Welcome to part two of our five-part series on the greatest debates in the basketball world today. Today we will dissect the age old defensive debate between playing man-to-man defense or a zone defense.
There are a variety of college programs built upon playing one or the other of these defenses. Bob Knight, to my knowledge, has never played a possession of zone defense in his coaching career. John Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Mike Krzyzewski and Ben Howland are all known for their pressure man-to-man defenses. Jim Boeheim won a national championship with a 2-3 zone and John Beilein has successfully resurrected the 1-3-1 attack. Billy Donovan popularized using a man defense early in the half, then switching to a zone attack when shooters' legs were tired and outside shots fell short.
While choosing a defense is often situational, there is a long-running debate among fans and coaches about which is the most effective defensive strategy. Let's look at the arguments for both sides and then break down which defense is most often the most effective.
Why Play Man-to-Man Defense
1) It puts the greatest pressure on the offense.
With the exclusion of trapping zone defenses, there is no greater, more consistent pressure defense than a tough man-to-man defense. The ball is guarded tightly, the passing lanes are denied and each shot is contested. While there are always holes in a zone attack, it is difficult to get open looks against a good man-to-man defense.
This pressure often leads to turnovers which are the easiest source of points in basketball. The "hot" new term in the game is the "live ball turnover" which means that the ball changes hands in a manner that allows the offense to immediately transition into its offense (a "dead ball turnover" forces the offense to inbound the ball, allowing the defense to get set). Man-to-man teams are often high-scoring teams because they force these turnovers and convert them into easy lay-ups.
2) It allows for specific, favorable match-ups.
When playing a man defense, a coach can isolate his/her best defender on the greatest offensive threat of the other team. In a zone defense, there is no ability to do so because a player is responsible for his/her area on each possession. One way to successfully attack a zone defense is to find the weakest defender and move your best offensive threat to that area of the zone.
3) It is an aggressive defense.
Zone defenses are often derided as passive because there is certain element of "if you do (this), you can beat us." The (this) is usually make outside shots. There is a tired but true cliche of "shooting a team out of a zone" that occurs when a team is hitting its outside looks.
A man defense does not sit back and hope for misses, but instead forces the offense to work for open looks. As one of my old coaches liked to say, "It takes a man to play a man." Sexism aside, the idea that it takes some cahones to play this type of defense instead of a more relaxed, passive zone is a prevalent one in the basketball community.
4) It helps with rebounding.
The first shot usually won't beat you, says another basketball truism, but the second one will. Zone defenses do not have specific block out assignments. This often leads to offensive rebounds when the defense fails to quickly identify the players that need to be sealed away from the boards. In a man defense, the assignment is simple: block out your man. The best rebounding teams in America (Michigan State and the Tennessee Lady Vols come to mind) play man-to-man defense.
Why Play a Zone Defense
1) Zone defenses make it tough to score.
Isn't that what defense is supposed to be? A good, active zone forces the offense to take long, low-percentage shots. There are few easy lay-ups with so many men close to the rim. There is little dribble penetration because everyone is facing the dribbler. It is not easy to score from the block because it is easy to double down from the wing or guard positions. If you look at low-scoring games, there is often a zone defense involved on one side or the other.
2) Zone defenses keep your best players on the floor.
You don't see many fouls called against zone defenses because there is so little guarding of dribble penetration. The most common way to attack a zone defense is by passing the ball and moving the zone. Passing the ball does not lead to fouls; dribbling the ball does. By playing a zone, a coach can shorten his/her bench and use only the top players on the team. Jim Boeheim is notorious for only going 7 deep most of the time because he does not need to go any deeper with his zone defense.
Also, remember that free throws are the easiest points and best possessions in basketball. The team that shoots the most free throws usually wins. Playing a zone defense limits these easy points.
3) Zone defenses can hide poor defenders.
We used to play a zone defense to hide our horribly lazy post-defender. He was a terrific shot-blocker and solid rebounder, but he did not like to leave the basket area. Whenever we played man-to-man, the opposing team would bring his man to the top of the key to get him out of the paint. This strategy neutralized our shot blocker and often caused trouble for our defense if his assignment could shoot the ball or if that man was setting good ball screens.
The solution? We played a 2-3 zone and stuck his butt in the paint. You can also hide a slow defender in a zone because there is so much help readily available as to discourage the offense from attacking him/her off the bounce.
4) Zone defenses offer great variety.
Many coaches like to switch up defenses to confuse the offense. Employing a zone from time to time does just that. In fact, there are a variety of things a coach can do with his/her zone to change things up, including trapping the corners, slumping back to encourage outside shots and tweaking the alignment (a 2-3 can easily become a 1-1-3 or a 1-2-2). Instead of allowing an offense to get comfortable against the same scheme every trip down the floor, a zone causes confusion and forces a team to be prepared for multiple defensive strategies.
5) Zone defenses slow the game.
The Georgia Bulldogs used an effective zone defense against the Tennessee Volunteers last weekend to nearly steal a win. Despite being clearly over-matched by the #2 team in the land, the Dawgs forced the high-octane Vols to make multiple passes to get a good look against their zone. This shortens the game.
You will see many underdogs try to slow down the game and limit the number of possessions by using a zone defense. Think about it like this: if I played Michael Jordan in one-on-one, I might win occasionally if we were playing to two baskets just by getting hot or really lucky. If we were playing to ten baskets, I would never, ever beat him. An underdog team will use this same idea - limit the number of times the opponent has the ball by slowing down the game - to pull off an upset.
Verdict - Man or Zone?
If I came right out and said "Zone is better," I would probably have to turn in my coaching card. I know my coaching mentor would never speak to me again. He still blames me for a loss we suffered 8 years ago when I suggested a zone that we used for three possessions of the entire game. Most coaches are man-to-man coaches who only use zones as a last resort. Someone like Jim Boeheim is respected by many of us for having the guts to so proudly advocate the zone defense, even if we deride him for it at the same time.
At the same time, I have a hard time watching zone defenses work so well and then claiming that man defense is the only way to go. I know that my teams have lost games to a good zones that caught us on the wrong night. It is frustrating to run into a tight zone.
I have become convinced that the very best philosophy is to build your team on man-to-man principles, but to also have a zone ready just in case. I was once a man-to-man martyr who was willing to lose games for the cause of playing man the entire time. No longer. I like to play zone when the ball is being taken out under our own basket. I like to use a trapping zone from time to time. If I see that my guys cannot defend our quicker opponent, we will force them to beat us with jump shots against the zone.
The bottom line is that, as coaches, our jobs are to give our players the best chance to win the ball game. It seems bull-headed and counter-productive to do anything but straddle the fence in this long-running defensive debate.
Tomorrow - To press or not to press, that is the question.