P. LEAGUE+ & T1 LEAGUE/Beyond the record: How Caminos, Pilots are confounding P.LEAGUE+
By Chao Yen-hsiang, CNA staff writer
The buzzer blared in Fengshan Arena, sounding the end to a P.LEAGUE+ (PLG) game on Jan. 6. Instead of heading to the locker room, the victorious Taoyuan Pauian Pilots' players slowly gathered around big man Chen Kuan-chuan (陳冠全) at the center of the floor.
The buzz had faded, but its echoes still lingered in the Pilots' ears. Then Chen snapped a group selfie, and grins broke out on the players' faces, content in the knowledge that they had set a new standard for success.
Their 110-97 victory over the Kaohsiung 17LIVE Steelers that night ran their winning streak to nine, beating the old PLG mark of eight set during the league's first season in 2020-2021 by the Taipei Fubon Braves.
Over a week later on Jan. 15, they would win their 10th straight, defeating the Formosa Taishin Dreamers 93-76 to head into the six-team league's Lunar New Year break at 11-3, tied with the 12-4 New Taipei Kings for the top spot.
Nobody saw the Pilots reaching such heights so quickly when they named Iurgi Caminos, who led the Taichung Suns to the finals of the rival T1 LEAGUE last season, as their new head coach on July 1, 2022.
The Pilots had finished sixth in the PLG in 2021-2022 with an abysmal 7-22 record, and they did little to retool their roster in the offseason.
But the 44-year-old Spaniard has transformed the team by defying the conventional wisdom in Taiwan's pro basketball circles that foreign players (categorized as "imported" players) offer the fastest way to turn a team around.
Instead, he has given Taiwanese players bigger roles and emphasized the importance of teamwork, especially on defense.
In the opinion of Shih Chin-yao (施晉堯), the Pilots' captain, Caminos' emphasis on teamwork has enabled the team to perform as one rather than as a group of individuals.
Elite team defense
The Pilots' defense, keyed by the team's deep bench and rotation of players, has been a particularly bright spot, holding opponents to only 83.4 points per game. No other PLG team has given up fewer than 91 a game.
"We use 10 or 11 players in the main parts of every game. That gives us a lot of energy and rhythm, and our players with the most minutes average only 32 minutes a game," Caminos told CNA.
Not relying on imported big men to protect the rim has also led to tighter team defense, said PLG analyst Hu Chun-chi (胡鈞期).
"The Pilots' league-low average of two blocks per game suggests that instead of relying on individuals they play good team defense and create turnovers," Hu said.
Taoyuan forces a league-best 17.7 turnovers a game, which are converted into 11.3 points per game, both tops in the PLG.
"The Pilots rarely take risks. They don't jump out for blocks or go for steals, and the strength of their teamwork is reflected by their consistent numbers no matter who's playing," Hu said.
The emphasis on local talent is doubly important given the quirks in the PLG's rules. Only two imported players can be on the floor for a PLG team at any one time, and only one per team is allowed in the final quarter.
It is no surprise then, that Pilot lineups with only one import, whether Jeff Ayres, Sani Sakakini, or Jason Washburn, ranked first, second, and sixth in the PLG defensively, yielding 85.8, 92.7, and 102.1 points per 100 possessions, respectively, according to GC.Basket.
"Generally, the Pilots put a lot of pressure on the ball, making it hard for opponents to pass it, and when opponents drive to the rim, the Pilots' imports contest the shots and let the team grab the rebounds," said Ryan Chen (陳瑞恩), anchor of the PLG's English channel.
Caminos also finds a balance between imports and locals on the offensive end.
As of Jan. 15, Washburn was averaging 20.9 points per game, only the eighth highest among foreign players who had played at least five games, while Sakakini and Ayres were at the bottom at 16.2 and 16 points a game, respectively.
The Pilots' second leading scorer is Justin Lu (盧峻翔), whose 18.4 points per game and 17.4 shots per game are the highest among PLG local players.
"Always locals are the key, in Taiwan and around the world. Without a good local roster you can't be a competitive team every week," Caminos said.
That has been especially evident during the winning streak.
Pilots' imports took 36.8 percent of the team's shots, notched 45.8 percent of the team's points, and played 33.2 percent of the team's minutes in the Pilots' first two losses, but those numbers fell to 30.8 percent, 35.4 percent, and 24.1 percent in the next 12 games as Caminos started going with single-import lineups more frequently.
Caminos said he had been considering the possibility of a single-import starting lineup after some preseason games when Lin Cheng (林正) played really well with Washburn to fill the space left open by Sakakini's late arrival.
Numbers aside, the role of the Pilots' imports in the offense has also been distinct from that seen on other teams, both Chen and Hu said.
According to Chen, the Pilots do not ask their imports to be offensive catalysts who create with the ball in their hand.
Instead, they let their foreign players catch the ball at the high post, where they can threaten to shoot, drive to the basket, or pass the ball to either side, he said.
Hu said the Pilots' imports can be just effective as decoys as they are scorers.
"Their flair for scoring enables them to draw defenders and create opportunities for teammates to get easier shots," Hu said.
"This may be the first team I've seen in the past few years play team basketball so well," he added, describing the Pilots as playing "a European style worth being emulated by other pro teams."
That style has delivered the most improbable of turnarounds that has turned the Pilots into top contenders in the PLG.
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