Zone Offense, not Defense is the Problem Preventing Points
Most of this article was published in February 2004.
ESPN analyst Marc Stein ended his “Stein Line” column with this “Stat of the Weak”:
“10: That’s how many teams, in a 29-team league, are averaging less than 90 points. Last season, there were only two teams that averaged less than 90 points. Happy zoning!”
While the lack of scoring is lamentable, I believe Stein’s sarcasm is misplaced, though his remarks parallel those throughout his industry who fervently yearn for the good old days before the elimination of the illegal defense rule. However, their collective memories miss the point.
Scoring is down for a number of reasons, the least of which is the elimination of the illegal defense rule, which was a great move for the NBA as it eliminated the two-man game and forced teams to incorporate all five players into offensive and defensive schemes. Thurl Bailey and Mark Eaton, all fourteen feet of humanity, no longer linger at half court eating popcorn while John Stockton and Karl Malone deliver on the pick-and-roll; now, successful offensive teams like Sacramento (first in Points per game), Denver (5th), Dallas (2nd), Memphis (7th) and Minnesota (8th) use all five players in continuous motion and numerous offensive sets.
And, contrary to popular belief, few teams, if any, in the past twenty years have played as brilliantly in the half court as the Sacramento Kings, a team propelled by great shooters and passers who play an entertaining, free-flowing game dependent on ball movement and player movement, not stagnation and one-on-one play.
NBA scoring has decreased for numerous reasons, namely:
• Coaches have little room for error, so they micromanage and control every aspect of the game, favoring a slow tempo, set plays and strong defense and rebounding, which they control from the bench, as opposed to the more unpredictable nature of offense.
• Defensive sophistication has increased to levels paralleled only by the US Military and Bill Belichick coached football teams. Through advanced scouting, teams and players know everything about their opponents.
• Expansion has diluted the talent pool and created greater parity, giving starting jobs to role players (Jerome Williams, Michael Curry, Derek Fisher, Raja Bell).
• Shaq’s dominance forced teams to invest money in limited players like Jerome James, Calvin Booth, Michael Olowakandi, Oliver Miller, Jake Tsakladis, Eric Dampier, Adonal Foyle.
• General Managers fixate on potential and athleticism, using high draft picks on Kwame Brown Darius Miles, Ndubi Ebi, Leon Smith, Johnathon Bender and others who lacked rudimentary basketball skills, while ignoring more developed, skilled players.
• NBA players increasingly develop through an AAU system that promotes the “star” mentality and one-on-one play, so few players ever move to get open, instead depending on one player to make a move, draw defense and kick to an open player or drive and shoot a contested lay-up. Subtleties of the game, skills such as setting up and using a screen, moving without the ball, basic cuts, live ball moves, and proper shooting techniques are as foreign to some NBA players as the cultures of their new NBA teammates from places like China, Slovenia and Serbia and Montenegro.
Blaming zone defense is like blaming the rim being 10-feet high or the 24-second clock; any correlation between the elimination of the illegal defense rule and the decrease in scoring (a trend which started before the illegal defense rule was eliminated) is explained by two things: 1. coincidence, as it parallels the many reasons above; and 2. the inability of players and coaches to adapt quickly to the changing style of play.
Dallas (103.4 PPG) and Sacramento (104.9 PPG) average 100+ points per game proving it is possible in today’s era, as defensive-oriented as it may be. While coaches like Larry Brown, Rick Carlisle and Jeff and Stu van Gundy micromanage every possession and reign in the offensive talents of creative players (Steve “the Franchise” Francis, Lamar Odom, Rafer ‘Skip to my Lou” Alston, Chauncey Billups, Dwayne Wade, Jermaine O’Neal), other coaches like Don Nelson and Rick Adleman promote a selfless, fast-paced, open style of basketball, and are routinely critiqued by the media and fans for allowing too many points, while Carlisle, Brown and Van Gundy are praised for their successes at keeping games in the eighties.
The problem is not zone defense; the problem is coaches, players and teams who lack an effective strategy and the requisite skills to attack the zone. George Karl said he didn’t believe zone defenses could have much impact because each team possessed enough shooters a defense could not afford to leave open for three-pointers. However, this year, the sentiment has changed.
There is no rule prohibiting offensive motion simply because the defense is standing around playing a zone. However, in one game I watched, on five consecutive possessions, a team faced a zone defense; their attack consisted of the point guard dribbling up and passing to a wing and sprinting to the opposite corner. After that cut, every player remained stationary as they passed the ball around the perimeter for fifteen seconds and then jacked a three-pointer as the shot clock nearly expired.
And, that is the problem: zone offense. Struggling teams need to look West at their successful counterparts and emulate their style of play. While defense may win championships, the team with the most points at the end of the game still wins. And, as of now, four of the likely six championship contenders (#1 Sacramento, #2 Dallas, #5 Los Angeles and #8 Minnesota) rank in the top eight in scoring while only San Antonio (19) and Indiana (22) have a realistic chance to win without strong offenses, though they are built around two of the top offensive and defensive post players (Tim Duncan and Jermaine O’Neal) in the world.
The 2004-05 season marks the first visible evidence of the offensive renaissance sparked by the change in the illegal defense rule. The Phoenix Suns and Seattle Sonics adjusted to the new rules and adopted a style to take advantage of the new rules and opportunities. These teams win because they are hard to guard, mush like Sacramento, Dallas and others. Suddenly, pundits hail the new offensive basketball championed by Seattle and Phoenix. However, the seeds to this style of play were sown when the league adjusted the rules; Sacramento and Dallas were the first teams to take advantage of the rule change and now Phoenix and Seattle are taking offensive basketball, fundamentals and shooting to a new level and changing the way fans, coaches and pundits view basketball.
Check out McCormick’s blog (http://highfivehoopschool.blogspot.com) for other outside the box ideas and opinions.