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.

zone001

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.

zone002

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.

zone003

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.

zone004

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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22 responses to Facing A Zone: Looking At The Lakers Zone Offense

  1. the other stephen March 18, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    excellent post. this must’ve taken a fair amount of work.

  2. Thanks, this is prime FB&G stuff, interesting and intelligent.

  3. grown man post here

  4. Darius,
    In your example you point out what I consider the prime weakness of the Lakers and zones. Having Lamar in with Brown/Farmar. Lamar can be a zone buster, however, he cannot be the person making the decision from the top of the key. He is just too much of an airhead. Someone else must be making the decisions and he must be the spear carrier.

    Brown can’t do this – see your description above – and Farmar seems to be working on his contract with another club at this time.

    This is sort of like having Sasha in with Kobe to keep his better instincts at the surface. Probably when a team zones us, Phil will have to sub in Kobe and Pau or Walton to keep the system running properly. This probably won’t happen until the playoffs start and we will all suffer until then.

  5. craig W,
    “Lamar can be a zone buster, however, he cannot be the person making the decision from the top of the key. He is just too much of an airhead.”

    The biggest problem with that “dream lineup” that has Lamar at the point.

  6. fantastic post. this is why I live on this site– to come away with ideas that will make the next game I watch that much more enjoyable.

    thanks, guys. first class….

  7. If someone could hit a 3 point shot this discussion wouldn’t be happening because no one could zone us up.

    Also, LO needs to stop floating around the perimeter against zones. Against a man I don’t mind him playing point and spending some time on the perimeter because he is pulling opposing PFs away from the basket where he generally has an advantage. Against the zone he is going to be guarded by smaller guys who can stay in front of him. He could shoot over them but I don’t think anyone here wants LO shooting 3s to bust a zone.

  8. Craig, I disagree on Odom being an “airhead”. He’s fine in any part of our zone offense. I’d prefer him to be the high post flash man, just because of his feel for movement and finding space combined with his passing ability, but I don’t mind him at the top of the zone making the swing pass or handling the ball. Many of Odom’s mistakes on offense are those of aggression – driving the ball without recognizing the defender at the second level or shooting the outside jumper when he’s given a lot of space – but I like aggression against the zone.

    As for Farmar/Brown, the main reason that I agree with Reed is because those Farmar is one of our best penetrators and Shannon is one of our best slashers off the ball. Plus, they both have the athleticism to finish when they get in the lane and the speed/quickness to actually get into the gaps of the zone. This is why, as much as I think Fisher’s and Artest’s shooting would help against the zone, I don’t see them moving with the urgency to take advantage of all the angles.

    That said, a key reason why we struggle against zones is because our personnel isn’t ideal to combat them. Besides Kobe, Odom, and Pau our other players have deficiencies that show up against that type of D. Meanwhile those three have enough diversity in their games to excel against any type of defense.

  9. My comment about LO being an airhead was mainly aimed at my longstanding contention that he is a tactical thinker and not a strategic thinker (he thinks in the moment pretty much all the time). This is one reason he makes up his mind and then charges over people so often; why, with his skill, he lays the ball out instead of slamming it down – thus getting more shots blocked; why he so often ‘floats like a butterfly’ when he should be ‘stinging like a bee’.

    Pau, on the other hand, is a strategic thinker and we often wish he wouldn’t think so much and just act. Of course he is actually better at running a break than LO because he is thinking about what he is going to do as he is advancing the ball. He just isn’t the ball handler Lamar is.

  10. Great analysis. Can I see more regarding their inability to get the ball inside against a Man defense. Thanks.

  11. Watching Kentucky vs. Miss St., UK did a great job of busting the zone with one simple maneuver: pretend to drive with two steps on the perimeter, and then pass it out when two defenders have collapsed on you. This opens up a lane for the guy you pass it to. Instead of passively passing it around without dribbling. Sure passing is great against a zone, but one move and a pass to mix things up is more potent around the perimeter, esp when the post entry pass is being denied.

  12. Great stuff as usual here at FB&G, Darius where did you find Phillip, he writes like you do, lot’s of X’s and O’s all around and everywhere. I mean, I did not think this site would get like 5 times as technical as it has, no complaints from here though. I like to think of LO as a 6’10” PG. Yeah, Kurt is holding his own as would be expected also now days.

  13. It seems to me that any sophisticated (i.e. pro) offense is going to have an advantage over a zone. The triangle is better than most because of its emphasis on spacing and coordinated cuts. But the real issue is having the discipline to run it correctly and long enough to find the holes. I think that’s where Odom, Brown, Farmar and, sometimes, Kobe fall down. Of course, having both the skill and discipline to run our full offense is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems we have on offense regardless of the defense.

    All this being said though, I can’t imagine that we’re going to see all that much zone defense in the play-offs. With so much time between games, the Lakers will have time to practice specific counters to whatever flavor of zone teams are running. (And I don’t think there are many (if any) NBA teams that are trotting out two or three different kinds of zones. )

    (Back before college basketball became an extended three-point shooting contest, it used to be great to watch teams put out wildly different defenses from possession to possesion (particularly ACC games).)

  14. The triangle should be a starting point to our zone offense, but the triangle itself is not completely effective against a zone. To properly attack a zone, you must have someone coming from the weak side to flash the high post. If you do that within the triangle you’re degenerating it, destroying the spacing provided by the triangle.

    What I think we should do is to assume the basic triangle positioning and then use a more standard zone offense (that and hit open jump shots). Kobe+Pau+Luke+Sasha+(insert big) should own every zone defense they were to encounter. All you need to do is to score or get easy looks in the first few possessions and then it will go away…

  15. This news brought up a distressing flashback:

    http://sports.espn.go.com/los-angeles/mlb/news/story?id=5008679

    Relieved that Vinny’s ok.

  16. @15 The Dude Abides

    I grew up in Los Angeles as a Giants fan, loathed the Dodgers for all that they were worth, but when I saw that Scully was in the hospital on the bottom line of Sports Center I immediately thought of Chick and had all of the sympathy in the world for him, his family and the Dodgers family. I know how much he means to that franchise and to the city. I’m glad he’s going to be okay. He’s definitely one of baseball’s icons.

  17. Pretty new to the tactics side of basketball, where can I go to find out more about the high post, low block, high block, low post, flashing high, etc etc?

  18. #18. Danny,
    I wish I could point you in a specific direction on this one, but I’m coming up blank.

    This is an interesting page that I just found though:

    http://www.coachesclipboard.net/BasketballTerminology.html

  19. Thanks Darius! Website’s actually pretty useful. Thing is, we don’t get many Laker games here in Singapore so it’s kind of hard to visualize some of the plays that you guys discuss. Some excellent work here though, I’m in awe most of the time of all the great analysis.

  20. 16. Philip, here’s a bit of news to cheer you up.
    http://tinyurl.com/y8bvx7h

  21. 14. that lineup works offensively, but sasha+ luke would destroy us in defense