Zone defense isn’t man-to-man, and it isn’t manly. It’s what boys play in college and high school, what your JV team ran because the other team couldn’t shoot. No elite NBA defense could ever employ a zone with any consistency and success. Well, until one does.
The Dallas Mavericks are surrendering the league’s fourth lowest Opponent FG% (43.3%) while endeavoring to have the best zone defense in the league. It’s likely they already possess the best zone defense in NBA history. The world of NBA coaching is a thrift store for gently used ideas and people (EG- Doug Collins has a job?), so it was a brave decision for coach Rick Carlisle to devote so much time and energy to a culturally disdained and previously unsuccessful tactic. (Trivia knowledge: Zone “D” was legalized only ten years ago and was first outlawed in 1947).
But why are zones, for lack of a better word, lame? There is always an underlying tension in basketball between the team and the individual, between movement and isolation. For years the NBA has been successful in marketing its players as individual offensive virtuosos, and there’s a reason the Hip Hop culture infused basketball uber-magazine is called SLAM instead of BOUNCE PASS. Many American NBA players learn this culture along with the game, and it seems that playing zone is anathema to the in-your-face, mano y mano warrior image. Yet good defense is always communal act, and the best NBA defenses, like that of the Lakers or Celtics, go into a zone look whenever possible to disrupt strong-side pick and rolls or isolations.
But beyond the cultural belief that zone is the Vanilla Ice of defensive philosophies, there are plenty of practical reasons why zone can be impractical for an NBA team. First, you need to right (long) personnel, and if a team doesn’t play decent man-to-man defense, there’s no way a zone will make much difference. It’s not something a team can just roll out and expect to work, it takes a long-term commitment to developing zone defensive principals in limited practice time. So when the Wizards try zone with little success, it’s in large part because the back line of JaVale MacGee and Andray Blatche is about as clueless (Vale) and careless (Dray) as any outside of Manhattan. (Seriously, Dray plays like a hungover zombie: reacting slowly, then with minimal effort. In this analogy, step back jumpers would be his greasy, brain-flavored egg sandwich. If you can stomach watching him, it’s oddly fascinating.)
But for a Mavs club lacking lock-down isolation defenders, mixing in some zone maximizes the their collective intelligence and size. Preached Carlisle, “We play zone because it’s a defense that can be effective against any lineup if you know your job within the zone, if you can cover your areas and, most importantly, get your block-out assignments.” Carlisle’s veteran club can apply the complex responsibilities of his zone, and they use it judiciously for maximum effect.
Consider how many times a coach has, in describing how he plans to limit a prolific scorer, said his team will “throw a lot of different looks at him,” or how many times a commentator has uttered the cliché, “in the NBA, every team besides the Bobcats makes a run.”
Well, appropriately deployed zones wreck rhythms and ruin runs. They force an offense to find new routes to the basket, setting fire to comfortable patterns. There’s a sense on the part of the offense that the zone is a booby-trap, and only through the perfect combination of passes can the defense be unlocked. Players try to solve the puzzle, become tentative, drift from comfortable habits, and take bad shots. And it’s not just the players who are caught off guard. As Pro Training Center’s Anthony Macri put it, “I think the zone was out of the NBA for so long that a lot of the coaches stopped keeping up with ways to beat good zone.” It’s true, how much time does the typical NBA coach spend developing and practicing a comprehensive offensive system to beat the zone? Now when teams play the Mavericks, they have to prepare specifically for the zone, which takes time away from preparing to stop Dallas’s efficient offense.
But going to the zone is not a panacea, as the Wizards found out against the Lakers Tuesday night, when every negative zone connotation imaginable was realized: lack of defensive accountability and organization, inability to protect the three point line and unabated skip and entry passes. In allowing the Lakers to slap up a 156 Offensive Rating in the first quarter, the Wizards looked every bit the weak team afraid to go man. But that’s simply their identity,no matter what defense they’re in.
But the option of deploying a strong zone is a competitive advantage, and one that will likely serve Dallas well come playoff time, when it is often the team that best imposes its style of play who wins. Keep in mind how Phoenix’s zone—one vastly inferior to the Mavericks—nearly tripped up the eventual champs in last year’s Western Conference Finals. A good zone can not only turn a game, but a series. And if the Mavericks win big by springing the zone on teams in May, expect it to become a far more popular tactic next season, because even more than individual accolades, postseason success remains the greatest cultural value in professional basketball.
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