Unexpected it may be, but low-post play has been a differentiator for two of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague's top teams here in the early going of the regular season.
Zalgiris Kaunas welcomed Valencia Basket to Zalgirio Arena in a matchup of teams with two of the best four point differentials heading into Round 5. While Zalgiris has been able to attribute much of its early success to execution late in the shot clock, Valencia has found great balance playing a somewhat unique style. Spacing the floor at a high level, moving the ball well out of the pick-and-roll, and scoring opportunistically inside, Valencia does many things common among elite offensive teams. Nonetheless, an ability to play through the low post has set this team apart. Valencia generated 15 points from shot attempts or passes out of the low post, just below its season average, in last week's 94-82 victory over Zalgiris.
Production in the post
While 15 points may not seem like a particularly significant number, it is exactly twice the league average. Being able to run a successful offense through the low block is a luxury at this point. Post usage has been in decline for over a decade as team's have looked for more efficient options offensively. The average post-up has been worth only 0.85 points per possession this season while opportunities created by passes out of the post have been converted for a relatively efficient 1.06 points per possession. With only a quarter of all post-up-derived possessions resulting in kick-outs, few teams are able to play out of the post effectively enough to approach the EuroLeague gold standard of 1.00 points per possession and therefore warrant working the ball to the block regularly.
That is why Valencia and FC Barcelona have presented such a unique challenge for opposing defenses. As the list above suggests, they sit well ahead of the pack in points per game created though the post. What's more, they have both scored over 1.05 points per post possession, too.
Barcelona has been able to lean heavily on Nikola Mirotic and Brandon Davies to play inside-out. Mirotic and Davies rank first and second in individual post-up scoring as they put significant pressure on opposing big men inside – Mirotic with his shot-making and Davies with his ability to create contact. The way they have moved the ball out of double teams has led to some of the best looks Barcelona's shooters have gotten to date.
Valencia presents different issues for opposing defenses as Derrick Williams, Nikola Kalinic and Bojan Dubljevic have each found success scoring one-on-one. Kalinic, in particular, has presented a significant matchup problem for opposing wing players. Possessing a size advantage against most players at the small forward position, Kalinic has done a great job making the most of the opportunities Valencia's sets create for him to exploit his size.
The fall of post play in recent years leaves team like Valencia and Barcelona as glaring outliers not just for the frequency with which they throw the ball inside, but the efficiency with which they score on those opportunities, as well. As it stands, their combination of volume and consistency would rank prominently among post attacks over the last decade, making it worth monitoring whether they can continue punishing teams from the block as the year wears on.
Looking Ahead to Round 6
Pace is tricky statistic as a couple extra steals or defensive mistakes here and there can swing the statistic one way or the other – especially in leagues without many major outliers. In recent years, the fastest and slowest EuroLeague teams have been separated by just 8 possessions per game. That is what could make Zenit St Petersburg's potential matchup with Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in Round 6 interesting on paper. Panathinaikos leads the EuroLeague with a blistering 86 possessions per game while Zenit used a league-low 73.5 per game in two victories before its Round 3 and 4 games were postponed. It will be interesting to see which side can control the tempo in one of the more polarizing matchups by that standard in recent history.