effective against spot-up situations (open shots or closeouts to attack with a drive). In the ACB teams have managed to create spot-up opportunities on 27 percent of their possessions and scored just 0.8 points per possession (per Synergy). That ranks them third so far. It's the same story in the BCL, where teams create spot-ups on just 24 percent of possessions, scoring at an anemic rate of 0.7 points per possession. Ponsarnau's Bilbao clearly does a great job of preventing jump shots and then contesting those shots when they do allow them. The question is, how?

Peeling the Onion

As a general rule of thumb, if you want to reduce the number of shots your opponent takes from behind the three-point line, you need to try and reduce the number of times you have two of your defenders on the ball at any one time. The equation is simple: two on the ball = rotations, and rotations = open shots. When it comes to pick-and-roll or off-ball screening actions, the simplest way to achieve this is to switch. Switching has certainly been part of the plan for Ponsarnau so far and more than one type of switching to boot. 

"Peel Switching" was a concept coined by Will Voigt (@CoachWillVoigt), currently of Zamalek SC in Egypt and formerly the Angolan and Nigerian National Teams. In the clip below we see Bilbao execute the "Peel Switch" against Bahcesehir (look for the red arrows). On the first screen, #12, Ludde Hakanson stunts at the ball but the defender recovers so there is no need to switch. Then as the ball reverses to the other side, we see #22, Xavi Rabaseda, and #5, Denzel Andersson switch the pick-and-roll. Then watch as Rabaseda fronts his man to prevent the triangle pass to him with a mismatch in the post. As Bahcesehir were unable to attack the interior matchup, they swing back to the perimeter mismatch. On the subsequent dribble drive is where we see the "Peel". Rabaseda switches back on to the ball and Andersson instantly peels off the back to stop the ball from going to the dunker spot. 

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Bilbao don't exclusively utilize this concept from pick-and-roll situations either. In the video below we see them use it twice on regular dribble-drive situations. In the second clip, Rabaseda even switches again to contest the shot after a pump fake sends the first defender flying. For Bahcesehir playing against this type of defense really must be like peeling an onion, as soon as you remove one layer, there is another identical one just waiting. 


The second type of switch we have seen in Ponsarnau's system is known as "Next" pick-and-roll defense. The clue is in the title for this one. Instead of switching a ball screen with the screener's defender, the defense sends the next perimeter player to switch and take the ball. If we think back to the first clip, where Ludde Hakanson stunted at the ball but returned to his man after the defender recovered, in this clip we see that #10 Francis Alonso gets caught by the screen and the ball is clearly a threat to get deeper than the Free Throw line. This time Hakanson executes the "Next" switch and Alonso is then able to recover over to his man in time to flush him off the three-point line before he can shoot.


The third and final type of switching we have seen from Bilbao is a "Triple Switch". When you have mobile bigs like Michale Kyser that can stay in front of most playmakers, you are left to prioritize the interior mismatch after switching. In this case, they solved that problem by communicating and performing another switch on the back side with a bigger defender. Watch #23, Michale Kyser, and Rabaseda switch the first action, notice how Rabaseda stays under Kyser's man as they switch to take away the roll, then turns to front so he can prevent the entry pass in the paint, before finally switching again with #19 Emir Sulejmanovic. 


Now, finally, when we said at the start of the article that Surne Bilbao have a chance to be really good on defense, it's not just about the system. As alluded to by mentioning Kyser's mobility when guarding playmakers, it's as much about the personnel and the way it fits this system as it is about the system itself. Xavi Rabaseda playing on the wing at 1.96m gives you all kinds of length, defensive IQ, and versatility. He wasn't the captain of the back-to-back champions, Burgos for no reason. It doesn't end there, Alex Reyes at 2.02m is even longer on the wing, then behind that, you have Andersson, Sulejmanovc, Kyser, and the seven-footer, Jeff Withey, who are all long and mobile at their position. Even the guards are far from pushovers. Just look at Hakanson fight to front and deny Boutseile in transition. He's giving up seven inches in height but nothing in effort and fight.


We have to keep saying that it's early days at this stage of the season and defensive systems like this require consistent communication and team chemistry that takes a while to fully develop. The good news for Bilbao and Ponsarnau is that this kind of system can also help to foster communication and team chemistry. Only time will tell how good this Bilbao team actually ends up on the defensive end but Jaume Ponsarnau and the front office in Bilbao have clearly put together a roster and designed a system that gives them a chance. 


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.