Why Didn't the Raptors Play More Zone Last Season?

The Raptors don't have Celtics' quality individual defenders, but could a zone scheme give the team a major boost?

A heavy dose of International basketball of late has Franchise thinking about zone defensive schemes, and why Toronto didn't use them more last season...

On Monday we took a look at whether or not Toronto's defence may have actually improved this off-season thanks to the transactions that have taken place so far.

Continuing on with our defensive discussion, I wanted to look a bit today at zone defences.

Aaah the zone D.

You see it in intramural play, you see it in high school and sometimes college.

It's the "lazy-man's D right?"

The defence that allows your former line-backer buddy who's ballooned to over 250 pounds in the past few years, to avoid chasing kids all over the defensive end of the court at the Y, so he can put that girth to good use on offence.

(Think of the main character from the Beasties' classic, "Heart Attack Man.")

It's a gimmick right? - substituting hard, in-your-face, man-to-man pressure, for airy, "let's try to conceal our team's individual defensive weaknesses while we float around the court like a jelly-fish" methodology.

Or as one of my former high school coaches once told me, "those who really care about winning play man-to-man. Those who don't play zone."

But doesn't zone D get a bit of a bad rap?  

I mean, extremely successful teams like the Syracuse Orangemen of the NCAA have used this scheme exclusively for years on D, and no one's ever batted an eye.  And if you've been watching the FIBA World Championships lately, you've seen teams use "the zone" with great success as well, including the NBA vet-laden US squad.  

In a recent post on SI.com, Chris Mannix highlighted this change in strategy by head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Thanks to the absence of Team USA's usual slew of dominant "big men," Krzyzewski and co. turned to the zone to help address the club's lack of height and rebounding, thinking a change in tactics defensively would make for a better defensive front in international play.

Considering the US remains undefeated in the FIBA tourney, (even though they barely eked out a win against Brazil on Monday), so far so good.

In fact, watching the World's got me thinking; for a team that was as porous defensively as the Raptors were last season, why didn't the Dinos employ the zone philosophy more often?

This is especially true considering the numerous players the team had with international and "zone experience," as well as a coaching staff that should have been well-versed in the ways of the zone.

I couldn't find any stats which specifically indicated how much time the Raptors spent in a zone formation last year, but from memory, it wasn't that much.  Yes, there were times when Coach Triano and associates switched things up to give an opponent a slightly different look, and of course there was that whole December melt down where Triano promised to tighten things up using different schemes, but I'm talking about making zone the mainstay on D.

To look at this in more detail, I thought we'd first tackle three commonly held beliefs as to why zones don't work, look at whether this is in fact the case, and then proceed to point out some major advantages, especially for a club like the Toronto Raptors.

 

1)  Zone Defenses Give Up More 3-Pointers.

Let's start with the most common misconception.  

Sure, this is perhaps a true statement, but no more true than saying that bad man-to-man defensive schemes give up more dunks.  To beat a tough zone, one of the more established methods is get ball movement making way for chances at open 3's, so yes, it looks therefore like zone defenses = more 3 pointers.  However if played properly, the zone can limit this option as well as playing in a man-to-man formation.  For instance, last season, Jim Boeheim's aforementioned Syracuse club held opponents to 31% shooting from deep.  And yes, they play zone 24-7.

For the Raptors, the club allowed opponents to hit 37% of their 3-point attempts last season, (only Philly, Detroit, Golden State and Jersey were worse) so it's not like whatever they were using in terms of long-range defensive planning was working.  In fact I'd argue that a well-embedded zone scheme would help cut down this percentage, especially with a line-up of more nimble defensive types now such as Sonny Weems, Julian Wright and Amir Johnson playing major minutes.

2)  Zones Allow for a More Strategic Attack by Opponents.

One of the other oft-heard arguments against using the zone is that if you're constantly staying in that formation, an opponent can prepare for it and successfully run an offense to attack this scheme again and again.

This is true to a certain extent as well.  But because the basic formations of the zone don't change that much, this isn't really saying anything.  You can prepare all day for a zone, but it's the execution of said offensive attack that determines its success.  It's the old adage of a good defense will get beaten by a better offense, and it applies to any type of D.  While most teams have multitudes of plays to attack man-to-man D, there are really only two or three different attacks against a zone since defenders guard an area instead of a man, and to make them work, they need to be executed nearly to perfection.

A great quote from Louisville coach Rick Pitino on this:

"In all my years, I haven't seen one zone offense that's as good as a man offense."

And let's look at the flip side of this point, especially from a Raptors' perspective.

By shifting the prep work to the opponents, a relatively young, inexperienced and unfamiliar Raptors' squad last year could have drilled in zone ideologies on D, allowing a greater amount of time to be spent on player development and the finer points of both offensive and defensive execution, all of which as we saw, were extremely lacking.

3)  Zone Defences Diminish Accountability on D, and Allow for Offensive Rebounds:

These are biggies.  Many coaches simply won't play zone because regardless of its strategic advantages, they fear that it promotes a lack of accountability on the defensive end of the court.  When a player is guarding an "area" as opposed to a particular player, who gets the blame when said player swoops in for an offensive board or goes to the rim unchallenged?

The counter argument to this comes from Boeheim himself.

He knows his zone schemes so well that if such a play occurs, he immediately knows who's accountable for the defensive miscue, and the player in all earnesty, if he's been paying attention in practice, should know as well. These aren't your Grade 8 coach's zone sets, these are highly developed and rehearsed strategies that should ensure breakdowns like the examples above don't occur.

And what about offensive rebounds?  This is a legit concern however statistically, rebounds that are allowed in a well executed zone typically are of the "long bounce" variety, that is to say ones that find their way back out to the perimeter.  In close to the basket, a proper zone actually positions the big men closer to the hoop, and Boeheim's take on the rebounding issues is that the types of rebounds zones allow (when played correctly) don't lead to high percentage shots like put-backs.

 

Aside from those three main negatives about the zone, as mentioned, I wanted to touch on some of the pros regarding the use of a solid zone scheme, especially in regards to the Raps.

 

1)  Preparation:

As we saw last season, there just isn't enough practice time for coaches during an NBA season.  This is particularly the case as teams near playoff time.

To this extent, during my chat with assistant coach Eric Hughes earlier this summer, he noted that the club was so busy and had so little practice time come last few weeks of the season that while they had claimed Joey Dorsey, they hadn't even been able to get a look at what he could do or take him through his paces!

Dorsey aside, I'd argue that a solid zone scheme would have enabled the club to be much more prepared come playoff time and perhaps we wouldn't have seen the collapse that occurred, Bosh or no Bosh.  Remember, four of the team's last seven losses were by six points or less.  Could a team that was comfortable in a zone set for the majority of a game been able to turn those L's into W's?

2)  Dictation of Opponent's Offense:

We touched on this above as a weakness but you can flip things around here.  By using a zone you're essentially preparing your troops for the two or three offensive sets the opposition will use, and hopefully you can channel this to your strengths defensively.

A key point in this I think is that in today's NBA, the mid-range shot has really disappeared.  Therefore one of the most effective ways to beat a zone (find gaps and force the zone to collapse in order to find open shooters) is slightly inconsequential.

More importantly, the zone takes away from an opponent's strengths on O.  For instance a team like Philly last year that favoured an up-and-down Princeton type offence featuring back-door cuts and constant movement.  Because in a zone players are guarding an area as opposed to chasing around players, a lot of this then is negated and the opposing coach needs to adjust.

As ESPN's Jay Bilas put it recently, "Simply put, against man-to-man, the offense dictates where the ball will go; against zone, the offense is forced to react."

3)  Improved Defensive Coverages:

With a team of sub-standard individual defenders this is maybe the biggest "pro" there is.  By playing zone, individual defensive inefficiencies can be camouflaged to a certain extent, and therefore the same breakdowns at a certain position hopefully don't keep occurring over and over.

(Yes, I'm looking at you Jose.)

 

So back to our original question; why didn't the Raptors play more zone last season?  After everything we've just discussed, wouldn't such a system have been a boost for Toronto's anemic D?

I suspect that the reason the Raptors didn't use the zone to a great degree is the same as the reason it's not employed NBA-wide to a large extent; it's a question of machismo.  (Think Shaq stubbornly refusing to use Rick Barry's free-throw methodology despite his dismal career performance at the stripe.)  There's a perception that exists amongst the NBA coaching fraternity that playing zone equals using a less tactical type of defence, which then reflects poorly on the coaching abilities of the individual who's guiding it.  Therefore in an NBA world where coaches are the first to go out the door, it's tough for many to go against the grain, especially since there's such a small sample size of success to point to.  (It's only been since the 2001-02 season that zones have been re-instated as an allowed defensive strategy in the NBA.) 

However I'm hoping to see this change, and I truly believe that if Jay Triano wants to get the most out of his young group, this is the way to go this season.

To me, a solid zone scheme is simply the best fit for a young team that needs time to play together, struggled defensively last year, wants to get out and run (zones position players perfectly for fast break outlets), has some length and athleticism at last, and probably needs to protect certain players from foul trouble (ahem, Amir Johnson.) As well, considering the Raptors finished 22nd in rebounding average last season and lost their top rebounder this off-season, a "gang-rebounding" methodology on defense via a well-constructed zone might help fill some of this void.

Am I saying zone defences are the be-all and end-all?

Of course not, any defence in basketball has holes that can be exploited with proper tactics and execution.

But as Raptorblog's Scott Carefoot put it to me in response to Monday's post regarding Toronto's D, "things can't get any worse!"

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