Michigan’s defensive struggles have been obvious over the last month, and especially in the last two games. Heading into a stretch of schedule that will pit them against some of the best offensives in the country, the Wolverines need to figure out a way to make improvements on that side of the ball – quickly. (Photo: Scott Mapes)
Evaluating defense can be difficult because there are only so many metrics available. Team defense can generally be analyzed by the same statistics as offense, but tracking defense at an individual level is extremely difficult. The only standard statistics kept are blocks, steals and rebounds, which obviously aren’t enough to make a complete judgment of a players’ defensive effort.
There are some methods available – including defensive score sheets and Synergy Sports statistics – which can get us closer. After the jump we look at two different sets of individual defensive stats and take a closer look at one team-level issue hurting the Wolverine defense.
Synergy Spots Statistics
I posted individual defensive numbers from Synergy Sports in mid-December and have updated numbers to pass along. Synergy Sports logs and categorizes every play and assigns the blame or credit to a given player. The resulting numbers tell us how many possessions a player has defended and how many points have been allowed, providing a points per possession defended figure. (Disclaimer: These numbers are from before the Penn State game.)
Robinson grades out as Michigan’s best defender by a wide margin according to these stats. Stauskas, Irvin and Albrecht were all better on defense in the last month. Of that group, Irvin’s performance looks most promising. LeVert’s team-leading usage rate is a sign that opponents continue to attack him, and are still being fairly successful.
Defensive Score Sheet: Penn State at Michigan
The concept of a defensive box score has been around for a while, a movement spearheaded by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn and David Hess. It’s not much different than the Synergy model with the exception being that the numbers are tracked internally (by me) and some calculations go into the final numbers.
I took a crack at tracking each defensive possession against Penn State and came up with the following figures.
A quick run-down on some unfamiliar stats above. The following stats are tallied manually throughout the game.
- FM – Forced field goal miss (includes blocks)
- FTO – Forced Turnover (steals, charges taken)
- FFTA – Forced missed Free Throw Attempt
- DFGM – Allowed Defensive Field Goal Made
- DFTM – Allowed Free Throw Made
Defensive Rating (DRtg) is calculated based on the stops and scoring possessions assigned to the player, it’s an estimated measure of points per 100 possessions.
In this first pass I assigned just one player to every Penn State shot attempt. Other charters have split shot attempts for shared defensive efforts and this is something I plan to start doing in the future.
There are things these stats (both defensive score sheets and Synergy numbers) don’t account for (most importantly: who guards the best players?), but they could provide some value going forward – at least providing a benchmark for discussion regarding the defensive effort after each game.
- Jon Horford played a great game on both ends of the floor. His rebounding was great and he was solid defensively. Penn State’s big scoring runs generally came when he was on the bench.
- The numbers are ugly for Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas. Stauskas’s issues were documented in Five Key Plays, while Robinson had an up and down game. He was praised by John Beilein for his effort against DJ Newbill late in the game but he gave up the majority of his baskets to Donovan Jack and Ross Travis.
- Caris LeVert wasn’t great, but he was better than his wing counterparts because he was able to force a handful of turnovers.
- Spike Albrecht’s defensive numbers look pretty good, but he was mostly tucked away guarding Graham Woodward and John Johnson. Neither player tried to do much other than fire up threes. He did cause a couple turnovers including drawing an offensive foul on a push off in the first half, further bolstering his stats.
While the individual numbers are interesting, it’s impossible to discuss Michigan’s defense without looking at its problems in transition.
The Wolverines are allowing a 66.1% eFG% in transition situations, the second worst in the country. Michigan’s half-court eFG% allowed is a more impressive 43.7%, but that leaves a 22.5% gap between Michigan’s halfcourt and transition defenses. That transition defense drop-off is the largest in the country.
Michigan’s saving grace continues to be its ability to slow down games and limit transition opportunities. The Wolverines are ranked 58th nationally in percentage of initial field goal attempts allowed in transition. If they were allowing as many transition opportunities as an average Division I team, their defensive numbers would be much uglier.
That manifests itself in other statistics as well. The Wolverines have essentially stopped crashing the offensive glass – failing to post an offensive rebounding rate over 31% since December 7th – and are playing the slowest basketball in the Big Ten at 60 possessions per game. Those adjustments in strategy are almost certainly caused, at least to a degree, in protecting an underperforming transition defense.
Michigan’s defense is a problem. There’s no overnight fix and there isn’t an easy scapegoat.
The Wolverine offense appears to be very good, good enough to win a few games that an average to good offense probably wouldn’t. But, sooner or later, the defense is going to start costing Michigan games.