Is a zone defense the Heat's kryptonite?

January, 3, 2012
1/03/12
11:13
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Dwyane Wade
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Dwyane Wade and the Heat have been pitiful against the zone so far this season.

MIAMI -- When Heat coach Erik Spoelstra exited the locker room and sat down at the postgame podium, all he could talk about was the zone.

"We got off to a terrific start, offensively to get what we want," Spoelstra said after the 100-92 loss to the Hawks. "And then we dealt with what we'll probably see quite a bit from here and we do need to get better and address it: they went to the zone."

From there, Spoelstra emphasized that his team has a lot of work to do. With the way he labored over the Heat's struggles against the zone, you'd think that the Hawks played zone the entire game. They didn't; the Hawks employed the zone defense for only 25 trips down the court according to Synergy data, which is roughly the equivalent of a quarter's worth of basketball. In fact, the Hawks bagged the zone defense in favor of man-to-man defense in the second half, so the Hawks' use is probably overstated.

But that doesn't mean it didn't transform the game. The term "game-changer" gets thrown around a lot in political circles, so I hesitate to use the buzzword for basketball purposes. But that's probably the best way to describe how effective the zone has been against the Heat, not just in Monday's loss, but this whole season.

The Heat have played at a completely different style in Year Two of the Big Three, pushing the tempo and flying in the open court to get easy buckets in transition. Only the Denver Nuggets have played at a faster pace and generated more offense from transition than the Heat this season. And when they're not on fast breaks, the Heat possess the singular goal of attacking the basket and getting to the charity stripe in the halfcourt.

But that all changes when opposing defenses employ the zone. It certainly had that effect in Monday's loss. The Heat came out blazing with their run-and-gun attack and took an early lead. And then Atlanta coach Larry Drew came out of a timeout in the first quarter with the zone and stopped the Heat dead in their tracks.

The numbers don't lie. Synergy Sports tells us that the Heat failed to score on 14 of their 25 possessions facing the zone on Monday, which is an improvement over their putrid performance against Boston's zone just a week ago. But so far this season, the Heat have seen terrible results against the zone. The chart below shows the Heat's performance in three areas: in transition, against man-to-man defense in the halfcourt and the zone in the halfcourt.




To be clear, most teams don't fare as well against the zone compared to transition. It's just easier to pick apart a backpedaling defense than a settled one that packs the paint. That much is obvious.

But the key here is that the Heat's efficiency has fallen off a cliff even more so than we'd expect. The average team scores 112.8 points every 100 possessions in transition; the Heat have scored 121.6 points. The average team scores 101.9 points every 100 possessions against the zone; the Heat have scored a paltry 74.0 points. The gap is enormous and teams are undoubtedly taking notice.

So you can understand why Spoelstra harped on the zone's impact after the game, even if the Hawks didn't use it much down the stretch. The Heat have been in control for most of the season, forcing teams to play at their tempo and asserting their dominance in the open court. But once teams go to zone, the Heat cede that control. Instead of galloping around the court as they please, they look like a deer in headlights.

Look at the Heat's free throw rate (FT%) in the chart above. A team that features LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- two of the best whistle-drawers in the game -- has only reached the foul line in four percent of their possessions against the zone, or just two times in 50 possessions. That's probably the biggest effect of all. When facing man-to-man, that free throw rate triples to 12.8 percent. In transition, it rises even further when teams have no choice but to arm-tackle LeBron and Wade barreling through the lane. But on Monday, the Heat only forced 10 turnovers, which kept their transition triggers to a minimum.

A possession late in the first quarter illustrates the Heat's main issue of penetration against the zone. With the Hawks packed into their zone after a score, Mario Chalmers walked up the court and passed to LeBron James who stood 30 feet from the basket. From there, the Heat played a game of hot potato, volleying the ball around the perimeter eight times before finally puncturing the 3-point arc 20 seconds into the shot clock. And only then, with a 24-second violation near, LeBron took a dribble inside the arc and pulled up for a contested 22-footer.

Clank.

So much for the Chip Kelly explosive offense.

A close review of the tape reveals that the Heat did improve as the game went on and generated some good looks. However, it's not a encouraging sign that rookie Norris Cole was often the only player who pressured the defense and tried to slice into the seams of the zone. Wade and LeBron struggled to draw contact in the lane since they weren't engaging in their usual one-on-one battles.

After the game, Shane Battier was disappointed with the team's tentativeness and hesitancy to attack the middle of the zone, which he believed was wide open for most of those zone possessions.

"We didn't do a very good job with our spacing," Shane Battier said. "We were trying to run zone offense versus play basketball. We need to be instinctual."

The zone defused the Heat's normally explosive attack. The zone has effectively stripped the Heat of their greatest weapon, keeping LeBron and Wade on the perimeter and away from the free throw line.

The Heat's numbers against the zone are indeed horrifying, but they should creep up as the season progresses simply because of comfort and regression to the mean; they didn't just suddenly abandon the free throw line. And it's worth repeating that the Heat faced man-to-man for most of Monday's game. Furthermore, if the Heat generated more turnovers on defense, the offense would be running in transition instead of playing hot potato.

But if the NBA is looking for an antidote for the Heat's up-tempo attack, the Hawks and Celtics has offered a compelling blueprint. Now that a possible Achilles' heel has been exposed, expect to see more teams apply the zone in the future. If you want to slow down the Heat, neutralize their strengths and force them to play a different brand of basketball, the zone could be the game-changer you're looking for.

Just don't turn the ball over. Easier said than done.

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