The Toronto Raptors are doing good things. Their defense is great proving the adage that defense wins championships. Among Nick Nurse’s arsenal of defensive weapons is a small slingshot – the Zone Defense modified for the NBA. By no means the most powerful or often used, it is never the less significant yet the least talked about. Which is why I want to do this here.
Let us start with a mental exercise: Think of 10 of the most impossible to stop one on one NBA players past or present who also played basketball at the World’s, the Olympics or if they didn’t, even the NCAA before their NBA days. Next think of their most amazing highlight reel feats in the NBA. Was any one of them able to come close to their incredible selves while playing outside the NBA? The answer will likely be no for everyone on your list. Not Michael, not Kobe, not Lebron, not Shaq and so on. All of them looked more human and containable when playing under FIBA rules. The only exception perhaps, if he’s on your list, is Vince Carter for dunking over the 7 foot Frenchman in the Sydney Olympics and his above the rim wow you stuff as a UNC Tal Heel in the NCAA. While Carmelo Anthony played better in the Olympics and at Syracuse, he really wasn’t dominant in the NBA to be in this narrative. Zion Williamson? The jury is still out as to whether he will be dominant in the NBA. Ja Morant? This early he was already doing more incredible things than in the NCAA, moves reminiscent of the late Pistol Pete Maravich you'd not think he'd be able to duplicate in the NBATake the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Team USA: it is indeed the Dream Team of all time but no individual player stood out from among them.
Why is this so (That stars shine brightest on the NBA stage but look human when playing under FIBA rules) ? People might have different theories but my answer is simple: Zone Defense. The staple defense of amateur basketball. Case in point: the NCAA game on March 21, 1992 where coach Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers with no stars beat LSU 89 – 79 despite junior Shaquille O’Neal’s 36 points, probably Shaq’s best game as an amateur, yet he was nowhere close to his unstoppable self with the Lakers. When asked after the game about Shaq, Bob Knight could only say "He's good." At the end of the day Knight's team still slayed the giant using the great equalizer of uneven basketball talent: zone defense - slingshot to Goliath, kryptonite to Superman.
Why is zone defense effective? Because in zone defense, each player has a designated area of responsibility on the floor, a set territory to defend, to position himself in wait to help his teammates when needed. The half court where the action is taking place is separated by a vertical imaginary line into the strong and weak sides. Whichever side the ball is at is the strong side and good coaches coach good defenders to train their eyes on the strong side, always communicating on how to best help each other defend this strong side. The flexible phalanx that is formed is always pointed at whoever has the ball to prevent him from penetrating and creating havoc. When the superstar is playing hero ball, he's immediately met by players in the area while being mindful of possible defensive 3 seconds.
SELDOM USED IN THE NBA
If the zone defense can really level the playing field against the mighty, then how come it is hardly used in the NBA? There are many possible reasons.
One reason is it makes the game less entertaining. NBA fans are hero worshipers. They want to see Kawhi Leonard the Superman kicking the butts of children of the lesser basketball gods, not Kawhi Leonard, ah he’s human after all. In a man to man defense, when players gifted with speed, ball handling skills, crossover or ankle breaking moves or sheer athleticism get away from their defenders, usually there is no recovery. With zone, help is there. When he gets away from one defender, it's the next man up principle. Because fans come to be entertained, playing zone was once outlawed in the NBA. But then even referees sometimes cannot detect when a team play zone, the rules became almost impossible to enforce. The only question was how many coaches were willing to cheat and play zone? Well if zone could really help win games, logic dictated more coaches would try it, as they soon did.
ZONE RULES IN THE NBA CONTEXT
So the NBA changed the rules to make them enforceable: Defenders cannot stand in the paint for more than 3 seconds unless there is an opposing player nearby. It’s called the defensive 3 seconds rule punishable by a technical free throw.
Thus, whereas under FIBA rules only players on the offense side cannot overstay in the paint, NBA rules apply this evenly to both offense and defense players. Just this mere difference in the rules makes it hard to play the most basic types of zone defense: the 2-3 zone characterized by 2 players at the key and 3 down low and the 1-3-1 zone (self explanatory from the name) since in both of these types of zone defense, the player playing the 5 has to stay in the middle of the paint and risks being whistled for defensive 3 seconds. Some creative hybrid man zones suited for the NBA were hatched and one of them called the "Box and 1" was successfully executed by Nick Nurse not just after timeouts but for longer stretches, not in the regular season but in the NBA finals against of all teams the Warriors, on of all players Steph Curry.
Another reason it was not as easy to play zone in the NBA compared to FIBA is the differences in the size and shape of the paint. The two spots on the front court that are hardest to defend are those adjacent to the two sides of key (free throw circle) also called the high post. Because it is more spacious here compared to say the low post where the end line equates to an exta defender or the side lines where the distance to the basket is the defender's friend. That is why you see pick and rolls executed at these two spots where it is easiest to get away. Since the FIBA court has a trapezoidal paint with a smaller painted area at the top of the key (for a player to be caught in a defensive 3 second violation), it is far easier to crowd the high post in a FIBA court but not in the NBA court which has the bigger rectangular painted area. Less creative NBA coaches shun even to try zone as it is not as effective for this reason.
What are the other reasons why you don’t see more zone defense in the NBA?
HARD TO LEARN AND TEACH
Have you ever wondered why some NBA coaches play zone only after timeouts? Because zone defense is more dynamic than man to man. Zone is team defense while Man is individual defense. The longer a team plays zone, the greater the need is to make quick on the spot adjustments or something will screw up. Thus zone is often only tried right after a timeout and never for a long stretch of time. It also requires longer teaching and team practice time in between games, which the long 82 game NBA schedule does not have allow teams the luxury of.
There is the question of how many NBA coaches really know how to teach zone defense? Many NBA coaches used to be NBA players who were individually talented enough to get away without much knowledge of zone. Even if they know, they don’t have much believe in. Hence there will be that alibi from the "it’s not cool" department: Zone defense is a feature of amateur basketball, where the talent level can’t compare with the NBA, thus it is backward and not for the fast paced NBA. If Nick Nurse did not have the full backing of Masai Ujiri and did not win the championship outright, his gutsy use of the box and 1 zone will be criticized by pundits as bush league.
HARDER TO FIND PLAYERS TO TEACH TO
Then there is the question of how many NBA players can you teach zone defense to? College basketball is the time young players are most ready - physically and mentally - to learn scientific team basketball. With the exodus of one and done players to the NBA, as more and more young players with potentials are foregoing the opportunity to learn how to play the right way, we can be sure the answer to our question is less and less.
HARDEST FOR STAR PLAYERS TO BUY INTO
Finally, among the most talented and established star players in the league, there is the question of how many will buy into playing zone? While it takes mostly hard work to play good man to man defense, it takes more than just physical hard work, but mental smarts as well as patience and trust in your teammates to play zone defense. Those who don’t have the latter attributes cannot succeed.
Here is where Nick Nurse has an advantage. For other teams where they draft or sign free agent players to come in already as superstars, it won’t be easy to convince them to buy in. With the Raptors, they discover promising young talents and develop them into stars.
The movie Field of Dreams is famous for the line "If you build it, they will come" Change this a bit to "if you build your own stars, they will buy into what you are doing" and it describes the Raptors. Ask Masai, ask Nick Nurse, ask Siakam, ask Van Vleet and you see why