The Strong Side Zone and You

Kurt —  November 3, 2008

Lakers fans, these three words are your new mantra, your new best friend:

Strong Side Zone.

When the season started we were generally saying, “if the Lakers defense can just be in the top 10 in the league we’ll be in good shape.” Well, three games is an infinitesimal sample size, but so far the Lakers have the best defense in the league, giving up 88 points per 100 possessions. Every time I see that number my jaw drops like a character in a Tex Avery cartoon.

The reason is two-fold, one is a mental commitment to defense and the other is the strong side zone they have committed to. What is that exactly? Why is it working? What are other teams going to do to counter it? Let’s talk about the strong side zone, and why it is good for you.

Simply put, whatever side of the court the opponents have the ball on, the Lakers do two things: 1) They pressure the ball with that players’ defender; 2) They try to float another defender (usually Gasol or Odom at the four) over to the side the ball is on (or strong side). The team essentially plays a sort of zone behind the man pressuring the ball (although it can look like the Lakers are playing a soft man-to-man, it is more a matchup zone).

The reason for doing all this is pretty simple — to stop penetration. It killed the Lakers last year when Chris Paul or Paul Pierce beat their man and drove into the lane at will. Now, if Pierce (or someone else) gets the ball on the wing, Radmanovic might be out pressuring him and taking away the jumpshot, but he is also “shading” him, trying to get him to drive one direction — to where the additional help is now located. Essentially, trying to drive him into a trap (of Gasol, Bynum or Odom). When the ball is at the top of the key, the Lakers have more of a 1-2-2 zone, but with man-to-man matchup principals.

Phil Jackson said in an Eric Pincus story at Hoopsworld that the motivation for this change in philology from his prior love of strict man-to-man was how the game is being called. His old Bulls and even Lakers teams (from the threepete years) could take away penetration by being far more physical, hand checking guys out on the wings. But in today’s no-touch NBA (at least on the perimeter), nobody singlehandly can slow a Chris Paul or a Tony Parker or a host of other players (including Kobe). What the Lakers are doing with this strong-side zone is slowing the penetration by overloading the side with the ball.

Having all those bodies on the strong side also helps the two weakest Laker man defenders — Fisher and Radmanovic — by giving them a lot of backup and allowing them to force a guy a direction rather than just try to stay in front of him. (Similar to how Pierce and Allen are covered for in Boston.) The Lakers are doing all this with long players, which (as a few of Gatinho’s friends said) also takes away some passing lanes. Darius also adds this:

We’re using the zone primarily to slow penetration, but to also show any offensive player who catches the ball the 2nd defender immediately and then make that offensive player either shoot quickly while not getting to the basket or to pass the ball (and hopefully make a forced pass where we can get in the passing lane and get a deflection or a steal).

It should also be noted that the Lakers second unit seems to be more aggressive with the trapping aspect of the defense. The guy pressuring the ball stays on the hip of the penetrator and pushes him into the corner or out in a location he can be trapped on the wing when he picks up his dribble.

So far the strong side zone has worked. Portland seemed to have no idea what hit them and settled for outside shots. The Clippers made some good plays but also made some pretty horrific skip passes and turned the ball over.

But no defense is perfect, it all can be beat, either by smart play or overwhelming individual effort. Can’t do much about the latter, that just happens, some nights a Gilbert Arenas goes off and you just have to admire him. But the former, smart play, we started to see out of the Nuggets (of all teams) and we can expect to see more from the top squads.

One thing Denver did was slip the screen (meaning a bit would go out and look like he was going to set the high screen for a pick and roll, but would roll out of it early and the defenders would not recognize it fast enough, leaving him open going toward the basket). Darius can explain:

Last (game) Nene did this several times and while he didn’t always receive the pass, it broke down the integrity of our rotations and it led to openings on the weakside for easy baskets because we couldn’t recover back to perimeter quickly enough to cover shooters after we tried to help on the diving player (or when we did actually recover to the perimeter, we were not closing out under control and the offensive player was able to penetrate easily past that closing out defender). (On a side note, realize that in an NBA zone, the paint can actually be a difficult part of the court to cover if the offense doesn’t plant a player in the post. Because of the defensive 3 second rule, we can’t stack our zone with a 3rd defender just covering the paint (with the other two creating that strong side zone look that we’re showing) and that makes the slip/dive on the P&R a tough play to defend. We end up with players straddling both sides of the paint and it leaves the area right under the basket open.)

Now, when you bring an extra defender over to the strong side, you are by definition leaving one less guy on the weak side, making you susceptible to skip passes (or just very quick ball movement). Also, as the season wears on, expect teams to counter what the Lakers are doing by setting screens on the weakside trying to shake a man free of his defender then having him flash to a location for the ball and a shot (or drive).

Quick guards are still going to give the Lakers fits, by the way. Iverson showed that (plus, you know, Iverson is an offensive force). Against Denver Iverson so badly beat the man covering him a few times that rather than going into a trap situation with the second defender, he was in a one-on-one with that defender, and from there passes to cutters and others open up, and the integrity of the defense breaks down. Chris Paul, D-Will, Parker, others are going to create this problem at times as well, and the person pressuring the ball (Fisher last night) needs not to lose his man that completely.

Clearly, the Lakers players have bought into this defensive philosophy, and that is as or more important than the philosophy itself. They are not doing the zone every time down, there is still man-to-man, but it is another arrow in the quiver and Jackson clearly is not afraid to use it. Other coaches are as well, I’ve seen a lot more zone this year than in years past, largely for the same reasons I would imagine.

Learn to love the zone, Lakers fans, it could help bring you a pretty new banner to hang in that place we call home.