Updated: Feb 8, 2019
Photo via USA Today (Kirby Lee)
The NBA has always been and always will be a copycat league. When one team does something well, other teams start implementing that particular concept into their system, or another variation of said system. Something that has taken the league by storm this year is zone defense.
After the use of zones continuously declined leading to them bottoming out at 638 total possessions during 2017-18 (almost matching last year’s total of 740, the usage numbers has spiked back up. Teams have already doubled the number of zone possessions compared to last year, with the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat leading the charge. So the question is, could it be effective for Portland and how would the team use it?
The concept of zones is to not guard players individually, but have each member of the team guard an area instead, which is especially effective when preventing teams from scoring in the paint. However, with three point attempts, makes, and percentages all up, zones were continuously exploited, almost eradicating the scheme altogether, save for college programs such as Syracuse.
So why did zones become popular again? Well, it essentially became so uncommon, teams were not prepared for it. Teams started using it for small stretches of time, nothing significant, but enough time where it caused confusion for the offense. Teams now use it out of time-outs, and even switch in/out of it mid-possession.
The big question for the Rip City faithful is whether the Blazers can use it. The key to zone defense within the NBA game is length, athleticism, and communication.
With communication, since players don’t have a specific matchup, they need to talk with their teammates and make sure they aren’t leaving someone open. And with defensive 3 seconds in the NBA, teams need to make sure they don’t award a free point to the opposition. Coach Terry Stotts has implemented a system that maximizes everyone despite having two undersized guards in the starting lineup, and a lot of that has to do with communication, and I believe that the Blazers are good on this front.
Length and athleticism are now especially important in zones. Zones used to be extremely effective due to players not being as proficient from behind the arc, as that is obviously not the case anymore. In order to close out on said shooters, zone defenses should be played with long, athletic players who can recover easier. For example, the Heat have often played the zone with their Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, James Johnson, and Bam Adebayo, five players who are regarded for their ability to move on the defensive side of the floor.
For the Blazers, who also have a variety of long defense oriented players, something similar could be implemented. Players such as Jake Layman, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard, and Jusuf Nurkic would most likely occupy the back line. The interesting part, however, is the top line. Lillard and McCollum should not be playing together while in this scheme. Assuming one of the two are the court, they would have be paired with someone like Evan Turner, Nik Stauskas, or Layman.
However, an interesting wrinkle could be a jumbo lineup similar to Miami’s, consisting of Turner, Layman, Harkless, Aminu, and Collins. All players would be fluid enough to move across the court, with the team’s three best defenders roaming the court together. While the offensive fit isn’t great, the team would most likely not use the scheme for very long, and could probably survive.
As the rest of the league is starting to use more zone defense again, it doesn’t hurt the Blazers to give it a try either.
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