This month, I have written a piece on how the banning of the "Illegal Defense" in the NBA, otherwise called a Zone Defense has taken away aspects of the game, but has brought other positive aspects to the forefront. I will use several sources during this piece and will provide links to all of them.
We all have talked about Zone Defenses and anyone who has spent anytime in a high school gym anywhere in the world where basketball is played has watched many of the various forms it can take work, or not work, depending on the skill of the team playing and attacking it. For those who are not quite sure what a Zone is, here is one of the best definitions I have ever seen for what a zone is:
From CoachClipboard: http://www.coachesclipboard.net/ZoneDefense.html
"Zone defense is different from man-to-man defense in that, instead of guarding a particular player, each zone defender is responsible for guarding an area of the floor, or "zone", and any offensive player that comes into that area. Zone defenders move their position on the floor in relationship to where the ball moves.
Zone defense is often effective in stopping dribble penetration and one-on-one moves. On a personal note, I believe that all kids must develop their man-to-man defensive skills first. I believe youth basketball leagues should limit the use of zones to the older age groups."
So by definition, the Zone defense is designed to curtail the type of explosive athlete that the NBA covets and show cases like the Cavaliers LeBron James and the Lakers Kobe Bryant who scored 61 on the Knicks last night in response to losing Andrew Bynum. So let's look at the history of the "Illegal Defense" rule in the NBA to see how it developed and why it was done away with.
From NBA.com rules history page - http://www.nba.com/analysis/rules_history.html
- Zone defenses outlawed on January 11, 1947.
- The following language was added to the Zone Defense Rule: "After the offensive team has advanced the ball to its front court, a defensive player may not station himself in the key area longer than three seconds if it is apparent he is making no effort to play an opponent. The three second count starts when the offensive team is in clear control in the front court."
- Zone defense rules clarified with new rules for Illegal Defensive Alignments.
b. Defender on post player is allowed in defensive three-second area (A post player is any player adjacent to paint area).
c. Player without ball may not be double-teamed from weak side.
d. Offensive player above foul line and inside circle must be played by defender inside dotted line.
e. If offensive player is above the top of the circle, defender must come to a position above foul line.
f. Defender on cutter must follow the cutter, switch, or double-team the ball.
• After the first illegal defense violation, the clock is reset to 24 seconds. All subsequent violations result in one free throw and possession of the ball. If any violation occurs during the last 24 seconds of each quarter or overtime period, the offended team receives one free throw.
- No illegal defense violation may occur when the ball is in the backcourt.
- Any defense is legal on the strong side. Defenders must remain on the weak side outside the paint unless they are double-teaming the ball, picking up a free cutter or closely guarding an offensive player.
- On the strongside, any defense is legal.
- Illegal defense guidelines will be eliminated in their entirety.
As we see, it was a 54 year evolution that saw the lane widened twice, the shot clock and the 3 point shot all contribute pieces that gave us the game we see now. In the early part of this decade, the Lakers had amassed some serious talent with Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Fisher and teams had little hope of covering a man like Shaq man on man. I remember when the rule was changed, the word was it was to allow teams to double and hack Shaq at will and double guys like Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks. The skill of one on one basketball had fallen as the players became quicker and stronger. Here is a summation from Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, father of the Raptors Bryan who headed the committee on the rule change:
From CNNSI - http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/basketball/nba/news/2001/04/12/rule_changes_ap/
"Our belief is that the game has evolved, and the product we have presently was one that needed attention," <Jerry> Colangelo said "The game has changed in the sense that we've lost a lot of fluidity. We've evolved into an isolation game because of our defensive guidelines, and we weren't satisfied with the way the game looked."
The same article offers this as well - Lakers coach Phil Jackson thinks the changes will help O'Neal. "I think it'll be an advantage for Shaq, definitely, defensively," Jackson said. "It's going to keep him around the basket with a lot less movement."
So here we see one of the biggest reasons why a team would want to play a zone in the first place.
This quote from Stanford University - http://daily.stanford.edu/article/2001/4/18/zoneDefensesThreatensNbaGame
"Playing a zone allows teams to hide the players that are defensive liabilities on the court. In a zone, such players can continuously get beaten like a San Diego Chargers cornerback without seriously impairing the team's ability to play defense. In essence, the NBA just took away the requirement that you must be a good athlete to play basketball.
The zone defense rule is to the NBA what the motorized cart is to golf. It allows people who do not have the physical ability to play at a top level the chance to participate in the one part of the game in which they still have talent and fake it for the rest of the time."
So what we have now, is an NBA that has developed into a blend of tight one on one defensive teams like the Celtics and the Cavaliers who lead the league in defense and teams like the Warriors and the Kings and the Pacers who allow over 107 points per game. Guys like Kevin Garnett, Ron Artest, Bruce Bowen, pride themselves in being called great defenders. Those skill sets get lost in a zone as the focus is forcing players to a spot, running traps, allowing jump shots. The Magic have become a force in the league this year as guys like Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkolglu and Rashard Lewis have become deadly from outside to counter the zones teams are using to contain Dwight Howard. The league has become a breeding ground for the jump shot, which is a good thing as it was a dying art not too long ago, but has been instrumental in teams ability to break down the zones thrown at them. As a high school coach, I teach my players that the best way to break a zone is to shoot and force them out of it. Teams like the Hornets with Chris Paul, Peja Stojakovic, David West and Tyson Chandler love when teams play zone against them as they have the skill to exploit it. The addition of Mo Williams has improved the Cavaliers over all offense as they can now have another shooter to hurt teams who triple LeBron.
The question then becomes, has this improved the overall play of the game itself? I would suggest that it has not done that to a large extent. George Carl of the Nuggets offers this about zone defense from a Denver newspaper - http://www.denverpost.com/sports/ci_11522285?source=bb
"The point about basketball I.Q. is key - the Nuggets' ability to adapt defensively and play team defense is a main reason why they're beating teams with their defense, and not just outshooting teams, as seen in previous years.
But now, defensive stopper Dahntay Jones (separated shoulder) is likely to be out a week or two, and some of Denver's bigs, notably Nene, have been getting into first-quarter foul trouble. A zone could alleviate the problem.
As Karl said early this year: "Observing matchups and situations that give us trouble we might think about the zone, but we don't want to take away (from) the fundamental development that we're going through right now with the man-to-man.
"There's a confidence that comes with playing defense."
As we see, not all coach's feel the zone develops the teams overall belief in its ability to stop a team or play tough defense when it needs to. One of the weaknesses of a zone by definition is it offers little direct pressure on the ball unless you run traps out of the set, which then leaves you exposed in other parts of the zone and NBA players are just too good overall to hope they can't find someone to pass the ball to.
Here are some thoughts from an article I found - http://www.medialifemagazine.com/news2001/apr01/apr16/1_mon/news3monday.html
On reasons why the NBA removed the "Illegal Defense" rules -
But it means that the NBA considers making the game more exciting for the fans an important enough priority to change one of its oldest and quirkiest rules.
"I think it's a step in the right direction, and it changes some things in the strategy," says Dean Luplow, vice president and media director at Starcom Worldwide. "It's a nice indication that the NBA is taking a hard look at the game and maybe taking a back-to-the-basics approach."
I am not sure how allowing teams to stand in one spot on defense is more exciting, but that was the word from the league at the time. Removing the illegal defense would open up the game and increase the tempo as there would be less whistles from the refs.
Some more -
The zone defense is associated with lower scoring games and slower play, and allowing teams to use it seems almost counterintuitive for a sport already criticized for being too boring.
Media folks tend to think that the new rule is a tradeoff. The game may become more exciting in the strategic sense, but it'll lose the big plays and one-on-one matchups that defined the NBA during its most recent heyday in the 1990s.
I found this article about the Michael Jordan effect on the game and who it is related to the rule change.
From - http://ko8e.blogspot.com/2007/05/implications-of-zone-defense-and-its.html
The NBA will never admit to it publically, but zone defense was primarily legalized to contain Shaquille O'Neal. Shaquille simply could not be guarded by one man, it was just not possible. It's a lopsided mismatch regardless of whoever is guarding him.
The media generally regards Michael Jordan as the greatest player to ever play the game. His legacy and career achievement are continuously being compared to today's generation of athletes. These comparisons are unfair however, because Jordan never had to deal with the complexities of zone defense. Jordan had the luxury of always going against one opponent on isolation plays. Today's great players like Kobe Bryant can be doubled without the ball and have to deal with swarms of defenders all around them. Therefore, the legalization of zone defense helped to secure Michael Jordan's legacy as the greatest player of all time.
The Bulls of the Jordan era were notorious for clear outs especially late to allow MJ to do his stuff. Eliminating the Illegal Defense rule allowed teams to sag and took away much of the one on one game that made him a defense killer. Today we have guys like Devin Harris, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Durant, and Allen Iverson who excel in one on one skills but find zone after zone defending them. The zone defense the NBA allows removes a players ability to challenge and expose a players lack of skill defensively as it can hide them quite well.
One more thought from that same article -
"Several changes will help, but the thing that will help the NBA the most is finding a new superstar," says Lynn Kahle, professor of marketing at the University of Oregon.
Luplow agrees. "It's a star-driven league, and they're trying to develop some new stars," says Luplow. "And maybe these rule changes will help that."
"The core of the game is still the same, it's still the same players, this is just to tweak on the defense."
The advantage of the one-on-one game is that it tends to produce high-scoring games with exciting plays, like slam dunks, when the player with the ball breaks free. The disadvantage is that you really have only two players in play, the man with the ball and his defensive player. The remaining players on both teams stand on the other side of the court, doing nothing. In a zone defense, each defensive player guards a section of the court, or a zone. That means that one defensive player can effectively cover two offensive players at the same time. That also means that it's much harder for the offense to score--and significantly harder to score close to the goal, as with the slam dunk. How that will look in the NBA is probably three players instead of just one around Shaquille O'Neal, making it more difficult for one of the Lakers' top scorers to even get the ball, much less score. At the same time, zone defense forces the offense to be more creative. So fans should see more movement and action on the television screen, even if the ball doesn't go up and down the court as much. "The idea that scoring baskets is the only way fans can enjoy basketball underestimates the intelligence of the fans," says Kahle. "They can enjoy the strategy. "The other side of the zone type defense is that it forces more outside shooting. And with more outside shooting, there'll be more missed shots, and missed shots can be exciting."
"With the zone, big plays would be more rare. It'll put the emphasis back on shooters, which is a lost art in the NBA."
So, as I ponder the few benefits of the zone, I find them sadly outweighed by the overall weight they have brought to the game. I have thought for a long time now that the zone should be removed again and players like Jason Kapono would have to either figure out how to run quicker or retire. Imagine a league where you had to have defensive skills to make the roster. No longer would a pretty jumper from the corner be your ticket to the show. That, if no other reason, is why today's players, though much better athlete's than the Celtics and Lakers and Pistons and Spurs and Jazz and Knicks and Suns and 76ers of the 80's and earlier, would have a very difficult time playing in that era as they just don't have the skills on the defensive end of the floor. The zone has taken away the players responsibility to defend the man in front of them up and down the floor and has produced many one dimensional "stars" that the league is willing to promote as great players. I am not that easily sold marketing hype. There are many good players in the league today, but many of those players rely on zone defense to cover their butts most nights. Today's top teams rely on tough man defense as Glen Davis found out. Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kendrick Perkins all can defend their position well and Rajon Rondo is figuring that out as well. Teams like the Suns with Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire rely on zone defense and find it difficult to get past a fundamentally sound team like the Spurs who have solid on ball defenders like Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Cavaliers have committed themselves to defense and have the lowest points per game allowed in the league thus far. As of this morning the top 5 teams based on points allowed per game are:
1) Cavaliers - 90.7
2) Celtics - 91.4
3) Hornets - 93.0
4) Pistons - 93.2
5) Bobcats - 94.2
The rest of the top 10 are the Spurs, the Magic, the Trail Blazers, the Rockets and the 76ers. 6 of those teams are in the top 10 in the league standings.
Defense wins championships, and defensive teams can beat you one on one. Those are the teams that will get the stop on defense when they need to as it is a commitment and reflects the heart of the player.