The Zone Defense Myth

I am not a zone-defense coach, but I have defended zone defense several times (here, here, and here) because there are so many misconceptions about basketball and the way that the game is taught.

One major criticism of zone defenses is that players ball-watch, while in man-defense, the argument is that players learn to watch the ball and the man.

I watched a college game tonight, and this argument is not valid. When a team plays a good zone defense, the players constantly look and talk to make sure that their teammates are aware of the offensive players. In good man defenses, the players talk and see cutters too.

The issue in terms of teaching defensive fundamentals is not man-defense vs. zone-defense. The issue is good defense vs. bad defense or well-taught defense vs. poorly-taught defense.

Zone defense itself is not a culprit of ball watching, as good zone defenders are very aware of cutters. Instead, it is poorly taught defense.

However, perception is often greater than reality. When we evaluate different aspects of basketball, we need more diligence. Rather than worry about man or zone, we need to encourage well-taught defensive fundamentals.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

4 thoughts on “The Zone Defense Myth

  • Yes, of course you’re right. The key is ALWAYS teaching defense badly or well. That’s the key to teaching any skill. I would note here, however, that the first step to teaching a sound, effective team defense is to have five players who can defend the ball. How does one best do that? Or, more precisely, in what scheme does one do that the best? Certainly in a man to man setup.

    I am familiar with your writing and I think you would agree (though I can’t be sure) that defending the ball and one’s man is not wholely and completely dependent on speed, though that always helps. Defending the ball is a lot like being able to create one’s own shot. It takes a basket of skills and a certain level of craftiness. Then having the basketball I.Q. to pull out those skills appropriately to be the most effective.

    All in all, I would vote that youth basketball coaches teach MTM defenses exclusively if for nothing else to combat the natural tendency of players to stand.

  • I think that the defense’s tendency to stand in a man-defense or zone-defense depends on the offense, to an extent. If I am playing man-defense, and my man stands in the corner to spread the court, I’m not going to move a lot unless I help on a drive to the basket. It’s like being the weak-side defender in a zone. Whether you are off the ball in a zone of man, you are guarding space. It’s your positioning that matters. If someone enters your area that you are defending, then you defend the player to defend your space. In either defense, if the ball is in your area or possessed by your man, you guard the ball. How you guard the ball generally depends on your team’s strategy – send to the baseline, send to the middle, play straight-up, no ball reversals, etc.

    That’s my main point: if you play good man-defense, you use zone concepts; if you play a good zone-defense, you use man concepts. Therefore, I don’t understand the argument that man is good and zone is bad. The biggest difference is how you defend cutters, and defending cutters in a zone is more difficult and requires better team communication than defending a cutter in man. Defending a screen differs as well, though a zone is generally just like switching the screen in man, so it only differs depending on the way that the team chooses to defend screens in man defense.

    When I watched the zone last night, defenders saw the ball and played the passing lane to their nearest offensive player. They were aware of the man and ball.

    Incidentally, the two best girls’ AAU programs in southern California right now play exclusively zone defense, and their players have gone to places like UConn, Stanford, USC, Cal, etc.

    I think zones are harder to play. That’s the primary reason why I think youth teams should play man defense. Of course, bad man defenses are as bad as bad zone defenses, which is why I think young players and novices should start with small-sided games where there are fewer choices to add complexity.

    I teach man defense because I don’t think that I teach zones well. I never played zone as a player, and I think zones are easy to play against as a player. I am biased toward man-defense. However, I don’t think zones are bad.

    I think poorly taught defensive fundamentals are bad, and I see man and zones that are equally bad. The question is which is easiest to teach and help young players be most successful, and I tend to think that man defense is the easiest. But, I also think that less is more, and instructions often confuse young players rather than improving their performance. I used a minimum amount of instruction last season, and we were pretty good defensively for our level.

  • I coach soccer and basketball(U10 in soccer, 3rd and 4th grade in basketball), in soccer we don’t keep score officially and if we did a tie would be a tie. In basketball we keep score, have over time and have a playoff at the end of the season predicated on your regular season standings. In soccer we play 6v6 not 11v11 like adults. In basketball we play on 9 foot baskets even though they are suppose to be at 8 feet for the first half of the season and we do use smaller balls.

    Why the comparison of soccer to basketball? In soccer we play zones exclusively and the game is no the less for it, offensively or defensively. The game is a smaller version of the real game, all the rules are the same, none are different with the exception of off sides.

    In basketball the league requires that we play only man to man but you can’t start until half court. You can’t double team or trap. At our last game another coach told me that switching was illegal and I should ask my girls to stop? Keep in mind that screens are allowed although they are never done without fouling.

    Every team in the league takes their best player and runs them though a high screen and that person drives to the basket without ever passing and shoots. Is this basketball? Do any kids get better other than the kids with the ball. Do the kids guarding the 3-4 players not involved become better defenders?

    The reason I have been told these rules are in place is because the girls don’t dribble well and do not have the best ball handling skills. If this is the case why are we playing 5 v 5.

    I would contend that all thing being equal a zone defense would be more condusive to dribbling, passing and movement in general. Offensive teams would try to exploit weaker players by overloading and weaker players would learn more defensively.

    Growing up playing basketball in Mass. in the 70’s – youth teams played almost exclusively zones, on 10 foot hoops with regulation size balls. Baskets weren’t easy to come by at the younger ages.

    My point is that we should modify hoop heights and number of players on the court (i.e. 3v3) to take into consideration childrens age and size and keep the rules of the games consistent. Zones, man to man, doesn’t matter as much as making sure the kids can play in the format that is being asked of them.

    Final point: I would contend that the rules in my league are in place because at one point the children of the decision makers were not scoring as much as they liked and the rules where modified in the name of “developing” players. My thought is that the adults like the game to be in the 20’s versus a 6-8 barn burner.

  • The bottom line is the issue has much less to do with the game of basketball and everything to do with how children learn. In essence, the man-to-man defense carried out by children almost always devolves into chaos. The principles of pedagogy (or the study of how teach a child) have clearly established that children do not flourish or demonstrate a capability to build solutions in a chaotic environment. So, if you goal is provide the child (perhaps 1st grade through the 4th grade) a venue in which to learn the rules of and more importantly conceptualize the game of basketball then a indoctrination in the zone defense is the best course of action.

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