When you think of zone defense, the first thing that comes to mind might be high school or college basketball.
The NBA has always been a predominantly man-to-man league, as it’s a more effective long-term antidote to the most prolific offenses on the planet.
However, zone defense has crept into many coaches’ game plans during the past couple of seasons. They’ve used different looks to shake things up and force offenses to make unforeseen adjustments. NBA teams turned to zone on more possessions in 2018-19 than the previous two seasons combined, and we’ve already seen a bunch of zone again this season.
As a Syracuse native and lifelong Orange follower, I’ve witnessed both the upside and pitfalls of coach Jim Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone against college foes throughout the years. It often flummoxed opponents who couldn’t adequately prepare for Syracuse’s length and execution. Conversely, well-trained squads knifed through it and rendered it feeble.
There are similar risks and upsides to deploying zone in the NBA as well.
By nature, a collective zone defense makes it more difficult for teams to run their usual sets and screens. It also makes life tougher for slashers to drive into the lane. The tradeoff is that it yields gaps on the weak side, high post and perimeter if it’s not run perfectly.
Thus, NBA teams use zones as a change-of-pace look, NOT as their base defense. Once professional players get over their couple minutes of unease, their elite skills coupled with high-level coaching overcomes any zone and necessitates returning to man defense—and even that is deployed with plenty of wrinkles and changing coverages.
I examined a couple of NBA teams that run zone better than most to observe how they used it. Different zone schemes have unique benefits and shortcomings. Some opponents handle these formations better than others, and one club stands out as a particularly effective zone-buster so far in 2019-20.
The Toronto Raptors turned heads when Nick Nurse sporadically implemented a “box-and-1” defense against the Golden State Warriors during last year’s NBA Finals.
Few expected it, so most fans initially viewed it as gimmicky—which is how some view any deployment of zones at this level. However, it was successful during several sequences because it threw the Dubs out of their rhythm. It was part of Nurse’s commendable all-around coaching performance that helped guide Toronto to the Promised Land.
It’s tricky to break down an unorthodox defense that you don’t have much tape on—even for a coach like Steve Kerr and a talented crew like the Warriors. Toronto switched from man-to-man to a box-and-1 so they could constantly tail Curry and force Golden State to change their sets. Nurse took advantage of a Dubs squad that was missing a couple of its best weapons and honed in on Curry.
Toronto’s defensive curveball effectively neutralized Steph and slowed down the Warriors’ tempo. It forced other players to try and create opportunities, as Drawing the Defense demonstrates:
Those who watched the Raptors closely throughout 2018-19 weren’t dumbfounded that Nurse tried an unconventional defense in the Finals. He ran both a 2-3 and a 3-2 defense at times last season, and he’s sprinkled them in again this season.
The 3-2 zone differs from the 2-3 in both its assignments and rotations. It takes away many drives and shots from the wing and top of the key, but proper positioning is crucial.
Toronto does a solid job using its top three defenders to coordinate checking the ball-handlers and the high post. This aims to prevent offenses from collapsing the zone from the inside-out. Nurse’s 3-2 also exhibits sharp rotations most of the time, which isn’t a cinch in that formation.
For example, one of the most important roles for the weak-side wing is to drop down and help along the baseline if the ball is on the opposite side of the floor. If the weak-side low man has to step up and protect the middle of the paint, someone needs to protect the back door.
TBW’s schematic savant Adam Spinella illustrates that rotation here. Fred VanVleet dropped down to negate a potential drive-and-dish hookup between Trae Young and John Collins, forcing Young into a jump-pass that Kyle Lowry intercepted:
Nurse’s variety of zones aren’t invincible, however. Offenses intermittently solve them with crisp side-to-side ball movement and decisive drives. It also helps to have highly skilled forwards and bigs who can pass and shoot over the zone confidently.
The Lakers have a few such players in LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma.
In the following clip, Kuzma put pressure on the Raps’ 2-3 zone off the bounce, then flipped the rock to Quinn Cook at the top of the key. Cook made a no-hesitation drive in the gap, generating a high-percentage opportunity for The Brow:
Cook’s decisiveness is what really imploded the zone on that play, and then Davis ensured the scoring chance was converted. Toronto doesn’t face the likes of AD and LeBron every night, but L.A. has demonstrated how to crack a zone on several occasions (more to come on that).
The entire Heat organization isn’t afraid to do approach things a bit differently than the rest of the league. That includes Erik Spoelstra’s defensive tendencies and gambles.
Miami has intermittently deployed zone quite a bit over their last few seasons. They like to throw different looks at opponents in after timeout (ATO) situations, thwarting any sets drawn up for man-to-man defense.
“I have so much respect for Erik Spoelstra,” an NBA scout told Sports Illustrated. “They played more zone than anyone last year, and it just helped them junk up and get wins.”
Instead of putting the 1-guard and 2-guard at the top of the zone like many pro and college teams do, Spoelstra often prioritizes length at the top of his 2-3 formation. He’ll often place a pair of 6’6″ wings like Justise Winslow and Derrick Jones Jr. at the top, while shorter guards like Goran Dragic or Tyler Herro check the corners.
The Heat’s length at the top is designed to prevent the type of dribble penetration that frequently shreds man-to-man defenses. Against unprepared or under-prepared foes, the zone forces contested outside shots.
However, certain opponents can foil Miami’s zone and render it less effective or even counter-productive. As previously mentioned, the Lakers seem to have the personnel and collaboration to execute against it. L.A.’s all-world megastars handled Miami’s switch to zone smoothly during its November 8 victory over the Heat.
James surgically dissected the zone with his passing, and Davis was able to comfortably shoot over it from all three levels. Watch James expertly split the top of the zone with a hot-potato pass to give Davis an open look at the high post, followed by a great cut-and-dish sequence by the same duo:
In the following sequence against the Lakers, another downside of zone is revealed: defensive rebounding. Since there aren’t as many defined matchups in zone, players occasionally fail to box out.
Davis capitalized on this miscue:
It should be noted that Miami was missing both Winslow and Jones Jr. during Friday’s tilt, so its defense wasn’t at full strength. Sometimes, sub-optimal personnel can undo a zone more than anything else.
If the Heat keep leaning on a substantial diet of zone, opponents will gradually make adjustments. Miami won’t be able to simply implement it and confuse offenses.
But Spoelstra will undoubtedly make counter-adjustments, which is what makes the NBA’s chess matches continuously fascinating.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball