Attacking a Zone Defense in Basketball

4th March 2019
Discover some basic basketball concepts that your team should know about. Apply these if you want to successfully break your opponent's defense and not be out of the game from the beginning. 

Zone defense is a resource that’s commonly used by basketball coaches. It’s used when, for whatever reason, their defense is being outplayed and the other team is enjoying easy baskets.

Within zone defense we find different types used in basketball. They all have in common the abandonment of your individual defensive responsibility in exchange for a specific open space on the court.

As with any defensive strategy, this adjustment will produce a reaction from the other team who will look for a way to score against your defense.

Starting point: fast break

The first solution we should focus on when facing a zone defense is counterattack and fast break.

Evidently, a zone defense is weaker if it has not been set up properly. The defensive rebound becomes essential to start a fast break which will allow you to reach the other side of the court as quickly as possible.

zone defense

If the other team is successful in keeping you from running a fast break and making you face their zone defense, other options are available. Each one has its own aspects to keep in mind.

Alternative solutions

Use the court

When you face a zone defense, your attack must spread out as much as possible. With this, you’ll make the defense open up and increase the distance among the players.

What are you seeking to do with this maneuver? Mainly to create spaces where you can cut to the hoop. You’ll also force the other players to run more, as they will be forced to cover a larger zone on the court.

This first concept requires that your players are properly spread out maximizing the use of space on the court.

If you want to additionally confuse the defensive players, place your players between two defensive players. This will create doubts about who should guard this attacker.

Ball movement

Once you have your players in the right position, you must make sure that you have passing lanes that allow you to move the ball quickly, forcing the defense to stay in motion. Zone defense is comfortable when you’re not having to move!

This constant ball movement requires a tough job creating passing lanes. These passing lanes will swing the ball from corner to corner. Meanwhile, look for the chance to make a pass into the zone. This pass in the zone will force defense around the ball and will generate the necessary space for outside shots.

Regarding this strategy, patience is essential, however, you must always be aware that you only have twenty-four seconds to take a shot.

Switching positions

The game without the ball is of utmost importance when facing a zone defense. It requires constant and permanent movement during the offense, with movements that make weak side rotations difficult.

These constant movements will provoke defensive imbalances that translate into advantages for the attackers.

Offensive rebound

The absence of one-to-one defense and players further away from the hoop will increase your odds of getting offensive rebounds. This is a key aspect that you must take advantage of when playing against a zone defense.

basketball rebounding

In order for you to take advantage of all of these offensive variants, you need to know several basic concepts. You must use these concepts both individually and as a team when facing a zone defense.

Basic concepts when facing a zone defense

Passing

When playing against a zone defense, ball movement is key to moving the defense and forcing it to make mistakes.

The need to make your offense faster and more dynamic relies on the players, that do not have the ball, to seek good passing lanes.

If you hold the ball for too long in your hands, the defense will be easily able to establish themsleves. You risk hitting a wall over and over again, while your rivals run off happily in a fast break.

Overload

In the last paragraph we pointed out that passing was closely related to ball movement. In this case, the overload concept is closely related to how you use the playing space and the play without the ball.

Since a player in a zone defense has a space that he must cover, your objective is to place more players, than he can guard, in that space.

Being outnumbered will keep defendants from guarding all of your players. They will have to decide who to guard and who not too. This will be an advantage for your game plan.

In this type of offense, it’s also important for players without the ball to cut to the hoop behind the defenders.

Splitting

This concept is based on an offense strategy on driving the ball. Basically penetrating forcing defense for help and creating defensive imbalances which will, without a doubt, create passing lanes.

The main mistake that’s made when attacking a zone defense is driving against the player right in front of you.

The most effective way is by driving between two players, this will make players doubt who should defend this player driving to the hoop.

These doubts will cause one of two possibilities, either both try to guard the driving player or neither, allowing your player to get an easy layup.

In order to apply this concept, you must receive the ball as far away as possible from the defender. This will allow you to catch the defense (while they’re not entirely setup) and split them easily.

Meanwhile, as you split the defense, players without the ball need to move and look for spaces where they can receive a pass. If not, the player’s effort in driving the ball could be in vain.

Depending on the skills and playing styles of your players, you should use one or the other of these concepts when facing a zone defense. Depending on the situation you may choose one or combine both of them.

Once you have fully understood these basic concepts you’ll be capable of developing the most appropriate game strategies for your team.

 

Ben Abdelkrim, N., Castagna, C., El Fazaa, S., & El Ati, J. (2010). The effect of players’ standard and tactical strategy on game demands in men’s basketball. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e2e0a3

Sakota, D. (2004). Attacking the unorthodox zone. FIBA Assist.

McDonnell, M. (2004). A New Approach To Attacking Zones. Coach & Athletic Director.

Wells, L. (1996). Beating the zone defense by the rules. Coach & Athletic Director.