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How to Coach Basketball Individual and Team Defense

In my 77 years of observing basketball at all levels of play, I have found that every great championship team was strong defensively. It has also been my observation that no matter how good the offense becomes, there will be days when the lid is on the basket, but good defenders seem to never have off nights.

Good basic basketball defense does require speed and quickness; however, I have often seen players make up for these physical shortcomings by out-hustling and developing a defensive attitude that is aggressive. It isn't necessary that a player be highly skilled to play effective, hard-nosed defense.

Too many athletes get the idea that defense is passive. Passivity creates negative actions. Aggressiveness is positive. I think you will find that all aggressive minded athletes will be the best defenders. Even while defending a goal, players should always be on attack.

Most important is the fact that anyone through hard work, and attention to detail, learn to play good solid defense. It is a known fact in the basketball coaching circle that a player can learn basic defensive skills far quicker than he can learn to properly execute basic offensive skills. On defense, hustle, aggressiveness, and anticipation tend to make up for other deficiencies in a player's game.

The great defensive performer is ready to start guarding his man when he comes out of his dressing room, guard him if he goes into the popcorn stand, and until the final whistle. The opponent should go home with the feeling of being attacked by a wild octopus. He should have nightmares dreaming about the aggressive tactics that wild man inflicted, not giving him one minute of peace.

The current trend is toward defense. Never before, in the history of the game has defense been played as currently being played by the top teams in the NCAA. No team has a corner on the defensive game, today. All good teams are playing it more efficiently each year. The trend is pointing in that direction out of necessity. More time must be devoted in preparation of a way to stop modern offensive formations and patterns. Younger coaches are discovering something that Bob Knight and Dean Smith have known for years and always practiced.

In most cases the defender positions himself either between his man and the basket, particularly if guarding a player with the ball, or partially or wholly between his man and the ball. Both positions serve to reduce the action-reaction advantage favoring the offensive player, forcing the offensive player to work harder than normal to get the ball or move into scoring position.

Individual Requirements

Defensive team play can only be as effective as the individual ability and dedication of each player. Attributes to be sought individually are:

  1. Desire and Pride. Regardless of how sound a player is fundamentally, he can not be an effective defender if he lacks either these two qualities. Playing hard-nosed defense requires hard work and determination, while offering little praise or recognition. Hustle is the child of desire that includes determination to play defense well. A good defender works tirelessly and puts forth that extra effort even when tired. Pride is the satisfaction one feels when knowing he played the part to the best of his ability while receiving little, or no credit.
  2. Mental Alertness and Aggressiveness. The player who reacts immediately from offense to defense will be in position to cover unguarded opponents, prevent the surprise offensive maneuver, putting the offense at a disadvantage. These two requirements can often force an opponent into a defensive posture even though he has control of the ball.
  3. Anticipation and Adaptability. Anticipation is the ability to predetermine offensive patterns. To decide whether a pass can be intercepted or change offensive men with a teammate before the situation presents itself. Adjusting to changes with the correct defensive action indicates a player's adaptability. This is not based entirely on instinct, but upon an intelligent study of an opponent's individual and team offensive moves from the moment the game began.
  4. Speed and Quickness. Running speed enables a defender to move from one court position to another more quickly than other players. His speed and quickness allows him to recover from defensive mistakes, assuming a new defensive position with little danger to the team. Quickness of feet, hands, and arms enables a defender to keep the offense in a protective attitude by individual harassment. Quickness effectively neutralizes an opponent's superior speed. Because the normal defensive distance from the basket is between eighteen and twenty -two feet, quickness is probably a bigger asset than speed.

The objective of a basketball team defense is to stop the offensive team from scoring. We all know this is an impossible task. More practical is the attempt to take the opponent out of the offense they are trying to run. This can be done by:

  • Forcing the ball toward low-percentage shooters, or scoring areas by fronting or overplaying the opponent's high scorer.
  • Getting back quickly on defense to limit the fast-break opportunities
  • Forcing shooters to alter their position, timing, release, or arc of their shot

From the above, you can see the entire purpose of a team's defense is to limit the opponent's opportunity to score by these three things. The coach must use several factors, the most important one is the available personnel.

It is my opinion the correct defense is one which limits the opponent's offensive attacks. A good team defense, this day and age, incorporates the strong points of both the zone and man-to-man defense. The primary focus in a man-to-man is the person and the secondary objective is the ball; however, teams that use person-to-person as a primary defense also use some zone principles as playing loosely away from the ball. They collapse weak-side toward the basket to prevent penetration, compacting the defense in the basket area.

Conversely, zone defensive players play the ball first and the person second, but must be able to defend against the opponent with the ball on a person-to-person basis.

In the old days, a zone player covered a specific area. It isn't that way, today. Zones of today, flex with a person-to-person attitude at the ball, attacking the person with the ball and preventing a pass into the pivot.

Whatever Defensive You Choose

  1. Insist that players never allow the offensive team to advance the ball to their point of attack without strong defensive pressure.
  2. As a coach do not use a single defense in your overall preparation.
  3. Adapt to whatever defensive style is best suited to counteract the opponent's offensive moves.
  4. Understand the type of defense you choose to use and be able to teach it to your players.

Work hard at improving your team's defense. Any defense used must be:

  • Sound, both individually and as a team.
  • Flexible, adaptable to different offensive attacks
  • Simple, enough for your players to learn.
  • Complex, for the opponent's to solve.

Defensive ability is based is based on the following factors:

  1. Hard work.
  2. Determination.
  3. Dedication.
  4. Discipline.
  5. Concentration.
  6. Responsibility.
  7. Cooperation.
  8. Physical and mental coordination.
  9. Speed and quickness.
  10. Willingness.
  11. Pride.

When coaches scout their opponents, they preview each other's defenses. Showing multiple defenses allows a coach to employ a defense that will give his opponent difficulty. This forces the opposing coach to use practice time to prepare for each defense playing against reserve players who must be taught each defense in order to act as opponents.

A good coach should pressure teams holding the ball for a last shot at the end of a period or the game. The stalling team generally are so interested in maintaining possession, they usually do not look at the basket; therefore, it might be easy to force them into a violation. Teams who are ahead should not relax and become passive either on offense or defense.

All teams must be able to press to some degree, especially in the late stages of a game. Defensive aggressiveness will cause the opponents to move out of their normal pattern.

Defensively, a team should change the game pace to its own advantage. You must surprise and confuse the opponent. Saving some practiced defensive variations for the second half that were not shown in the first half is generally another good surprise maneuver. You could also use a defensive variation in the last few minutes of the first half so that the opposing coach will use much of his valuable half-time period discussing methods of attacking a defense that will not be used again in that game.

The winning team in basketball is frequently the team quickest in transition from offense to defense; therefore, it is important that your team maintains defensive balance while attacking offensively. You must always keep a player in a defensive safety position so that he may hinder, or stop, the opponents from scoring an easy unopposed basket. A team should have:

  • Three offensive rebounders.
  • One person who is half offensive and half defensive, going to the ball only if certain of possession.
  • One player at Safety Defensive position.


Defensive preparation begins the first day. Team defensive fundamentals are essential and should be reviewed throughout the season.

You must practice double-teaming opponents, working on the double-teaming aspects from person-to-person, zone, or zone-press defensive alignments. You must teach baseline defensive techniques and how to play persons who do not have possession of the ball. If you want an aggressive defense, you must have your players to overplay. If not, let them play loose or sag back when the player is one pass away. It is best that you teach all your players to never allow an opponent to cut in front of them to the ball, especially a corner player who wants to cut to the keyhole area with the ball out front or on the opposite side.

Emphasize the need for a good defense by doing as follows:

  1. Insist upon attention to detail when implementing the defensive.
  2. Break the defense into fundamental parts.
  3. Practice group defensive techniques each session.
  4. Develop rules for each phase of the defense.
  5. Spread defensive drills discriminately through daily practice. For example: at the beginning of one practice session, halfway through another, and at the end on the third day.
  6. Never allow improper defense by any player. Correct poor procedure immediately.
  7. Reward good defensive play. Give praise both public and private for outstanding defensive accomplishment.

Determining Team Defense

The basic makeup of your material must be considered. In general, a team will consist of one of the following groups:

  1. Five taller than average players - If you choose a person-to-person defense, it should be a loose defense. If the coach prefers a zone, a passive type might be best. In this type of defense your players can defend the goal area. Whenever pressure is needed, a type of half-court pressure should do the job. Have your quickest player force the ball up to the mid-court line and the entire team giving pressure in the half-court area.
  2. Four tall players and one small and quick player - Teach this group a loose person to person defense or a one-two-two zone where the smaller and quicker player is given freedom to anticipate and intercept. Whenever pressure is needed, a type of half-court pressure is best, with the small player forcing the ball up to the mid-court line and the entire team exerting pressure in the half-court area.
  3. Three tall players and two smaller players - I recommend a regular person-to-person defense. The team could also use a two-one-two or a two-three zone, a combination defense, or a pressure defense that could be extended to a two-two-one full-court pressure.
  4. Two tall players and three small players - You can use any type of person-to-person defense. You could use a three-two zone, a one-two-two zone, a one-three-one zone, or a combination defense. Whenever a pressure defense is needed, this team can use any type pressure defense, be it half-court, three-quarter-court, or full court.
  5. One tall player and four small players - I recommend a switching person-to-person defense whereby the four small players switch on every lateral cross or movement toward the basket, staying with their player only on diagonal cuts. The best half-court zone would be either a two-two-one or a one-three-one. Leave the big player in the basket area at all times.  
  6. Five small players - This team should use a tight person-to-person half-court defense with double or turn action taken on the outside dribbler. A full-court person-to-person would be OK, too. A zone press defense could be used, with all five players crashing the defensive boards, or an aggressive two-three zone defense in which pressure is put on the ball at all areas of the front court.

Team Principles of Basketball Defense

"All good defenses, be it person-to-person, combination. or zone, are based on these six principles:

  1. Reduce the High-Percentage Shots.
  2. Decrease the Number of Shots under 18 feet.
  3. Limit you opponent's Second-Shot opportunities.
  4. Eliminate Turn-Overs.
  5. Attack the Ball with Controlled Aggressiveness.
  6. Discourage Opponents from Penetrating.

Let me repeat, the objective of a basketball team defense is to stop the offensive team from scoring; however, this is an impossible task. More practical is the attempt to take the opponent out of the offense they are trying to run and the ball out of the hands of their best scorer.

Learn from an NBA legend...
Our 10 Most Frequently Read Articles:
  1. How to Play Basketball Defense

  2. How to Play Basketball Offense -

  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

  8. How to Coach the Basketball Give and Go Play

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

  10. How to Coach and Teach the Wheel Man-to-Man Basketball Offense

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