MANILA, Philippines — It’s typically a risky endeavor to proclaim a player who is unknown outside of the NBA as the *insert nationality here* *insert prominent NBA player here*. I’m certainly guilty of this — but it’s mostly done in jest or in a facetious manner.
But let me indulge in this exercise one more time, since Steve Kerr and Team USA have now been knocked out of gold medal contention in the 2023 FIBA World Cup by Germany. The Germans preyed on a leaky American defense that just did not have the required cohesion necessary to string together stop after stop.
The operative phrase of the Americans’ performance on defense was “coverage confusion” — and one of the first instances of such was on this possession:
The series of events above was a harbinger of the problems Team USA were to face against Germany. The offensive rebound after the miss by Franz Wagner was one of 12 total from the Germans; while the final box score had the Americans being out-rebounded by only two, they were a minus-five in offensive boards.
They allowed the Germans to score 25 second-chance points. Combining it with the Montenegro and Lithuania games, Team USA coughed up a total of 64 second-chance points, most of which came on 53 offensive boards allowed by them in those three games. That is, to put it bluntly, not a recipe for winning basketball at any level.
The possession battle is oft ignored when it comes to factoring in what wins games, but it is as important as other traditional metrics — shooting, for example — when it comes to team success. Team USA shot 65% on twos (26/40), 48% on threes (12/25) and 95.8% on free throws (24/25) and still lost because they could not wrest control of possessions — and therefore, the overall pace and tempo — from the Germans.
The man who finished the possession above — Andreas Obst — plays for Bayern Munich in the Basketball Bundesliga, the highest level of professional basketball in Germany. He has never set foot in an NBA court, with the highest level of competition he has participated in being the EuroLeague.
According to the EuroLeague stats page, Obst shot 38.6% on threes in two EuroLeague seasons — 91/236. That is about 4.2 threes per game, which paints a picture of someone who picks his spots carefully.
When watching Obst ply his shooting trade against Team USA, the way he moves around the court without the ball sort of reminds me of a certain Splash Brother who has a penchant for erupting from beyond the arc. The similarities are uncanny — and the way Obst is featured in head coach Gordon Herbert’s offense makes one think that he’s somewhat of a... wait for it...
... a German Klay Thompson.
Hear me out. Look at this:
This gnarly set by Germany is called a “Garfunkel” which is a ballscreen that is “ghosted” (faked), followed by the ballscreener going over to the corner to set a wide pindown for the corner spacer. This creates an empty-corner situation that makes it hard to defend due to the lack of a “tagger” or helper on the strong-side (ball-side) corner.
Obst obviously attracts attention around off-ball screens, so he makes use of it by threading a nifty pocket pass to the rolling Moritz Wagner.
Now, take this possession last season from the Golden State Warriors:
Much like how Obst’s gravity around screens was used to create an empty-corner situation, the Warriors also used Thompson’s pull around wide pindowns to put massive pressure on opposing defenses.
Returning to the theme of coverage confusion, Team USA had trouble with their coverage rules on ballscreens — especially against someone who can punish conservative pick-and-roll coverages. It’s simply not ideal to employ drop coverage against Obst, especially when someone like Jalen Brunson is being asked to fight over screens:
Herbert saw how much the Americans were all over the place in terms of their coverages and seemed like he was constantly one step ahead. He planned for Team USA’s eventual adjustment toward screen-level coverages by having Obst find the pocket pass to the short roll:
Obst’s value on offense goes beyond his ability to shoot. Like most top-level snipers in the world, he knows how to leverage the threat he generates around screens and off of catches to attack scrambling defenses and find the open man:
Obst had 24 points on 2/3 shooting on twos, 4/8 shooting on threes, and 8/9 on free throws, most of which came courtesy of being fouled on three-point attempts. But perhaps more telling than the scoring were the assists (6), which portrays his versatility not only as a shooter but as a playmaker.
“For me he’s one of the best shooters in FIBA,” Herbert said after the game. “(But) he can do more than shoot, as you saw tonight. He can drive, he can make a play. The biggest thing with (Obst) too is he gives space for Dennis Schroder and Franz Wagner to play. He creates space.”
Asked Germany head coach Gordon Herbert about the luxury of having someone like Andreas Obst as a movement shooter and as someone who puts pressure on defenses around screens:— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) September 8, 2023
“For me he’s one of the best shooters in FIBA. He can do more than shoot as you saw tonight, he can… pic.twitter.com/irV02fPgZB
Germany seemed more prepared to pick at Team USA’s weakest links on defense. For example, when Tyrese Haliburton was on the floor in the third quarter, Herbert immediately went to a classic 5-out “Chicago” action — a wide pindown flowing into a dribble handoff — to make Haliburton a chaser and screen navigator, two things he needs massive improvement in as a defender:
Haliburton being behind in chasing Obst forces Austin Reaves to help off the corner, which opens the kick-out pass and money shot to Isaac Bonga in the corner.
A clutch Obst shot near the end of the game also involved Haliburton, whose desperation in chasing Obst (and a lack of proper close-out fundamentals such as chopping of the feet) led to him slipping during the most inopportune moment:
Not to belabor the comparison, but the double staggered screens above — somewhat split-action adjacent — is something that Kerr himself has run for Thompson in the past, albeit in a half-court setting instead of a baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) situation:
The Americans allowed a ghastly 1.47 points per possession to Germany’s offense. With that kind of leaky defense, they deserved to fall short of their goal of returning to the top of international basketball. Questions will definitely be asked of them moving forward in terms of building a program, maintaining continuity, and just how much they value their standing in the world.
But all is not lost. Team USA still has a good chance to medal against Canada on Sunday, 4:30 p.m. Manila time (4:30 a.m. ET in the United States). If they manage to cure whatever ails them at the moment — rebounding, point-of-attack defense, etc. — they can still return home with hardware.
At least they’ll be rid of the German Klay Thompson — but in his place, All-NBA First Team member Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is looming.