Yesterday, the Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Chicago Bulls in a preseason game. Since trading Kevin Love, after acquiring a gaggle of long, athletic wing players; Flip Saunders has discussed the possibility of his Minnesota Timberwolves playing a zone-defense this season.
On Friday against the Bulls, we saw a few instances of this. These are notes meant to highlight some of what I saw. Mind you, we are observing a small sample.
Being able to distinguish between 'man' and 'zone' defenses isn't always simple. Strategists aim to disguise coverages and philosophies, thus, a team appearing to play a man-to-man defense may be in a zone - or viceversa. Each coach deploys different looks hoping to confuse opposing offenses. Conversely, as is the case with the Wolves, it may take a group still learning to play aside one another considerable time before mastering the necessary tactics required by these scheme.
The Wolves have some work to do, especially if they want to depend on a zone-defense to force steals and transition baskets.
A "trap" is set when two defenders double-team the ball-handler, trying to force a turnover or a jump-ball situation. At the NBA level, an element of deception is required in order to achieve a trap and, to do so effectually, the Wolves should aim to double-team opponents in certain locations on the floor.
For instance: There is no use trying to trap a ball-handler at the top of the key. Successful traps pressure players against out-of-bounds lines, which serve as additional defenders in such situations.
The most opportune time to attempt to execute a trap is after making a basket. After that happens, an opponent must pass the ball into play from their own baseline. Ergo, that's when players have the most time to set up on defense. After the ball is enters play, an offense as eight-seconds to advance the ball past the 'timeline' (halfcourt) or they forfeit possession.
Circles to your right: Obviously, it's tough to get the ball out of the corner if two defenders have enclosed on a player with the ball. Often times you'll see the offensive player just throw the ball off a defender's' leg, which results in an inbound opportunity. Continuing....
Circles to your left: Again, pretend the Wolves are defending the basket on the right. When an opponent advances the ball past the timeline and into the half court they've avoided an eight-second violation, but; if a defense can force a ball-handler to pick up his dribble just across halfcourt, they may use the timeline as an extra defender as the offense cannot bring the ball back into their end of the court. This would be considered a backcourt violation.
This is a disguised trap, and although it isn't successful, at least the Wolves were in a decent position to force a turnover - the pictures will explain. Prior to this possession, Thaddeus Young connected on a shot and the Wolves retreated back on defense - they did not try to start trapping until after Derrick Rose crossed the timeline.
Each defender appears to be matched up man-to-man, notice the dotted lines. But, as you can see, Martin's movement toward Rose signifies the Wolves are looking to trap the ball-handler after he crosses the timeline.
Rose recognizes the double-team approaching and passes up the sideline to Kirk Hinrich. Now, the ball is in the corner - another prime spot on the floor where the Wolves should look to trap. The red lines indicate where each defender should be rotating in order to be in good position to steal.
Notice Young is heading to the corner, not only because Hinrich is open, but because the corner is where the Wolves would like to trap. Nikola Pekovic has blown his assignment. He should be cutting off the baseline so that the quicker guard doesn't blow past him. Young, who should be aware Joakim Noah is behind him, should be flailing his arms as he closes on Hinrich - making any pass out of the corner difficult.
Notice I have Martin dropping down to the free throw line where he, essentially, becomes like a safety on a football field. His job is to intercept any pass Hinrich attempts to throw to Noah or elsewhere around the painted area.
Unfortunately, Hinrich knocks down a three pointer from the corner. That's a caveat when trying to run a zone-defense; if rotations are late, shooters will be left open for three pointers. As is with the case above.
This is the very next defensive possession.
The concept is the same as before: Trap Rose after he crosses the timeline in the corner. This time, the Bulls are on the other end of the floor, meaning Corey Brewer replaces Martin as the sideline trap-defender with Rubio still in the middle. This leaves Martin to play 'safety.' The dotted lines indicate where defenders should anticipate making a steal.
Martin's priority is to prevent any pass to Noah. He fails.
Once the ball reaches Noah the Wolves are better suited just to revert to a man-to-man, a facilitator in the middle of a zone is a bad, bad thing for the defense. In this picture Rose is already passing to Noah, who will receive the ball, turn and take one dribble before surveying the court looking for an open teammate. Allinall, this is not a good possession - Martin doesn't do a good job in the slightest.
Thankfully, Dunleavy turns it over and the Wolves receive the ball without allowing a basket.
Let's try this again....
Same as in Example #2, the Bulls attempt to break the trap by initiating the offense on the far-side of the screen. Martin and Brewer have switched sides, though. Brewer is now playing safety while Martin is responsible for denying any pass Rose may make up the sideline.
Although there is nobody in the middle, the Bulls are still able to avoid being trapped. Brewer would be better positioned closer behind Rubio, he has drifted too close to the painted area - nowhere near any of the trapping zones from the picture earlier. Brewer's job is to anticipate Rose's next pass; even if he did, there's a lot of ground he needs to cover before he can intercept the basketball.
Watch how quickly things break down.
Because Brewer is late Pau Gasol catches the pass and rotates the ball over to the near-end of the floor. Dunleavy is left open for a three point shot. Although he misses, Gasol manages to grab the rebound and put the ball in for an easy score.
When the Wolves go to this defense they become susceptible to allowing offensive rebounds. In a zone-trap scheme such as this defenders are guarding areas more so than individuals, therefore making it is harder for them to find a body to box out once a shot goes up. Notice how Gasol meanders into the area around the rim and isn't met with much resistance before making the easy layup.
Personally, these examples are an indicator the Wolves aren't accustomed to playing zone-defense. Assumingly, this is because they haven't played tons of zone-defense since they started playing together. Very rarely, if at all, do we see NBA teams use zone-traps and zone-defenses.
I think Flip Saunders has the players to run a successful trap. However, because they are so used to playing man-to-man, individually, players lack instinctive tendencies and therefore aren't anticipating the offense's next pass quick enough. In these examples, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Nikola Pekovic are all seen not executing the basic fundamentals required to effectively force a steal. Thaddeus Young, albeit he looked better than his teammates, was also slow getting to his assignment in Example #1.
The Wolves need to decide if this is something they're going to work on throughout the season. It didn't take long for Saunders to abandon the trap during Friday's game against the Bulls. It's a nice idea, but if they can't execute, that's all it is - a nice idea.