On the Rockets and innovation in a counterinsurgent response

Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images /
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Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images /

Keys for defensive success

Julius Caesar decided to starve his Gallic opponents out with a combination of walls, ditches and forts that formed a 10-mile circle around the fortified city of Alesia. Some Gauls did manage to escape, however, and were able to enlist a reinforcement army of a 100,000 to march on the Roman legions outside of the wall they built around the besieged city.

Rather than retreat, Caesar innovated a strategy to build a second perimeter wall around his first one and split his 60,000 men to enforce the siege but also repel and attack the secondary Gallic army from the middle ground between the two defensive bulwarks. The Rockets’ opponents may need to create new defensive strategies as well to contain the powerful offensive capabilities of the Houston legions.

The introduction of zone defenses to the NBA has come with some detractors who see them as gimmicky and against the spirit of competition. I would argue that they allow NBA coaches to unleash their full innovative capacities on the league, exploit mismatches where high-upside offensive talents can hide some of their defensive shortcomings and provide valuable tools to change the fortunes of those at a particular disadvantage in game or in roster. A look at two teams who use zone defenses frequently and to great effect, the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat, show them to be in good and unexpected standing at second and fourth, respectively, with two of the NBA’s most respected coaches from a tactical standpoint coordinating the strategy.

Miami uses the zone more than any other team and has come up with its own offshoot where it places smaller, quicker guards along the baseline and has the wings provide disrupting length at the top of a 2-3 matchup zone. The 2-3 however, is not the best zone to slow down the Rocket invaders because it can allow good shooting teams to get open 3s with good ball movement or dribble penetration. The concepts of a 3-2 with the set-up of an elongated 1-2-2 might be the best option for disrupting the Houston plans of attack.

A traditional 3-2 has three players lined up along the foul line and extending out to the 3-point arc. This, however, leaves too much space at the top key for walk up 3s and doesn’t pressure the ball. Against James Harden and the Rockets, this would be suicidal. By extending the middle player out to the 3-point arc like a 1-2-2 does, this would prevent open step-in looks and also provide pressure to force the ball to one side or another. The wing defenders would remain extended out, but the two post defenders may want to take a step further up the lane and a small one outside of it to help them get to corner shooters.

The advantages of a zone of this type are that it allows for easy traps on the wings to force the ball out of Russ and Harden’s hands, and by extending out, it covers most 3-point shooting areas (although the deep corner could be open if defenders are slow to rotate or the ball switches sides quickly). By extending them out a little, it would close this option somewhat while still providing two interior post defenders to step up to dribble penetration. It saves the defensive team energy and fouls, and while zones are typically more difficult to rebound out of, the Rockets rank in the middle of the league in rebounding and 24th in differential.

A zone of this type would leave a chasm of space around the free-throw line and elbows extended. However, if we know one thing about the Rockets, it is their utter disdain for the mid-range. This defense would force them into it time and time again. The wing defenders should stay wide and come in to help but not collapse to help or risk freeing up kick-out opportunities. It would also allow for some space to start drives, but with two dedicated post defenders still there, the Rockets’ rim attacks would still see some resistance.