September 20, 2009 • FeaturesOffenseWinning Hoops

Don’t let zone defenses get you down — beat them

Coaches typically go to a zone defense for one of three reasons:

  1. The opponent doesn’t have good outside shooters.
  2. The opponent’s man offense could not be stopped.
  3. They live and die by the zone and play it quite well.

Many coaches are satisfied with letting their teams fire from 3-point land against a zone in hopes that their shooters get hot and shoot their way out of the zone. However, that strategy is a bit too inconsistent. If you favor an inside-out approach against man-to-man defenses, it stands to reason you should do the same against zones.

With five players stationed in the key, a zone defense presents a real challenge to any team wanting to score inside. As soon as you recognize the defense has switched to zone, call out one of the following “zone special” plays below to get favorable inside shots.

When calling a “zone special,” you are expecting your team to get a shot close to the bucket or get the ball in the hands of your best outside shooter. This puts your team back in control of the situation, as opposed to letting the defense force the tempo. To reinforce this process, I tell my team there are three reasons why opponents play zone defense (notice how these are different from above):

  1. They don’t know how to play man-to-man defense very well.
  2. They are in foul trouble, or a key player is in foul trouble.
  3. They are trying to change the tempo and take us out of our inside-out attack.

No matter the reason, make your team believe the opponent plays zone due to a weakness on their end. So, the best way to take advantage of a weakness is to attack it immediately, which is done with these “zone special” plays.

‘Stack’ attack

The initial call we run against a zone is the “Stack.” Stacks have been around for a long time. The following Stack corresponds to our normal man-to-man, half-court set and reflects a man-to-man offensive philosophy. It also is used on the opposite side of the key as a disguise of the original or to favor a left-handed inside player.


DIAGRAM 1: Basic zone set. When following the Stack diagrams, keep in mind that 1 is your best ball handler and safety, 2 is the best outside shooter, 3 is a good playmaker and passer, 4 is the more physical big man and has the best jump hook or mid-range jumper, and 5 is the tallest big man or the one who jumps the highest.


DIAGRAM 2: Stack play initial movement. 1 dribbles to the right side to the lane-line extended, about a step above the 3-point line. 4 and 5 form a tandem (stack) on the left side of the lane, each with a foot on the block while standing shoulder to shoulder. As 1 is dribbling, 2 moves to the low-post position along the baseline on the right side of the court. 3 makes an L-cut to the left elbow, then up the left side to the lane line extended. 3 times his cut so he gets open for a potential reverse pass from 1. 3 should be open, because he is coming from behind his zone area’s defender.


DIAGRAM 3: Cutter under Stack. As the ball is passed from 1 to 3, 2 cuts hard under the basket and the stack as he heads to the corner for a possible pass and shot attempt. If X4 does not get around the stack to cover 2, then you have your best shooter getting an open shot from the corner.


DIAGRAM 4: Rebounding position. On 2’s shot attempt, 1 rotates back as a safety. 4 crosses over to the weak side (right low-post area). 3 crashes the middle, and 5 holds his ground as all three big men now are positioned to rebound a potential missed shot. 2 is the second safety and helps 1 by getting back after his shot attempt.

Do not fear your best shooter putting up an open shot in this situation, because he is your best and a real threat for 3 points. Plus, you have three big players crashing the boards against the zone, who are looking for a potential offensive rebound and put-back opportunity.

Since zones generally area-rebound and don’t have specific assigned men to box out, convince your three big men that they have a better-than-even chance to securing a rebound. If your best shooter fires an open shot and your three best big men are rushing to the boards, then this becomes a solid zone play.

However, the 3-point shot is not really what you want with this set. So, once X4 goes out to cover 2, then you move into your inside-out philosophy to get an inside shot attempt.


DIAGRAM 5: Corner covered. When X4 gets to the corner to cover 2, 4 and 5 now are in an overload position against X5. In this diagram, 3 still has the ball as he spied X4 getting outside the stack to cover 2. 3 looks at 2 and fakes a pass to him, which signals to 4 to make his move on X5. 4 steps into the key with his hands up to draw X5 to him.

If X5 does not bite on this move, 3 passes to 4 for the short jump hook, power shot or jumper. But you want X5 to cover 4 so 5 is free. So with X5 on 4, a simple lob pass from 3 to 5 results in an inside power shot or a dunk. 3 must be a good passer and play-maker, because he has to read the situation and make the appropriate pass to 2, 4 or 5 (in that order). By reading the movement of X4 and X5, 3 should be able to get some easy assists from his position.


DIAGRAM 6: Dump low. If 2 is open in the corner, 3 sends a pass his way as shown in Diagram 3. However, 2 doesn’t have to take the shot. 2 instead has the option to drop the ball low to 5 for a baseline attack if X4 rushes out to defend the corner shot. 4 and 5 still are in a stack and have X5 outnumbered in that area.


DIAGRAM 7: Options for 4. 4 also has other options instead of simply taking a shot (as shown in diagram 5). When 3 hits 4 popping to the middle, 4 may be able quickly to touch-pass to 5, who could be open if X5 rushes to the ball a little late. 4 also could hit 1 with a cross-court pass if he senses the middle is clogged and the weak side is open. 1 then has the option to shoot or direct his team into the flow of a standard zone attack.

Whether you use Stack or other zone special plays, come up with easy ways to score against a zone so your team keeps the upper hand while the opponent has to keep guessing what you are doing.

Even if the zone starts matching up on your overloads, you’ll have the opponents basically playing man-to-man, which is something they don’t want to do.

Attacking the inside against an opponent that is caught between a zone and a man-to-man defense is an advantage you always like to have.