Zone defenses have been a rare sight in the NBA. Ever since the defensive three-second rule was implemented, zones became almost extinct in the league. However, we’re beginning to see a splurge of teams experimenting with zone and while it could be effective if executed correctly, I question the timing.
The Toronto Raptors threw out some zone defenses on the biggest stage last year during the NBA Finals. Not only did they play possessions of 2-3 zone but they also even threw out some box-and-one sets, staying glued to Stephen Curry.
Some scoffed at it and some laughed but ultimately it was proven effective. It threw the Golden State Warriors out of rhythm and ultimately, the Raptors walked away with the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Zone defenses are frowned upon from defensive purists because they believe it lets defenders off the hook and ultimately creates lazy defenders. That’s not always the case; just ask Jim Boeheim, coach of the Syracuse Orange who runs one of the best 2-3 zones the game has ever seen.
In the NBA, zone defense takes away a lot of the isolation possessions and one-on-one matchups that fans cherish.
During the preseason and even through the first couple of regular-season games, sprinkles of zone defensive sets have been played. A lot of 2-3 zone has been on display, more in particular a 2-3 matchup zone which mirrors man defense but is actually a zone. There are pros and cons to playing zone defense, especially at the professional level.
With the talent in today’s league, it’s almost impossible to stay in front of a ball-handler which is where a zone defense can be a positive. In addition, when played correctly, zone defenses are very deceptive. Passing lanes that look open are often not there and when active, teams can get a lot of deflections and steals for fast-break buckets.
It also serves effective when playing against a team that shoots poorly from behind the arc. While the defense doesn’t want to allow open threes, it influences players to take outside shots instead of trying to penetrate inside.
With the way the game is played today, I find it strange that teams are looking at the 2-3 zone. Threes are hailing from all over the court from every position, one through five. Every player is being taught to shoot with range because that’s what is being sought at the professional level. In addition, analytics is driving teams to shoot more from the outside as well. 2-3 zones play into the hands of a three-friendly league which could influence even more outside shots.
The key to beating a zone is getting the ball in the middle. Falling victim to keeping the ball beyond the perimeter is exactly what the defense wants. Ball movement, attacking the gaps, and hitting that mid to high post area is quintessential playing against a zone. When the ball reaches the middle then that’s usually when the defense breaks down.
I’m not saying that the zone can’t and won’t work but with the way the game is being played, I’m not sure if it’s the best option. Similar to what Toronto did last year, throwing out a zone for a possession here and there is not a bad idea just to throw offenses out of rhythm. As long as players are active, communicating, and moving with the flight of the ball, the 2-3 zone can be beneficial. If played right, it can work wonders. It will be curious to see how many teams will add this to their arsenal this season.