Two nights ago, during Game 1 of the 2011 NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks—despite losing—came closer to accomplishing something against Miami than both the Bulls and Celtics. They kept Dwyane Wade and LeBron James on the perimeter, forcing the two to depend on the outside shooting of their teammates. Mike Bibby, Mike Miller, and Mario Chalmers were left to their lonesome, firing away uncontested threes, whether by way of Miami’s superior offensive execution or Dallas’ decision to let it happen. This isn’t to say James and Wade were helpless. Far from it. But the two superstars were noticeably affected early and often by what has quickly become a signature for the Mavericks: The 2-3 zone.
Throughout these playoffs it’s what’s allowed Dallas to keep their offensively minded shooters on the court, playing major minutes and contributing on both ends with unforeseen effectiveness. It’s far from perfect (remember, Dallas lost the game) and when in the fold the Mavericks have a difficult time holding their opponent to a single shot, but its ability to collapse on James and Wade will be a huge subplot moving forward. The shooting dominance of Dirk Nowitzki, J.J. Barea’s flawless execution of a high screen and roll, and Dallas’ nine-man strong rotation are all vital components for Dallas to win this series, but that 2-3 zone could be the real tide turner.
As I watched Game 1 and the Mavericks usage of their zone, two related points clicked in my head: 1) This thing could be Miami’s kryptonite if used in the right spots, 2) Now that the Eastern Conference’s gate to the finals are planted on South Beach for the foreseeable future, should the Knicks seriously consider implementing a zone defense into their defensive game plan?
Let’s start with the facts. New York is one of the worst defensive teams in the league. They don’t help consistently or rotate correctly, and they don’t have a single player on the roster who could have a punchers chance of making an All-Defensive team. Could placing a a 2-3 zone into their strategy twist those first two problems into strengths? Maybe, but it’d have to come early in training camp, and it couldn’t be half assed—something D’Antoni’s known to do when coaching during the defensive end of practice. To be honest, the Knicks were so poor at guarding opponents last season that starting from scratch and switching up their philosophy couldn’t make things any worse. Why wouldn’t they try it. Well, they sorta did.
Here’s an archived piece from Sebastian Pruiti over at NBA Playbook on zone defense and how it’s played throughout the league. The Knicks are featured showing a 3-2 zone, albeit a weak one, that’s executed by a completely different roster. Our friends over at TheKnicksBlog asked more than once throughout the season whether the Knicks should play more zone, and the sentiment over here was God yes. Please. Anything else!
If New York wants to supplant Miami while Amar’e and Carmelo are under contract and in their primes it might be the smartest option. The Heat make highlights in transition, but they make their money in the halfcourt, running isolation sets for Wade and utilizing LeBron’s crafty unselfish attitude. To take those things away a team needs five guys moving as a single unit. If the Knicks want to make that hopeful leap from gleeful playoff participant to commanding champion, enacting a committed zone defense, with willing and capable participants at the ready, might be the key.
Unfortunately for the Knicks, they don’t have a Tyson Chandler/Brendan Haywood seven foot, two-headed monster, or any savvy 38-year-old point guards who thrive on the defensive end, just laying around. Which is to say that as constituted they don’t have the right personnel. But it’s still a long time until the 2011-12 season kicks off. No rosters are set and the uncertainty surrounding New York’s center position will dictate whether or not setting up a zone is worth the trouble. Still, having it in their back pocket can’t hurt; as mentioned earlier, literally any change in the defensive game plan would be welcome.