Fear the Zone

13 08 2008
Zone?  No habla espagnol.

Zone? No habla espagnol.

American basketball players have been branded as arrogant, hot-dogging individuals masquerading as a team. 

You’ve heard of LeBron James’ “absolutely” answer to whether they will win gold.  There have been similar proclamations from Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. 

It’s interesting that they’re so confident seeing as though they were part of the 2004 National Team that rode USA Basketball’s name through the mud.

Arrogance?  I smell it.  But I guess bad habits are hard to break. 

But what of Team USA’s coaches?  Are they as arrogant as their players seem to be?

On the eve of the much-anticipated USA-Greece Olympic basketball game, I’ve found this excerpt from a Chris Sheridan article to be very telling:

“Interestingly, Krzyzewski said the Americans’ game plan going in will not include much use of a traditional 2-3 zone unless the man-to-man defense proves ineffective. That’s particularly intriguing given Greece’s difficulty scoring against a traditional zone, something the American coaching staff noticed as it was on hand to scout Tuesday’s Greece-Germany game.

” ‘If I tell my guys we’re going to play a certain amount of zone, it’s almost like saying our man-to-man is not good defense. Just psychologically,’ Krzyzewski said Wednesday in discussing his tactical scheme with ESPN.com. 

But if they’re no good against the zone, shouldn’t you play zone? 

‘Well, no,’ Coach K said. ‘They may not be good against our man, and over the years, the championship teams I’ve had have made teams adjust to them. And if you’re constantly adjusting to who you play, then you’ve got to be careful you never know who you are. But again, zone is part of our repertoire, and I’m not saying we’re not going to use it, I’m just saying I don’t know how many minutes we’ll use it.’ “

“It’s almost like… our man-to-man defense is not [good enough]?”  Are you kidding me?  Clearly, it isn’t.  Clearly. 

For an example, please see the first two Olympic games featuring the American team.  Full-court to 3/4-court pressure masqueraded as their supposed tough man-to-man defense.  When they got into the half-court, their defense was putrid.  A couple nice, highlight reel weak-side blocks can’t erase actual sloppy defense.

Coach K is learning that coaching a group of high-powered NBA professionals has a lot of “ego and chemistry management” in the job description.  But is it worth it to be stubborn about applying a principle that is clearly effective against the Grecian National Team?

Does Coach K think that he’s Dorian Gray?  Where’s your portrait at, man?

Playing a 2-3 is not the equivalent of selling out the American dream.  Uncle Sam’s not going to swing out of the rafters and choke you with Old Glory, Coach K.

And regarding the “if you’re constantly adjusting to who you play, you never know who you are” gem, I think it’s easy for the coach of a top flight NCAA program to say that.  Year after year, his teams are injected with blue chip, 5-star talent.

As much as people like to talk about American dominance in basketball, this quote is very telling.  If USA plays a zone, they won’t be “playing down” to Greece. 

If Duke plays Appalachian State or Campbell and re-vamps their offensive sets, I can see how that is a needless concession to a supposedly inferior athletic talent.

But this isn’t some ACC vs. Southern/A-Sun exhibition.  This is an Olympic game against a team that spanked them in 2004. 

If Coach K is truly worried that playing zone will deteriorate the American team psychologically while conceding that the Greeks are better, he is sorely wrong.

The coaching staff’s talk about respecting their opponent is all clearly lip service.  They’re setting themselves up for failure.

Play zone.




7 responses

13 08 2008

They won’t play zone because Coach K never plays zone. Last year when they first put it in bc of his involvement with the Olympic team it was weird to see my Duke Blue Devils playing zone. They just don’t do that. It isn’t who they are. His defensive mentality is get in the guy’s face or you are a pussy. It works in college, but in the pros people are too good for aggressive man to man and the defenders don’t really want to expend that much energy on defense. Moreover, they’ve got a small lineup. So you don’t want to force a half court game, which a zone defense would do. So they’ll go with a man defense, pressure the guards and force turnovers and fast breaks. And again, they need those fast break points because they’ve been shooting the 3 very poorly, which again makes a half court slow pace game something to avoid if you’re the US coaches.

The bottom line is I love Coach K, but he does things his way and doesn’t change it. Maybe it’s the Army background. Whatever it is, that’s how he operates and why he’s perfect for college where you can force players into your system. These NBA guys don’t want to buy into a system and he doesn’t what to deal with their shit. So I that is where the weird statements from Coach K come from and why he is coaching the team the way he is.

14 08 2008

It follows the typical NBA/American attitude that you only play zone if you can’t cover your man one-on-one …. that zone is only for teams with bad defensive players that need to be hidden. That’s the general outlook from most coaches in the NBA and many college coaches (although they’re more open minded about it).

Coach K’s attitude isn’t surprising. I’d guess that every player on his roster feels the same way.

It’ll be interesting to see what Dean Demopoulos can do with Greg Oden and company in those zones he loves using up in Portland. Dean’s zones might change a few minds in the NBA.

Flip Saunders has probably been the best NBA coach at using zone defenses well over the past few years. His Pistons teams always wanted to play man defense though. The Wolves with Garnett at the head of that zone, that was interesting.

14 08 2008

To the question of whether or not Krzezewksi is as arrogant as his players? Yes, absolutely. No doubt about it. He’s stubbornly arrogant. And look at this quote when a journalist asked why the team was showing off against China:

“There was no showing off. When you dunk, you have to dunk. [China] had three 7-footers. It all depends on what your definition of showing off is. What you saw is hard basketball. We play very hard, and we took it to the basket hard.”

Depends on your definition? Sounds very Clintonian to me.

14 08 2008


Hey. Thanks for the comment. I realize that I’m being a bit of an armchair athlete by stating that Coach K is arrogant for sticking with man-to-man.
The fact that Coach K wouldn’t even say “maybe we’ll play zone” tells me that there’s an underlying feeling of superiority amongst the American players. It’s clear that there’s a bit of cultural stigma associated with zone…


…which brings me to your Coach K quote. I actually thought about including your referenced K quote in the “Fear the Zone” post but I decided against it at the last minute.

Prior to that “there was no showing off” line, a Chinese reporter asked K why the Americans were dunking it so much. The response from the Americans showed a reluctance to compromise. To some cultures, the dunk is a somewhat “barbaric,” “uncouth” and “excessive” way to score two points. Some countries have much more highly contextualized cultures.

Dunking with the game at hand is much like going to Tokyo and flippantly tossing your business card at a Japanese businessman. Or it’s like using your left hand to give your business card to someone in India. In some instances, a cultural understanding is needed and being unyielding, while draping it as solidfying self-concept, comes off as arrogance or even ignorance.

Those are my thoughts on the zone, which was more of a symptom of the program’s thought rather than a true critique of not playing the 2-3. Thanks for your thoughts, guys.

14 08 2008

That’s a really interesting way to put the dunking/show off questions. I guess it is rational to say that dunking is the easiest way to score two points as far as chances that it will go in. But I’m sure there are definitely cultural inconsistencies with that. Another example (though your list was great) is when I was in Germany in May visiting my wife’s family. In Bavaria, while eating a meal, you always keep your hands on the table, something that is often frowned upon or seen as uncivilized in America or other parts of Europe. It’s a really old tradition that was started because people wanted to make sure you weren’t jerking off under the table, haha.

14 08 2008

“cultural stigma” – Great description. They were the words I was looking for. Completely agree.

I don’t mind the arrogance part of the team as long as it doesn’t become over-bearing. Some arrogance is good for the soul of the team and they should be arrogant, they’re superior to every other team and there’s simply no good reason why they should lose, only bad reasons.

But coaches overlooking the value of a zone defense can be annoying and it’s so common in the NBA too. It’s not just one case we’re seeing, it’s common place in the NBA game.

Another example of zone being valuable in the NBA is the 2003 Finals between New Jersey and San Antonio. PJ Carlesimo designed a zone defense specifically for the Nets and it derailed the Nets offense as intended. It was a big factor in the Spurs winning that matchup.

Be interesting to see if that stigma goes away and if so how quickly. Changes have been slow since the rule changes a few years ago.

18 08 2008

I agree with you on the merits of the zone but Coach K has never played it (except for the last 2 years, and the total number of minutes in the zone probably adds up to 20 tops). So why would anyone expect him to change what he’s all about.

It is stubborn. I like Marty Pocious but since he can’t play defense Coach K never puts him in. If Duke played zone they could hide him on D and then have the benefit of his shooting on offense. But since K doesn’t play zone, Marty will ride the pine until he gets better on defense. Like I said, it is stubborn.

And the only way that K’s stubborness won’t clash with the NBA player’s stubborness is if their stubborn about the same things. Otherwise, the players would insist upon their own ways and Coach K would insist upon his and the team would fall apart.

As I’ve said, I’m a Duke fan and I love coach K, but even I can admit that he is stubborn as hell. And that is why he should never coach in the NBA and why this Olympic team has to match K’s inflexability on certain issues.

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