What’s wrong with Michigan’s offense?

Dylan Burkhardt
on

Michigan’s offense continued to struggle on Saturday as it only managed to score 18 points in the final 20 minutes of its loss at Purdue.

The Wolverines – who were 15-1 in January Big Ten games over the past two seasons – made just two shots in the first 14 minutes of the second half and never looked comfortable on offense.

Now 8-6 overall with a 1-1 conference record, this team is running out of time to get things figured out. Michigan’s losses against Arizona, Purdue, SMU and Eastern Michigan were four of its five worst offensive performances since November of 2010.

The Wolverines have set the bar high as one of the country’s most dominant offensive programs over that stretch. They set the record for KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency in back-to-back seasons and haven’t been ranked worse than 35th since 2009-10. Now sitting at 128th, it’s clear that something is wrong.

Graphing Michigan’s offensive output over the past five seasons – using a three game rolling average – we can see just how bad things have become since mid-December in Ann Arbor. The Wolverine offense hasn’t just regressed from ‘elite’ to ‘average’, it has fallen off a cliff.

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The natural question is what happened? Michigan isn’t running different sets or trying to play a different style of basketball. John Beilein didn’t forget how to coach overnight after earning praise as an offensive wizard for decades.

At the highest level, this Michigan team just doesn’t have the talent that previous groups had. Beilein’s last three teams have all had multiple pros and this group has one. Early entry has finally caught up to John Beilein after his program lost five players to the NBA over the past two seasons.

And while that’s the diagnosis at a macro level, here’s a closer look at just what is going on with Michigan’s offense.

Visualizing a slump

Michigan’s offense was pretty good through eight games. The Wolverines scored 594 points in 511 possessions, a respectable 1.16 points per trip. In the following 375 possessions, the Wolverines have managed just 342 points, .91 points per trip. The following shot charts illustrate the trend.

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For eight games, Michigan’s shot breakdown was 33-33-33 between rim shots, mid-range shots and threes. Over the past six games that split has shifted to 25-25-50. Overall, Michigan’s eFG% has dropped from 54% to 44% in the two splits.

As Michigan’s three-point volume has increased, its accuracy has decreased. The Wolverines were average or better from every three-point zone throughout the first eight games, but now are only above-average from the right wing.

While it’s easy to point to the weak three-point shooting, the deeper problem might be the below-average shooting at the rim. Michigan was a bad finishing team early in the season, but as the season has progressed, teams are adjusting and completely eliminating that interior shot — daring the Wolverines to beat them from the outside. Against Purdue, Michigan shot just 17% at the rim in the second half as it bricked its way to a frustrating defeat.

Searching for a finisher

Watching Purdue’s Vince Edwards, a former Michigan recruiting target, cut along the backline of Michigan defense was a stern reminder of just what Michigan’s offense is missing. The Wolverines don’t have someone that can fill open holes near the basket and then finish above the rim.

Last year, Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson III were a combined 73% at the rim and took 241 shots there. As a team, the Wolverines shot 65% at the rim and just over a third of their attempts were in that zone. This year? Of the 100 high-major teams tracked by ShotAnalytics, only Houston has attempted a lower percentage of its shots at the rim and the Wolverines are shooting just 56% on those attempts – well below average.

Just how bad has Michigan’s interior scoring been? This scatterplot of all 100 teams tracked by ShotAnalytics shows the Wolverines are among the worst interior scoring teams.

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Michigan’s best option to finish around the rim this year has been Ricky Doyle. He’s shooting 73% at the rim and grades out favorably in Synergy Sports’ metrics for cutting to the rim and finishing ball screens.

Doyle is still learning – especially on the defensive end of the floor – and trying to improve his physical fitness, but Michigan’s ability to get him involved in games likely will determine its offensive fate.

In Michigan’s last five wins (dating back to Oregon in November 24th), Doyle is 25 of 32 from the floor (6.2 FGA/game) and he’s reached double figures in each of those wins. In Michigan’s six losses over the same time span, Doyle is averaging just 4.5 points and 2.8 FGA per game.

It’s tough to force feed Doyle the ball because his opportunities are generally what John Beilein has referred to as ‘residual action’, shot attempts that are the result of the offense working as designed. But it’s clear that when Doyle is involved, Michigan’s offense has a much greater chance for success.

Caris LeVert needs a Caris LeVert

As a sophomore, Caris LeVert had an extraordinary year because he was able to play alongside Nik Stauskas. Similarly, Nik Stauskas had such a tremendous year because he had Caris LeVert next to him.

This year, LeVert doesn’t have much support. The Wolverines badly need a creator to put alongside LeVert – someone that can score or distribute off of a ball screen, or take their man off the bounce. There’s no consistent option on the Michigan roster which means that opposing defenses can focus their entire approach around LeVert. When Michigan had Trey Burke, that approach mostly worked. But LeVert isn’t Trey Burke, and not many people are.

Caris LeVert had a 68 eFG% on catch and shoot jumpers last year and a 34 eFG% on jumpers off the dribble. This year he’s shooting 59 eFG% on catch and shoot jumpers and 28 eFG% on jumpers off the dribble.

Those discrepancies are magnified because 44% of LeVert’s shots this season have been off the dribble jumpers compared to 27% last season.

LeVert is shooting more off the dribble jumpers because he can’t get to the rim and there’s nothing else happening. Someone has to shoot the ball and the result is a bunch of awkward, off balance shots that have little to no chance of going in.

The question is who – if anyone – is capable of stepping up as an alternate creator and start to take some pressure off of LeVert.

I’ve heard many people point to Zak Irvin to fill some of that role, but that’s never been a major part of his game. Irvin is a shooter first and foremost and Michigan needs him to do that well before worrying about trying to create offense. He’s scored 2 points in 9 isolation possessions. He’s scored 16 points on 22 ball screens, but he shoots an off the dribble jumper on 81% of his ball screens.

The more natural candidate is sophomore point guard Derrick Walton. He’s scoring .84 points per ball screen (including passes) down from .99 points per ball screen last season and has looked a shell of his freshman self over the last several weeks.

His sprained toe injury, suffered late in the game against Villanova has undoubtedly affected him. Walton has struggled to make shots around the basket, started forcing more long jumpers and appears to have lost confidence in both elements of his game.

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While Walton was never the focus of Michigan’s offense last season, he showed signs that he’d be capable of taking the leap. He knocked down open shots, played well in transition and made countless clutch plays.

Bottom Line

There’s no easy fix for this Michigan team. It lacks depth and confidence and there aren’t dozens of additional options waiting in the wings. The Wolverines need Derrick Walton to emerge as a creator, which can hopefully continue to get Ricky Doyle more involved on the inside. Aubrey Dawkins is the x-factor and option for John Beilein to mix things up, but overall the Wolverines will go as far as their core can take them offensively.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    its been a tough but expected year to watch…I was hoping this team would be a lot further in development come January but that was wishful thinking…it is going to be hard to watch some of this big ten road games if they play like they did against Purdue….

  • Mattski

    (Reposting from an earlier thread, curious what others think.) Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t understand why the conversation isn’t
    focusing on Walton and the degree to which his injury
    is limiting team play. When I think of the way he was coming on in
    getting to the hoop–or driving and dishing–at the end of last year, or
    the way he often came down with the defensive rebound and got out on
    drives. . . just seems like we could be an 8-10 point better team at
    this stage, with a lot of the other dominoes (Caris taking over at
    critical junctures instead of taking on too much, Zak as third option,
    etc.) in more comfortable positions right now if he had that first
    step or the ability to go all out. Donnal is a disappointment, and–as
    obviously–most of the new guys are not ready to contribute strongly.
    But I’m reserving judgement about what could have been or can be until
    Walton is healthy. And I’m definitely not going to call him out for a failure of leadership (etc.) until then.

  • Anonymous

    Should Walton be relied on for more offense? Not really since he is a passing pg first and foremost. Albrecht can give some points here and there but from my perspective its LeVert & Irvin who need to consistently play better along with consistent contributions from Donnal & Dawkins and even Chatman.
    Some position changes are in order for the last 3 to jump start this offense. Irvin has to play better. As the author indicated, time is running out.

  • arete

    My own impression is in line with what Dylan is saying, although I don’t have 1% of Dylan’s knowledge. I think the problem is with Doyle and Walton. Doyle looks quite promising already and the coaching staff will make Doyle better as the season goes. But Walton’s turf toe is another matter. Walton does not look anything like the player who made those great plays against MSU and OSU on the road after his injury this year. A little googling suggests the turf toe can take months to heal fully. I don’t want to watch any more Michigan basketball games until we are playing well again—it is so painful after what we saw the past three years.

  • AC1997

    I have a few uneducated observations on this topic that I wanted to share:

    — Levert also struggles because he’s never developed a screen-and-roll game. He doesn’t set up screens well, he prefers iso sets, and he thus isn’t as good at setting up teammates for easy plays. This aligns with what Dylan said about needing a Robin for his Batman…..but it is bigger than that. Morris, Burke, and Stauskas were all great players but also set up teammates far more than Levert (though I don’t have the stats to back that up).
    — We seem to have forgotten how to set up or use screens. They look ugly out there when the big man sets up, the guard tries to use the screen, the defender easily gets around him or the guard doesn’t seem to be able to use it. That’s beyond the struggles the big guys have with what they should do after the screen.
    — Irvin has been over-rated and his confidence is now shot. He’s still a solid player, but his star has lost his luster. What is pretty appalling is that he doesn’t seem to be as athletic as we were lead to believe. I’ve seen him miss two dunks and four layups in the last three games. That’s pathetic for a team that needs points around the rim.
    — Where is the fast break offense? Non existent.
    — The 4 position is a black hole. Chatman has been terrible – flat out terrible. Dawkins has barely played. So when Spike plays those minutes, Irvin moves to the 4 and we give up rebounding and any back-door plays given that he’s stationed at the perimeter and lacks ups.

    What is really frustrating is the recruiting. Michigan has had an awesome run these past few years as an exciting and successful program that it cranking out NBA players. And yet they have six freshmen on this roster who really aren’t ready for any meaningful role on a college team right now. Doyle is the best of the bunch and he’s ideally suited to backing up someone like McGary or Horford. How is it possible to have six freshmen that aren’t ready? We can’t find one blue-chip player who’s ready to play? (I realize the early departures were a surprise to some extent, but to completely strike out is appalling.) I don’t doubt that some of these players will turn into good players, but going 0-for-6 on impact freshmen shouldn’t happen for a program with this much sustained success……should it?

    • Anonymous

      Irvin is athletic enough. He just needs to make layups and shots. His game is becoming gradually more mature but he needs to play better.
      The point about 6 guys not being ready is fair but that is what happens when you lose so many guys. Donnal needs to step up along with Irvin. For all the Frosh bashing…the redshirt Donnal and Irvin need to contribute more.
      When I see some of these new guys (Chatman, Donnal, Wilson), they are look pretty raw in some respect which is why they were more highly touted.They will be good players but as others have said, it may take a couple of years.

    • MAZS

      I think you and the poster above are far too harsh on Irvin–both his skill set and his prospects. He is struggling mightily, but as noted by the poster below, if he simply finished his layups and made the 3s he normally hits, all would be pretty good. Those makes will return when his confidence returns. He works hard–his defense has been very good–and he will get better. I don’t understand how someone can give up or set a low bar for a sophomore who is getting big minutes for the first time.

      I agree that we sorely miss the high-pick-and-roll. I don’t think the coaches have forgotten how to teach it–we just don’t have the big men to execute it–yet. How I miss Morgan! Doyle is getting a little better at it–and it took Mcgary awhile to do it effectively. Donnal doesn’t have the best frame for setting screens, but more to the point, he doesn’t look like he really wants that kind of contact.

      Chatman is a mystery. His mistakes are always conspicuous. But he does a number of things well–sneaky hands, decent defensive rebounding, rounded game. I am not sure we will see much out of him this year, but I think we will see a marked improvement in all phases of his game next year–though I am a little concerned that he might be a transfer candidate (west coast kid, disappointing season, uncertain role).

  • Bigrange

    I think the big thing is that we are missing the play maker on the team. James Blackmon Jr. would have fit nicely along side Levert. Even though Doyle is only a freshman and probably the 4th or 5th option on offense, he needs to get the ball more on the block. Let him do some work for a few early possessions and make the defense react. Hopefully he is smart enough to know when to pass out and not force a shot. This may just be the year that we fall back to earth from the heavens of Final Fours and Elite Eights. This team just needs time to jell and figure things out, but time is not on their side.

  • jakelam2116

    Great (if sobering) analysis, Dylan!

  • Chezaroo

    Great article Dylan. Reality has hit us square in the face this season. This team is nowhere near as talented as we were hoping or lead to believe. The expected obligatory “jump” by the returning players has not materialized in on court play. Irvin is a one trick pony with major holes in his game, Walton was never a true creator even before his limiting injury, ( it remains to be seen if he ever will be ) and all the preseason hyperbole regarding Donnal seems highly misguided. The Frosh are not college ready to contribute ( except Doyle ) with it being obvious now that Chatman was highly over rated coming out of HS. It is what it is, a transition year for the program and the fan base. The lack of an athletic baseline finisher just compounds the existing problems, as Caris garners much more focused defensive attention. The realists amongst us knew it was impossible to replace the experience and leadership of JMO in the post and the reigning B1G POY, and expect a seamless transition to more success, especially with the turnover and prevailing youth. As this roster is constructed today, the only player with NBA potential is Caris. That’s it. Irvin and Walton are NOT NBA talents right now, and IMO will not develop into such. Without an infusion of TALENT going forward it’s going to be very difficult to escape middle of the pack finishes in the conference with this roster. Sure they’ll gradual improve as they mature, but it’s highly doubtful that this group ( sans Caris ) will be in contention for any titles in the next 2-3 years, no matter how much you believe in JB.

  • The Denarding

    Pre Derrick Walton injury – one loss

    Post – five losses

    He can’t drive, he can’t shoot the mid range jumper and he can’t create. Nothing on the interior can happen.

    We are better off sending Derrick to IR for a period of time and having MAAR or Levert be the primary ball handler. The only other solution is Donnal starts making threes at a high rate allowing pick and pop action to occur. The offense is dead otherwise. The defense can’t win on the interior enough to win on defense alone.

  • The Denarding

    Think about it – if you need Dawkins or Spike to shoot 70% from three to win we won’t win many games. A healthy Walton can beat people off the dribble. Just a complete bummer…