A couple of years ago, a zone defense, unless it was being played by the Dallas Mavericks, looked completely bizarre in an NBA game. Today, it's rather common. According to Synergy play-type tracking, 18 of the 30 teams have played at least 100 possessions of zone through Thursday. That's up from 10 teams last season and just two in 2017-18.
There have been about five possessions of zone defense per game this season. That may not seem like a lot, but it's more than six times as many as there were in '17-18 season and up from 3.1 possessions per game last season.
According to Synergy, offenses have been more efficient against zone (0.99 points per possession) than against man-to-man (0.96). But some teams have been more successful with it than others. And a well-timed zone possession could be just what a defense needs to take the opponent out of its rhythm.
Note: Synergy tracks possessions differently, in that an offensive rebound is the start of a new possession.
"There's a reason teams don't run it all the time," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "It's not a great way to shut people down. But what it is is a great way to expose a couple of weaknesses or change the tempo, change the pace of the game. It's becoming more and more relevant in the league these days. A lot of teams are utilizing it to good measure and with a lot of success."
1. Miami in the zone
The Dallas Mavericks have been playing a healthy share of zone for several years now. When they won the championship nine years ago, the Mavs played almost 800 possessions of zone in the regular season. But the Miami Heat have led this new zone defense revolution. After playing less than 50 possessions of zone two seasons ago, the Heat played zone for more than 1,000 possessions last season. And this year, they've played almost twice as much zone (764 possessions, according to Synergy) as any other team.
That's 12.3 possessions of zone per game. And when the Mavs played the Heat last week, it was Miami that played 43 possessions of zone against the league's No. 1 offense.
The Mavs were more efficient against the zone (53 points on those 43 possessions) than they were otherwise (65 points on 61), according to Synergy. The game turned when Dallas went scoreless on its first five possessions (all against zone) of the fourth quarter, but that was with both Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis off the floor, and the Mavs got some decent shots in that stretch.
Following are the Mavs' first three possessions against zone in that game. They made 3-pointers on the first two, but the Heat made them work late into the shot clock on all three possessions and the first of those two threes came after Seth Curry got away with a travel.
The players at the top of the zone are high and active, running shooters off the 3-point line. Playing zone against NBA offenses is no easier than playing man-to-man.
The Toronto Raptors have played the second most possessions of zone this season. And they've been slightly more successful with it (0.94 points allowed per possession, seventh in the league) than the Heat (0.97, 10th).
Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked about the personnel needed to be successful playing zone at a high volume.
"They're smart," he said of his players. "They make the reads. It takes some intelligence and it takes a little bit more hustle sometimes, because you're running around in different areas than you're used to. I think those two things, for any defense that you play, if you play smart and you hustle, you'll be pretty good."
Interestingly, Nurse's Raptors are the team against whom zone defenses have been most effective. According to Synergy, the champs have scored just 0.76 points per possession against zone, compared to 0.97 against man-to-man.
2. Playing against a zone
The most common usage of a zone defense is in the first possession after a timeout. In those situations, the coach of the offense has often drawn up a play to get an open shot. And by playing a zone instead of man-to-man, the defense throws a wrench in those plans.
"It's to take away the drawn-up play," Nurse said. "Sometimes, you have some really good ones after timeouts, and you can't use them if they go to the zone. It's a different look."
But how does the offense react when the defense tries to ruin its plans? Over the last several weeks, the same question was posed to some coaches and players: "If you come out of a timeout and the opposing defense is in zone, do you run the play that you drew up, or do you audible into a zone set?"
Here are their answers...
Kenny Atkinson, Nets head coach: "If that team has been playing zone consistently and it seems like they're sticking with it, you have a zone timeout [play]. If it's a team that that does it sporadically and they do it to take away your timeout, you'd like to have one that works against man and zone.
"The hard thing to convince NBA players is that, even if they are in a zone, still run the play that we called. They want to, all of a sudden, put in some new offensive system in 30 seconds."
Brett Brown, Sixers head coach: "I want to run, by and large, the same thing. There's a wink and a blink and you change it. We talk about it all the time. It's 'Run the play, and this is what you're going to be looking at if they're in a zone.' Because you can really scout and know if teams do that more than they don't. You can scout and know if they do do that, they're more apt to be in a 3-2 (Toronto) or (Golden State) 2-3. There's a difference in what you feel your point of attack is.
"But, by and large, you go into it saying that I'm going to run the same thing, but this is what will be available if you find that they're in a zone that they commonly are in. Rarely do people come out and change the look of their zone. They'll either be in a 3-2 or a 2-3."
Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies head coach: "Obviously, when it's thrown out as a surprise, I try to get the guys to just execute the play. It could be a successful possession or it may not. But if we see zone over a period of possessions, we definitely have two or three things that we go to, maybe some different screening angles. We try to use our half-court sets to really create what we want, which is drive-and-kick.
"Obviously, zone can throw off some of your driving lanes. But for us, we kind of fall back on what we do and just emphasize something a little more, in terms of getting in and getting to the second side."
Steve Kerr, Warriors head coach: "We usually just run the same play. I think the most effective tactic that the zone really represents is just a change of look. If you come down and you've got a play in mind, and you think if they're in zone, we better go to our zone offense, by that time, the 24 second clock is going. And that's all the time it takes to really ruin your possession to get everybody reorganized.
"So we just say, 'Just play.' And for the most part, if you play against a zone, you can find an open shot."
Nick Nurse, Raptors head coach: "There's some stuff you can run against both. And sometimes, you have a play for each called. We'll audible."
Frank Vogel, Lakers head coach: "We typically audible to our zone set, our zone alignment, once we see that, and just play through that ... There is value in just running the action and finding space."
Anthony Tolliver, Grizzlies forward: "Most coaches that I've played for just say, 'Run the play.' Keep it simple. Run the play, even though it's not necessarily going to have the same effect if it was man-to-man. It still, most likely, will get us into position to get the ball moving and possibly get an open shot.
"You still have to be a basketball player and read the situation, read what's going on, read how it plays out. If you're supposed to cut and there's three people there, maybe you stay spaced. Or if you're not supposed to cut and there's nobody there, maybe you cut."
CJ McCollum, Blazers guard: "No. We have certain actions that we run based on the defense, and we would run a certain action. We wouldn't run the play, though. If we see zone, there's something that we run."
3. Find the gaps
McCollum's Blazers have seen the fewest possessions of zone (47) in the league. But here are a few where you can see the "something" that they run, a "wheel" action to put pressure on the defenders on the left side of the floor...
The Pacers got a wide-open corner three from Doug McDermott against the Spurs' zone on Monday with a similar overload of the left side of the floor. Domantas Sabonis first set a pin-down screen for Aaron Holiday, and after DeMar DeRozan (the left baseline defender in the Spurs zone) recovered out to Holiday, Sabonis set another screen on Drew Eubanks (the middle baseline defender) as McDermott scooted out to the corner...
The best place to get the ball against a zone is the middle of the floor. Brooklyn played just five possessions of zone against Miami last week, probably because the Heat got into the teeth of the defense so easily...
The most effective team against the zone this season has been the Denver Nuggets, who have scored 1.23 points per possession against zone, compared to 0.97 against man-to-man, according to Synergy. When you have a brilliant passer who's 7-feet tall, putting him in the middle of the zone seems like a good formula for success.
Here are a few Nikola Jokic dimes against zone defenses...
4. More to come
Five of the six teams who have played the most zone possessions - Miami, Toronto, Brooklyn, Dallas and the Clippers - will (likely) be in the playoffs. We may not see it for three quarters of a game (like when the Heat played the Raptors in early January), but every possession counts in the postseason and a few possessions of zone could affect the result of a game or two. It's absolutely something that coaches and players have to be ready for.
"When I first came into the league, that wasn't the case," Atkinson said. "None of that stuff entered into your mind. But it makes the league more interesting. The tactics more interesting. I think we're going to see more of it."
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.