Mailbag: Zones haven’t made defenses stingier

Is it true that, because zone defenses have been legalized, NBA defense is much better today than it was before this legislation? Would Kobe, who faces double- and triple-teams all the time, have scored and played with much more efficiency during the Jordan era because of the absence of zone defenses? — Aaron Ju, South Pasadena, CA

The answer to both of your questions is a resounding “NO.”

Kobe would score three to five points per game less in the pre-zone days than he is nowadays. And the legalization of zone defenses has nothing to do with any tightening of NBA defenses.

Here’s why:

Especially in the NBA, zones are comparatively easy to combat. An uptempo pace will get the ball into the attack area before zones can set up. Quick ball reversals will inevitably generate open shots — mostly from beyond the 3-point line — simply because a passed ball can cover more ground in a shorter period of time than even the fastest NBA player can run. Also, any team that can eventually get the ball to a player in the high post will easily dissect any kind of zone since open wing players and baseline-cutters are easily seen.

It’s interesting to note that zones were first instituted in the 2001-02 season, and the NBA’s overall shooting percentage increased from 42.4 the previous season to 44.5 percent. Also, the league’s overall point-per-game average was 94.8 in 2000-01 and jumped to 96.5 in the zone’s debut season.

In fact, zone defenses regularly aid offenses in that quick ball movement is a must to counter these positional tactics. Nor can poor defenders be hidden by zones. As Red Holzman used to say, “Zone, schmone. Sooner or later somebody’s got to play defense.”

That’s why NBA teams use zones sparingly — mostly just to give their opponents a different look for a few possessions. Only inexperienced teams, particularly inexperienced guards, are routinely rattled when facing NBA zones. That’s because NBA zoners are quicker, longer and more athletic than any of the zoners these young players might have gotten used to confronting in college.

Instead of the zone being the reason why NBA defenses have become somewhat stingier in recent years, the primary factor here was the restricting of hand-checking starting with the 1994-95 season. And Kobe would have had a difficult time playing his accustomed game when hand-checking was a routine defensive maneuver.

Why?

  • Because hand-checkers could keep physical pressure on opponents with their arms extended.
  • In so doing, the defenders’ bodies could be as much as a step away from the body of the ball-handler.
  • This space is enough for the defender to be able to react and recover when the handler made his irrevocable move to the hoop.
  • Also, even the slightest increase in the hand pressure at the appropriate spot — usually the lead hip — was sufficient to further delay the attack-move.
  • And it’s well-known around the league that Kobe’s game suffers under undue physical pressure. Just the other day, Maurice Evans said this: “Kobe doesn’t like to be touched.”

    Every aspect of defense was more physical back then. Big men could bang off-the-ball cutters and thereby disrupt the timing of most offensive sequences. Defensive bigs could also “horse” opponents in the low post (i.e. slide a leg between the legs of the postee and push upwards to root the opponent off his favorite spot. Another legal defensive tactic in the low post that has since been banned is attacking the back of the offensive player’s knee from behind with the front of the defender’s knee. This move would always cause the pivotal player’s lag knee to buckle and force him to reestablish position at least one step farther from the basket.

    Plus, back in the day, drivers could be smashed to the floor without the defender having to worry about being tooted for a flagrant foul.

    On the other hand, instead of hand-checking, today’s backcourt defenders are only permitted to pressure their forearms against ball-handlers. This restriction necessarily brings a defender’s body very close to the offensive player’s body — thereby severely limiting the defender’s reaction time and space. Forearm pressure is also especially vulnerable to both adroit fakes and quick spins.

    For sure, double- and triple-teams usually compel Kobe to give up the ball. But since the defense is so stretched out of shape, his ensuing passes will more often than not be assist passes — especially if/when he’s trapped above the foul line.

    However, are NBA defenses better now than they were in the Jordan era?

    In truth, the increasing number of treys attempted skews any way to statistically measure the differences. But the biggest difference between now and then is that the overtly physical — and often brutal — team defenses of the past have been succeeded by team defenses that place more of a premium on quickness, coordination and finesse.

    Perhaps “prettier” is more effective than “down and almost-dirty.” Perhaps not.

    However, as a 6-foot-9 center who used to be noted for my often over-the-top physical play, I’m always in favor of fellow bigs being able to knock smalls down with impunity.