USTUpset

Who knew that the last two teams fighting for the top spot in the UAAP basketball season will be La Salle and UST?

I most certainly didn’t, not UST anyway. I had an NU-La Salle Finals pegged somewhere deep within my head. Clearly, it didn’t happen. But that NU-UST series highlighted something I’ve been meaning to discuss – how further research needs to be done on how the basketball in the Philippines, particularly at the collegiate level, behaves.

UAAP vs NBA

Due to the higher level of play in the NBA, the teams with the best players usually win. In a way, because NBA “superstars” are more rare and far above the league average norm, their effect on the game is not only larger but more pronounced.

In the UAAP, the number of players who actually qualify as actual offensive “superstars” (i.e. high usage and high efficiency players) are practically nonexistent. Even the best we have to offer, Jason Perkins – who produces right around 109.9 points per 100 or around 17 points above league average while using just 20 percent of his team’s possessions in the 28 minutes he is in the game, on average – isn’t a player who can single-handedly carry a game for quarters, each and every game.

Perkins shooting over Mariano (Photo Credit: Czeasar Dancel, NPPA Images)

Even the best we have to offer isn’t good enough. (Photo Credit: Czeasar Dancel, NPPA Images)

Meanwhile, the NBA has LeBron James (+18 points above mean, 30 percent usage rate), Chris Paul (+20 points above mean, 22 percent usage rate)and Kevin Durant (+15 points above mean, 30 percent usage rate). That’s just on the offensive side.

This means UAAP players are on a much more balanced field. In statistical terms, this means that while the NBA almost exhibits a perfect bell curve, the UAAP has a more flatter bell curve with the difference in number between tiers not being pronounced.

Another point that people need to understand: due to the inherent nature of the UAAP Final Four (knockout eliminations, maximum of just three games per series), the probability of upsets are huge. It’s a generally accepted fact that given more chances, the team with the better odds – which is usually assumed to be the better team – wins the series. If I told you Team A wins 60 percent of the games while Team B wins 40 percent, then using some simple probability theory, the probability that Team B wins a best-of-three series is 35.2 percent. Expand that to a best-of-five series and that number goes down to 31.7 percent. Expand that to the NBA’s standard best-of-seven series and that number goes even further down to 28.9 percent. If you’re the “weaker” team, your odds of winning decreases as the series goes longer.

Which brings me to my next point, the far more important point, if I were a team manager or a coach on a UAAP team or a PBA team, what would be the best way to build a team?

Team Building

In the NBA, tons of research has already been done that it almost seems like team building is more like answering arithmetic questions rather than philosophical, open-ended questions. In reality, it’s still not as cut and dry as research seems to indicate, what with considerations on how talents fit and personalities left to deal with. But you can follow certain guidelines to it. A quick look at the “rules” I’ve come to learn in team building are:

  1. Without a game changer, at least on one end of the floor, you don’t stand a chance. James, Durant, Paul, Love, Rose, Howard are all players who can change the complexion of the game on one (and in some cases, both) side of the floor all on their own – LeBron and Durant’s ability to cover space quickly and not to mention their unique combination of size and ball-handling, Paul’s offensive wizardry, Love’s unique combination of post moves, rebounding and shooting, Rose’s athletic hoolaboo’s at the rim and Howard’s one-man defense.
  2. It’s easier to win with an elite defense and an average offense than to win with an elite offense and an average defense.
  3. Build a great top three. Everything else trickles down from there.

All the other rules are subject for discussion but they usually stem from this three rules.

How do we define a game changer? Which is more important, an offensive game changer or a defensive game changer?

How do we get an elite defense – do we clog the paint? Do we challenge threes? Do we force turnovers?

What is the best top three combination? Guard-forward-center? Guard-guard-forward? Forward-forward-center? Or does it not matter?

I’m sure there are a lot of other questions but the point is, the answer is clearer in the NBA than it is in the PBA or the UAAP.

Which brings me back to my most important question – if I’m a coach or a team manager here in the Philippines, how do I best build my team? Which recruits/draftees do I prioritize and how do I allocate the time of my assistant coaches/trainers in developing the skills of these recruits/draftees?

Building a team in UAAP

I have my personal inclinations and beliefs that I think are grounded on sound, logical arguments that are yet to be backed up by statistical analysis but it’s still just that — personal opinions and beliefs. And this is why I think there is a need for further research and material. Some of these thoughts:

  1. I think the “elite defense over elite offense” holds some ground. In Season 75, the top four defensive teams went on to the Final Four. However, FEU, the second best offensive team that year, didn’t make it. In Season 76, with the exception of Ateneo, the top three defensive teams in the league went on to the Final Four with the other team, FEU, being an above average defensive team. Meanwhile, UE, the third best offense this year, was eliminated from the Final Four earlier than most contenders.
  2. The league average 3PT shooting in Season 76 is 26 percent – that’s 9 percentage points below Season 75’s average of 26.9 percent. In either case, shooting 26 percent (or optimistically, 26.9 percent) from deep yields just a PPS (point per shot) of 0.78 (or 0.807). That’s way below the league’s average points per possession of 0.92 points per possession. How does that affect the idea that three point shooting is an important part of an efficient team? In the NBA, the league average is 35.9 percent, a number that yields a PPS of 1.07 – which is right around the league average offensive efficiency. Does this mean three point shooting is a premium skill in the UAAP? Does this means players like Juami Tiongson (33.3 percent), Gryann Mendoza (41.2 percent) and Robin Roño (39 percent) are more valuable than their three-point specialist counterparts in the NBA? Does that make me target proven three-point specialist recruits? Recruits who can shoot 30~40 percent consistently from downtown?
  3. By extension, does the corner three point shot hold as much value as it does in the NBA? Of course, the corner three still holds value no matter what the league. This is primarily because of the rotation that a corner three requires in order to defend it (due to their positioning at the edges of a basketball court, you can stretch a defense farther just by swinging it to the corner). But are corner three point shooters as valuable as they are in the NBA? (Where they’ve practically become like oxygen for an offense.)
  4. It’s almost natural that the eFG% of the UAAP (and the PBA) is smaller than the NBA — NBA teams and players are more skilled scorers in all facets of the game. What’s surprising though is the fact that the league average rebounding takes a huge hit. While the NBA generally hovers around an offensive rebounding rate of 25 percent, the UAAP hovers around 30~33 percent. You might say “well, there are more misses to be rebounded.” The problem is rebounding rates are expressed as percentages, which means the base number (in this case, the number of misses) doesn’t matter. This means there’s a degradation in the way UAAP teams’ box out for defensive rebounds (or an improvement in a UAAP team’s ability to rebound their own misses. This is a highly unlikely scenario). Which begs the question – should I, as a team manager or coach, put more emphasis on getting defensive rebounds? Also, would it be wise to eschew defending fastbreaks for the more bountiful fruits of a successful offensive rebound? You look at UST and La Salle and it’s clear that both teams are really good rebounders on both sides of the ball, especially on the offensive glass.
Both teams' prized rookies are primed for this match-up (photo credit: Paolo Papa. Sports5)

Does Abueva’s rebounding have more value? (Photo Credit: Paolo Papa,  Sports5)

These are just a couple of things that I think about every time I watch a Philippine basketball game. There’s no question that each league behaves in it’s own way (they say the Filipino’s play with pride and heart and passion, whatever that ambiguous terms mean). However, I’m more interested in identifying how and why it behaves as such. That requires data. In a 14-game season, data isn’t really overflowing. That means shot charts, tendencies, situationals and all that. But that in itself requires a whole new discipline and mindset.

What does this all mean?

Well, the UST Growling Tigers know how to take advantage of a situation! And the fact that the FEU Tamaraws are so depressing to think about.