Tag: Zone Defense

Wade, Zone defense, mavericks

Should the NBA ban zone defenses? No.


It was 10 years ago that the NBA started allowing a modified zone defense to be played in the NBA. It’s not a pure zone — you can’t park Dwight Howard in the paint, there’s a defensive three seconds — but more and more teams are using some form of match zones. The Mavericks may have been the heaviest users in the league last season.

Over at the Sun Sentinel, Ira Winderman suggests the league would be better if it did away with the zone.

While this might come off as a somewhat parochial quibble, isn’t the entire point of NBA play to feature the star players, to provide the best possible canvas for the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and other perimeter scorers to thrive with their athleticism? While zone defenses can mask individual defensive deficiencies, the NBA is as much an entertainment product as an athletic endeavor. As it is, the NBA still bans true 2-3 or 2-1-2 zones because the player in the middle of such alignments can go no more than 3 seconds without actively defending another player. In other words, the NBA still does not allow true zone defense. In that vein, returning to a truer man-on-man approach could enhance the game and open up scoring, creating a more visually appealing product.

I disagree with my man Ira, and that last sentence is the key — a lack of zones did not create a more visually appealing product.

What the rules then led to is a lot of isolation basketball, something we saw too much of through the 1990s. Because if you had to cover the Thunder man-to-man, and I were Scott Brooks, I’d run Druant and Russell Westbrook isolations all day long? It’s not pretty, but as a coach my job is to win. How you going to stop those two? Teams tried by figuring out ways to play a zone while looking man-to-man, but it just all was not fluid or fun to watch.

I like the added bit of a chess match a zone provides. I like what it does to the game. I don’t want a pure zone because watching Andrew Bynum camp out in the lane for 24 seconds is not fun either, but don’t do away with it all together.

NBA Playoffs: Heat move ball, make shots, play defense, draw first blood

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat - Game One

Coming into the NBA Finals, everyone was expecting a battle between Dallas’ smooth, sweet-shooting, ball-movement heavy offense and Miami’s aggressive, swarming, athletic, grinding defense.

Not only did the low-scoring game go the way the Heat wanted it to, but the Heat flipped the script on the Mavericks and beat them in the areas Dallas was supposed to have the biggest advantage in: ball movement and three-point shooting. The result was a 92-84 Heat win.

Right from the beginning of the game, it became apparent that the Mavericks haven’t seen a defense like Miami’s in this playoffs, and that it’s going to be a struggle for them to get easy baskets in this series. Miami swarmed the ball-handler, set good traps, brought hard doubles at Dirk Nowitzki whenever he had the ball, overloaded the strong side and recovered back to the weak-side shooters at an impossibly fast rate.

Overall, the Mavericks never got the space they needed to be effective on offense, and only shot 16-45 (35.6%) on two-point jump shots. The Heat didn’t play great offensively either, failing to crack the 40% mark from the field, but they managed to survive by winning the battle on the boards, moving the basketball, and knocking down three-point shots as well as they have all playoffs long.

Every team’s defensive strategy against the Heat is to pack the paint and force Miami to beat them from the outside, and Miami’s shooters have had mixed success when they’ve been asked to knock down the open shots created by Bosh, James, and Wade. Against Dallas and their zone defense, moving the ball and knocking down threes is even more important for Miami than it was against Chicago and Miami, and Miami’s shooters were up to the task.

Mike Bibby made some Miami fans nervous early by missing all four three-point shots he took, with three of those four misses coming in the first quarter, but his teammates were there to pick up the slack. Mario Chalmers came off the bench to pour in three three-pointers without a moment’s hesitation. Mike Miller, who has looked like a completely new man since his breakout game against Chicago, showed no hesitation whatsoever and hit half of his four threes.

LeBron made four of his five threes, with two of those threes coming off the dribble and one of them being a ridiculous 25-foot fadeaway drifting right that took the Heat lead from one to four as the third quarter came to a close. Wade pitched in two threes of his own, including a tough fadeaway with just over three minutes to go that put the Heat up by nine and essentially ended the game.

Miami needed to make Dallas feel their defense and work for every one of their points, and they did. On offense, they needed to move the ball and hit shots to beat Dallas’ zone, and they did. It was only one game, and the Heat didn’t even shoot 40%, but they successfully set a blueprint for what they need to do in order to get past the Mavericks and win LeBron James and Chris Bosh their first rings.

Dallas is in the zone. Literally.

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat
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The Miami Heat have just one loss in their last 16 games.

Courtesy the new and improved Dallas Mavericks. A team that has actually swept the Heat this season and racked up wins against the Thunder, Magic, Jazz (twice) and the Spurs. And that is all in basically the last month alone.

(Yes, the Mavericks lost Tuesday night to the lowly Toronto Raptors, but that was the second night of a back-to-back and having to play without Dirk Nowitzki. Yes, they probably still should have won, but even good teams get to write off a few isolated bad games a season.)

Maverick backers are starting to believe that this season is different. That the team’s early play proves the point.

Right now, Dallas is in the zone. Because they are in the zone. Literally.

Dallas’ offense this season is pretty much just as productive, just as efficient as last season. The defense is the difference. Dallas is giving up 3.2 points per 100 possessions fewer this season compared to last (according to Hoopdata), moving them from a middle-of-the-pack NBA defense to seventh right now.

The Mavericks have made two big defensive changes this season. One is bringing in Tyson Chandler who, when healthy, is one of the better rim protectors and defensive centers in the game. And he has stayed healthy (that sound you hear is Mavs fans knocking on wood).

The other is they have adopted playing a matchup-zone defense more than maybe any other team in the NBA.

Zone defenses have been considered an NBA gimmick — you could run it for a few minutes to throw a team off balance, but once they adjusted it was too easy to rip apart. However, teams have started to stick with it longer (see the Suns in the Western Conference finals against the Lakers last year).

What Dallas does (and other teams are starting to do also) is different. For basketball junkies, if that zone the Mavericks run looks familiar, it’s because it’s had a lot of success before — with John Chaney at Temple. You remember him and his askew tie from many an NCAA tournament. Mavs assistant coach Dwane Casey brought the defense with him, and he learned it from current Clippers assistant Dean Demopoulos who was a long-time assistant of Chaney.

Chaney’s zone called for constant ball pressure and help defense in ready positions on other men. It’s not a classic zone but sort of a melting pot of several zones designed to pressure teams. It takes some skill and practice because men are handed off to other defenders and the positioning can feel awkward.

Dallas runs an almost hyper-aggressive form of what Cheney used to at Temple — you can do that with the longer, better athletes of the NBA — and they’ve added traps and more.

During the regular season, there can be no doubt it is working. Combine the zone defense with an MVP-caliber player (Nowitzki) on offense and deep talent across the board and you get a lot of wins. You get 24-6.

Before the season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban boasted that the depth of the Mavericks made them a threat to the Lakers. That needs to be proven because in the playoffs, when bench rotations shorten, having a lot of depth matters less than quality players. We know the Lakers and the Spurs have quality, Dallas needs to prove it goes beyond Dirk. It also remains to be seen how the Mavs defense will hold up in a seven-game series where more weaknesses can be exposed and matchups exploited as teams delve deeper into game preparation.

Which is to say, the Mavericks still need to prove they are really contenders for a title. But right now they are very, very good.

They are in the zone.