Can You Play Zone Defence In Nba

James Lee
• Thursday, 10 December, 2020
• 8 min read

Making statements based on opinion; back them up with references or personal experience. A couple of years ago, a zone defense, unless it was being played by the Dallas Mavericks, looked completely bizarre in an NBA game.

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(Source: canucksarmy.com)


And a well-timed zone possession could be just what a defense needs to take the opponent out of its rhythm. “There’s a reason teams don’t run it all the time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

The Dallas Mavericks have been playing a healthy share of zone for several years now. When they won the championship nine years ago, the Mass played almost 800 possessions of zone in the regular season.

And this year, they’ve played almost twice as much zone (764 possessions, according to Synergy) as any other team. The game turned when Dallas went scoreless on its first five possessions (all against zone) of the fourth quarter, but that was with both Luka Ionic and Kris taps Mornings off the floor, and the Mass got some decent shots in that stretch.

The players at the top of the zone are high and active, running shooters off the 3-point line. The Toronto Raptors have played the second most possessions of zone this season.

And they’ve been slightly more successful with it (0.94 points allowed per possession, seventh in the league) than the Heat (0.97, 10th). Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked about the personnel needed to be successful playing zone at a high volume.

(Source: betterbasketball.com.au)

Interestingly, Nurse’s Raptors are the team against whom zone defenses have been most effective. According to Synergy, the champs have scored just 0.76 points per possession against zone, compared to 0.97 against man-to-man.

The most common usage of a zone defense is in the first possession after a timeout. In those situations, the coach of the offense has often drawn up a play to get an open shot.

Over the last several weeks, the same question was posed to some coaches and players: “If you come out of a timeout and the opposing defense is in zone, do you run the play that you drew up, or do you audible into a zone set?” If it’s a team that that does it sporadically, and they do it to take away your timeout, you’d like to have one that works against man and zone.

“The hard thing to convince NBA players is that, even if they are in a zone, still run the play that we called. Brett Brown, Mixers head coach: I want to run, by and large, the same thing.

It’s ‘Run the play, and this is what you’re going to be looking at if they’re in a zone.’ Because toucan really scout and know if teams do that more than they don’t. Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies head coach: “Obviously, when it’s thrown out as a surprise, I try to get the guys to just execute the play.

But here are a few where toucan see the “something” that they run, a “wheel” action to put pressure on the defenders on the left side of the floor… The Pacers got a wide-open corner three from Doug McDermott against the Spurs’ zone on Monday with a similar overload of the left side of the floor.

We may not see it for three quarters of a game (like when the Heat played the Raptors in early January), but every possession counts in the postseason and a few possessions of zone could affect the result of a game or two. Good zones can limit the numbers of fouls you commit.

This means you can keep your better players on the floor for a longer period of time. Zone makes it easier to protect players in foul trouble.

The zone requires good passing and few players possess the passing skills needed to effectively beat a zone. There are fewer offenses against the zone, therefore it takes less time for you to prepare defensively.

Certain players don't have to work as hard in the zone, making fatigue less of an issue. The offense can take advantages of mismatches by putting their best player in the zone area” of the opponents' weakest defender.

It's more difficult to figure out which person to block out when in a zone defense. Playing in a zone defense will LIMIT your players' development.

You might win more games by playing zone, but from a development standpoint do the right thing and play man to man defense with your youth team. If you'd like to dig deeper and get more information about developing an effective 2-3 zone defense, we highly recommend Al Marshall's Zone Defense.

But it's easy to avoid by simply moving your foot out of the lane. This in combination with the fact that it's hard to watch makes it very rarely called.

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Americans can be slow to adopt European approaches, so the NBA’s halting embrace of the zone defense is not surprising. But since a rule change 14 years ago it’s become an increasing part of teams’ arsenal, and zone principles are now key in defending the pick-and-roll, the league’s primary offensive scheme.

Though it was invented in America and used in high school and college basketball, the NBA long looked down their nose at zone defense, seeing it as a tacit admission of inferior talent. “I personally grew up thinking zone defense wasn’t allowed in the gym,” says New York Knicks coach Derek Fisher.

This was the heyday of back-to-the basket players like Mark Aguirre and Charles Barkley, who’d back their man down for seconds at a time, slowing game action to a crawl. To get the game moving again, the league initiated new rules limiting physical contact and lifting restrictions on zone defense.

These days, all that remains of the once Byzantine illegal defense rules is a stricture against standing in the lane without guarding a man for more than three seconds. Loosening the rules has allowed the best defensive minds developing tough double-team schemes where players rotate their assignments.

Led by coaches like Tim Thoreau, formerly of the Bulls, teams have developed hybrid man-zones that flood the ball-side and leave two weak-side defenders covering three guys. These rules change, in concert with the increased use of three-pointers, has moved the game in the direction of the free-flowing style Europeans have played for years.

It’s no coincidence that the last three NBA champions outside of LeBron James-led teams (whose game more mimics the old-school one-on-one isolation days) employed aspects of this international style. This included lots of zones (2011 Dallas Mavericks), a ball-movement, pass-heavy approach (2014 San Antonio), and taking an inordinate amount of three-point shots (2015 Golden State Warriors).

“ You see so many young kids with size developing face-up games that include the ability to drive and shoot from distance,” says Eric Flannery, who won a gold medal two years ago helping coach top US high school players internationally with USA Basketball. It’s certainly opened up the game, and has been a boon even to someone like Van Grundy, who entered the league long before the rules changed.

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