Brooklyn in the zone?

It’s been a particularly rough last couple of weeks for the Brooklyn Nets, with losses in seven of their last nine contests since the start of their three-game, West Coast road trip. A four-game week almost two weeks ago featured two home games (including the triple-overtime affair against Jason Kidd’s Milwaukee Bucks) and two more road affairs against Western Conference foes, but only one game on the schedule last week (against the winless Philadelphia 76ers) allowed the team some off-days to get back into the practice gym and make adjustments to improve upon their 6-9 record. One of those adjustments, according to head coach Lionel Hollins, includes some zone defense concepts.

Per Andy Vasquez, of The Record:

“We have everything in our repertoire now,” Hollins said. “It’s just something I never believed in putting in early because usually you have to work on your man-to-man defense, because zone is man-to-man. But I did work on zone the last couple of days. … Just to have it. In case we need it.”

“Normally, you don’t get to make changes standing still, it has to be on the fly,” Hollins said. “So this is definitely good.”

“Zone is basically man-to-man, in an area,” Hollins said. “If you’re not guarding anybody you need to find somebody to guard. It’s just as simple as that. It’s just teaching. Zone has certain principles and they are a part of man-to-man principles as well. … And you’ve got to know where you’re supposed to be.

“Most teams in their man-to-man are trying to play zone, basically,” Hollins continued. “Box and elbows, trying to keep people out of the paint. So this is another way of doing it because other teams tend to pass the ball around the perimeter, doing whatever they do trying to do to get a shot. So you take some of the offense away from them when you play zone.”

“It’s so different, because one, you can’t stand in the paint and you’ve got to move more,” Hollins said. “Players that play zone in college really do nothing but stand anyway. You can’t do that in the pros because you’ve got a lot of three-point shooters.”

The Nets currently rank 14th in defensive rating, surrendering 103.2 points per 100 possessions, despite playing against seven of the ten worst offensive teams in the league so far this season. While they themselves sit just outside the bottom-ten (20th) in offense, the pieces on the roster should inspire confidence going forward, as their “Big 3” of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez have long resumes of offensive excellence throughout their careers. Outside of Kevin Garnett, though, there might not be a “plus” defender on the roster, and he’s 38.

Running some zone sets can help to maximize some of the lesser defenders on the roster, particularly starting center Brook Lopez. Not an especially quick or agile defender, the seven-foot, 275 lb. Lopez is a liability in space and is most effective using his size and strength around the basket. Hollins has mostly kept Lopez around the free throw line and below when guarding the pick-and-roll, but there are occasions when Brook will hedge or over-extend and get too far away from the screener, and he’s just not mobile enough to step out and then defend the roll-man at the rim. To be fair, few big man defenders in the league are, but he’s a more effective defender in the paint, where he’s among the league leaders (among bigs) in percentage of shots contested and ranks 12th in points saved per game, according to Nylon Calculus. He’s still not great yet at protecting the rim, as he allows opponents to shoot 52.3% around the basket, but he’s blocking 1.7 shots per game in his 28.8 minutes.

A variation of a 2-3 or 1-3-1 zone could help to keep Brook paint-bound and away from stepping out as far on high screens. His responsibilities then would consist of staying within arms’ length of the nearest offensive player to avoid defensive three second calls, while locking down the paint and keeping an eye on any penetration given up by the rest of the rotating defenders. Playing the back-line of a zone would also free him from having to stay with his defender and allow him to step up to that penetration, giving him some more shot-blocking opportunities. The downside to running a zone on multiple possessions would come down to the other defenders, and their need to rotate and move around Brook Lopez.

In an ideal zone defense, all five players need to be constantly alert and moving together to cover each other’s spots and reach all areas on the floor, not unlike when a good man-to-man defense breaks down. With Brook Lopez manning the pivot, that ideal is unlikely. Instead, Lopez’s lack of mobility would cause the other four defenders to do the majority of the rotating, with him as the safety net at the rim. There’s enough depth at the guard and wing positions to get out on shooters and rotate around their center, and some zone looks could take pressure off of the (ahem) limited individual defenders on the roster. Vets like Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Alan Anderson are capable one-on-one defenders on occasion, but more inexperienced players like Bojan Bogdanovic and Mirza Teletovic struggle on that end, particularly in isolations. A zone would give some of those lackluster defenders another line of security to help in the event of blow-by’s, but the constant rotating will present its own share of issues.

Keeping Brook in the paint and forcing the other four defenders to take on the majority of the rotating could work in small-ball lineups featuring Mirza at the 4, for example, but (again, 38-year old) Kevin Garnett chasing perimeter players around on the three-point line might not end well. He has the length to bother shooters but not quite the foot speed anymore to guard in space, especially given the complexity of NBA offenses and the proclivity of the corner three. Considering KG is the team’s leading rebounder, taking him away from the defensive glass might also be counter-productive.

That’s the glaring problem with running some sustained zone sets: the lack of athleticism on the Brooklyn roster. Lineups with Brook Lopez or even Jerome Jordan at the center are limited in their range, forcing others to overcompensate and scurry around the perimeter, closing out on shooters or rushing them off of their spots. Defending on the perimeter in the zone would require quick footwork and instincts to recover and react to open shooters, while constantly moving to the next spot on the floor. Whereas in man defense there are occasions to take plays off (or, in some of the Nets players’ cases, ball-watch), a zone needs discipline, lateral quickness, and active feet to be effective.

Now, some zone looks with the Nets’ second unit could be interesting, or at least the second unit that features Mason Plumlee as the backup center. A lineup with Jarrett Jack, Anderson, Mirza, and Plum could be fun to see running a full zone defense, where Plum’s quickness and athleticism from the center spot would allow him to rotate around the perimeter in ways that Lopez and Jordan simply are unable to. Jack and Teletovic aren’t usually the most dialed-in defenders, but Plumlee’s presence would enable the bench lineup to fully embrace the switching and rotating aspects of the zone, with mobility at all five positions.

Ironically, while the zone looks could benefit Brook Lopez the most, by keeping him closer to the basket and away from high screens, his stationary defensive style could hurt the other four defenders on the floor, and force them to move more to cover up for Brook. The bench unit, on the other hand, has a bit more athleticism and speed to utilize, but Jerome Jordan’s presence would present the same problems as Brook’s, and put more pressure on the power forward (either Plum or Mirza) to step out to shooters.

Other organizations have found success by running zone defenses, with the 2011 Dallas Mavericks and the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Miami Heat teams as the most recent and notable examples. However, those teams featured the kind of active, athletic defenders that this Nets roster might lack, from Tyson Chandler to Shane Battier or LeBron. Due to their personnel, Brooklyn is simply unable to replicate the swarming and trapping defenses that Erik Spoelstra pioneered in Miami, but adopting some of Rick Carlisle’s matchup zone concepts could work on a limited basis, depending on how engaged Brook is as a rim protector. As with almost every other aspect of the Brooklyn Nets, the team’s upside ultimately depends on Brook Lopez, but Lionel Hollins is trying to make adjustments to get the team back into the Eastern Conference playoffs.