18 April 2013

Coach Gregorio's Penchant for One-on-One Plays

Coach Ryan Gregorio
Meralco Bolts had a chance to avoid going into overtime with a few seconds left and they have the ball against the Elasto Painters. Coach Ryan Gregorio knows it is time to map out one decisive offensive play to do that. Everyone who tuned in to the live coverage heard the designed strategy and not a few raised their eyebrows when Gregorio said 'one-on-one' play.

If you are a Bolts fan, you will probably raise high heavens and ask the higher powers what gives. Gregorio has a penchant for one-on-one isolation plays even when he was with Purefoods, but this strategy was dissected into nuts and bolts and rendered ineffective by former Sta. Lucia Realtors coach Boyet Fernandez by packing the lane with players and take away the first offensive option. Ironically, coach Fernandez is now the assistant of Gregorio in the Bolt’s bench.

It's no longer accurate to reduce basketball offense to truisms like "Everybody runs the same stuff" and "isolate your hottest player for a one-on-one move to the basket." Offenses are more complex now than they were compared to the early years of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).

Coaches can easily counter Gregorio’s lack of better deigned plays by simply clogging the paint for as long as possible without committing a defensive three-second violation. It's a tenet that has swept across the league during the last few years in the form of ultra-aggressive help defense, a sea change that has inspired a slower but perhaps more important evolution in the way teams approach offense. Unfortunately, Gregorio has not adjusted to this trend and tries to stick to his old and antiquated strategy.

In the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Miami Heat is a good example of a team that has torn down defenses committed to clogging the lane, sending an extra defender toward the ball, and forcing offenses into second, third, and fourth options. They are now better at disguising their true intentions. That’s why everyone can see Ray Allen running across the foul line to the left side of the floor, but it was oftentimes designed to be just a decoy to get the defense to bend to that side right as Miami runs something deadlier on the other side.

Coach Gregorio may still choose the one-on-one isolation strategy, but the Bolts may want to run it using several different "fake" actions designed to confuse defenders or get their momentum moving in the wrong direction. Predictable offenses like clearing the lane for import Eric Dawson just aren't good enough anymore against elite competition. Maybe Gregorio’s ill-advised and simple-minded plays can still get the Bolts far, but it might not get them as far as the semi-final round in the ongoing Commissioner’s Cup.

Other PBA coaches understand this, though some coaching staffs have been quicker than others in adjusting their systems. I don’t have the exact statistics, but based on what I see. Talk N’ Coach Norman Black, Alaska Aces Coach Luigi Trillo and E-Painters Coach Yeng Guiao has seldom employ an offensive possessions that end with isolation plays and post-up shots

PBA rules, plays and skill sets, as always, are evolving. No sort of evolution will ever change the fact that All-Star talent is the most important ingredient in building a champion. But evolution will make subtle changes in what defines a real top-3 team or top-10 player, and teams that understand and exploit long-term changes the fastest will gain real competitive advantages when the talent gap narrows. I know that except for the Bolts, other smarter teams are already thinking ahead to what the next changes might be — even if we haven't seen them on the court just yet.

Luckily for the Bolts, the referees did not call a foul on the last play against Macmac Cardona and they were able to secure a best-of-three series against San Mig Coffee. Unfortunately, I don't see any major changes in the way coach Gregorio will design crucial plays in the next round.

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