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Comarow’s Corner: Duke Has Weaknesses…So What Now?

By January 16, 2015January 17th, 2015No Comments

At this point, I have watched the Duke-Miami game upwards of 10 times. I have positively worn out my remote with all of the rewinding, pressing play and watching in slow motion, followed by more rewinding, pressing play and watching in slow motion. To put it simply, Duke has problems. And my goal is always to break down each problem and give a solution so that anyone will be able to understand. Yet before I knew it, I had written a thesis that read like a diatribe attacking Duke, and this team is 16 games into a season that has, at a bare minimum, 17 games left. Despite struggling, Duke has shown constant effort, which speaks to their heart.

Posting on a Friday afternoon before a noon Saturday game also made me rethink a long-winded analysis, and right now I think it is most important to find what I feel are the main causes for Duke’s struggles and hope that the secondary problems will improve over time. While I agree that the team, specifically Jahlil Okafor, has struggled in the high-screen pick and roll (read Rob Dauster’s fantastic breakdown) and guards have taken some bad angles on-ball, this is what concerns me the most.


No backup plans (lack of in-game/in-season coaching adjustments)

Coach K always speaks to the fact that he adjusts his coaching style to fit each specific type of team and player. I feel he has an incredible ability bring out the best in his guys by building personal relationships, but even he admits that x’s and o’s aren’t his specialty. It is not a weakness, but when fielding a team that isn’t able to succeed running his 3-2 motion offense and extending, ball denial defense, they typically hit a wall. He has been successful because players grow more comfortable, almost to the point of muscle memory, with the offensive and defensive style Duke plays as they advance throughout their careers. K also puts a great amount of trust in his teams to work outside of the system whenever they feel the urge to improvise.

But what about the teams that don’t deserve this kind of trust? Recently, these teams have been young, but still have the talent to come out during the pre-conference season with more time in between each big game and look like juggernauts. When suffering their first loss, though, a blueprint is formed for other teams against Duke, and adjustments need to be made.


What to do when Duke isn’t making three pointers?

Analysis: 9 times out of 10, when Duke loses you can look at the stat sheet and see a ton of three pointers shot at a horrific clip. Live by the three, die by the three may be a cop out and a cliche, but with Duke teams, it is pretty spot on. When not hitting outside shots, Jahlil Okafor is pushed farther away by double teams. Considering I already have felt he posts too far out, it takes him totally out of rhythm. Defenders play off of shooters, making it tougher to dribble-drive because of the lack of angles. Lastly, when forced to penetrate when not hitting outside shots, this team simply does not embrace contact. Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, and Matt Jones fade on every drive. Justise Winslow, the one Duke player who, in my opinion, personifies physical play, seems to have let his free throw struggles mentally affect him, and even he is shying away from physicality. Rasheed Sulaimon has remained aggressive, but when opponents play off of him, it takes away his angle to drive and use his “coaches nightmare” jump pass to set up teammates.  He still tries, but putting his head down and bulling into defenders has failed recently when lacking a plan of action.

Ideas: I’m not saying to rip up the 3-2/4-1 motion offense that Coach K has run his entire career. But I would like to see Duke have the ability to create offense with more structure, and that involves more specific plays and sets run. The motion offense uses general principles, but with so many young players, they need more than this. Seeing Jekiri from Miami setting so many high ball screens, it made me wonder why Duke hasn’t tried this on offense. How about double screens or some back door action to free up Winslow along the baseline? Amile typically moves out of the picture when Okafor gets the ball in order to clear space, but how about dumping it down low to him on the reverse block, where he is sneaky efficient? I feel Tyus Jones is exactly the type of point guard who thrives in a structured offense, so I think he would be helped by this more than anyone. And it bears repeating that Coach K’s Duke teams are very reliant on quality point guard play. These are not quick fixes, but ideas to occasionally try different tactics instead of the rinse-wash-repeat offense in existence. Duke has to work incredibly hard for offense in the half court, and some easy buckets would give them confidence as well as clear space in the lane for someone like Winslow to slash. Even though this wouldn’t be a constant source of offense, it would keep defensive on notice that they have to prepare for it, and would give Duke a plan B when not hitting outside shots.


What to do about Duke’s lack of awareness on defense?

Analysis: I understand that this Duke team doesn’t have the quickest foot speed, but many half court problems have come from lack of awareness, which can be attributed to the youth of the team’s two most important defenders, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. Okafor seems lost as to what type of angle he needs to take against a guard when matched up off screen and rolls, and usually ends up standing still and letting the opponent drive right by him. He lacks the quick twitch muscles to make up for mistakes and doesn’t play physically, so it is futile for him to try and help out doubling on the block. Justise Winslow has been used as a free safety in order to try and anticipate opportunities to make plays off the ball (which I don’t see much of at all), but seems to forget about guarding his own man most of the time. Winslow has also struggled with his on-ball defense.

Ideas: This is where Coach K’s stubbornness is getting in the way. This team can be very successful in harassing, overplaying man to man defense against some teams, but against others, a Plan B is needed. Defense is generally not the emphasis in high school and AAU leagues, so Tyus, Justise, Jahlil, and even second year player Matt Jones are still becoming accustomed to what type of defense and intensity is needed at this level. Zone defense would help immensely. Guys could be responsible for their areas and not have to worry about all of the switching and screens occurring during man to man defense. I realize that just saying “zone” is very general. There are many types of zones, but K has been around some extremely bright minds like Jim Boeheim, and if he didn’t teach any elements of it to his players during the preseason, I find that disappointing. If staying man to man, I saw the coaches finally make an adjustment against Miami’s high ball screens with 13 minutes left I the game, having Winslow switch onto Okafor’s man and allowing Jah to stay down low. Why did it take so long to try something new? It’s a risky move with Winslow playing the 3, as small forwards will generally be able to take Okafor outside, but I think either Winslow when at the 4 or Amile playing his typical 4 should do everything possible to communicate and switch to avoid Okafor dealing with the high ball screens at this point of his young career. Against certain opponents, I can understand pressure defense extending out to halfcourt. But Miami planned for it and was confident that they had the correct personnel to break it down. And they were correct. Duke needed a backup plan which didn’t exist. I’m not saying to totally switch up their identity, just to use it at times to provide a change of pace. Lastly, K used the full court press at the end of the NC State game and, though it could possibly be attributed to desperation, looked great. He hasn’t applied much more than token ball pressure since. If Duke is going to press the inbounds pass after a made shot, that is fine. But once the ball is in and Duke releases, why provide full court pressure with one defender? All it does is wear down Duke’s own players. I would either all-out press, or get back and save energy. Miami was not prevented in the least by the press from running their offense. If anything, it sped up their transition. All of these ideas are not 180 degree changes that need to be made, but they would certainly help Duke at times.


What to do about the problems transitioning from offense to defense?


Transition defense is the actual defense being played when another team has the ball. What I see is that teams are leaking out and getting the full advantage before transition is even possible.

Analysis: The obvious reason for this is poor rotations. When a shot goes up, there should be two players rotating over to get back on defense. I like when Duke attacked rebounds as a team during the early part of the year, especially with Justise Winslow. But the bottom line is that offense rebounds are only coming from Jahlil Okafor and Amile Jefferson anytime recently. Winslow never gets in position for offensive rebounds, realizes he can’t get the ball, and reverses course. He will instead fly at the ball, taking himself completely out of the play and allowing numbers in the other direction. Quinn Cook is another who I keep seeing try to get inside and grab offensive rebounds. Tyus hasn’t been totally innocent, but isn’t as bad as the others. Rasheed generally gets back in transition.

Ideas: This isn’t an idea as much as a blatant statement that Duke’s guards and wings need to stop trying to be heroes. Getting one offensive rebound every couple of games is not worth destroying rotations, and I will repeat that Winslow and Matt Jones are the only players with any makeup speed on defense.  They have to play the percentages and get themselves back on defense as quickly as possible to prevent transition.



Coach K has (obviously) been extremely successful using his style of coaching, and generally recruits players who can grow and succeed in his system. But when experiencing problems during a season requiring x’s and o’s adjustments, he has made some great adjustments in the past, but typically this has not been a strength. And since he only uses ex-player as his assistant coaches, their knowledge is limited to what they learned from him. This year’s 2014-2015 Duke team needs the coaches to adjust the x’s and o’s to fit them, not the other way around. I am interested to see if Coach K changes up his personnel to revitalize the team. He transformed the the 2001 squad into a small, quick bunch in 2001 when Carlos Boozer was injured, and recently has shown the ability to feel out certain players’ strengths by switching Jon Scheyer to point guard in 2009 while little used freshman Elliot Williams took the ACC by storm after K showed trust in the young man. And everyone knows what happened when Duke slowed down their style to incorporate a healthy Brian Zoubek in 2010. I am not insinuating that anything I have suggested in this post is correct, or that I know more than Mike Krzyzewski. He has forgotten more about basketball than I will ever know. Duke will correct some of the problems that I have explained. As to what percentage, and the type of ceiling it will allow this season’s team to reach, only time will tell.

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