The Basketball Coaches’ Complete Guide
to Zone Offenses
by John Kimble
This book is dedicated to all of those who have influenced my basketball coaching life and to all the committed basketball coaches that have spent countless hours at coaching clinics, reading books, and X-ing and O-ing it with their colleagues. I have been a player, a fan, a teacher of the game, a student of the game, a coach, and a lover of the game.
This book is dedicated to all of those students of the game who have the same love and passion for basketball as I have always had.
Chapter 1: Zone Offense Concepts
Chapter 2: The Beginnings of Attacking a Zone Defense–Primary and Secondary Break and Half-Court Situations
Chapter 3: The Baseline Zone Continuity Offense, the Pin-Screen Zone Continuity Offense, the 2 Slide Zone Continuity Offense, and the Corners Trap Offense Chapter 4: The Diamond Zone Continuity Offense
Chapter 5: The Heavy and Rotation Zone Continuity Offenses
Chapter 6: The Triple-Post Zone Continuity Offense
Chapter 7: Breakdown Drills
Chapter 8: The Corners Trap Offense
About the Author
The purpose for writing this book is to help basketball coaches develop their entire zone offense package and impact the philosophy on successful methods of attacking zone defenses, the specific zone offenses utilized, alignments/sets that are used, plays and entries that are run, and drills that are used to improve players’ skills and performance levels.
The first chapter helps the reader develop, modify, or expand his concepts and methods of how to attack zone defenses. I have given each concept a number. These numbers will be displayed throughout the book in the following form: (16). This symbol means concept 16 needs to be referred to if you are going to fully understand the slide, the technique, the drill, or the axiom involved in attacking the zone.
The second chapter offers the beginnings of the zone attack, namely the fast break and the secondary break. I also include the out-of-bounds plays from the sideline and the baseline. These flow into the beginning alignments of the zone offenses. Also, our exact program of attack is given in a philosophy section.
Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 are broken into zone continuities. They are presented from a set platform. For example, Chapter 3 gives our four basic continuities from the 2-3 set; Chapter 4, the 1-2-2 set; Chapter 5, the 1-3-1 set; and Chapter 6, the 2-1-2 overload set. Not only are the continuities offered, but also different entries into each of the continuities. These entries display dribbling as well as passing entries and breakdown drills specific to those particular continuities conclude the chapters.
Chapter 7 is a complete chapter on breakdown drills for fundamentals and for general zone attacks. From the specific breakdown drills in the four chapters on continuities and the general breakdown drills of Chapter 7, coaches should be able to work up a drill package that will improve their zone attack, your teams offensive fundamentals, and teach and re-teach the cuts and movements of your chosen continuities.
Chapter 8 displays our method of attacking pressure zones. You can easily note that this attack is also a continuity that flows into the positions of the other continuities.
When you are through reading this book, you should have the basic philosophy of attack: fast break into secondary break into continuity (with many different dribbling and passing entries into each continuity). Also, you can easily see the basic three principles evolve: same entry, different set; different entries, same set; and different entries, different sets. These options gives you a multiple attack and you only have to incorporate what you think your personnel for that specific year can handle.
Coaches should understand that with a little extra effort and creativity, some of the zone offenses can be integrated to form a hybrid combination of two offenses to provide that enterprising coach with an even more lethal zone offensive attack. These combinations must first be thoroughly learned and evaluated before deciding to make such a decision of combining two zone offenses. A coaching staff can utilize this book to use different zone offenses every season that will be appropriate and fit that specific team’s talent-level and skill limitations.
Coaches must also understand that although the entire book should be read and analyzed, only one, two, or three (at the most) zone offenses should be chosen for that season’s use. So, the coaching staff must gain a thorough understanding of all the zone offenses explained before making a commitment to the correct zone offense for the personnel of that season’s team. Coaches should also realize that other alignments/sets, other entries, and other breakdown drills that the staff can create on their own can fit into the particular zone offense and are encouraged to fit that particular team’s needs and wants.
Chapter 1: ZONE OFFENSE CONCEPTS
Many coaches believe in the man-to-man defense, while others value the half-court pressure in the form of zone traps, as well as different versions of man-to-man double-team pressure that can be incorporated. Still, a great deal of coaches believe in the half-court zone defense. Zone defense coaches have a significant arsenal from the various zone defenses that exist. They range from the different types of match-up zones, box-and-one zones, triangle-and-two zones, 1-2-2 zones, 1-1-3 zones, 1-3-1 zones, 2-1-2 zones, or 2-3 zones. All of these defenses have their place in basketball and all have their own particular strengths (as well as their weaknesses). Successful offensive-minded coaches must have within their offensive repertoire the concepts of how to attack the various zone defenses that their teams could eventually face during the course of a season. A successful offensive-minded coach cannot have a different zone offense for each and every zone defense that exists, but he can research and develop a zone offense concept package. This package could be a building block for all of the zone offenses that his teams will use.
Zone Offense Concepts
Concept 1: Utilize a primary and secondary fast break system that is compatible with, and that fully complements, your zone offense package.
By using a primary and a secondary fast break, you have more opportunities to beat the opponent’s defense in transition, thereby gaining a numerical advantage, or at least an organizational advantage, for the offense. Think of primary and secondary fast breaks as a faster-paced entry into the zone offense continuity that you are using (Diagrams 1.1 and 1.2).
Diagram 1.1 displays the end of the fast break. O1 is the ball handler and O2 and O3 are the two outside lane fillers. O4 moves down the center lane, cutting into a low post position. O5 is the trailer, who positions himself for the outside shot should all the other options fail. If O5 is an adequate three-point shooter, he could station himself outside the three-point arc.
Diagram 1.2 shows the secondary part of the fast break. When the initial thrust fails, O1 reverses the ball by passing to O5 who passes to O3. Meanwhile, O4 has timed his move to the opposite low post block to coincide with O3’s receiving of the ball. O2 has cut along the baseline and moved up the lane to set a back screen for O5. O5 dips and cuts off O2’s screen for a lob pass from O3. If this move fails, O2 replaces O5 at the top of the key and O1 remains at the weakside wing. The team is now in a position to continue their zone attack from a 1-2-2 formation, with O3 and O1 at the two wing locations, O2 at the top of the key, and O4 and O5 at the two low post areas. See Chapter 2 for more on the primary and secondary fast break,
Concept 2: Use different sets/alignments and entries/plays to be more varied and less predictable to opposing defenses.
Various sets and entries can be used to become less predictable to the opposition while still maintaining a degree of simplicity for your own team. Diagrams 1.3 through 1.8 exhibit offensive zone spot-up locations. With minimum player adjustment, all six sets begin where the secondary break ends, allowing the offense to stay on the attack and not give the defense any re-set time. In Diagram 1.3, all players are in the same position where the secondary break ends. This play is called diamond continuity spot-ups, which is described in detail in Chapter 4.
In Diagram 1.4, O4 cuts across the lane to post up while O5 steps out to the short corner to set the offense. This move is done while O3 passes the ball back to O1. Then, zone offense continuity begins. This play is called heavy continuity, which is described in detail in Chapter 5.
The same is true for Diagram 1.5, in which O4 cuts to the medium post area (this play is called rotation continuity, described in Chapter 5) and when the ball is at the top of the key, O5 pops out to the deep corner. In Diagram 1.6, O4 cuts to the high post from the secondary break’s ending positions (again, the rotation continuity) and O5 pops out to the deep corner.
In Diagram 1.7, O3 can pass the ball back out to O2 and then cut to the baseline with O1 rotating up. The four zone offenses (baseline, pin screen, 2 slide, and corner continuities, described in Chapter 3) are ready to continue without having to re-set.
In Diagram 1.8, both post players, O4 and O5, break to the high post. This play is a variation of the diamond continuity (described in detail in Chapter 4)
Concept 3: Every zone defense has inherent weaknesses.
Get to know the particular styles of the zone defense that is being used by your opponents (the basic slides and responsibilities in that zone) so that you may attack and capitalize on the weaknesses of each defense.
Concept 4: Capitalize on the strengths of the offensive alignment/set by distorting the shape of the original zone defense.
To capitalize on the offensive alignment’s strengths, use different entries. This strategy can include using stacks, overloads, odd front offensive sets versus even front zone defenses, even front offensive alignments versus odd front zone defenses, or unique and unconventional-looking alignments.
Concept 5: Having a zone offense continuity with clearly defined responsibilities and assignments can create levels of specialization that will showcase individual player’s talent levels and improve the overall effectiveness of the zone offense.
This concept allows the coach to adjust his zone offense to accommodate the specific and unique talent on his current ball club. A great shooter, for example, can be placed in a position to better use his shooting abilities. The best rebounders should be located near the basket to better capitalize on their specific strengths. The best ball handlers should be positioned so that they can utilize their dribbling skills.
Concept 6: Capitalize on your offensive personnel’s individual strengths via various entries/plays or different alignments/sets.
Certain offensive alignments or sets can give specific individual offensive players added advantages of being able to use their strengths within the offense. Entries or plays can also allow offensive individuals opportunities to highlight their talents.
Concept 7: Use different entries and/or alignments to capitalize on an opposing individual’s defensive weaknesses.
Certain offensive alignments or sets can exploit individual defender’s weaknesses. However, a coaching staff must analyze and discover those weaknesses and then incorporate specific entries or sets to attack those weaknesses.
Concept 8: Make sure that defensive transition responsibilities (i.e., preventing opponents from getting into their fast break offense) are clear-cut and carried out by all five players in the zone offense.
Not only should it be clearly defined who gets back, but what getting back really means: how far back and where. Assign one player as your “tailback,” who is your defensive safety. He is to get his “tail back” on any loss of possession of the ball. Upon recognition that your opponent has obtained possession of the basketball, your “tailback” quickly sprints to the center jump circle. This depth and central location allows that “tailback” to be able to defend your basket from either the left or the right side of the opposition’s transition attack. Also, assign one of the smaller rebounders to become the “halfback”— in other words, “half” offensive rebounder and “half” defensive safety. This “halfback” should initially locate around the free throw line. From this position, the “halfback” can more quickly charge the offensive boards or drop to defend, whichever is needed at that moment. The three best rebounders are designated as the three “fullbacks.” Their “full” responsibility is to attack the offensive boards.
Concept 9: Have clear-cut offensive rebounding responsibility rules for all five players in the zone offense and make sure that they are executed by every player in the zone offense.
With every shot, emphasize the importance of overloading the weakside rebounding areas. Constantly emphasize to your players that there should be a distinct offensive rebounding advantage when going against zone defenses. Assign three players as your “fullbacks” (your main offensive rebounders), one as your “halfback” (your half rebounder), and one as your “tailback” (your defensive safety). In general, you should have at least three-and-a-half offensive rebounders attacking the weakside area for offensive rebounding purposes. Diagram 1.9
Concept 10: Reverse the ball to force the defensive zone to defend both sides of the floor.
Reversing the ball makes every zone defender move and shift. This technique forces the opposition to think and move when they assume new defensive responsibilities and areas on the court. In addition, quick ball-reversals can fatigue a zone defense, and also place the ball in designated spots before the defense can arrive at that spot.
Concept 11: Maintain good floor balance and spacing in the zone offense.
It is good to have 15 to 18 feet between all of the players. This spacing forces the defense to stretch out to cover a larger area, thus possibly weakening it. Having good floor balance makes the concept even more of an offensive threat.
Concept 12: Zone offensive players should know the value of the dribble and utilize the dribble properly. Utilize the various dribbles in the zone offenses.
Perimeter players should remember to value the importance of the dribble. Zone offense players should not waste their dribble, but should use it wisely. Players with the ball should always be in a triple-threat position. Perimeter players should not pass the ball too quickly. It is better to be too slow than too quick. Perimeter players should give offensive cutters (interior and exterior) enough time to get open. Remember that a player cannot score or make the assist if he has already given up the possession of the ball by passing the ball too soon. Passers should pass over or around the defense—not through the defense. Passes should be made away from the defender and not just to the offensive teammate.
In zone offenses, use the dribble to advance the ball to the basket, to improve the passing angles (down dribbles), to get out of defensive traps, to force two defenders on the ball (gap dribbles or freeze dribbles), to increase confusion of the zone defense, or to pull zone defenders away from their assigned defensive area (pull dribbles). Post players should never dribble with their back to the basket without first looking at the basket.
Utilize down dribbles in zone offenses to flatten out zone defenses. Down dribbles are dribbles down to a baseline with the idea of a quick ball reversal to beat the zone defense’s reaction on the opposite side of the floor, or to improve the passing angle to a post player on the same side of the floor (Diagram 1.10.)
Gap dribbles should be used for penetration into seams (or gaps) of the zone defense’s perimeter to force two defenders onto one offensive player. Remember to emphasize to all gap dribblers the importance of momentarily retaining the dribble when they initially gap dribble, so if the defensive pressure is too great, the dribblers can always back out away from the defense (Diagram 1.11).
Pull dribbles are dribbles on the perimeter to pull a zone perimeter defender out of his protective area, which weakens that specific area of the defense. The weakened area should then be attacked. Pull-dribble-and-replace is a solid offensive theory to use against zone defenses. This theory is simply pulling one zone defender out of his area via the dribble, while having another offensive man step into that vacated area, looking for a throw-back pass from the pull dribbler. In Diagram 1.12, O3 pull dribbles out into the wing area that O2 has vacated (after he passed the ball to O3 and cut through the zone defense). O5 replaces O3 in the short-corner area where O3 previously was. O4 gap-cuts into the area that O5 has just vacated as O5 replaces O3 in his initial area.
Freeze dribbles are used on the perimeter to pull one or more perimeter zone defenders out of their protective areas. A freeze dribble is when an offensive player dribbles directly at a particular perimeter zone defender to freeze him; then, the defender can do nothing but take on the dribbler. When you freeze dribble the next-to-nearest defender, you have also incorporated a pull dribble on the nearest defender and a freeze dribble on the next-closest zone defender. Diagram 1.13 illustrates O1 freeze dribbling at X2 while pull dribbling X1. This technique puts tremendous pressure on X4. Does he step up to guard O3? If so, who picks up O5 (on his gap cut) and who picks up O4 (on his gap cut)? This strategy creates a great deal of confusion for the zone defenders, and, therefore, places a significant amount of pressure on the defense.
Concept 13: When catching the basketball, zone offensive players should be prepared to become immediate offensive threats as shooters, passers, or dribblers.
When a perimeter player is anticipating receiving a pass on the perimeter, he should always have his feet and hands ready. Coaches should emphasize many different techniques by constantly using the following phrases: “Get behind the ball,” “Have your inside pivot foot already planted and pointed toward the basket, with your hands up, ready to catch and shoot quickly,” “Make your teammates better passers by giving them a catcher’s mitt target, with the palm of your shooting hand already pointing toward the ball and your guide hand already on the side.” and “Know where you are in relation to the three-point line. If you want to take a three-point shot, get behind the three-point line before you catch the ball. As you catch the ball, you can step up to the line, creating momentum toward the basket and, therefore, a longer shooting range.”
Coaches should look for the details of these techniques. All of these phrases should be used on a daily basis in the evaluation of the players’ execution of the techniques. These fundamental techniques are valuable aspects for a player to be successful. These techniques should be critiqued and stressed in breakdown drills, scrimmages, and games. Constructive criticism as well as positive reinforcement should be given at many different times in practices as well as in games.
Concept 14: Zone offensive players should remember the value of ball fakes and shot fakes.
Fakes are particularly effective because zone defenses are very much ball-oriented. The basketball attracts the majority of each defender’s attention. Zone offenses should use that fact to their advantage and utilize both types of fakes. This use of fakes forces individual zone defenders to move and to react more, which can physically (and mentally) wear down defenders. The use of ball fakes compels the defense to move without the ball moving, thereby creating openings in the slides of the zone defense. This approach helps make the zone defense weaker and easier to attack.
Concept 15: Zone offensive players should utilize skip passes.
Perimeter players should know and take advantage of the importance of skip passes. Be sure to have your players practice both throwing and catching skip passes during every practice. In zone offenses, it is good to remember that one good skip pass deserves another. After using a pull dribble and then a skip pass, the offense could have an open perimeter shot. If not, it is probably because the zone defense has reacted well to the first skip pass. A second skip pass can then be extra effective. An additional benefit is that successfully utilizing a second skip pass discourages a defensive team from hustling and reacting to the initial skip pass.
Concept 16: Attack the zone defense from behind.
Defenders cannot defend an offensive player they cannot see. Remember that all zones are ball-oriented; their primary attention is to the basketball. So, if an offensive player Diagram 1.14 without the ball hides out behind the defense, he could be forgotten and therefore will not be defended. Diagram 1.14 illustrates O3, O4, and O5 attacking the zone from behind. All three players attempt to stay behind all five of the zone defenders, as the ball is being reversed out on top attracts most of the attention of the zone defense. All three players should have excellent opportunities to get open near the basket.
Concept 17: Flatten the zone defense by getting the basketball down to the baseline and then reverse the ball quickly to the opposite side of the floor.
Place the ball on the baseline on one side of the defense and flatten out the zone before quickly reversing the basketball to the other side. All zone defenses become a 2-3 zone alignment when flattened. Regardless of the initial defensive alignment the offense faces, the offense knows where each defender will be when the ball reaches the corner. Trying to beat the reaction of the zone defense can be an effective method of defeating zone defenses. Down-passes, down-dribbles, or skip passes are the only ways to get the ball down to the corner and should be utilized often (Diagrams 1.15 and 1.16). Diagram 1.15 illustrates a down pass while Diagram 1.16 demonstrates a down dribble. Both are primary methods of getting the ball to the corner, thereby flattening the zone.
Concept 18: Screen defenders in the zone defense with on-the-ball screens and/or off-the-ball screens.
Use on-the-ball screens with the screener rolling to the basket and posting up (Diagram 1.17). Other times, you could utilize a ball screen with the screener stepping out on the perimeter after setting the screen (called slipping the screen), or with the screener flaring out on the perimeter (Diagram 1.18). Off-the-ball screens could be used as pin screens to pin the perimeter defender in, particularly on the baseline. Screens coming from or taking place in the interior of the zone can also be very effective. In Diagram 1.19, O1 can reverse the ball to O2 who passes to O3, coming off the pin screens of O4 and O5; or, O1 can “skip pass” to O3 by skipping O2 in the reversal.
Concept 19: Using cutters (from the perimeter who cut through the heart of the zone defense to the opposite side of the offense) is another effective method of attacking zone defenses.
In Diagram 1.20, O2 passes to O5 and cuts while O1 replaces O2, completing the cut and replace technique. Note that the down pass created a flattened zone defense. The theory of cut and replace in Diagram 1.20 is also very effective, while the theory of dribble and replace can also be very instrumental in the success of a zone offense, as shown in Diagram 1.21, in which O1 flare-cuts to the weakside wing, causing O2 to replace O1 at the top of the key. This move opens up the ballside wing area for O3. O3 dribbles outside while O5 replaces O3. O5 “attacks” the zone from behind by cutting and replacing the vacant spot left open by O3’s dribbling out to the wing
Concept 20: Anytime the ball is passed into the middle of a zone defense, the receiver should look to extend the pass to a player closer to the basket and on the opposite side of the floor from where the original pass originated.
Versus full-court or half-court zone-trap pressure, when the ball is passed into the middle, look to extend the pass; in other words, have the player look over his weakside shoulder first and look to make the pass in that direction. In Diagram 1.22, O2 passes inside to O4, who turns to find a teammate, O5, breaking to the low block on the weakside.
Concept 21: If the ball is passed inside to a post player, perimeter players should flare-cut to the various soft spots in the zone defense and be prepared to quickly catch and shoot off of the pass.
If the ball is passed inside to a post player, all perimeter players should look for the closest open area on the perimeter (especially on the weakside, away from the post player with the ball) and cut to that area. These movements are called flare-cuts. The perimeter players do not have any exact spots they should go to on their flare-cuts, just anywhere with an opening. In Diagram 1.23, O2 has passed inside to O4. O1, O2, and O3 all execute flare-cuts to find openings around the perimeter for a pass back out from O4.
Concept 22: Post players should gap-cut in the middle of the zone defense. Interior players who flash in the post area should gap-cut; that is, they should flash in the post area that is free of zone defenders—the gap of the defense. These gaps are not pre-designated or predictable on their location, rather, these gaps are created by the many slides of the zone defense. Diagram 1.24 illustrates gap cuts by both O4 and O5.
Concept 23: When passing the ball to offensive post players, perimeter players should use bounce-passes away from the post defenders (unless it is a lob pass to a player behind the zone). If your post players are fronted, lob the ball away from the fronting defender at a pre-designated spot (use the ballside corner of the backboard, since it is a consistent target for all passers and receivers). If the defense is playing on the low side of the offensive post player, the passer should pass the ball away from the defense on the high side of the post player. If the defense is playing on the high side of the offensive post player, the passer should pass the ball away from the defense on the low side of the post player. If the defense is fronting the offensive post, the perimeter passer should throw the ball away from the fronting defense toward the basket. As in perimeter passing, make all passes to post players away from the defense and not just towards the offensive player.
Concept 24: Offensive post players should look to obtain (and then maintain) body position advantages over their post defenders.
Concept 25: Post players should know and effectively implement specific offensive post moves after catching the ball in the zone defense’s interior. For instance, if the post defender plays the post on the high side, that offensive player should set up even higher in the lane (to give himself additional room for a pass made on the low side). If the post defense plays your post player on the low side, your offensive player should set up even lower (to give himself more room for a pass made on the high side). This creation of space by the post player could compel other defenders to help on the opening of inside space, thereby creating extra opportunities for perimeter players.
Whenever possible, post players who catch the ball in the post area should hop and land on both feet simultaneously as the ball is being caught. This technique enables the offensive post player to use either foot as a pivot foot and leave either opposite foot as the free foot. The ball should be firmly placed under the chin as the post player looks over his high shoulder to locate the defense. A power drop-step move (away from the defense) and an appropriate power move should then be made. If the post defender has overplayed a particular side of the offensive post player, the offensive post player should attack the opposite side. If the defender has not fully committed to a specific side, the offensive post player should attack the defender and force a decision before attacking the opposite side again. Have your players use the show-and-go opposite move, the square-up and up-and-under moves, and the whirl move. All of these moves should be practiced daily with different variations at the end of the move. At the end of these three basic moves, players should end up with no shot-fakes, one shot-fake, and two shot-fakes.
The show-and-go-opposite offensive post move is executed by the post player first hopping (with both feet) as he catches the ball and immediately chinning the ball. He should then look over his top shoulder (the shoulder away from the baseline). He then will see any perimeter defenders dropping down to double-team. Oftentimes, the offensive post player will feel the post defender making physical contact with him on either the low side or the high side. By looking over his top shoulder, he could also see the post defender that has declared the high side as the side he wants to overplay. If he sees the defenders, he shows the ball to the defender by partially bringing the ball up toward the top shoulder and immediately using the low foot (foot nearest the baseline) to drop-step and seal off the defender. If the offensive post player hops and chins, looks over his top shoulder and doesn’t see the post defender, he can show the ball toward the low shoulder before drop-stepping with his top foot and sealing off the defender on the high side. If the offensive post player sees perimeter defenders collapsing, he should quickly kick the ball out to a perimeter player located in the area where the double-down defender is coming from.
The square-up and up-and-under moves should primarily be used when the offensive post player cannot see or feel the overplay by the post defender. The offensive post player simply pivots and faces the basket and the defender, instantly becoming an attacking threat to the defense. One simple shot fake often causes the defender to react to the fake. The post player then ducks under the arms of the defender to either drive to the basket or to take the shot. This move often draws defensive fouls and puts opposing post defenders in quick foul trouble.
The whirl move (sometimes called the Hakeem Olajuwon move) is another form of aggressive attack on the post defender by approaching the basket on the side away from the defender. However, instead of sealing off the defender with his legs, butt, and back, the offensive player seals off the defender with the legs and chest. This technique is done in the following manner. For example, if the post player feels and sees the opposition over-playing him on the high side, the offensive player pivots off of the low foot and whirls around toward the low side (away from the defender). He seals the defender off with his legs and chest as he dribble attacks to the basket.
When the defense is playing behind post players, post players should use the duck-in move and be ready to then use either a power move or a face-up move. The spin and-post-up move should be implemented by offensive post players when the defense is fronting the duck-in move.
Concept 26: Patient and continuous zone offenses can become effective defenses as well as efficient and productive offenses.
Zone offenses must be patient and move the ball, as well as offensive personnel, forcing the defensive personnel to move. Remember, they cannot score if you have the ball.
Particularly against non-trapping zone defenses, the offensive team should be able to dictate who takes the shot, the type and the location of the shot, and when they take the shot. Zone offenses should utilize the opportunity of controlling the tempo and limiting the number of offensive possessions of the opponent while maximizing the quality of their own shot selection. Making both your offense and defense more effective will greatly increase your team’s chances of winning.