Yesterday, Amare Stoudemire of the now eliminated from playoff contention New York Knicks gave a pretty interesting quote. Here’s what he said:

On paper, we might be the best team in the league.

Now, I’ll let you find the backlash to that quote by yourself, but what Amare said got me thinking about a team in the PBA that on paper should be pretty formidable… but has struggled mightily this conference.

I’m talking about the Air21 Express. Check out their rotation:

Starters Role Players
Simon Atkins Jonas Villanuava
Joseph Yeo Mark Cardona
Mark Borboran Sean Anthony
Wesley Witherspoon Eric Camson
Asi Taulava Mike Burtscher

Okay fine. Maybe the Express are right where they’re supposed to be with a 3-5 record and looking to finish 7th or 8th entering the playoffs. But, looking at their performance this conference, it’s clear that the team could have performed better if they just didn’t have some glaring errors on the defensive end.

This post will focus on the April 9 game between Air 21 and San Mig Coffee, a game wherein the Mixers won 97-84.

Witherspoon, Taulava Fail to Communicate

 For all intents and purposes, Witherspoon looks and plays like a guard. This probably means that Witherspoon is more used to defending out on the perimeter as opposed to in the paint. Unfortunately for him, he has had to defend 4’s or 5’s here in the PBA, leading to some confused sequences between him and Asi on defense.

In the video above, we see two instances of Taulava and Witherspoon not being on the same page on defense. In the first play, we see Asi matched up with Pingris and Witherspoon guarding Mays. Pingris steps out to the top of the key and receives a pass. Taulava, probably concerned about Mays’ good position down low, elects to stay in the paint.

Asi Taulava, Wesley Witherspoon

Taulava, Mays protect the paint. (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

Pingris, seeing the opening, drives the lane. However, instead of only one Express player stepping up to cover him, both Witherspoon and Taulava challenge Pingris. The shot misses, but Mays now has nobody to box him out, giving him an easy put back dunk.

The 2nd set sees the matchups switched. Mays receives the ball out on the perimeter, with Taulava staying inside to cover the paint. Now, look closely at the video, once the action between Mays and Barroca happens, Witherspoon completely takes his eyes away from Pingris, which leads him to miss Pingris cutting into the lane. One pass and another touch-pass back and Mays ends up with a wide open elbow jumper.

Pingris will too much daylight here. (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

Pingris with too much daylight here. (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

It’s clear from these two plays that Asi and Wesley need to work on their communication. Not only do they have to communicate better in game, but also in practice. The duo needs to map out these scenarios ahead of time and determine their defensive roles and rotations ahead of time.

Get Back on Transition!

As of April 13, Air 21 Express opponents have averaged the most fast break attempts (10.7) and points (14.3) per game. That’s 14 relatively easy points per game given up by Coach Franz’s squad – way, way too much for any team to weather if they want to be successful.

Here’s a compilation of some 1st half transition defense blunders from the Express:

What we’re seeing here is a simple lack of discipline and communication by the players on the floor for Coach Franz. Time and time again, they will allow players to not only leak out, but also run towards the rim unimpeded.

(Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

Witherspoon can surely outrun Devance right? (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

In the picture above, we see Barroca grab a rebound with 9:00 left on the clock. In the lower right hand side, we see Devance running back down, a step ahead of Witherspoon. Fast forward three seconds and we see Devance still ahead of Witherspoon, with a clear path to the basket and the ball already on its way to him.

Isn't this what's called a "karkador" play? (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

Isn’t this what’s called a “karkador” play? (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

That was just really bad effort on the part of Witherspoon and the Express. Devance already had a step on Witherspoon before crossing half court and yet he didn’t sprint to keep up on him nor did the other Express players step up to cut his path to the rim.

The next one’s worse.

Five players in the paint for a defensive board. This will surely lead to a halfcourt set. Right? (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

Five players in the paint for a defensive board. This will surely lead to a halfcourt set. Right? (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

Pingris gets the rebound and we see all five SMC players in the paint, with two of the Express already on the other side of the court.

Sangalang flat out sprinting towards the other side. (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

Sangalang flat out sprinting towards the other side. (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

Sangalang sprints hard downcourt and as he crosses halfcourt, he’s already beaten three out of the five Air 21 players back. Obviously, the two players in purple left should already put a body on him. Do they?

How can a dude as big as Sangalang sneak past an entire defense? (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

How can a dude as big as Sangalang sneak past an entire defense? (Photo Credit: Aksyon TV)

Nope. Pingris’ pass to Yap and Melton’s strong fill to the corner forced the defender’s hands to contain the immediate threat (the ball). Taulava, not seeing Sangalang sneak behind him, fails to adjust and this results into a pass inside for an easy score.

It may have seemed like I’m putting the blame for Air 21’s decline mostly on Witherspoon’s shoulders, but despite his lackluster effort and missed rotations, it must be made clear that this is not wholly his fault. Effectively stopping a team as disciplined and drilled as the Mixers is a tall task, but it’s clear that the errors we’ve seen in this post point to a need for Coach Franz Pumaren and the Express to get back to the drawing board and review some basic defensive principles, particularly on transition.