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How to coach, teach and use Alternating Multiple Basketball Defenses


Alternating basketball defenses takes teams out of their offenses and lowers their shooting percentages and points-per-possession. Consequently, basketball, as played today, requires the use multiple stunting defenses out of sheer necessity; however, my personal preference is a pressure man-to-man as a team’s main defense.

Let’s make the pressure-man-to-man our basic defense and use it most of the time. Our other defenses are thrown in for their change of pace or strategical value. Don’t devote too much time to the other defenses. Consequently, their execution will leave a lot to be desired; however, the results of these junk defenses will be amaze you whenever they are sprung on the opponent. This is simply because the offense is unaccustomed to the look and is caught off balance.

As mentioned earlier, many teams do use multiple defenses. Changing zone defenses have been common for years. A team often starts out in a conventional 1-3-1 zone, but if the offense begins to hit shots from the corners, the coach may switch to a 2-3 alignment. I’ve used this strategy myself by telling the team to start the game with a 1-3-1 zone, but to change to a 2-3 defensive set as soon as the opponent’s score reached six points. This had the advantage of slowing a scoring run by the opponent and no time-out is required to change defenses.

Of course, all teams are usually prepared to change defenses if the opponent begins scoring with regularity. I’d rather not wait for that to happen. It is much better to alternate defenses throughout the game which seldom allows the opponents to grow accustomed to any one look.

The multiple system will also help your offensive preparation. By working several defenses in practice you will be exposing your offense to a number of defensive looks an opponent might use. As a result it would be a rare occurrence for the need to devote valuable practice time simulating a defense for a particular team.

Conditions Calling for Specific Defenses

If your point guard has responsibility of calling all defenses, the only exception being when there is enough time for the coach to signal or confer with the guard, always discuss the opponent with your point guard prior to game time. Based on your knowledge of the opposition it would be appropriate for you to suggest the proper defensive ratios. However, there are certain conditions which dictate specific defenses. Your players should be so versed on them that the respond automatically. These are:

  1. Missed Field-Goal Attempt – always sprint back to the preplanned defense. This represents your defense against the fast break.
  2. Out-Of-Bounds on the Baseline – When the opposition has the ball under its own basket, the coach calls one of the zone defenses. When the opponent takes the ball out of bounds under your own basket, the defense is called by the point guard.
  3. Sideline Out-Of-Bounds – are called by the designated player, most typically the point guard. If the ball is taken out of bounds in the opponent’s half-court, under Coach Smith's system, your choices are 22, 32, 42, or 52. If the ball is taken out-of-bounds in your half-court, go to 23, 33, 43, or 53. In these situations, your team has a choice. You can put a tall defender on the player in-bounding the ball or use that defender in another capacity. Coach Dean Smith, in his book, liked to vary these two options, but generally played off the in-bounds passer. Theoretically, the in-bounds passer has used up his dribble and can’t move onto the court. Therefore, you should elect not to guard him. Instead, use the extra defensive player to free-lance or play goaltender.
  4. After Successful Field Goals – The point guard is responsible for calling the defense after each of your team’s successful field goal attempts.
  5. Opponent in a Bonus Situation – Game conditions have a bearing on defensive strategy. The bonus situation is a good example. The one-on-one bonus imposes a strong penalty after the sixth foul. Consequently, after your sixth foul you should go to some defense that minimizes fouling. On a missed shot, regardless of the circumstances, always get back into your half court man-to-man; therefore, you are never in a zone defense 100% of the time.
  6. Behind Late In the Game – If you are very far behind late in the game, you do have a catch-up defense to use. It is a gambling, double-teaming type of defense and you should not use it unless the situation is desperate. On the other hand, should the opponent be desperately behind in the game, go to the sagging man-to-man or a zone to offset the opponent’s usual strategy. A desperation offense normally attempts to get the ball to the best driver in an effort to pick up a three-point play and stop the clock. It does take time to run a zone offense properly. Furthermore the zone inhibits this type of strategy.

The defense makes the difference between a good team and a great team. Consequently, a well-coached team defensively should be relatively consistent in its play. The team that depends too much on offense, may suffer when its best shooters have an off night. The more effort you put into coaching defense, the greater the reward,

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Transition from Offense to Defense

Alternating defenses tend to throw the offense off its regular rhythm. This is particularly effective against teams that depend on pattern moves to get them an open shot. Doubt and confusion as to the type of defense they face increases the number of times the offense will lose the ball without taking a shot; however, preparations for this type defense begins on the offensive end of the court.

Checking the Fast-Break

A team repeatedly beaten down the floor by an offense can not expect to attain success by alternating defenses. Actually, a "deep safety" should be designated and given the primary responsibility of watching the backcourt on rebounding situations and whenever there is a change in ball possession. Send this deep safety about two to four steps beyond the head of the foul circle. The most favorable player to put in this position would be a guard or the weakest rebounder.

Ideal Basketball Player Offensive Rebounding Positions Ideal Offensive Rebounding Positions

The diagram on the left shows the ideal position when using the "shallow safety" and the "deep safety" are used. The "triangle rebounders", #3, #4, and #5 form a triangle, surrounding the basket. Player #2 is the shallow safety and #1 is the "deep safety."

The number of offensive rebounders should be indicated before game time. For example, against teams who are slow about bringing the ball down the floor, there may be no need to have both a "shallow safety" and a "deep safety." In fact, against some teams, you may be able to send all five players to the board; however, this rarely happens.

Designate another player as "shallow safety" and place him at the free-throw line. The "shallow safety's" duty is to pick off wide rebounds and any loose ball coming his way. At the same time the "shallow safety" can still be in position to beat the defense down the floor and help the "deep safety" in the event of an opponent's fast-break. Aggressive rebounding by the other three offensive players, in triangle formation around the basket will also help prevent the fast-break situation.

Those players, who are in the rebounding triangle position must sprint as quickly as possible to the other end of the floor once it becomes apparent the ball will not be retained by a rebound. That vital area from the free-throw line to the basket must be defended against any initial offensive thrust. Once the offensive break has been stopped, the defensive players move quickly to their respective assignments.

Teams that make a smooth transition from offense to defense, then sprint quickly to the other end of the floor, generally have the most effective defenses. In order to change defenses, the defensive team must be a single compact unit ready for the offense to approach.

Allot some time every practice session toward mastering the important skill of checking the opponent's fast-break. Divide your squad into teams of five. Have them run their offense from half-court without defenders, take a shot, and assume the correct rebound and safety positions. If the shot is missed every effort should be made by rebounders to put the ball in the basket while the "deep safety" and "shallow safety" maintain their defensive positions. Once the shot is made, all five players must sprint to the opposite end of the court. Their first obligation is to defend the basket area against possible lay-ups or short jump shots.

After the initial offensive attack has been repelled, the players should move quickly as possible to their respective defensive assignments. While the first five retreats, have the next five ready to repeat the same procedure.

In scrimmages always emphasize the importance of have someone back for defensive purposes and it may not always be the same player who carries out these assignments. When the foregoing method is used, the "shallow safety" can free-lance if he sees that he has a better chance of getting the rebound than the "triangle-three" nearest the basket. However, he must understand his first responsibility is to give support to the "deep safety." He does this by discouraging a quick outlet pass, picking off wide rebounds, and getting down-floor fast.

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How to Defend Offensive Guard Play

Guard defense is important because deep penetrating will wreck a defense before the defense can even begin to organize. Some teams attempt to turn the dribbler toward the sidelines by overplaying the ball handlers about a half-a-man toward the inside of the court.

Other teams try to turn the ball toward the middle by overplaying the ball-handler's outside leg. This method puts the ball in a position where the defense is strongest and able to help each other. The ball-handler can be double-teamed here without severely weakening the defense. I favor this type of backcourt defensive play.

There is still a third line of thinking. Some coaches prefer to overplay the dribbler's strong hand, forcing him to dribble with his weak hand. A right-handed player is forced to dribble with his left hand and a left-hander is forced to dribble with his right hand. No consideration is given to the position of the dribbler on the court.

Opinions vary as to which of these three options you use. Regardless which method you choose, take your pick, but stick with it, and work hard to perfect that style. To stop the dribbler plays an important part of any defense.

Double-teaming areasThere seems to be a consensus of opinion among most coaches as to the most effective method of playing the dribbler in the backcourt when employing a pressure defense. Most find it advantageous to overplay the dribbler's inside leg, forcing him toward the sideline, in order to create a double-team. The sideline provides an excellent place to double-team and make intercepted passes more-likely. The shaded area in the Diagram 2 represents the best double-team area.

Guarding the Baseline

Many defensive weaknesses occur in the area from the free-throw line extended to the baseline. Mistakes in this area wrecks any defense. Defending the dribbler who attempts to drive the baseline and guarding cutters in this area frequently create defensive problems.

There is only one effective way of guarding the dribbler who attempts to drive the baseline. As starters, overplay the baseline leg of any player you think might be a baseline threat. You should discourage baseline drives of any opponent. If a player does drive the baseline, cut him off by assuming a position facing the approaching driver at a point one-half the distance between the basket and where the drive began. Correct position of the defensive player, when contact occurs, should result in a charging call.

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Guarding players without the ball

Even though the dribbler was played perfectly in the backcourt and baseline drives stopped, loose defensive play on the players without the ball destroys the effectiveness of the defense. The other four players must do a good job of playing the players without the ball. The importance of guarding players without the ball can not be overemphasized. Players tend to relax when not facing a situation that does not involve the ball.

Guarding basketball players without the ballA quick sag to the basket with an aggressive movement greatly reduces the opponent's scoring opportunity. Diagram 3 shows the weak-side sag position. Notice how easy X1 could avoid a screen away from the ball. Pressure must be kept on the ball when players on the weak-side sag. Play the ball-handler loose if he hasn't dribbled. Play him tight when he picks up his dribble. Playing cutters properly eliminates a lot of defensive problems. Overplay all cutters into the lane about one-half step in direction of the ball. Don't let him receive a pass where he wants.

Use body checking force him wider. Step in front of cutters and draw a charge. Few players are skilled in the art of getting open when they don't have the ball; therefore, overplay the cutters and you will give up fewer points. Make it difficult for them to receive a pass.

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Defending Against the Tall Pivot Player

The best defense is to not allow a good pivot player to get the ball in the pivot area. Play him on the side nearest the ball. Occasionally front him; however, this gives the defense an inside rebounding position and makes the defense vulnerable to a lob pass.

For the above reason, determine the greater strength of the opposing pivot player. Will he hurt you more with his outside shooting and driving than with his offensive rebounding and tipping?

If a pivot player is a definite threat on the offensive boards, you should hesitate in relinquishing the inside rebounding position by playing in front, On the other hand, if the pivot player is dangerous from outside, play him tight on the side nearer the ball. Try your best to keep him from getting the ball. A good sag by your weak-side defender should help eliminate some of the problems. Letting a tall pivot player getting the ball in the low post is dangerous and should be avoided.

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Sell the Value of Good Defense to Players

Sell your players on the defense you are installing. Make sure every player on the entire team understands every move. Never take the floor ill-prepared. Spend at least one-third of your practices rehearsing the defensive fundamentals and practicing the different defenses that you plan to use.

A solid teaching in the fundamental phases of defense allows you to do many different things on the defensive ends of the floor. Such training in these defensive basics allows you to throw the unusual at your opponents and give you the satisfaction of having done your best to prepare your team for victory.

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Our 10 Most Frequently Read Articles:
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  3. One-on-one basketball moves

  4. Basketball Coach's toolbox

  5. How to Teach the 8 Basic Fundamental Plays in Basketball

  6. How to Teach Players to Dribble a Basketball

  7. How to coach and teach the basketball pick-and-roll play

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  9. How to Coach the 1-3-1 Basketball Zone Pressure Defenses

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