It’s A Different Game: How zone defense changed everything in the NBA

Photo via Slam Magazine

Everybody has seen it, LeBron James positioned twenty feet from the basket on a wing isolation performing a series of feigned pump fakes and jab-steps as he evaluates the help-side defense.

Lebron has become incomparably adept at surveying and timing the help defense’s obligation to get in and out of the paint as he prepares to attack the basket, swing the ball cross court in a manner that only he can, or rise up for the jump shot. The defense has formed a human barrier around LeBron in a zone formation where there are two players “guarding” a post player on the block.

One player is defending LeBron, another player is legitimately guarding the post player, yet another is circumventing the defensive three-second rule by touching the same post player while standing in the paint, while the remaining two defenders are pinched in waiting to react to the King’s looming decision.

This scenario is one that Michael Jordan and his contemporaries never had to confront during their NBA heyday. Before the 2000-2001 NBA season, the NBA did not allow zone defense. NCAA basketball primarily features the 2-3 zone, 3-2 zone and the 1-3-1 zone; while this game-altering rule change would allow these types of zones to be played, the aforementioned zones have not been consistently implemented by NBA defenses.

Syracuse 2-3 Zone
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has made a career off his 2-3 zone defense (Photo via Dennis Nett)

So how exactly did the installment of zone manifest itself within the defenses of the NBA?

On the NBA’s official website the rules changes for the 2000-2001 season regarding zone  defense read:

  • on the strongside, any defense is legal
  • on the weakside, defenders must remain on the weakside outside the paint unless they are double-teaming the ball, picking up a free cutter or closely guarding an offensive player

Before the rule change, defending players were required to guard their respective men at all times. Granted, if a player who was not a proficient long-distance shooter encroached upon the perimeter, the defender did not have to hug them completely, but they were not allowed to drop below foul-line extended. This made stopping star players increasingly difficult.

The only way to attempt to neutralize a star player in the 90’s was to launch hard double-teams that placed the remainder of the defense in precarious situations which is certainly not a reliable tactic to consistently defend professional players.

[irp posts=”10101″ name=”LeBron James’ ‘The Decision’ costing him the 2017 NBA Finals”]

While the rule change stated that a team can only double team a player with the ball, the NBA rules treat every player in the paint as a cutter, and thus a simple touch to the nearest post player resets a single player’s defense three-second clock, potentially granting a player unlimited time in the paint.

Below are a couple of examples of how zone defenses were prohibited before the 2000-2001 rule change:

Here, Michael Jordan is isolated on the left mid-post and as he is getting into his move a Knicks player guarding the player at the top of the key comes down to offer help. This was illegal, called a technical foul, and Jordan was rewarded with a free throw and the ball:

In this next clip, Jordan is in the right corner preparing to use a ball screen that would send him to the middle of the court. In preparation for a shot or a drive, two Portland Trailblazers are “guarding” a post player who does not have the ball as they anticipate Jordan’s next move. This defensive alignment was illegal and was always called, take a look at a hysterical Scottie Pippen pleading with the refs to make the illegal defense call:

During this possession, lilliputian Mugsy Bogues finds himself matched up with the much larger Jordan on the perimeter. Anticipating the imminent doom, 7-foot-2 Robert Parish abandons his man and prepares to come to Bogues’ aid. Parish ends up staying in the paint for around three seconds, which would be illegal by today’s NBA rules, but by the 90’s rules, he was illegal the very moment he elected not to guard a player in the paint.

As definitively illustrated by the video clips above, 90’s rules made defending superstar players extremely difficult. A simple isolation call could strand a defender on an “island,” and with rules that prohibited pre-rotation or pre-help defense, it was often too late to stop a slashing player that beat his initial defender.

[irp posts=”9255″ name=”Shooting Myths, One-Motion Shooting And The WNBA”]

Not surprisingly, many star players were not too fond of the rule changes that occurred in the 2000-2001 season. In an interview with KICKS Magazine shortly after the rule change, superstars Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Tracy Mcgrady offered their opinions on zone defense:

Photo courtesy of Kicks Magazine


KICKS:  “If you guys could change one rule in the League, what would it be?”

Kevin Garnett:  “No zone.”

Tim Duncan:  “Yeah, the zone.”

Tracy Mcgrady:  “That shit is stupid.”

KICKS:  “Because it didn’t do what they (The NBA) thought it would do?”

Kevin Garnett:  “I think it puts players that are really good at a disadvantage… I remember Phoenix sat somebody literally right there (in the lane).”

Tracy Mcgrady:  “It makes it hard for a guy like me-

Kevin Garnett:  “Who penetrates.”

Tim Duncan:  “It makes it hard for all of us.”

Tracy Mcgrady: ” It’s tough on all of us, it really is. When you’re trying to make a move, and you got another guy sittin’ right there on the same side just waitin.”

Kevin Garnett: “He ain’t even playin’ his man.”

Tracy Mcgrady: “Nah, not at all. “

Kevin Garnett:  “That’s where teammates are really, really important. Not only is there pressure on you to get them the ball, but the pressure’s on them to be productive and draw the defense.”

Each of these players played before and after the implementation of zone defenses in the NBA, establishing their experience both before and after the change.

Even Jordan, arguably the greatest NBA player ever, was troubled by the zone defense. In a postgame interview in 2001 after a loss to the Charlotte Hornets, Jordan is quoted as saying, ” I never liked zones, I felt like that’s a lazy way to play defense and with them, you can eliminate a lot of the stars making things happen,” via USA Today’s Jenna Fryer.

As these three superstar players explained, the rule change had a profound impact on the way the game was played as it put a premium on shooting and demanded that star players trust their teammates if they wanted to succeed.

Below are a few NBA clips after the implementation of zone defenses:

In this clip, James catches the ball in the left corner and prepares to use a Dwyane Wade ball-screen that will send him to the middle of the court. As this unfolds, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are below foul-line extended, and thus would have been considered illegal before 2001. All four players pinch in and shrink the floor forcing James into a low percentage, contested mid-range pull-up:

In this next example, Wade has the ball at the top of the key as the clock is winding down in the fourth quarter. This clip illustrates one of the biggest differences in the NBA post-rule-change.

In years prior, a superstar player could get an isolation play whenever he wanted and he could be sure that it was a “true” ISO. However, after the rule change, situations like those in the video above became possible.

[irp posts=”10023″ name=”Raiders’ Marquette King tabs jab at Rihanna, LeBron James”]

In the clip, Shaquille O’Neal, who is on the right block, is being “covered” by two Sixers players. One player is legitimately guarding Shaq while standing outside of the paint, and another Sixers player sets up shop in the paint for six seconds, touching Shaq every three seconds to reset the count. Wade, seeing a defender literally sitting in the middle of the paint, is forced to take a tough outside shot:

Lastly, this clip illustrates exactly what McGrady was alluding to in his interview with KICKS when he referenced the defending team being allowed to station players behind their man, lying in wait.

Here, James catches the ball on the right wing and prepares his move on Jimmy Butler. As LeBron is getting into his move the Bulls defense shifts its position. Before LeBron can even put the ball on the floor, Taj Gibson maneuvers right behind Butler, frantically jumping up and down. While this is happening, Joakim Noah drops down to take Gibson’s man and Nate Robinson drops below foul-line extended to provide additional support, forcing LeBron into a poor shot.

After providing all of this evidence to the nostalgic NBA fan who believes that the 90’s were the more challenging era in which to play hoops, the desperate fan will condescendingly point to hand-checking. For those who are not aware, hand-checking has been one of the most frequent talking points for fans who passionately argue that the 90’s was the more difficult epoch for top-flight players to truly strut their stuff.

Unfortunately for this line of thinking, hand-checking was abolished in 1979:

  • “Clarification added to prohibit hand-checking through “rigid enforcement” of rule allowing a defensive player to retain contact with his opponent so long as he does not impede his opponent’s progress”- NBA Rules History.

The myth that hand checking was refereed any differently than it is in 2017 is simply that: a myth.

Below are videos from the 1980’s and 1990’s where hand checking is clearly called as a foul:

In this first video in 1988, Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson performs a left-to-right crossover on the Sixers player, and the defender uses his hand to stop him from going to the basket. The referee calls the foul and gestures with his arms that it is a hand checking foul. The ignorant crowd boos in response, but none of the players argue or gesticulate in any way because it is a routine call:

This next video is a collection of three separate instances that Jordan’s defender puts minimal hand contact on Jordan and a foul is called immediately as Jordan dribbles the ball:

Lastly, hand-checking still occurs in today’s NBA. Yes, they call it today, as they called it in the 1990’s as well. That being said, here is a collection of some plays where hand-checking is not called in the contemporary NBA:

So, what does all of this mean?

Well, it’s fairly blatant that the two different eras of basketball cannot be compared because of the differences in rules. When was it more difficult to play NBA basketball, the 1990’s? Or the 2000’s? “Harder for whom?” are the questions that demand to be asked and answered.

There is overwhelming evidence pointing towards the 1990’s being a significantly easier era in which to battle as a superstar player because zone defenses were not allowed. Having said that, I believe that role players, especially shooters and off the ball players, are currently experiencing their most exciting moment to date. The zone defenses allow teams to load up on superstars, which in turn puts a premium on players that can space the floor.

[irp posts=”9871″ name=”Durant’s basketball shouldn’t surprise us, his unselfishness should”]

Overall, this rule change in the 2000-2001 NBA season has had a positive impact on basketball. In the 1990’s, children grew up watching stagnant “ISO ball” that only existed in the NBA.

At every other level, teams were allowed to play zone and I believe that this made young athletes who idolized certain players develop bad habits. Without zone defenses in the league, the NBA was able to more efficiently market the premier players as stars, making it easier for them to score. It has now been close to two decades since zone has been allowed in the NBA and star players still shine, the only difference is that defenses can be more complex and unpredictable which forces the stars to get others involved.

–Videos courtesy of Ron M. at the Youtube Channel ‘TheRiggedBA’.