Once cases of COVID-19 forced Missouri to press pause on its season, the result was an impromptu break. In a best-case scenario, shuffling the schedule to finding new dates for tilts against LSU and Vanderbilt is the only hassle.
Yet the unexpected void carved out a brief window for a bit of self-scouting.
I’ll leave weightier questions to fellow members of the masthead. Instead, I’m intrigued by a more straightforward question: Is now a good time for the Tigers to tweak their rotations? And I don’t mean a wholesale gutting of rotations or roles among the supporting cast, either.
Why mull a slight shakeup?
In a word: stagnation.
Since toppling fifth-ranked Illinois for a third consecutive Bragging Rights victory, MU’s execution on the offense end has become stilted. Over the last four games, Coach Cuonzo Martin’s group averaged 0.95 points per possession, a raw figure that would rank 253rd nationally, per KenPom. And it’s not solely the byproduct of woeful 3-point shooting.
A scouting report for this group is concise: clog the middle of the floor, send early help to the lane, force sickouts and close out short. For an offense reliant on creating rim attacks out of ball screens, its choked off gaps and made finishes in the paint tough.
Dating back to its brush with upset-minded Bradley, the Tigers are shooting 42.1 percent inside the arc, including a woeful 48.7 percent at the rim. Slipshod ball-handling has also pushed its turnover rate above 20.6 percent, a hemorrhaging of possessions MU can’t erase from 3-point range.
Ideally, the Tigers’ pick-and-roll based attack manufactures high-value 3-balls in the corner. Unfortunately, MU’s volume of shots (55) through nine games is roughly the same as it was last season (52), and it’s only hitting at a 20 percent clip on the year. The players pulling the trigger hasn’t changed dramatically, either: Kobe Brown, Mitchell Smith and Javon Pickett. Combined, the trio is 5 of 32 for the season.
Granted, MU still paves a consistent path to the free-throw line. If the offense is humming along, freebies act as a supplement. For some stretches, they’re the only source of nourishment.
All the while, teams are tweaking their transition defense, selling out on crashing the offensive glass to sprint back, build a wall and make MU operate in the half-court.
Closing in on the 10th game of the season, which is hopefully a trip to College Station on Saturday, it’s likely we’re seeing something resembling a finished version of the Tigers. As MU pushes deeper into SEC action, carrying out a full-scale overhaul isn’t feasible. Retooling the offense unfolded last season, and the Tigers can’t dip into the transfer portal to pluck out another floor-spacer.
With scheme and personnel locked in, any fix is probably modest. Altering rotations is probably the easiest one to pull off.
For one, Martin’s not married to a script. His most-used lineup remains the starting five, but the quintet has only logged 16 percent of MU’s total minutes this season. The second most-used group is at 7.8 percent of total minutes. Sorting through play-by-play, discernible patterns — and loose ones at that — exist in the opening minutes of a game. Beyond that, the scouting report and the usual ebbs and flows dictate how MU shuffles players in and out.
Still, I attempted to capture how MU patterns its lineups. Below, you’ll find five groups. Aside from the starting five, each lineup is a composite. I’ve included the average length of time they’re on the floor, total offensive possessions, efficiency ratings for offense and defense, and an overall net rating.
Let’s take a stroll through the sequencing.
Just before the first media timeout, Mitchell Smith replaces Kobe Brown, a move that replaces steady rebounding with defensive versatility. Coming out of the first commercial break, three more reserves check in: Drew Buggs, Javon Pickett and Parker Braun. Admittedly, MU’s curbed its usage of this group, but when those four bench players are in the game, there’s an effort to keep Mark Smith in the mix. Without him, MU’s half-court offense bogs down.
Once Dru Smith finishes his breather, he returns, letting Mark Smith enjoy a respite. Heading into the under-12 break, starters filter their way back. That said, the pattern doesn’t automatically cycle back to starters.
Surveying efficiency figures, inferring Martin’s intent appears straightforward: defense remains a priority. Yes, Martin’s liberalized his base offense, and MU’s pace — at least in the first six games — perked up. But that fusion still rests on a gap-based defense and winning the rebound battle.
As I’ve noted in the past, MU’s more intent on pushing off the misses it tracks down. Last season, only 10.9 percent of its field-goal attempts came within 10 seconds of a defensive board. This season, it’s doubled to 20.9 percent, per Hoop Math.
These five groups defend well and are average on the defensive glass. And for the first four games, the Tigers’ starters posted a plus-20 net rating when they were on the floor together, according to Hoop Lens data. There was a slight decline after Mitchell Smith spelled Brown, but the net rating (plus-14) remained healthy, and defensively, the Tigers turned the clamps, allowing just 0.70 PPP.
So, even if the well ran dry over a two-minute stretch — on featuring Pickett, Mitchell Smith and Braun — MU owned a safe working margin.
Against the Illini, the starters faltered, but MU’s bench carried the Tigers through, especially late in the first half with Tilmon mired in foul trouble. Instead of a blip, though, the struggles against Illinois were more of a harbinger.
In the last four games, MU’s starters are only producing 0.82 PPP and connecting on just 42 percent of their 2-point attempts. The table below, taken from Hoop Lens, lays out the grisly details.
Under those conditions, free throws aren’t a supplement. They’re the only source of life when you’re posting a 39.6 effective field goal percentage and pushing a 30 percent turnover rate. It’s also eerily reminiscent of the past two seasons where lamented how MU broke slowly out of the gate.
However, look at what happens when Mitchell Smith takes Brown’s place at combo forward.
Yes, jump-shooting is still frightening, but an 18-percentage-point improvement in 2-point shooting blunts it. And the free-throw rate indicates MU takes the same number of freebies as it makes regular field-goal attempts. Pairing point-blank shots with trips to the line is enough to push the offense’s efficiency to something approaching normal.
And all of this got me thinking: how could you amend the current rotation to inject a little bit more of that coveted efficiency.
So, I used this downtime to sketch out what that situation might resemble. The parameters were simple: use lineups that rank among the top 20 in playing time this season. In the end, this is what I produced.
I’m not unique in my willingness to bend a little bit more at the defensive end if it’s a reasonable tradeoff for a more efficient offense. The chief impediment blocking the path remains jump-shooting. Volume is the problem, either. Among MU players with ten or more spot-ups this season, a jumper ended a possession 65.4 percent of the time — or roughly the same as the average across Division I. What would constitute a significant dip for those six Tigers? Taking two fewer attempts per game.
The solution isn’t a broad edict banning 3-point shots.
Instead, I tried to accentuate what MU already does well, playing out pick-and-rolls and in transition. Doing so might involve shrinking some lineups, which is defensible given the fact that the Tigers are plus-27 when Mitchell Smith slides down to man the five spot. And so from the outset, I scoured for small-ball lineups featuring Smith.
Starters: Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson, Mitchell Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon
The margin between starting and sitting Brown is narrow — as in a 2-point difference in plus-minus for the current group when it opens a game (plus-13) and modified lineup’s handiwork (plus-15) this season. Dig into their respect efficiency ratings, and this new group grades out better defensively, allowing 19 fewer points per 100 possessions, per Hoop Lens.
A side-by-side comparison of the combo forwards tips the scales — if only slightly — toward the redshirt senior. Neither of them boasts gaudy offensive ratings, but Mitchell Smith grades out as an individual defender and improves MU’s net rating by almost three points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game.
Opting for Smith over Brown dents rebounding, but it improves rim protection. Brown’s been opportunistic in transition, while Smith shows a knack — at times — as an off-ball cutter and occasional roll-man. The change about combo forward doesn’t incur a drop-off defensively, while the offense adds a touch of off-ball diversity, especially if Mitch can slip along the baseline for dump-offs.
This lineup has also done well in some high-leverage situations. At Wichita State, it popped off a mini 4-0 spurt after the Shockers drew within 10 points and less than three minutes to go. In an otherwise dreadful performance against Tennessee, it narrowed the gap to something approaching manageable late in the first half. Before a second-half collapse in Starkville, it was part of a push midway through the first half that opened up a 14-point lead. And finally, this lineup delivered MU a victory against Bradley in the game’s closing 10 seconds.
Lineup 2: Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson, Javon Pickett, Kobe Brown and Mitchell Smith
The objective here is buying extra time to spell Mark Smith and Tilmon going into a media timeout.
Admittedly, though, the argument for this grouping hinges on its performance against Illinois, where it posted a plus-12 rating. Indeed, it lacks a spot-up threat and a traditional rim protector. That wasn’t a problem against the Illini. Facing a set defense, the Tigers ran side ball-screens to coax Kofi Cockburn out of the paint.
Its best stretch — a 7-0 run that pushed MU’s lead to 14 points — stemmed from running a staple set: a pin down for Dru on the weak-side block to free him at the top of the arc for a high pick-and-roll. Over three consecutive possessions, it teed up Dru to give the Tigers separation. He attacked a Cockburn in drop coverage for a floater. When Ayo Dosunmu was ball-watching as Smith went to work, Pickett back cut from the right wing for an easy layup. And the senior capped the run with a step-back 3 the next trip down.
It’s built to run if needed, which probably suits Pickett and Brown better than driving into a cluttered lane after a kick-out.
Lineup 3: Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, Javon Pickett, Mitchell Smith
A rested Smith returns to fashion a four-guard grouping that’s capable of toggling speeds. For example, it easily cracked Wichita State’s press late in a road victory, and it had little trouble forcing the short-handed and undersized Shockers into long, contested 2-point jumpers.
But they put also demonstrated the ability to play under control in a compelling stretch against Arkansas. They relied on a standard elbow alignment to keep the middle of the floor cleared for a pick-and-roll between Dru Smith and Mitchell Smith. Once Moses Moody sank to protect the lane, Dru stepped back for an open 3.
A couple of possessions later, they used Mitch as a ball-handler in a weave action to create a mismatch between Pinson and Davontae Davis, exploiting it with Mitch sprinting up from the block for a ball screen. With Davis unable to recover, Jaylin Williams fouled the Tigers guard after rotating over to help.
Lineup 4: Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, Javon Pickett, Mitchell Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon
At this juncture, Tilmon should be well-rested and, in theory, no more than a couple of minutes of the actual game clock has ticked away. Pickett returns briefly to give Dru his respite, even if ball-handling could get a little dicey with this backcourt.
This blend proved potent in the second half against Oregon, but it was primarily Pinson thwarting the Ducks’ would-be rally over four minutes. Since then, the lineup only logged a scoreless minute against Liberty and a lone free-throw in 30 seconds versus Bradley.
More pressure falls on Pinson to drive the offense’s creativity and make sound judgments in pick-and-rolls, but the lineup still features two more viable threats in Smith and Tilmon. Additionally, Pickett’s attack-minded off the catch, driving into gaps on half of his spot-up possessions this season.
Lineup 5: Drew Buggs, Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Kobe Brown, Jeremiah Tilmon
Hold fast. That’s this lineup’s mandate. The metrics aren't a compelling case for them to see more time. But Pinson and Mitchell Smith also need to catch their breath, and using a brief period of time going into the under-12 timeout is as good a time as any.
Again, the idea isn’t to entirely gut the existing rotation but to play to its strengths.
Over the last five games or so, Mitchell Smith’s steadily earned more playing time. A move into the starting lineup is simply meant to change who leads off the game. Meanwhile, the push to improve offensive efficiency requires paring back time for a trio who, at least in the arrangements we’ve seen, struggles in that regard.
Yet Braun remains an important backstop behind Tilmon, and certain matchups against undersized centers play to his advantage. Unless Torrence Watson suddenly heats up, it’s likely Pickett remains Mark Smith’s understudy. And Buggs is a steady conductor keeping trains on time.
The suggestions here are modest in scope: play a little smaller, emphasize cutting and attacking closeouts and continue trying to play with some pep in your step.