It used to be that zone defense was illegal in the NBA, however all that changed before the 2001-2002 season. It was then that the league voted to allow teams to play zone defense. Some coaches scoffed at the idea. How dare the world’s best basketball league adopt such an elementary rule! The light bulbs went on for some other coaches though. Since the NBA was a strictly man-to-man defensive league, conventional wisdom suggested that NBA players would struggle against a zone defense because they had not played against one in years. Professional players were used to having creativity and freedom to create in a one-on-one match-up which could lead to easy baskets since sliding over to help on defense often meant a penalty was called. But all that changed once the new rule was adopted and the game has never been the same.
Before you can understand how to attack a zone you have to know what it is. A zone defense puts players into a particular position, or zones. The players only move within their zones and are only responsible for players that enter their zones. Once an offensive player moves out of the defensive player’s zone, the offensive player becomes another person’s responsibility. It is an appealing concept for teams that struggle matching another team’s athleticism or skill. No longer do you have to worry about mismatches defensively. In a zone there is an abundance of “help” defense as long as the team rotates correctly in the zone. Teams will use the zone to make an athletic, skillful team that thrives against a man-to-man defense play more disciplined. If that skillful team doesn’t shoot the ball well then they could be in for a long night.
Before we continue, it is important to remember that there are several different types of zone defenses. There are zones with odd-numbered fronts, meaning that the offense initially sees only one defender at the top of the zone. Some examples of odd-numbered fronts would be a 1-3-1 zone, a 3-2 zone and a 1-2-2 zone. Even numbered fronts mean there are two defenders at the top of the zone. This is your typical 2-1-2 or 2-3 zone. There are also match-up zones in which defenders play man defense on offensive players that are in their zones. This creates a hybrid defense that can confuse an offense if the offensive team has never seen this type of zone. For the purposes of this article we will assume that the defense is playing a typical pure zone defense set in either a 2-1-2 or a 2-3 alignment.
You may have heard analysts on television say there is only one way to beat a zone -- that way is to “shoot” a team out of the zone, meaning if the offensive team hits some long jump shots and three-pointers then the zone will be forced to come out on the shooters and may have to abandon the zone altogether. This is the typical way to beat the zone but some people see it as an excuse just to shoot long jump shots all night. That is exactly what the defense wants you to do because long shots turn into long rebounds, which usually turn into easy baskets in transition. So, how do you shoot a team out of the zone? It starts with a simple concept, ball movement.
The most effective way to beat a zone and get the defensive players out of position is to pass the ball. The only time defenders in a zone move are when the offensive player in his zone has the ball. If an offensive team moves the ball to different zones the defense is forced to react and move. If the ball is moved fast enough and reversed to the other side of the floor, then an open spot in the zone usually opens up. This creates an easy shot opportunity for the offense. A good shooting team or a team that gets hot shooting the ball can then get open looks and bring the defensive team out of the zone.
Each zone has angles or seams that an offensive team can exploit and create a numerical mismatch. These seams are usually found between two defenders. If an offensive player can penetrate these seams then the defense is forced to adjust to the ball which opens up easy passing lanes for the offense, and oftentimes a lay-up. A player must use the dribble to attack the seams, but most offensive players are not quick enough to simply drive the seam and get into the lane area. A notable exception would be someone like a Steve Nash, Allen Iverson or Tony Parker. So unless you have a special type of player, the preferred method of attacking the seams would be to move the ball as mentioned above to create a wider seam and then let the offensive player penetrate. Once the offensive player penetrates, from the wing for example, then the defense has to adjust. This usually means at least two defenders are moving toward the ball handler and sometimes three are moving there. This means there are two or three offensive players wide open for easy shots. If this happens time after time then the defense must come out of the zone.
Working inside-out is also an effective way to attack a zone. Most teams will play a zone against a team that has a talented low post player. Playing a zone will eliminate a one-on-one situation and provide help defense against the post player; however, this can also work to the offense’s advantage as well. A good post player draws so much attention from the defense that he opens up the floor for the other offensive players. Let’s look at the Boston Celtics for this year. If a team plays zone against the Celtics, the Celtics will move the ball around the perimeter and then get it in to Kevin Garnett on the block. The defense will then adjust and bring one or more defenders over to help against Garnett. This creates open areas for shooters like Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Garnett is a good passer out of the post and he will find the shooters if you leave them open. Once Allen and Pierce hit a few jumpers then the defense will come out of the zone, which the Celtics would want because now they can run isolation plays to take advantage of one-on-one abilities of the big three. The Spurs are also dangerous in this situation because Tim Duncan is effective at finding the open man and the Spurs always seem to hit the open shot.
In a nutshell, the most effective way to attack a zone would be to make good, crisp, solid passes around the perimeter getting the defenders out of position. This will then open up driving lanes and allow the offense to get the ball in the paint for easy shots. Working the ball around and then dumping it into the post also opens up the floor allowing your shooters to have open looks at the basket. Good passing, penetrating the seams and knocking down the open jumper will have you attacking, and beating, the zone in no time. It all boils down to your execution, discipline and patience offensively.