Facing A Zone: Looking At The Lakers Zone Offense

Darius Soriano —  March 18, 2010

An ongoing issue with the Lakers has been their execution on offense.  We’ve discussed this several times before, so there’s really no need to expand on the specific ills that have hurt this team’s offensive efficiency over the course of the season.  However, there has been a recent trend that has popped up that has hurt this team’s offensive performance that not too many folks are talking about:  lackluster execution when facing a zone defense.  Going all the way back to the Denver game (that we won), various teams have thrown out a zone defense against the Lakers and it’s been quite effective.  Most recently, the team that had some success with a zone defense against the Lakers was Phoenix.  Below, Phillip took the time to put some pictures together and analyze some of the all too typical ways that the Lakers have been operating against a zone.  I’ll let Phillip take it from here:

It is definitely not a secret that the Lakers have had ample problems with zone defenses. Generally, an effective zone offense is working best when it is applying these three fundamental principles:

1. Player Movement

2. Ball Movement

3. Touches in the paint

During the Lakers last meeting with the Suns, there was a stretch in the first quarter where the Suns switched to a zone defense for about four minutes. The score was tied at 18 when the Suns went into the zone and they led 24-18 by the time they switched back to a man defense. I’m going to break down one of their possessions, show you what they’ve been doing wrong, especially when Kobe is not on the floor, and show you what happened the one time the ball went into the post during that stretch.


On this first shot, we see Derek Fisher passing the ball to LO on the left wing and cutting through. Shannon Brown is going to fill at the top of the key and Ron Artest is going to cut through to the low block on the left hand side. Andrew Bynum is going to start this set on the high post, an easy spot for him to get an early touch since he’d be surrounded by guards. Jaron Collins is in the middle and Jason Richardson is on the left block in their zone, neither of which would be able to come up and help with Artest down there. Unfortunately, the ball never gets there.


Here we see that Odom decided to get the ball to the top of the key to Brown. Brown dribbles to his right where Derek Fisher is spotting up wide open. The two easiest ways to get open jump shots is to reverse the ball from one side to the other, or for the ball to get into the paint and kicked out to the open man. Lamar will slide up closer to the top of the key, Bynum will go to the low block and Artest will go into the right corner. For me, the Lakers make a few mistakes here. For one, the ball will not end up in the hands of either Bynum or Fisher, which is crucial. The defense does not have to work when the ball isn’t reversed. Jared Dudley is in the center of the floor, the closest any of the Suns defenders is to defending the right side of the floor. The Lakers are essentially playing undermanned if the ball doesn’t go to the other side of the floor. The Suns’ five only have to defend three or four instead of five. Their other mistake was Artest moving to the corner. There were already three guys on the perimeter, he should have slid up into Bynum’s previous position. With all of the Suns defenders on the left side of the floor, a pass to Artest would be nearly impossible, giving them one less offensive player they have to defend. Him going to the high post gives Brown four passing options and keeps the defense honest.


Now we see that Odom has the ball again. With the Suns’ defense finally spread out, this would have been a perfect opportunity for Odom to penetrate and kick, especially with Nash on him, or for either Bynum flash high to re-collapse the defense, and kick out to any of the four guys would be wide open on the perimeter. Again, neither of these things happen. Lamar holds the ball for a few seconds, then gives it back to Brown. Now that’s a pass to Lamar, a pass to Brown, a pass back to Lamar, and a pass back to Brown. This is not how you beat a zone.


And finally, with the shot clock running down, Brown takes a few dribbles and hoists up an 18-footer. Look at where all of the Suns defenders are. All of them right around the painted area. When zone offenses are run right, the defense has the tendency to give up offensive rebounds. With the Lakers just moving the ball between two guys on the left side of the perimeter, the Suns are in a great position to finish the defensive possession off right and grab the rebound. Only Bynum is near the rim, and he’s already being sealed off by Collins. The Suns’ expended little to no energy defending the Lakers on that possession.

As Phillip said so simply, this is not how you beat a zone defense.  So, what else can the Lakers be doing to beat the zone defenses that they’re seeing now and that they’ll likely see in the future?  From my perspective, here are a few of the things that I’d like to see when the Lakers face a zone defense:

1).  Make the zone play your offense with man to man principles.  The Lakers already run an overload offense.  The Triangle, when initiated on the strong side with the sideline entry means that any Zone will then need to “man up” by having the strong side Forward extend to the wing, the Center fill in behind him to guard our post player, and then have the strong side Guard sliding over to pick up our top side Guard/Wing.  By moving the ball to the strong side and turning their zone defense into a 3 on 3 man to man front, we’ve essentially eliminated the zone on the strong side and nullified any advantage that existed with the zone’s defensive overload.

2).  Make sure the weak side offensive forward is playing in “space” as much as possible.  The weak side Forward/Big is a key player in the Triangle offense because he’s often the pressure release player and the man that does a lot of screening on the weakside.  So, against a zone defense, that player needs to be even more aware of where the defense is moving and counteract that by sliding into the gaps of the zone where he makes himself available for an easy catch.  Reed made this point very well in an email exchange recently:

We do have tall, skilled big men who make for ideal high post flashers and passers to make zones collapse. I remember Bobby Knight teaching that the way to beat a zone is to make two defenders guard the ball, and you accomplish that through penetration or getting the ball to the heart of the zone.

3).  As Phillip noted above, the ball needs to change sides more.  Too often (not only against a zone but against standard defenses as well), the Lakers keep the ball to one side and consistently try to attack against a set defense.  However, when the ball moves from one side of the court to the other, the defense must shift and react quickly and that leads to late or hasty closeouts that either leave our shooters wide open or give them angles to penetrate.

4). Play our best lineups against a zone.  Again, Reed notes that:

We only have one starter that can penetrate (Kobe), so that’s an issue. Farmar can do it, but do we really want him dominating the ball like that? I think our best zone-busting defense is probably Farmar-Brown-Kobe-Odom-Gasol as we have a bit more speed and shooting, and Bynum doesn’t seem to know what to do if he doesn’t have someone on his hip.

In this instance, I’m 100% with Reed.  Our zone offense needs passers and cutters with enough shooting to keep closing out defenders honest.  Any time the Lakers face a zone, I think it’s important that Odom is in the game to not only be a flasher and a passer, but to also take advantage of the offensive rebounding opportunities that exist against a zone.  LO is a player that loves to crash the offensive glass from the shallow corner and from the FT line extended.  These positions on the floor also double as the weak spots in any zone defense.  To me, it was no coincidence that the Lakers got Phoenix out of their zone when they started to not only make some shots, but when they started to gobble up offensive rebounds against a scrambling D.

In the end, the Lakers have a perfect offensive system to counteract a zone.  The combination of built in ball and player movement in the Triangle should lead to great success against a zone.  However, the Lakers must display the proper patience and make the correct reads with the ball in order to make the zone move to where you want it to where it can be exploited more easily.  As Phillip showed in the pictures above, the Lakers can’t just keep the ball to one side and expect to be successful.  And they need to use the correct personnel that won’t get bogged down when facing this type of defense.  I’m sure after the recent struggles against the zone that the Lakers will be more prepared when the face teams that play this style.  Because with teams like Denver, Dallas, and Phoenix the odds are that we will see a team in the playoffs that play some zone defense against us.

Darius Soriano

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