Opportunity Meets Execution: Explaining Pitt’s Offense
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A quick examination of the national leaders in offensive efficiency provides expected and anticipated results. Duke, Ohio State, Kentucky, Washington, Syracuse and Kansas all grace the top ten, no surprises there. Pittsburgh however jumps out as an outlier to a degree, not because the Panthers aren’t an elite team – their number five national ranking would refute my argument otherwise – but rather the stereotypes we come to expect from the offensive elite just aren’t there.
Pitt averages a respectable 80 points per game, but the roster lacks an elite individual scorer. Ashton Gibbs is among the best guards in the Big East, but few would call him an explosive offensive weapon. Consider that after the junior’s 16 point per game scoring average, not one member of the Panthers lineup scores better than 12 a night. Yet on the list of most efficient offenses in the nation there they sit at number two, just a fraction of a point behind Duke and posting an adjusted efficiency of 123.0 and averaging nearly .97 points per possession. In doing so Pitt is demonstrating the devastating effect synergy can have on opposing defenses.
Movement and spacing are characteristics paramount to the efficiency of an offense – Pitt does both exceptionally well. Their half court sets often resemble a zone defense, five bodies in motion with each pass of the basketball. A constant barrage of off the ball screens and yeomen-like patience exhibited by a triumvirate of experienced guards results in an overwhelming number of uncontested looks, freeing the Panthers deadly perimeter shooters to exert their will. So well versed are the players in the nuances of Jamie Dixon’s offense that each action immediately prompts four separate reactions, often yielding a surplus of passing options for the ball handler. Unlike many teams that rely heavily on the jump shot as a primary weapon, the Panthers don’t generate a great deal of their offense through the trendy dribble-drive method, but through the basic principle of pass and screen off the ball. It ensures a constant state of balance and options that the Pitt guards take advantage of with deadly efficiency, allowing them to make the extra pass when warranted without risk of creating an unbalanced court. Through almost half of its schedule, nearly 60% of the team’s catch and shoot attempts have been classified as uncontested by Synergy Sports, meaning the basketball is being delivered to unimpeded shooters in motion.
The patience and vision of the guards extends to the pick and roll, though not in the way you might think. While the ball handler and screener are the principle players involved in this offensive set, the Panthers capitalize on the collapsing effect this has on the defense by rotating wing players behind the play. The 47% field goal shooting Pitt posts in pick and roll derived offensive plays speaks to execution, the 54% adjusted field goal mark personifies intelligent basketball: finding open perimeter shooters. The guards don’t come off screens looking to drive or shoot, rather observing the reaction of the defense. It sounds obvious enough that Ashton Gibbs would pass if pressed or shoot if left unattended, but these basic principles are rarely executed with such regularity. It isn’t so much that Pitt is vastly more talented than their opponents (see Connecticut); they just execute the details with greater consistency.
With the guards generating such brilliant execution in the half court offense, the frontcourt takes center stage in the transition game. Pitt’s forwards consistently apply pressure to opposing defenses with their propensity for racing up the floor, displaying outstanding knowledge of lanes and spacing. Rather than heading straight for the area immediately surrounding the rim though, the Dante Taylors and Nasir Robinsons on the court move to open spaces in the still retreating defense, forcing the opposition to shift and adjust. It is in this way the big men prove to be the offensive catalysts in transition, creating scoring opportunities for the guards. Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Travon Woodall actually have the highest usage rates in these scenarios, not purely because they are better equipped for it, but they capitalize on the openings created by the defense being drawn into the lane. Again, the Panthers utilize their knowledge and aptitude of spacing to force their opponents hand and create open scoring chances.
Pitt creates opportunity and takes advantage, creating scoring chances but possessing the necessary basketball IQ within its players to recognize them. It’s telling that 70% of their made field goals have been assisted this season in addition to posting an average of 20.1 assists per game, the best mark in the nation. As if the aforementioned facets of the Panthers offense weren’t enough though, the team also leads the country in offensive rebound rate at 47%, a full two points ahead of the next closest team, giving themselves even more opportunity for easy looks.
Is all of this to argue that Pitt’s offense is infallible? No, there are flaws that can be capitalized, primarily the speed at which the team plays. The Panthers rank 253rd nationally in adjusted tempo, which stands to reason they would struggle against teams that play faster. Naturally, playing that slow guarantees that the majority of Pitt’s opponents will play a more up tempo game and that hasn’t stopped them from emerging victorious – yet. The team’s lone loss came at the hands of a Tennessee team, that while equipped to play at a faster pace, shut down the Panthers offense with a militia of long athletes that cover a lot of ground and contest shots with greater ease than most. This is the kind of team that can counteract the spacing that Pitt generates with its constant movement and screening. Just don’t expect too many more teams remaining on the schedule to manage that task as well as the Volunteers did.