The Milwaukee Bucks are a juggernaut. This season, they led the league in points per game and scoring margin; they placed second in threes made, and so on. Giannis Antetokounmpo, perhaps the league’s MVP, is central to the team’s identity. Everything starts with him, and it often ends with him too. He is a 7-foot point guard who initiates offense, a 7-foot center who jams everything. In the half court, with Giannis at the wheel, the Bucks scored more than one point per possession this season, one of just four teams to do so, per Synergy Sports. There is not a man alive who can stop him from twirling toward the rim and exploding.
But for Giannis and the Bucks, there is one odd outlier: the team’s performance against zone defense. When teams forced Milwaukee out of its swift rhythm, its offense ranked 10th in the league. Its turnover percentage against the zone, 13.4, was the worst mark in the NBA. Antetokounmpo, who typically makes professional basketball appear comically easy, turned the ball over nearly a quarter of the time against the zone, nearly doubling his usual rate. It’s no wonder the Bucks faced more zone than all but two teams, per Synergy.
Now, with the playoff bracket set and the Bucks owning home-court advantage throughout, we should see this strategy in the spotlight. Particularly in the early going—against underdogs like the No. 8 Pistons—zone defense may be the only way to stop Milwaukee. Any opposing game plan starts with Antetokounmpo, who averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists this year. It’s crucial, if you’re the team facing Milwaukee, for him to not have the ball. That’s what the zone can offer: an alternative way out, and a thorn in the Bucks’ side.
Consider the game they played April 1 in Brooklyn. After starting at a gallop and building a 22-point lead, the Bucks stalled as the Nets switched to a zone. Milwaukee, one of the league’s fastest teams, stopped running. Players stood along the perimeter and swung the ball around, lazily killing clock. When it came time to press forward toward the rim, guys found a crowded paint and were coaxed into challenging layups.
“Every offense has pace and tempo, and they’re able to get to their pick-and-roll early, but with zone, now they’re forced to think,” says Steve Jones Jr., who worked for the Nets’ video department from 2013 to 2015 and provides extensive tape studies on Twitter. “It forces you to do something you don’t want to do, which for a defense is always going to be key.”
Perhaps taking too much time, and thinking too hard, is kryptonite for some supercharged teams of today’s NBA. Yet we rarely see the zone deployed, as only two teams ran it at least 10 percent of the time this year (Brooklyn and Miami). That’s partly because, basically, it’s uncool, somehow deemed both a sort of cheat code and an ineffective last resort. According to Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, it’s considered “borderline blasphemy” across the league. For a coach, he adds, “It feels like you are a man without a country when you play zone in the NBA.”
This year, Atkinson’s Nets went for it anyway, running zone more than 25 times the league’s median rate. “You have to be committed. Not many believe, which is understandable,” Atkinson says, adding that when it comes to the zone, there is a “strange dynamic with coaches and players.” Zone is pure rotation and communication; it pulls zealous defenders away from their counterparts and into the team concept. It’s “not macho. Not mano a mano, like you’re shying away from your individual matchups.”
It’s true that the zone is anticlimactic. It even brings an offbeat amateur feel to the NBA floor. But it is a defensive scheme well-built for the moment at hand. The current NBA is hyperactive; not every team always feels like swinging the ball from side to side, waiting for a shot to open up. Of course, if they do swing it around, jumbling the defense, a zone can fall apart. But that’s life in the NBA, where all defensive solutions are imperfect and temporary at best.
Kathy Willens/Associated Press
“It’s more of a constant team effort. If you do your job in the zone, and the guy to your left or to your right is doing his, you can shut a team down,” Heat forward Kelly Olynyk says. Miami was the only team to run more zone defense than Brooklyn this year, and the results were incredible. The Heat’s zone permitted just 0.924 points per possession; the NBA’s best overall defense allowed 0.948, per Synergy. “Whether it’s Houston running high pick-and-roll with James Harden, [they] don’t have that opportunity anymore. They’ve gotta move the ball. Other guys have to make plays.”
During a recent game against the Hornets, the Nets ran a high school-style box-and-one zone against Charlotte‘s version of Harden, Kemba Walker. The do-everything guard was confused. He asked Nets center Jarrett Allen about the scheme and noted he hadn’t experienced it before in the NBA. “It brings a different type of look for the other team,” Allen says. “The NBA has been man for a long time, and bringing a zone just completely throws some teams off.”
Naturally, more teams are trying it. Last year, only one team ran zone 150 times all season (roughly twice per game), but there were 10 such teams this year. It’s curious what took so long.
Back in 2011, the Mavs led the league in defensive zone possessions. The roster was aging and lacked the athleticism to battle one-on-one. They reached the Finals, where they leaned on zone once again, sparking an upset of the Miami Heat.
A year later, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban joined ESPN’s First Take to discuss that series. LeBron James had faltered, averaging an uncharacteristic 17.8 points per game. Skip Bayless frequently questioned his “clutch gene,” but he missed the root cause.
“LeBron disappeared and shrank in crunch time and the fourth quarter,” Bayless said.
“So we get no credit for not putting him in a position to succeed?” Cuban replied.
“He put himself in—all he did was stand out on the perimeter,” Bayless added.
“How do you think we defended that? Why do you think he was standing out there?” Cuban asked.
“You didn’t have to defend him,” Bayless retorted.
“Oh right,” Cuban said mockingly, “so no matter what we did, he was just gonna stand there and do nothing?”
“Well, that’s all I saw,” Bayless offered.
“That’s exactly right,” Cuban said. On YouTube, the exchange is titled, “Mark Cuban Owns Skip Bayless!” and is approaching two million views. “That’s all you saw.”
In fact, Cuban explained, LeBron was flummoxed by the Mavs’ zone D. He attempted 15 shots per game that series, down almost four from his season average. That was the plan.
If it can work against LeBron—in his prime, no less—there is hope for the Eastern Conference this year. The Mavs “wanted to get the ball out of his hands and into the hands of someone else,” Cuban said. Bucks’ opponents will try to do the same.
For much of the season, Milwaukee’s supporting cast was excellent, but it has stumbled lately at an awkward time. Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s best spot-up and three-point shooter, will likely miss the opening series with a plantar fascia tear. Nikola Mirotic fractured his thumb in late March and might not be ready for Game 1. Eric Bledsoe hit 29.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, the type of look that zones often allow. (Antetokounmpo was even worse at 22.4 percent.) Brook Lopez, who was money for most of the season, shot 3-of-20 from beyond the arc in April. It’s unclear whether Khris Middleton is ready to handle the scoring burden if Giannis is forced to defer.
Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Teams should be happy to take their chances with these second and third bananas. Olynyk would be. “One hundred percent you’ll see it in the playoffs,” he says of the zone scheme.
“Guaranteed,” Atkinson echoes.
If the playoffs go according to plan, and Milwaukee meets Toronto in the Conference Finals, we’re nearly certain to see it then. The No. 2 seed Raptors ran zone on 2 percent of their plays this year—good for 10th-most in the league—to phenomenal results, allowing just 0.93 points per possession, per Synergy. Zone may well help decide which team represents the East in the Finals.
But before we get there, the zone might help underdog Detroit too. The Pistons won 19 fewer games than the Bucks and lost all four against them this year. They might as well give it a go. The NBA playoffs, after all, are often ruled by whichever player hogs the ball most effectively. That’s probably Antetokounmpo.
The Pistons have a worthy counterpart in Blake Griffin. The veteran forward averaged a career-high 24.5 points per game this year. He was a force offensively, namely in pick-and-roll and in isolation. One wonders if a single defender has any chance of containing Griffin. If not, there is a certain scheme that might help.