The Brooklyn Nets And The Obsession With Zone Defense

Brooklyn Nets Kenny Atkinson (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Kenny Atkinson (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

During Kenny Atkinson’s tenure as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, the team has seldom been known for their efficiency on defense. That tends to change from time to time when they shift into a zone defense.

Kenny Atkinson has been coaching the Brooklyn Nets for just over three years. Now, record wise the team has been subject to substantial improvement, however they’ve finished near the bottom of the league each of the last three seasons in nearly every defensive statistic. Despite the woes not carrying over to their offense, it remains an issue of growing concern.

Even though their offense is predicated on having spot up shooters and working off pick and rolls, their defense is ironically a direct combatant of what they try to be. It’s ironic – because they’re below average at stopping their own game.

Though the Brooklyn Nets do play solid defense in transition, as last season they finished ranked fourth in the league in points allowed during fast breaks, (11.8 points per game) the problem the team faces is defending in a half court setting.

This tends to change when Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson has the team fall into a zone defense, a scheme that is arguably most masterfully run by collegiate head coach Jim Boeheim from Syracuse. The defense is simple, instead of playing man to man, players will generally be in a 2-3 formation on the court and each person is responsible for guarding an area of the floor moving around relative to the ball movement.

For the last three years, this has been what the Brooklyn Nets look to even when they don’t have to because it’s one of the most efficient forms of defending the basket a team can devise. With that said, it’s seldom run in the NBA due to the league’s dedication to the perimeter shot, and with enough ball movement or dribble penetration a team can easily rip apart a zone.

This hasn’t shaken Kenny’s liking to it though. It’s not used as a crutch, it’s used as a mechanism to occasionally throw off the opposition. The Brooklyn Nets aren’t impervious to getting burned on defense – no matter what they do it happened a lot last season. What the zone defense does for them is ease something that plagued them – defensive switches.

When running a zone defense, you’re assigned to a specific section of the floor. Assuming you’re doing what you’re supposed to on defense, those switches will become automatic as you’re not going to be leaving your designated section. This can limit open shots off of screens as well as dribble penetration towards the basket.

What the Brooklyn Nets lack on defense they luckily make up for on offense. As last season opponents averaged 31.8 shots per game at the rim while shooting an even 60 percent. Both figures ranked just under the league average.

While it may not be a consistent form of optimal defense, it hasn’t deterred Kenny just yet. The Brooklyn Nets religiously fall into a zone defense and more often than not, they come up with a defensive stop. With a re-vamped roster heading into the season, it’ll be fascinating to see how the Brooklyn Nets fair on defense.

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Kenny Atkinson really loves the zone. We don’t get it, but we love it.