Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 6: Attacking a Zone

If you want to strike fear into the minds of impressionable young people, from my experience, you say two words: zone defense. It’s so scary! A normal man defense is simple, and your average motion offense can break it with varying regularity. The second you throw something different at your average high schooler and collegian, they become terrified. Zone defense is so…not normal! It actually requires our team to slow the game down a little bit and look for a shot, and we can’t take the first open shot we see. That’s not exactly what a lot of players want to hear.

What’s funniest about all of this is that it’s statistically easier to score on your average zone defense. Per Synergy, which includes offensive rebounds as separate possessions, the average man offense in Division I this past season scored 0.877 PPP. The average zone offense? 0.923 PPP. That’s a full 4.6 points more per 100 possessions – nothing frightening about that at all, right? (There’s some obvious sample size disclaimers here, before I go any further. Teams play more possessions against man defense than they do zone, so the first sample will obviously be larger than the second.) If it’s easier to score on, then why can’t we stop being scared of zones?

The answer has several different factors, of course. Generally, a team that runs a lot of zone defense is going to be much tougher to break than a mostly-man team that breaks into a zone for a few possessions per game. They simply run it more often and are more comfortable in their system; therefore, they know the weak spots of it and know to pay close attention to them. Plus, the zone defense is open to greater variance. On average, teams take 4.5% more threes per game against zones than they do man defenses. It doesn’t lead to any greater success – 34.3% hit rate against zones versus 34.2% against man – but it does allow for higher variance, both good and bad.

Another key stat here: offensive rebounding. Zone defenses give up about 3.9% more offensive rebounds than man defenses do. That might not seem giant, but on average, that’s an additional offensive rebound for every 25 opportunities. Considering you have around 30-40 chances in any given game, an additional two points could be massive in a close game. Plus, the biggest one of all: Assist Rate. Teams get over 10 more assists per 100 possessions against zones versus man. Why? The zone defense requires you to pass the ball. In theory, you could certainly run isolation plays and pick-and-rolls to the basket in it, but they’re a rare sight against teams like Syracuse.

The following three teams have a variety of ideas for attacking zones. They don’t necessarily change their entire offense to do so. All three are excellent at passing the ball, looking for open shooters, stretching the zone, and finding weak points to attack. A high-end zone offense requires patience, fearless players, and confidence in your ability to get the same type of shots you’d get against a man defense. If your team has struggled with breaking down zones in the past, let these programs be your inspiration.

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