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Phil Taylor
October 29, 2001
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October 29, 2001

Iverson Vs. The New Zone


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Given the coarse rap lyrics he's been known to compose, it might seem that Allen Iverson would be the last person to complain about offensive language. There is at least one word, however, that Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers' prolific point producer, considers indisputably obscene. He heard it as he was walking down a corridor in the Staples Center in June, and for a moment it no longer mattered to him that the Sixers had upset the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Someone suggested that only one type of defense had any chance of containing him, then made the mistake of uttering its name. Iverson turned at the sound of the Z word, the fire in his eyes as bright as the diamonds in his ears. "Zone" he said. "Man, why did you have to go and bring that up? You trying to mess with my good mood? I don't want to hear that word until next year."

Next year is here, and Iverson won't be able to avoid the word, or the defense, any longer. From the moment the NBA's Board of Governors announced last April that the illegal-defense rules would be dropped beginning this season, the league's elite scorers have been girding to face the kind of exotic defensive strategies they haven't seen since they were big men on campus. Teams will be able to use any defense they choose, the only restriction being that a defender may not stand in the lane for more than three seconds unless he is closely guarding another player. "The NBA is for men, and a grown man doesn't need to play zone," says Shaquille O'Neal. "Why do you think they call it man-to-man? If you can't play it, you shouldn't be here."

It's possible that zone defenses won't be as instantly popular around the league as tattoos and luxury boxes, which would be welcome news to Iverson, O'Neal and other one-on-one threats like Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Tim Duncan, Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady. "We are not going to be a zone team," says Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson, the kind of unorthodox strategist who might be expected to take advantage of any new options. "Zones make teams lazy. We like aggressive man-to-man." The San Antonio Spurs, with 7-footers Tim Duncan and David Robinson to station on either side of the lane, would seem to be another zone-prone team, but coach Gregg Popovich says he did not spend "one single second" devising such a defense during the off-season. "What we will do," adds Popovich, "is use zones in special situations, specifically, out-of-bounds plays and maybe with limited time on the shot clock."

Still, the elite players are sure to see more creative defenses thrown at them at least occasionally, and Iverson, the reigning scoring champion, seems a particularly inviting target. His skill at breaking down a defender off the dribble and the quick release on his jump shot make him arguably the toughest perimeter player in the league to handle one-on-one. Because Philadelphia doesn't have another scoring threat who's nearly as dangerous as Iverson, opponents will be likely to dare the other Sixers to beat them from outside.

Of course, Iverson and the Sixers have seen de facto zones before. Under the old rules opponents often sent a second defender to double-team him as soon as he received the ball in the frontcourt, and the other three defenders would rotate to cover Iverson's four teammates in what was essentially a matchup zone (diagram below). To make sure the Sixer left open was the one who would be the most difficult to pass to, the second defender on Iverson usually came from the weak side. By the time that player arrived, though, Iverson had frequently made his move to the basket or released his jumper. In fact, having a player rushing at him often worked to Iverson's advantage, because a head fake or crossover dribble was all he needed to flash to the hoop before the defender could change direction.

Now defenses won't have to do as much running and rotating. They can station a defender, most likely their power forward or center—perhaps both—on whichever side the 6-foot Iverson sets up. The defense essentially gives him two options: try to beat two or three defenders, or pass the ball. "Now he won't have the alleys to split you," says Seattle SuperSonics assistant Dwane Casey. "The big man can be stationary and be there waiting for him."

Against man-to-man defenses, the Sixers like to set up a series of screens for Iverson, a gantlet his defender must negotiate to keep up with him (diagram, page 108). Against a basic zone, those screens aren't nearly as effective, because no individual defender has to fight his way through them all. Responsibility for Iverson will simply pass from one defender to another as he moves around the court. Even the best zone has seams, however, and the danger for any coach who deploys it is that a scorer as quick and clever as Iverson will find those openings. "Zones may work for a possession or two," says Mavericks assistant coach Sidney Moncrief, "but the more they see them, the more great players will exploit them by finding the holes."

When he can't find those cracks, Iverson will have to rely on his outside shot, which he tried particularly hard to improve during the off-season, at least until he had surgery on his right elbow in September. (He's expected to be healthy by the start of the season.) Although zones often leave a spot-up shooter unguarded, that player will rarely be Iverson. With defenses focused on him, he's more likely to be the one to dish to that open shooter. "He'll have to burn people sometimes with his passes to keep them honest," says Casey.

In a sense the other Sixers may find themselves facing zones more than Iverson does. Philadelphia coach Larry Brown expects to see the occasional combination defense in which a team tracks Iverson with multiple defenders and plays zone against his teammates. Being double-teamed is nothing new for Iverson or any other top scorer in the league. The difference is that under the old rules, a player couldn't be double-teamed until he had the ball. Now, defenders can gang up on Iverson whenever and wherever they wish, making it much tougher for him to get his hands on the ball. "Teams can do that, but if the Sixers have any shooters at all, one of the other guys will kill you," Casey says. "What teams will do is shade him with two guys. The days of Iverson's getting 40 or 50—he'll have to expend a lot more energy to do that."

In other words, Philadelphia's success against the zone will depend in part on how unselfish Iverson is willing to be. Beating a double team and then penetrating against a three-man front that's sagging to protect the middle will be far more difficult than distributing the ball to an open teammate. "I won't have any trouble giving the ball up," he says. "If I need to be a decoy sometimes, then I'll be a decoy. My teammates can make shots."

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