Why do teams switch to zone? It’s rare that a team plays zone as their main defense, usually they are going to zone as their change-up. They may play it because they don’t think you can shoot, or you run a lot of great stuff and they don’t want to guard it. They may play it because you are too quick for them and have too many playmakers. They may go zone just to get you out of your rhythm if you are playing well offensively.
There are a lot of reasons that team go to zone, but most of them center around one central idea – they are hoping that you will change your approach offensively, that you will slow down and stare at the zone. They want to take you out of your offensive flow and keep you from creating good shots through motion or ball movement.
Attacking zone to me is much more about what you emphasize than what you run. It is about the way you play against the zone, not which plays you call. They want you to stand around and stare at it. They don’t want you in any sort of flow, with ball movement, spacing and hard cuts making you hard to guard. As a coach, you need to figure out how you want to play against a zone, and teach those habits to your team, before you teach them what plays to run. You can keep your offensive flow going by teaching your kids the big picture concepts of how you want to attack, versus being specific about where to stand, where to flash and where to throw the ball.
I start by defining the offensive players you want to see against zone. What does good zone offense look like to you? For me, it was always three things – 1) Ball Movement (make the zone shift) 2) Play Inside-Out (make the zone collapse) and 3) Expose the gaps.
“Both sides, inside out, expose the gaps.” That’s how we want to attack the zone, no matter what offense we are running, we are calling set plays or we are playing in transition. We made sure we defined each one specifically so our guys understood the behavior.
- Ball Movement – swing the ball to both sides of the floor quickly, to make the zone shift.
- Inside-Out – Get the ball (and people) into the middle of the zone, either with a pass or dribble.
- Expose The Gaps – Once we’ve moved the ball and gotten some penetration, we will create gaps on the zone between defenders. Our goal is to expose those gaps – sit in a gap when you are cutting through, call for the ball as you flash in to a gap, or dribble penetrate when you see the zone open up.
My teams would hear me say “Expose the gaps” an awful lot against a zone, whether we were running a play or not. Even if we were running a set play against a zone in practice, if we opened up a gap and didn’t expose it – sitting a cutter in there or getting the ball in there – practice would stop. Everything we were doing was really to create gaps on the zone, and when we did we wanted to attack that gap. That was the freedom I wanted our guys to have in zone attack.
I love a good zone offense and there are a lot of great zone sets out there that can create good looks for you. But no matter what we are running, our goal is the same. I’m fine if you want to run sets or offense against zone. But I just wouldn’t get so into a routine that your team becomes robotic and is easy to guard. That is what the zone wants. They want to see you moving in a sequence, where they can follow you and match up. Give your guys the freedom to make plays against the zone, and the way to do that is teach them the concepts you want them to use.
I do think zone offense is an area where being less specific can make your players better. Figure out what behaviors fit your team that will help you beat a zone, and define those behaviors for your players. Teach them concepts, not specifics, first against a zone. The offense you decide to run should be built off of those concepts, not the other way around. Zone offense is about the habits you emphasize, not the plays you run.