Zoned In

Pistons ready to buy in when Cheeks breaks out zone defense

Maurice Cheeks
Maurice Cheeks
Fernando Medina (Getty Images)
When Flip Saunders arrived to take over the Pistons from Larry Brown, he scanned his roster and fairly salivated at the thought of employing the zone defense schemes he learned at the feet of his college coach, Bill Musselman, via a five-man Pistons unit peppered with All-Defense candidates.

There was only one problem.

“We looked at it like, ‘We don’t need that. We’re just going to stop ’em,’ ” Chauncey Billups recalls. “We were always such a great one-on-one team. Obviously, this team is a little different. This team is a lot more athletic than we ever were.”

It’s unlikely Maurice Cheeks will meet any resistance when he directs the Pistons into the occasional zone this season – and he plans to do just that. The ground the Pistons can cover with the size and athleticism present in a back line of Andre Drummond flanked by Josh Smith and Greg Monroe combined with the quickness and length they can stick on top – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Kyle Singler, say, next to Rodney Stuckey or Billups, or the whippet-quick Brandon Jennings – could shrink passing lanes to the width of a basketball and squeeze the floor from sideline to sideline.

“I don’t want to live and die by it, but I’m not opposed to it,” Cheeks said. “It can have some benefits to it, especially with Josh and Singler at the two and three – that gives us a long group.”

The greatest reservation with playing zone in the NBA is taking big men away from the rim to close out on 3-point shooters and losing rebounding advantages.

“No matter the length you have, you always have some trouble rebounding the ball,” Cheeks said. “So hopefully, if we do play some zone, we can still rebound the ball.”

As Billups points out, if that essential step is addressed, the zone can have another benefit.

“If you can rebound out of the zone, it’s an advantage because it’s tough for teams to match up going back fast the other way,” he said.

Cheeks has barely spent any practice time on the zone so far, he said, but used it sparingly in the two most recent preseason games. He employed it in Philadelphia when he had the likes of Samuel Dalembert, Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young, players who gave him some combination of superior length and athleticism at their positions.

“I used it after timeouts,” Cheeks said. “I used it on side out of bounds with 14, 12 seconds left, so they don’t get a steady diet of it.”

“It definitely can be a nice weapon,” Billups said. “Changes the pace of the game. Throw some teams’ rhythm off. You’re going to play against some great players. They get it going, a zone out there just kind of makes them a little passive.”

Cheeks understands NBA machismo and how some players pushed back at the idea of a zone when it was legislated into use after years of being illegal.

“Zone is a little different,” he said, “because if a team scores against a zone, the players have a problem with it. You play 90 percent one on one and they score, it’s no problem. But you score against a zone, they seem to always balk against playing a zone. It’s kind of weird, because they’re going to score no matter what at some point. But if they score against a zone, teams usually have a problem with it.”

Maybe the younger generation of NBA players will change that. Drummond, it appears, is just fine with the concept. His freakish lateral quickness and wing span at nearly 7 feet, and the similar attributes Smith possesses, plus Monroe’s size, make the prospect of a zone intriguing to Drummond.

“You have to throw different things at teams,” he said. “We’re very long. If we played a zone, I imagine that nobody would want to come in the paint. We’d force them to shoot jump shots. But we believe in Mo. He knows what he’s doing.”