I never played on a team that played zone defense, and I developed with the mindset that teams only play zone defense if they do not think that they can guard the opponent man-to-man.
However, as I began to coach, I realized that man-defense and zone-defense are very similar. When I coached in a professional women’s league in Sweden, we upset one of the top-ranked teams in the last game before the All-Star teams were announced. The Swedish National Team coach was in attendance. Our opponent had four players who were likely to make the All-Star Game (one played at LSU and the other at Miami). We won by 20+ points and held them below 50 points (averaged over 70ppg). After the game, their coach told them that their performance cost them an All-Star selection. Actually, it probably cost them one spot, as we received two selections, and they had three players represented even though we swept them on the season by double-digits in both games.
At the All-Star Game (I was the Head Coach and these players were on my team), we went out to dinner on the night before the game and the players asked me what type of defense we played against them. They guessed that it was a triangle-and-two and then a 2-3-zone. We played man-to-man defense. However, to me, every good man defense is a zone defense, and every good zone defense is a man defense.
At that level, I scouted opponents and game-planned our defense to take away our opponents’ strengths. That was our second time facing them, and we always defended better in the second game because I had a chance to scout based on the first game, whereas I did not always get to see an opponent live or on tape before our first meeting. Against this team, we fronted their strong post player and sagged off their forward who was not an outside shooting threat. They typically had a strong-side triangle or high-low involving their three best players, so we defended those three tightly and used the other two to play lots of help defense, daring their two weaker players to shoot.
At the high school level, my strategy is far more general. This season, rather than starting with specifics of rotations and movements and slides, I started with a general philosophy: force low-percentage shots.
When I played, we never had a general philosophy. The unstated goal, of course, was not to allow the opponent to score. During my J.V. season, our coach’s goal was 50 points allowed, and we ran a sprint for every point over 50 that we allowed.
There is no defense to prevent the opponent from shooting or to generate a steal on every possession. Therefore, as a coach, I am conceding that our opponent will shoot. My goal defensively is to dictate where the shots are taken.
To force low-percentage shots, we strove to do three things: prevent lay-ups, limit free throws and eliminate catch-and-shoot three-pointers. We never practiced weak-side rotations. However, we practiced contesting a lay-up in transition without fouling. We did not practice a traditional closeout; however, we practiced running at a shooter and forcing the drive.
While we defended a man, we really defended areas of the court. We defended the paint, meaning that off-ball defenders were prepared to help if someone had a lane to the basket even though we never worked on the proper rotations or the exact spot to stand (we never did the shell drill in the entire season). We defended the lane to the basket.
On the ball, the first goal was to eliminate the catch-and-shoot three-pointer, even if it meant giving up the drive. If our on-ball defender had good defensive position, she played the lane to the basket, not just the player. If the offensive player started to drive, our defender’s goal was not to stop her on her first dribble, but to keep her out of the paint. These are different goals.
If the opponent took one hard dribble and stopped for a 16-foot pull-up jump shot, we played good defense. We believed that a team could not beat us with two-point jump shots because we would make a couple three-pointers and shoot a lot of free throws. Even a good shooting team (50%) from the mid-range area would not beat us without making some three-pointers and free throws.
All of these thoughts and strategies crystallized as I played in my 4v4 men’s league game last night. We play a 2-2 zone and as experienced players, we rotate and cover the ground pretty well. We were playing a bigger, slower team and we started off slowly, as they passed the ball around the perimeter and into the high post and forced us to chase.
Rather than allow them to walk the ball up court, I extended into the back court. I did not guard the man, but I guarded a lane. I forced the ball away from the area of the court that I left open. If they tried to pass over my head, I forced a lob pass, which gave me time to recover, or I stole the pass. By extending the defense, we gave up some open shots. However, these shots were typically runners from 15-feet or angled 18-foot jump shots. More important, these shots were taken when we had 3-4 defenders, while they had 2-3 offensive players.
On the first couple possessions, we gave up several offensive rebounds that led to most of their early points. Once we extended the defense, their rebounds diminished. While it appeared that we gave up open shots, we created advantages for our defense. They took hurried 18-foot jump shots which increased the pace (our advantage) and limited their offensive rebound opportunities. Sure, they made a couple jump shots, but they were the shots that we (I) could live with because they shot a low percentage and we easily compensated for the made shots with a couple steals for lay-ups.
Most coaches spend a lot of time on specifics with the approach to eliminate all shots or create turnovers on every possession. However, what if you do not create the turnover? What if the other team gets open shots? Are they the shots that you want to give up or the shots that they want to take? Do your players know the difference? Do your players know your defensive philosophy? Is the philosophy realistic?
When creating a defensive strategy, you cannot plan only for the best possible outcome (steal for a breakaway lay-up) but also have to plan for the worst possible outcome (2v1 fast break vs a press or an open shot vs a half-court defense). When your players know how to react in these situations and defend with a purpose, then you have a tough defensive team regardless of the original strategy (man, zone, press).
By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League<