The reputation for Dwane Casey and his zone-defense soared during the finals. Stifling not one, but two Hall-of-Fame guards when it counted the most is a daunting task, and Rick Carlisle’s confidence in using Casey’s zone paid dividends in the form of a title. So it worked in Dallas, will anything remotely similar work in Toronto?

The advantages of a zone are plentiful: counter against guards who prove to be too quick, exploit poor perimeter shooters, hide bad defenders, running the clock down, dealing with foul trouble, etc. These bounties do come at a cost, otherwise every team would be playing the zone consistently. They don’t, and it’s for good reason.

There are three misgivings about Casey’s potential zone that concern an observer right now, two are related to talent and only one is an intangible.

It’s true that the one of the main advantages of a zone is that it can force opponents into perimeter shooting, but it would be a fallacious to suggest that it can be used as an amnesty for poor perimeter defenders. Closing out shooters has been a major weakness for the Raptors in recent times, they were 3rd worst in three point percentage allowed at 37.6% last year, and 5th worst the year before that at 36.6%. The numbers do become respectable in terms of the 10-23 foot range, so all is not bad. Hiding Calderon or DeRozan is doable for 18 seconds of the shot-clock, but any team with reasonably good ball movement will eventually find a clean look from deep, and that has been one of the Raptors’ major problems – the last rotation for a close-out.

Communication is the core of defense, and when playing zone that statement is accentuated further. Broadcasting the location of the ball, oneself, and the opponent has to become habitual because the communication is perpetual. Relatively speaking, playing man-to-man is a simple endeavor. Memory recalls that the Raptors flirted with success in their zone play last season, well, as much success a 22-win team be expected to have. Jarrett Jack was considered to be the most vocal in this regard, and since his departure Julian Wright and Jerryd Bayless filled the role. I would think this is #1 on Casey’s list when he talks about developing a defensive identity. Can he turn the likes of Bargnani, DeRozan, Kleiza, and Johnson into effective communicators on defense? Tall task.

The zone is not a substitute for help defense. You always hear commentators mention the need for collective rebounding when in the zone, but not enough is talked of what happens when the soft spots in the zone are penetrated creating easy scoring chances. Help defense is equally important here, if not more so. Big men who can rotate inside and wings who can seal baselines and open seams are the stitching that makes or breaks the defense. Replacing Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson with Andrea Bargnani, James Johnson and DeMar DeRozan means that Casey’s playbook will have to be significantly altered.

As much as we’d like to believe that Jay Triano’s personality was reflected in the Raptors’ defense, and that his schemes were ill-suited for the squad (protecting the paint etc.), the issue at the core is talent and intelligence. Can Casey cultivate what’s already here and turn this lot into a respectable defensive team? In a recent poll, 41% of you thought that, given the same roster, the Raptors defense would be ranked between 11-20 under Casey. 44% felt they would be between 21-25, and 11% felt they would remain in the bottom five. Yes, 4% predicted a top ten defense.

Given the roster as of today, I’m with the 21-25 crowd. At best. Casey’s not the Kevin O’Neill or Mike Fratello in that he’ll slow the pace down to a crawl, he’ll still demand efficiency on the offensive end, testing the Raptors’ conditioning. I don’t think the current Raptors personnel are suited to play two-way basketball at a sustainable level, so I’m of the belief that the Raptors’ pace of 93.1 (10th overall) will have to decrease if they are to improve defensively. It’s almost like a team has to pick between being a good defensive team and playing a quick-hitting up-and-down offense – 7 of the 10 worst defensive teams were also in the top 10 in pace, the other three were Indiana (12th, Denver(16th) and Sacramento(19th). You can’t have both, or at least, it’s rare.

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37 Responses to “Suitability for Zone Defense”

  1. Nilanka15

    Another positive regarding zones is that it requires a bit less energy to execute.  For example, DeRozan wouldn’t be required to chase Ray Allen or Richard Hamilton around the court as they run around screens all night long.  This might allow our players to play heavier minutes without tiring.

    Another negative regarding zones is that when a shot is launched, it’s harder to box-out.  Unlike in a man-to-man defense, you’re not always positioned between your check and the basket.  Unless you make a concious effort to find a man, and box him out, offensive rebounds are likely.

    • Theswirsky

      a Zone only require less energy for certain players (ie. those that would otherwise chase people around)… the defense as a whole ends up getting worn out quick.

      Well thats assuming a team plays a good zone and the other team tries to break the zone effectively…. pass the ball around for the majority of the shot clock and the offense will wear down the D.

    • Big D

      Thing is I wouldn’t play zone with Ray Allen being the opposing player. That’s just asking him to set up shop at the 3 point line.

  2. hateslosing

    I like these types of articles 🙂
    The zone can be very effective in moderation in the NBA and I assume that if we run it it will be silimilar to how Jay ran it this year with 10-15 minutes devoted to it a game in order to throw off the other team and see if they can break it. The Heat are the perfect team to execute a zone against because 3 of their starters (Bosh, James, and Wade) made their living driving and picking up fouls and only their point was a real shooting threat. A team like Boston on the other hand will eat the zone up because they have Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
    Like Arse says though, this is all about whether or not Casey can get our guys to start communicating and caring on defense. No amount of scheming will make a team that doesn’t play hard enough good defensively.

  3. Statement

    The Raps have a few interesting defensive players.

    Amir, James Johnson, Ed Davis…is Julian Wright still on the team?

    The rest of the team needs work.

  4. Homer2004

    Please dont forget Mav did not play true zone. the mixed it up pretty well and that was what caught miami off guard as they did not know the defense was a zone or man to man vs raps that played very obvious zone defense. Doing so require Basketball players with very high IQ in basketball( Jason Kidd , shawm Marion, T.S, Dirk) very similar to triangle offense. 
    Imagine lakers as Mav for their triangle offense and Minnesota as raptors that execute a poor version of triangle offense. 

    • Big D

      Completely agree with this post. The Mavs zone was a mix of man and zone. They would switch from it on different possessions confusing the Heat who didn’t know what defense they would be facing when they came up the floor. The Mavs had good defenders but also players with high BB IQs. The Raptors have very few good defenders with very little BB IQ so it will be harder to implement that type of system when you have Bargnani who can’t even call out a screen, can’t cover the pick and roll and shows zero awareness in help defense.

      • Jp

        very little BB IQ….First off what does that even mean…and second what do you base this on?

        and Dallas only really has Tyson C as a great defensive player.  Marion has lost a lot, and Kidd is ridiculously slow.  Stephenson is not bad but he’s not a 40 min type of defender. 

        The team has to LEARN how to play this way…just like Dallas did.

        • Gusser

          I hate to nitpick, b/c I agree w/ most of what you are saying, but I think Kidd’s defense may be the most understated thing about thhe Dallas team. 
          His man and zone defense was outstanding.  He was slow, but strong and well positioned to change shots and drives.
          Aside from Nowitzki, Kidd may have been the game changer. 

        • Big D

          Basketball IQ a players smarts in reading offensive and defensive situations. This is mainly gained through experience. When Casey came to that team they were 17th in defensive efficiency. Nothing to write home about but is still waaaaay better then our 30th ranked defense. The thing I’m saying is don’t look for immediate improvement defensively with the unit we have now even under Casey. A lot of these guys are young around 22 years of age who still have time to grow defensively. Right now there level of basketball IQ is low compared to that Dallas team. It will take 3 may be 4 years before we’re even ranked top 10 in defense if this team is static. 

          • C.d.G.

            And I should say: nobody is allowed to take for granted that Casey is really that kind of defensive wizard all of you people are talking about!

        • Homer2004

          I like to add this however I did pick up something from Casseys’s Interview and that he did mentioned that he does not necessarily does the zone defense. What he will do is to evaluate the team and based on the build a defensive system which does not necessarily mean same as Dallas. he will build it based on groups strength. Now what that will, it remains to speculations.
          Also in regard to Ed Davis , he did talked about him and mentioned he is part of Raptors Future for sure. 😉

      • EuroPussy

        Bargs is not bad 1 vs 1. But he is not a “good” defender, no doubt about. Is Dirk a good defender? NEVER, but he lerned to defend in a good system, Bargs had to play in a chaos. No i’m not comparing AB with Dirk, but i think he can learn.
        How good DD or JJ can learn, i don’t know, because they are much terrible defender as AB. (in my opinion).

        • Big D

          Dirk is an adequate defender but he’s also a better defensive rebounder so there’s less work for them in Dallas. Yes Bargs is a good man defender when he wants to be like in his third and fourth year. This past year though his man defense was subpar, adding that to his terrible defensive awareness didn’t help the team much. DD and JJ’s defense was up and down for most of the season. Even then when they did get beat Bargs could at the very lease make himself big in the lane to make the defender think twice about penetrating the lane. In pick and rolls don’t hedge that far out and lose your man while giving the guard an open lane to the basket. Simple things like that can help a defense.

          • Chuj

            wow.. there is nothing simple about defending the pick&roll, thats why many nba offenses are 90% p&r..
            especially hedging is a very difficult task for big men.. AB could still be better, if he would care to defend

  5. FAQ

    Hmmmm …. playing defense for 24 seconds but less than 10 seconds on offense ….. tribal honking fans will love that regime.

  6. Marz

    Just so that you don’t start spreading false rumours, Jägermeister IS for everyone.

  7. BCGheradiniJayGots2Go!!!

    Myself, personally I don’t like zone defenses in the NBA it’s a man’s League so man up on D or get burned!!

    • Whyisntthisdouchebanned

      HMMM…bargnani mans up on d all the time, one on one he takes it personal and rarely gets beat.
      …its covering our loser wings and guards man that has cumshots like u irate… what is it?

    • Nilanka15

      The defensive 3 second rule doesn’t help when playing zone in the NBA…

    • Juicey

      “man’s league”?  I say like everything else in reality, it’s a results-based league.  In other words, do whatever works, no matter what it is.  If the zone works, do it.  If not, then don’t. 

    • Bigbalboski79

      you dont like zones?  well a team with one star and abunch of role players beat lebron, d-wade and cb4 employing zones?  i guess that means you dont like winning?  “man up” all you want. i’d rather win that be “macho” and lose.

      • BCGheradiniJayGots2Go!!!

        Insinuation is like masturbation it only gets you off kiddo- recognize.

  8. Hellskitchen

    Not wanting to play zone in the NBA is often a typical NBA coaches’ cultural prejudice, just like the fact they do not want to methodically foul when being up by 3 points with few seconds to go…
    It’s strategically obtuse, but they keep doing it and (sometimes) losing games for it…

    • Statement


      It’s like stealing bases in baseball or playing the hit and run or saving your best pitcher for a save in the 9th. 

      Or not going for it on 4th down and 1 or 2.

    • mountio

      I agree with this sentiment .. although there is certainly logic to a zone being more successful if you use it in spurts, to change things up. If offenses can prepare for a zone and figure out your tendencies, they will be a lot of more successful at it. Similar to playing big (or small) lineups. It doesnt work all the time, and it doesnt work against all teams .. but in certain spots, it can change the flow of the game and give you some great mismatches.
      Traino was absolutely horrible on this .. his substitutions were like clockwork . never adjusting to the flow of the game, never trying to go big (AJ, AB, ED) – only the odd time when we were in foul trouble trying to go small.
      Lets hope Casey is a material change for the better in this regard ..

  9. 19jtg47

    good comments on zone; given the youth of the Raptors, more work on conditioning should enable the Dinos to have their cake and eat it — in other words, play good defense and still score.


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