In the NBA, there is a perceived weakness when a team plays zone on defense. Sure, there are teams who run it time to time to change up the pace, but if you are running the zone for long periods of time, many think you are admitting that you can't match up with the opponent. (Last spring's Suns-Lakers series comes to mind.) There hasn't been a team that has used the zone for long stretches and been successful. That is, until this year.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Mavericks have played zone defense 12.8 percent of the time this season, by far the most often in the league and more than double that of the Trail Blazers, second at 5.8 percent. Seeing and expecting the zone is one of the keys to being able to beat it. Yet, Dallas opponents seeing the zone multiple possessions per game, the Mavericks remain very effective running this defense. They've allowed just 0.85 points per possession on 39.8 percent shooting from the field.
In fact, even though the Mavericks play so much zone, they still have posted a top 10 defense in terms of Defensive Rating (102.3, ninth in the league). One of the main reasons you don't see teams run a lot the defense is because you can't run a standard zone in the NBA because of the defensive three second rule. Teams struggle with this concept and instead of trying to work through it, they just abandon the zone as a primary defensive concept.
The Mavericks are able to counter the defensive three second rule by playing more of a match-up zone than a straight-up zone:
The first thing that you notice is that both Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler are picking up guys on the same side of the court. DeShawn Stevenson has nobody to defend, but he can't stand in the middle of the lane. So he stays on the block, continually putting his foot in and out of the paint, restarting the defensive three-second count.
Once Jason Collins enters the paint, Chandler picks him up, because if a defender is within arms length of an offensive player, they are considered to be actively defending him, and the defensive three second rule is negated. The nature of the Mavericks' match-up zone prevents teams from getting the ball inside while avoiding defensive three seconds.
Another reason why the Mavericks' zone is so successful is the mobility of Chandler. Chandler is able to do a lot of things most centers can't do, and that allows Dallas coach Rick Carlisle to be comfortable running the zone:
On this possession, the Wizards try to overload the zone, causing Chandler to cover a ton of ground and it looks like Chandler is just running around aimlessly, however that is not the case, this is all by design:
We pick up the possession as the ball gets kicked back out to the top of the key. Chandler is sitting in the middle of the lane as he is making sure the ball doesn't get passed into the paint.
As the ball gets swung around, Brian Cardinal needs to step up and cover Nick Young. The Wizards then send Rashard Lewis into the corner to "overload" the ballside. This means that Chandler needs to step up and close out on Lewis if he gets the pass.
Lewis does in fact get the pass, and Chandler is forced to show and take away any shot. Chandler needs to stay until Cardinal can recover and get back to Lewis.
Once Cardinal does recover, Chandler needs to sink back into the middle of the lane to protect the rim.
Lewis drives into the middle of the lane and looks to get a lay-up, but Chandler is there to bother the shot and force the miss. On this one possession, Chandler covers a lot of ground and does a lot of things. How many centers in the NBA today would be able to do that? Five at most.
In addition to Chandler, the Mavericks have success with their zone because they talk to each other. Good communication is essential when playing a match-up zone because there is a lot of switching off of players between defenders and zones, and if there is one mistake, that could lead to an open shot:
The first thing you should notice when watching this clip is all of the pointing the Mavericks do when they are playing defense. You can't hear them, but more than likely, they are also shouting on the defensive end as well. They want to make sure there are no errors when switching off players.
On this particular possession, the Hawks try to send Al Horford through the middle of the zone to the ball side corner. He is picked up/passed off by three different defenders, making him unable to get a pass in the middle or put pressure on the zone. Horford gets passed from Sasha Pavlovic to Brandon Hayward to Shawn Marion. After Hayward makes the final pass off, he returns to the middle of the lane to challenge the shot. If that switch comes late or not at all, the middle of the lane would be wide open.
Again here, you just see a whole lot of pointing. The entire Dallas team seems to be on the same page, knowing which offensive player is their responsibility. As the pass goes to the corner, Jason Kidd knows that he is responsible for that pass, so he closes out, forcing the miss.
Forcing the miss is just one part of the zone defense. To complete the possession, teams need to rebound out of the zone. Rebounding out of the zone is harder than rebounding out of man to man mainly because defenders are responsible for space rather than a person, and that usually results in players not getting boxed out. As you would expect, Dallas seems comfortable rebounding out of the zone:
On this possession, Young gets the basketball and he is getting himself in position to take a shot. As this happens Lewis cuts along the baseline. This has the potential for causing problems to a team trying to get a defensive rebound because Lewis is going from Cardinal's area to Chandler's area as the shot is going up. What needs to happen is Chandler needs to pick him up, and Cardinal needs to slide down and box-out the man Chandler was originally responsible for.
The Mavericks have been running the zone so much that they are able to pick this concept up easily. Chandler gets a box-out on Lewis and Cardinal gets a box-out as well. These two box-outs creates a nice little area for the ball to bounce safely into the Mavericks hands, which is what happens. Here is the play in real time:
This is a great job by Cardinal and Chandler of being on the same page and understanding their zone responsibilities. If either one of these guys screws up, it is an easy putback for the Wizards. Instead, this is another zone stop for the Mavericks.
After watching clip after clip of the Mavericks zone, one realizes that the Mavericks' zone isn't a fluke (which the Suns' zone in the playoffs against the Lakers might have been), but a defensive strategy that is well executed. All the credit has to go to Carlisle for practicing and teaching the concepts of the zone, turning it into a true weapon for the Mavericks.