July 23, 2018 • DefenseMan-to-ManWinning Hoops

How coaches should defend their opponents

by Dr. David Hoch, contributing writer

Some teams have exclusively used man-to-man defense for several years. Other squads may employ a 2-3 zone year-in and year-out. Why? Have you ever analyzed why coaches use the defenses that they do?

For example, most coaches early in their careers use defenses they used as a player, learned as a young assistant, or those used by others teams in their area. Are these the best reasons to use a particular defense?

As with most aspects of coaching basketball, your team’s talent level, the ability of your opponents, your coaching background and experience go a long way toward determining which defense you will ultimately use.

Playing the same defense year after year may not be the best approach for your team. Take a good, honest look at all of the factors involved in selecting a defense or multiple defenses and determine what’s best for your team.

To help with your analysis of what defenses you should use, the following seven considerations should prove useful.

1. Ability of your players.

The major attributes or liabilities your players have go a long way toward determining what you can successfully deploy. All players have certain strengths and weaknesses. For example, the following are major factors:

  • Foot speed. If you have one player who’s slow, you may be able to hide him. But when you have several players who are a step slow, you may have to consider a defense that compensates for this weakness.
  • Team height. While an opponent can post up one short player, defensive help can usually be found for these situations. However, if you present more than one mismatch for your opponents, it might be wise to consider several defensive approaches.
  • Player agility. Without players who have the ability to quickly change direction, some defenses or weak-side rotations could be difficult to implement.
  • Court awareness. While you might use drills to improve a player’s anticipation, some defenses depend on this attribute much more than others.

2. Team experience.

The experience level of your players and the defenses they’ve played in previous seasons are other important factors in helping you choose a defense. The younger the players, the simpler the concepts you’ll need to employ. Any advanced skills and techniques can’t be successfully taught until the basics have been thoroughly mastered.

3. Available time.

The amount of time you have to install and teach your defensive system also plays into your decision as to what defense to use. Limited practice time before your first contest, and the number of new players whom you’re trying to teach, partially dictate what can be successfully installed.

For example, it takes considerable time under normal circumstances to install a match- up zone defense. Conversely, you may be able to teach your new players a serviceable 2-3 zone in just a few days.

4. Local trends.

Consider the trends of other teams in your immediate area. One year, our team started with our normal arsenal of multiple defenses and eventually settled on a 1-3-1. Among the 100 or more high schools in our metropolitan area, only our team and one other school used a 1-3-1 zone. This became a huge advantage for us, since teams typically had only two days to prepare for an uncommon defense.

If you have the physical components and experience level to play an uncommon defense, then dare to be different.

5. Physical limitations.

The physical limitations of your players can partially dictate how you place pressure on the ball, which is an important defensive concept. However, you don’t always need outright steals or turnovers to play quality defense.

Have a plan that has a cumulative effect as the game progresses that causes your opponents to get tired, both physically and mentally. Cause your opponent to speed up the game and alter their game plan. Do what you can to take your opponent out of their comfort zone.

6. Grow as a coach.

When I began my coaching career, my team only used a man-to-man defense. I believed that through proper and thorough teaching, the concepts of man defense and helping teammates would always prevail. One season, however, our team was small, slow and didn’t react well in help situations. Therefore, our man-to-man defense was dismal.

Reluctantly, I had to search for another solution, but I really knew very little about zone defenses. This meant that I immediately had to start reading everything available about zone defenses to implement a midseason change. If I hadn’t been so narrow-minded and if I had a more extensive coaching background, it may not have taken defensive failures to jumpstart my midseason coaching change.

7. Offensive structure.

As strange as it may seem, what you decide to do on defense may partially depend on what you do offensively. If your offense needs more possessions per game due to a poor team-shooting percentage, you may need to select a certain defense to accomplish this goal. Or, you may need to control the tempo of the game. This may mean either slowing down or speeding up the pace of the game. For example:

  • Zone defenses typically slow down the pace of the game.
  • Presses and man-to-man defenses usually increase the tempo.