Avid basketball fans know both the lure and pause that statistics present. How easy it is to quantify a facet of the game with a number, while that same digit can be misleading in its assumptions. That’s why we watch the games, to see for ourselves and make our own deductions about players and teams, turning later to statistics to answer further questions or support our own theories.
In the case of the Erie Bayhawks, the numbers prove to be somewhat contradictory. At 6-5 and resting just outside the playoff picture through 11 games, the team ranks at the upper end of the spectrum in both offensive and defensive efficiency. How is it a team that rates so highly in the two facets necessary to win a game is hovering near a .500 winning percentage? There are several answers: a case of not producing at both ends simultaneously would lead to a couple of losses, and then there is the statistical outlier, a 120-71 win over Maine that certainly skews the data to a degree with a sample size of barely 20% of the schedule. Watch enough of Erie’s games however and the date starts to sort itself out into stats that provide an accurate depiction of the team and those that will start to tail off as the season progresses.
Case and point, Erie’s highly rated offense isn’t going to continue producing over 100 points per game as it has been. The team plays at too slow of a pace, it isn’t going to continue hitting 50% of its shot attempts and even though the offense is balanced, there are no elite scorers on the roster to take over games. But this isn’t about the Bayhawks ability to put to put the ball in the basket, it’s their ability to keep the other team from doing so and this is where the numbers get it right.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, Erie is allowing .847 points per possession the best mark in the D-League. What really surprises though is that the Bayhawks aren’t excelling in just one particular facet while seeing a drop-off elsewhere, but rather holding teams in check everywhere. Not only does Erie have the lowest overall PPP in the D-League, the team is also giving up the fewest points per possession in transition and half court sets – now that’s good defense. But how is the team doing it, what makes the Bayhawks so tough defensively? How have they managed to hold opponents under 100 points in 7 of their 11 games?
Erie sports one of the smaller frontcourts in the D-League, with just two players listed taller than 6-7, those being starter Ivan Johnson and little used Kyle Goldcamp. Soloman Alabi did spend seven games with the team, yes, but the Bayhawks have proven to be just as tough defensively without his presence in the middle. Back to the original point though. While many would view such an undersized lineup as a negative when it comes to preventing baskets, Erie uses it as an advantage, utilizing versatility, length in its perimeter players and a collection of smart defenders to make life difficult on a nightly basis for opposing teams.
It’s really a telling sign that the only situation where Erie has done poorly on defense is in isolation situations, where the team ranks 14 out of 16 in defensive efficiency. When taken as individuals, the Bayhawks aren’t a collection of outstanding one-on-one defenders. Guard Tasheed Carr is arguably the only player who has been with the team the majority of the season who was a notable defender at the college level and even then he struggled with foul trouble at times. As a collective unit though, Erie features a lot of interchangeable, athletic parts that can cover ground and guard multiple positions.
Let’s start in the half court set where Erie allows just over .8 points per possession according to Synergy. The team plays man-to-man about 95% of the time, but it isn’t uncommon to see players switching coverage multiple times on a given possession. The presence of players like Tasmin Mitchell, Ivan Johnson and Christian Eyenga allow the Bayhawks to play this brand of defense. Mitchell, at 6-7 has pretty good size for a perimeter defender and though he isn’t a superior athlete, has the toughness and smarts to cover both frontcourt and backcourt players effectively. Eyenga and Johnson are simply good athletes who have bought into the system in Erie. The presence of a big man like Johnson who can close out on jump shooters without getting burned off the dribble consistently is invaluable. The Bayhawks rarely get hurt in drive and kick scenarios because of the versatility of their defenders and how quickly this allows the team to recover from an unbalanced court. As a result, Erie opponents are shooting just 31% in spot-up situations and only 35% on all jumper attempts. This works both on two-point and three-point tries, as opponents shoot just 29% from beyond the arc and 38% on shots between 17-feet and the arc.
This ability to recover quickly allows the Bayhawks to attack the ball handler with more bodies, often doubling and forcing turnovers. On the season, Erie is forcing over 20 turnovers per game against their opponents and that is due in large part to the manner in which the defense collapses when the ball gets into the paint. Typically Erie perimeter defenders don’t venture beyond the three-point line very often, the mark of a disciplined team. This keeps the guards closer to the lane, allowing them to trap the basketball as soon as it gets to the foul line, something the team does often. Unlike many teams who simply show a trap or double though, the Bayhawk defenders come hard to the basketball and with active hands, resulting in poor passes or steals. This practice of coming hard at the ball handler extends to the pick and roll also, a play the Bayhawks defend well, ranking 6th in the D-League in defensive efficiency here. Players like Johnson and Mitchell are athletic for their size and know how to play the angles well enough to give their teammate the necessary time to recover, or simply to step out and cover the ball handler themselves. The added pressure that these versatile forwards can apply as opposed to a half-hearted hedge, makes life difficult for opposing teams, as seen by the fact that opposing teams turn the ball over nearly 20% of the time when running the pick and roll against Erie.
Really, a tremendous amount of credit needs to go to the coaching staff here as Erie to this point has been a very smart, very alert defensive team. Rarely are they burnt on the weak side and their help defense has been excellent thus far – you can see that in the nearly 3 charges per game the team is averaging. However, like any team, the Bayhawks do have their weaknesses.
In Friday’s 104-103 loss at Iowa, the Energy laid out a blueprint for picking apart the Erie defense, though not every team has the requisite parts to pull it off. The key though was isolating in the post and making snap decisions when doing so. As previously mentioned the Bayhawks struggle defensively in iso situations which makes sense given the team doesn’t feature a lot of elite one-on-one defenders. Erie does an excellent job defending the post though, ranking second in the D-League allowing just .707 points per possession on post-up possessions according to Synergy Sports. So how was Iowa able to break the defense working the ball inside?
Since Erie doesn’t have much along the lines of size in the frontcourt, especially with the absence of Soloman Alabi now, the team doubles post entries more than most. Ivan Johnson is a good athlete, but he has never been confused with an elite interior defender. Iowa ate Erie up inside because the Energy didn’t allow the Bayhawks to double the post, either by isolating players to such an extreme degree that to double would mean a wide open perimeter shooter, or by simply making a move before the defense had time to react. In the contest, Iowa had a total of 18 post-up possessions according to Synergy and 18 isolation possessions, a good deal of which bordered on post-ups. All told, Erie had a grand total of two “hard” doubles in the game, meaning they full on trapped the basketball as opposed to just rotating another defender over. For a team that thrives on applying pressure and forcing turnovers, should it come as any surprise that Iowa was able to squeak out a win given the effective nature in which they attacked the defense? Of course not every team has the luxury of having Courtney Sims on the block either.
It’s very likely that Erie could spend the remainder of the season hovering around the .500 mark as it is right now. Given how well the defense has looked both on the court and when crunching the numbers, it’s safe bet that offense, or lack thereof, will be the culprit if the team doesn’t crack the playoffs this year, not the other end of the floor.