Does zone defense work in the pro game?

There are not many NBA teams that implement a zone defense in the professional game. However, one of those few teams is your Phoenix Suns, a squad that will mix in this defense, which can occasionally be beneficial but in the same breath detrimental to their success.

Now everyone knows the 2-3 zone from college powerhouse Syracuse University under the tutelage of Jim Boeheim. There a few very good reasons why zone defenses are known more for the college ranks then the pros:

Size of court: In the college game the three-point line is drawn in a significant amount, which in turn makes it easier for defenders to cover more ground. With the size and athletic ability that college athletes possess these days, a 2-3 zone can be very effective e.g. Syracuse. Contrarily in the pro game where athletes are just as big and even bigger, the court is much more spread, which enables point/shooting guards to get inside the crease of the defenses easier.

Defensive three-second rule: This rule changed the game dramatically in many different ways. Whether you like it or not, the NBA loves an offensive game. Enforcing the defensive three-second rule has left a gaping hole in middle of all defenses. When playing a traditional zone, the center in the middle will occupy that entire space to deter drivers into the lane. However, with this rule in place it requires the center to jump in and out of the lane, which brings us back to the Suns, as Robin Lopez would be a perfect candidate for this job. But it is nearly impossible to create a strong presence in the lane when he has to worry about receiving three-seconds technicals.

Great shooting: This brings us back to the size of the court in some way. Even though the three-point line is several feet back in the pros, it really makes no difference to one or two players on every NBA team. Can you imagine wanting to force threes while Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick, Steve Nash or Ray Allen bomb away from the three-point line? I didn’t think so. Players like these change games anyway, but with free looks at the basket it can take you out of the game completely. The Suns have run into this problem numerous times, which has recently forced them to abandon the defense more or less (Thank you!!).

Now all these different rule changes and great players in the NBA does not mean the Phoenix Suns can’t execute the 2-3 zone sometimes.  The key to having a successful zone in the NBA is to use it as a changeup, and use the correct players when employing the zone. It makes a lot of sense to put Dragic on the top of the zone to add more length and quickness, Dudley on the wing to create chaos, and Lopez or Amundson in the middle to patrol the paint with hustle and grit. If the Suns decide to use this change-of-pace defense down the stretch, let’s just hope coach Gentry applies it in the right context of the game with the right players to implement it.

Milee Karre is a former point guard at Grand Canyon University. Follow him on Twitter @MKarre.

  • Milee

    Yeah all those are true but in recent years it is hard to implement a zone defense as your main defense, which the Suns have tried.

  • Ancient NBA Historian

    The defensive three second rule did change the game dramatically… by actually allowing a form of zone defense. I would replace your heading for that section by reminding people that Illegal Defense calls prevented everyone but George Karl from playing a zone defenses until 2001. NBA coaches and players are relatively new to it. The three-point line took a full generation before it became a legitimate strategic weapon at the NBA level.

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    Hey: Milee:

    What do you think won the game for the Suns tonight: 42 points from Staudemire. home court advantage, or the zone? Wake up…the zone should be used more often.

  • Bravo

    The zone is the ultimate defense with the right combination of length and speed. Its only weakness is the three, but even so, you are forcing a team to rely more heavily on the three and if you have the proper length on the zone, you can easily extend out to the three-point shooter and close that gap. For my money, it is the best defense to implement, especially when a team is over-matched by size and strength in the paint.