SABA vs Zones

I saw this tweet with a play from the Clippers’ scrimmage, and immediately thought “that should have been a lob for a dunk”. I read the comments, and people appeared to think it was good defense.

The problem starts as the player receives the first pass over half-court.

This picture occurs just before the ball is passed to the player high on the right sideline.

At the start, the spacing is fine. Most high school teams teach to flash a player to the middle against the 1-2-2, and that would not be wrong. However, the current spacing creates an immediate 2v1 in the yellow circle above. Quick ball movement should be able to exploit this advantage.

This image is the instant that the player receives the pass.

Now, the spacing creates a problem. Why is the player circled above standing in the midrange? His positioning eliminates a driving lane for the player with the ball, and he is unprepared to shoot a three-pointer on the catch. If he is not a shooter, he should be positioned elsewhere, potentially in the dunker’s spot with his shoulders squared to the ball. This would create a 2v1 with the player circled below.

This image is then the attacker with the ball faces the basket.

Now, for some reason, our shooter in the corner still is not behind the three-point line. Despite this, the baseline defender is sprinting out toward him. What is the opposite post, circled above, doing? Does he not like to score? He is actually backing away from the basket area that is currently being vacated with no defender sprinting to take away the space. At this instant, there should be a lob for a dunk. The next best alternative is a flash to the ball side to take away the weak side help for a catch and finish at the rim. To end up with the next frame instead of the ball at the rim is terrible execution.

After looking to the basket, he looks away and starts to dribble middle as the original passer basket cuts because he is denied.

The attacker with the ball turns away from the basket and still no defender has covered the open space in yellow. Fortunately for the defense, the baseline attacker has backed further away from the basket, presumably because he hates offense. An adept passer could throw a little pocket pass to the point guard cutting because he has a step and there is no help defense, but if he was unwilling to throw the lob to an open player, I imagine he is not equipped to throw the pocket pass right there.

Despite giving up the big advantage (lob), the cut attracts the attention of two players, which means that the offense still has a 2v1 advantage in green with a quick ball reversal.

Next dribble.

Instead, he dribbles again, and defenders match up. At this point, the advantage is gone, and the offense relies on the attacker to make an individual move to create a shot.

The shot

With the lack of spacing — neither weak side player is outside the three-point line, the baseline strong side has lifted from the corner, and the fifth player apparently gave up and ran back on defense — the help defense rotates and forces a bad, contested shot.

Again, most see good defense because the offense attempted a bad shot. However, the offense forfeited multiple advantages. When the player on the right wing receives the pass, the ball stopped. When he stopped the ball, the defense could recover and match up.

The ball stopped largely because the offense was spaced poorly on the strong side — too far out to create the 2v1 on the baseline, but not outside the three-point line — and the opposite baseline attacker, who should have scored, decided that he did not want to play on that possession and took himself out of the play.

The defense rotated fairly well, as these movements occurred in fractions of a second, but that is the speed of play at the NBA level. Attackers have to recognize openings immediately, or preferably anticipate the openings, because of the speed of the game. Once the attacker on the right wing holds the ball, they lose the big advantage. Once he takes the second dribble, they lose the small 2v1 advantage on the weak side.

This is a major reason that zones work at all levels. Players catch and hold and allow the defense to rotate instead of attacking on the catch like we teach against player-to-player defense. If he caught and ripped to the basket, he creates a kickback to his teammate in the corner or a 2v1 with the opposite baseline and the baseline defender. If he passes immediately, he likely creates a dunk for his teammate on the baseline. Instead, he holds the ball, the defense moves quickly, and the advantages quickly disappear. Good defense, but the offense allowed it by forfeiting its advantages and holding the ball.

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