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Coaching Basketball Defense

Coaching basketball defense can be compared to selecting which type of cake do you want for dessert. There are only two types of defense, zone and man-to-man.

Under the classification of zone defense there are another seven or eight types of zone defenses. Selecting the type of defense a team plays becomes dependent on the players on the team, the coach’s philosophy and the opponent’s strengths. Some coaches will only play man-to-man defense, some will only play a 2-3 zone and others will mix it up to confuse the other team. Coaching basketball defense boils down to which aspect of the offense do you want to stop and which aspect of offense are you willing to surrender to.

In a zone defense the team will sacrifice open jump shots to stop dribble penetration and deep post entry passes. If the other team is more athletic and faster, playing a zone may be the best option. It will contain point guards and shooting guards around the perimeter, stop dribble penetration and limit the maneuverability for forwards.

A very quick point guard will be able to penetrate any zone defense if rotations are not quick enough and supporting weakside defenders miss their assignments. There are so many variations of zone defense and a coach can show the offensive team several different looks during a game. Each variation has its advantageous and disadvantageous.

A 2-3 zone defense can guard the middle but will allow elbow slot jump shots, a 3-2 zone may limit elbow slot opportunities but will expose the defense to corner entry passes and drives, a 2-1-2 zone defense may help against taller, skilled post players but will leave the perimeter wide open and create very difficulty rotations.


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The coach must decide which type of zone defense the team is capable of playing. Regardless of what zone defense is chosen, the players must be athletic and fast in order to relocate and recover quickly in their rotations. An offensive team that can reverse the ball and pass quickly will cause all zone defenses to breakdown.

On the other hand, coaching and playing man-to-man defense will protect the perimeter but will make the team vulnerable to dribble penetration and deep post entry passes. If the other team has a fast, capable, ball handling point guard, the defender may have a tough time playing defense and will be unable to stop dribble penetration.

If this happens, help defense becomes imperative and if not played correctly, team defense will completely breakdown and easy scoring opportunities will become available. As in a zone defense defensive rotations must be accomplished quickly and strategically.

When rotations for a trap or help defensive is slow or missed, a quality scoring opportunity will present itself. If the offensive team has guards that are not proficient ballhandlers playing man-to-man will allow the defense to pressure the ball and jump passing lanes looking for steals.

Regardless of which defensive a coach utilizes, coaching basketball defensive is hard. For that reason many youth coaches immediately play a 2-3 zone and do not spend very much time coaching it. Defense is a skill just like shooting and needs to be addresses as a skill that does not come automatically.

The 2-3 zone defense that Syracuse University plays looks very simple but in reality it is very complicated, very intricate and extremely difficult to play correctly. When played well with consistency the team can win a national championship. The debate over which defensive system, zone or man-to-man is better will continue on in all basketball circles.

Ultimately it falls on the shoulders of the coach’s abilities to teach the skill. Some coach’s are more comfortable coaching man-to-man because they do not feel confident coaching a zone defense. Other coaches swear that a zone defense is better because it put their forwards in better rebounding position and allows easier and more competent help defense. The choice is yours.



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