Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 1: Transition

The hyper-speed of Whitman’s RP3 offense

Unless you care deeply about small-college basketball or live near the Oregon/Washington border, this might be the first time you’re reading the name Eric Bridgeland. Bridgeland, to my eyes, is quietly working on something miraculous in Walla Walla. Whitman plays in the Northwest Conference in Division III. Here’s how their conference tournament worked from 1994 through 2014:

 

And here’s how it’s been after Eric Bridgeland has gone 76-4 in NWC play over the last five years, including 48-0 the last three:

What was once a conference and region dominated by Whitworth (who ranked as the 29th-most efficient offense in America this year and resides three hours from Whitman) is now Whitman’s each year. Prior to the Bridgeland hire in 2008, Whitman had won 24 games total across its previous four seasons and had one 20+ win season in school history. They won 28 games this season alone and marked their fifth-straight 20+ win season, despite a Sweet Sixteen exit in the Division III Tournament. Bridgeland’s 2016-17 Whitman team was also the first West Coast team to participate in the Division III Final Four since 1982. Whether you agree or disagree with a ton of transition play, it’s working very well for Bridgeland.

As noted in the introduction to this post, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all offense. No basketball offense will ever be perfect, and no offense will objectively solve this sport. That said, subjectively, this is the perfect and ideal offense for me. For the unfamiliar, welcome to Whitman Blues basketball, a Division III school that’s shredding scoreboards in Walla Walla, Washington.

Whitman ranked out as the 14th-most efficient college basketball offense this year nationwide, which is a great accomplishment in itself. This is before you hear the part about them scoring 103.3 points per game on an 86-possession pace, which would be the highest per-game score by any Division 1 team since 1990-91. Of the 1,385 other qualifying men’s college basketball teams in the Synergy Sports database, Whitman scored more points per game than 1,382 of them. Pretty good, if you ask me. If you use Synergy’s metric that includes offensive rebounds as separate possessions, no other team in America that had 100 or more possessions per game scored more points per possession than Whitman.

So: how do they do it? There’s a lot of good ideas going on at once, but there’s three commonalities between the vast majority of great transition offenses: shot selection, shot volume, and shot efficiency. In name, they’ve all got to do with shooting the basketball, but it goes past that surface-level name assumption. We’ll break them down one-by-one, with help from Whitman head coach Eric Bridgeland.

Shot Selection. Of all the great transition offenses I’ve researched in Division 1 from 2015-16 onward – meaning 25% or more of their attempts were in transition and they had an eFG% of 60% or greater – just four of 22 offenses got fewer than 80% of their transition attempts from layups, dunks, or threes. In fact, just as many offenses got 91% or more of their attempts from these shots. The average of these 22 teams: 87% of their shots were layups, dunks, or threes. Rarely, if ever, did you see these teams pull up for a 14-foot jumper.

Whitman was no stranger to this. 90.4% of the Blues’ attempts in transition were layups, dunks, or threes, with 51% of these attempts being layups or dunks:

It’s kind of funny, but Bridgeland somewhat rejects the idea of true shot selection. “We don’t ever talk about shot selection. When you have more possessions, shot selection isn’t all that critical. What we try to do is show them our percentages and have a balance. If you shoot a forced three, okay, but let’s make sure we’re also getting to the paint.” However, don’t count this as an outright dismissal. Bridgeland makes sure his players know what the right shots are: “We show them over and over again what the best shots in basketball are and their percentages. We tell them in 50,000 different ways, and gradually, they keep growing towards eliminating bad shots.”

Whitman came to these transition possessions from several different ways. The most obvious of these, as it is with most teams, is the turnover:

Whitman forced an astounding 718 turnovers in 30 games, or just over 23.9 per game. This came out to a 27.9% defensive TO%, which would be the highest D-1 rate since 2012-13 VCU. (This is how you outscore opponents by 22.4 points per game despite having a FG% that was only 1.9% better than their opponents.) Synergy doesn’t have a simple way to figure out how many of Whitman’s transition points came from turnovers versus rebounds or made shots. Based on Hoop-Math data, no team got more than 30% of their shots in transition from turnovers. Still, that’s a big 30%.

This aggressive defense lends itself to an aggressive offense. Bridgeland calls it RP3: Run, Paint, Pressure, Possessions. In order: “We run, and we get to the paint. Pressure is huge, because a big part of the transition game is creating turnovers to run. We’re about creating as many possessions as we possibly can.” What fascinates me is how deeply Whitman is determined to live at one speed: fast. “We don’t have a secondary offense. We get to the paint, and we get there as fast as humanly possible,” says Bridgeland. “It seems to me that if there’s a secondary, you’re taking your foot off the gas. I don’t know why you’d set anything up that way.”

Rarely do you see numbers like this in Division 1 anymore, and Bridgeland is baffled by that: “If you want to be the very best at transition offense, you have to be attacking with your defense as well. It’s hard to be a big-time transition team when you’re not attacking defensively.”

Getting out quickly off of a turnover leads to more open shots, but Whitman was able to do this after both made and missed shots, too. Look at the open threes they’re getting after opponent misses:

Better yet, look at how aggressive Joey Hewitt (#3) is after a missed shot to get this bucket and the foul:

Getting to the line early and often is preached by Bridgeland, who notes “any possession with a foul is the best possession in the game.” Of the 30 fastest teams in America, per Synergy, no team had a higher FTA/FGA ratio than Whitman, who attempted 0.402 free throws for every field goal attempt. Translated for easier understanding: Whitman attempted over 29 free throws per game. Of course, it would’ve helped if they’d hit more than 67.7% of them (3% below the D-1 average), but getting the attempts in the first place helps. “If you’re in the paint and going to the rim, you’re drawing defenders. If you’re drawing defenders, that scrambles their defensive rebounders. This leads to more fouls,” says Bridgeland.

A lot of what you see stems from various offseason drills, including this three-line passing drill Bridgeland showcases in an instructional video:

Bridgeland doesn’t necessarily force his players into lanes, but he builds his transition offense off the back of excellent spacing around the perimeter, as you saw in that first GIF:

Every player on Whitman is asked to run, and every player is asked to take good shots. If they don’t, it’s pretty easy to bench them – no Blues player averaged more than Austin Butler’s 23.5 minutes per game in 2018-19, while eleven players got double-digit minutes per game. Take good shots!

Shot Volume. It’s one thing to take good shots and make them. However, chances are you’re going to have a less-than-good night from the floor at some point. Maybe your threes are rattling out, not in; maybe you have a very efficient player who’s missed three layups in a half. It happens for every single team in America. Here’s how you combat that: you get as many shots and as many separate possessions as you can in the first place. This is termed Shot Volume, with John Gasaway creating the original and relatively simple equation that coaches, players, and fans can memorize:

Shot Volume = OREB% + (100 – TO%)

For instance, the average Shot Volume in 2018-19 D-1 basketball was 109.9 (if you prefer, 1.099); only 11 of the 353 D-1 teams finished at 118 or better. Whitman posted a 119.7 Shot Volume during their 2018-19 season, which would’ve been the #2 rate among D-1 teams this year. While Synergy and the individual team site doesn’t separate OREB% numbers by transition versus half-court, plays like this will help you safely assume Whitman was just as good at offensive rebounding in transition as they were overall (35.4% OREB%, would rank #16 in D-1):

Rebounding is just one half of it, though. Among the ten best teams by PPP nationally that topped 20+ transition possessions per game, all but one was better than the national average in TO%, while four of the ten ranked among the ten best teams nationally in TO%. The average TO% of these ten teams in transition: 12.8%, or a full 2.2% lower than Synergy’s nnational average. Moral of the story: not turning the ball over shores up a lot of potential issues.

Whitman’s TO% in transition, per Synergy, was 14.6% – a little higher than that ten-best average, but still below the national rate. Unsurprisingly, Bridgeland had a stat for this: “our turnovers were 80% less frequent going off of two feet versus one in the paint.” Sounds easy enough.

Making the Shots. Obviously, this is the most critical part of the equation, but it’s not the only part. Elite transition offenses are able to do all three parts of this, with the best of the best hitting good shots. Of the ten best 20+ possession transition offenses this past season, none posted below a 60% eFG% (the lowest of these would’ve ranked #46 overall in D-1), and all of the top ten were, at worst, in the top 30 of these 175 teams nationally in eFG%. (Whitman was #5.)

However, this is where I note something special: eFG% is NOT FG%. FG% is the same equation we’ve used forever: your field goal makes divided by your field goal attempts. eFG% is different, and this is the equation:

(2PM + (1.5 x 3PM))/FGA

Unsurprisingly, Whitman was pretty good at making shots.

eFG% places a premium on your three-pointers, which makes it nice that Whitman hit 42.6% of their transition three-point attempts. It also helps that, unsurprisingly, way more of their transition attempts were open: 50.8%, per Synergy, versus 37.2% in half-court. Bridgeland urges his team to look for open shots like these: “College basketball players should be able to take dribbles and get to the paint one-on-one or take a jump shot. If we don’t make it to the paint, we swing it out for two passes to the other side, and we attack again. It’s incredibly simple.” I’d say it worked pretty well.

To wrap it up, Bridgeland likes to encourage other coaches looking to draw inspiration from his offense. “It’s so interesting to me that our stuff is so simple and even my best friends say “we can stop that.” And I’m like, really? We have the highest win percentage of any program in college basketball over the last four years at a college in the middle of Washington that costs almost $70,000 a year to attend.” Not every team will be able to run at 80+ possessions a game, but just about every team can draw ideas and inspiration from the electric Whitman Blues offense. Any offense that produces moments like this:

Sure seems like it’s fun for you, your players, and your fans. Bridgeland left me with one final, and noteworthy, quote: “Keep it as simple as you can possibly keep it and be aggressive with it.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s