Suitability for Zone Defense

Much like Jägermeister, zone defense isn’t for everybody.

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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