The Read and React Offense: Beating a Zone with Layer 1

So what happens when a youth team using the Read and React Offense (RRO) runs into a zone defense?

I guess some coaches feel that using a zone defense with a youth team is “wrong,” “absurd,” and “disgraceful.” To be clear, I do not share that opinion. Coaches can — and in my opinion should — teach players how to play excellent on-ball and off-ball defense in either scheme, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Regardless your philosophical, theoretical stand on zone defenses, the practical reality is your youth team may encounter a zone defense, and will need more from their coach than moral indignation.

Fortunately there are ways to break down a zone defense using the RRO your young team knows already.

If you are teaching the Read and React Offense to young players using Better Basketball‘s layer method, then you know that Layer 1 focuses on passing along the perimeter, cutting to the rim, and on “circle movement” of perimeter players.

Because Layer 1 is the first layer many coaches teach, these youth teams tend to learn this layer the best. However, because it is the first layer, many coaches tend to look past it, as if Layer 1 was merely the basics that must be learned in order for players to “advance” to the other layers.

This is a real mistake.

Layer 1 is not the 1st grade. Passing and cutting are not merely “ABCs” of offense, with the other layers of the RRO teaching players how to make increasingly difficult words with them. To the contrary, passing and cutting are vital ingredients amply used in basketball at every level. If the RRO were a bread recipe, Layer 1 would be the flour. I’m no baker, but I hear that you pretty much don’t have bread if you don’t have flour.

Whenever there is conversation about how to beat a zone with the RRO, I hear coaches talking about things like: attacking the gaps, shooting open 3s, counter matching their defensive formation, using the pin and skip, etc. However, we have been beating zones in the RRO these last 3 years in ways that I have never heard another coach mention, and one of these ways is within reach of your youth team.

I believe that the most dangerous offensive player against a zone is an unattended cutter.I believe that the most dangerous offensive player against a zone is an unattended cutter. I kind of hate to just give away that insight too, but I guess I am going to. To me it is just so obvious; I saw it constantly as Team USA faced zones perpetually in the 2012 London Olympics. Nevertheless, I have never read nor heard a coach other than me talk about creating unattended cutters to exploit defenses.

Once an unattended cutter gets a pass and goes into a shooting motion, it’s just too late for the defense to do anything about the easy shot they are about to give up. What is more, unattended cutters are usually far easier to get against a zone than against a man defense, especially at the youth basketball level because too many players think in terms of guarding an area of the floor, and relax when the ball isn’t in their area of coverage.

Given that unattended cutters are so dangerous to zone defenses, I look for ways to create unattended cutters.

One way I create unattended cutters is to form 5 out, lure defenders to the arc, and overload the key.

Overload the key?! Is that even possible?

Yep, we done it for a few years now, and I got the idea from a Better Basketball video.

In one of Better Basketball’s videos, there is a short clip in a longer video where a defender is standing deep in the key moving back and forth in a doomed effort to try to cover every cutter coming into his “space” from every angle of the floor. As the cutters go by him, Better Basketball overlays the video with numbers counting the players as they go by. (See the clip here, or watch for it at 2:55 in the clip below.)

When I saw that I thought, “Wow, what if I could create a situation where I could overwhelm interior defenders like this while hunting for quality shots?”

The instant I asked myself that question, I had the answer.

What brings defenders out to the arc? The ball. Consequently if a team forms 5-out and passes the ball quickly along the perimeter, they draw multiple defenders out to the arc and stretch the floor enough to create passing lanes to cutters.

And how do we get players to cut? The same way we lure defenders to the arc: with perimeter passing.

By the way, I need to mention another modification I’ve made to the Read and React offense. When we are using the 5-out formation against a zone, my players who are obviously not really 3-point threats are instructed to use the short corner as their perimeter corner spot instead of going all the way out to the real corner. In terms of circle movement, the short corner players do everything they would have done if they were outside the arc in the real corner, they just do it from a place on the floor where a defense actually has to worry about them. Again, this is only 5-out against a zone. Against man defense, all players use the normal corner outside the arc. And with 3-out or 4-out, you need the short corner free for post slides.

The whole point of 5-out is to draw defenders away from the key and open up the inside. If defenders know a certain player is not really an outside threat, they will sag off of him when he is outside the arc and make the game harder for your other 4 players. It is better to put these non 3-point shooting players in the short corners where the defense has to respect them than to let defenders hang back in the key and ignore your ineffective corners with impunity.

When your non 3-point shooters are on top or in a wing position, they will soon be cutters and will be in a position where they can be effective scorers. By using the short corner as the perimeter spot for these players, defenders must either step away from the key to cover the plausible threat at the short corner, or they have to give the player in the short corner open shots. Either way, your team is better off than it would be with non shooters standing in the corners being totally ignored by the defense.

Because of the brisk pace of the passing along the arc, perimeter defenders cannot sag back or leave the arc to follow the cutter; instead they are forced to scramble over to the new ball handler. Because circle movement keeps giving the offense new people to pass to along the arc, the quick perimeter passing holds the attention of 3 perimeter defenders, particularly if the offense will look like they want to dribble and shoot as well.

Brisk perimeter passing creates a setting where the defense has been stretched, creating passing lanes to cutters, and the perimeter defenders let cutters go unattended. Meanwhile, behind the perimeter defenders, the floor has exploded into an orchestrated chaos of player motion that makes perfect sense to the offense, but baffles the interior defense.

Here is the next key: the interior defenders tend to cover cutters as they enter “their area” in the zone and disregard the cutters headed out of their “area” and back to the arc.  With perimeter defenders preoccupied with the ball and player movement outside, and the interior defenders watching inbound cutters, the outbound cutters often become unattended cutters, particularly if inbound cutters set picks for outbound cutters to assure they are open for a quick pass and score.

Of course inbound cutters will also be unattended at times, particularly when the defense begins to adjust to what you are doing, so outbound cutters can set screens for teammates as well.

This is just one of many ways to create unattended cutters. I focused on this way because it leverages the Layer 1 knowledge most youth teams already have. By the way, when we have a good ball handler, we more commonly use his dribble drive to create unattended cutters as well. With a drive from the top, we get unattended cutters with more economy of effort than passing and cutting.

One quick story. The first time we used Layer 1 specifically to beat a zone we started off the game with it. Our opponents had more height and talent, so my players were tremendously excited when the opposing coach called time out in the first quarter with us up by 16 points. Sometimes I am a very dumb coach, and this was one of those times. Concerned that we were humiliating the kids on the opposing team, I told my players to stop using our pass and cut zone beating system so as to be a good sport and not run up the score. It was waaay to early for me to be concerned about that though. By the end of the game our opponents were successfully pressing their advantages and our team couldn’t get back the rhythm they started with.  We ended up losing and my team wasn’t too happy with me. I wasn’t too happy with me either.

By the way, this Layer 1 attack is too energy consuming to keep going all game long. Unless you have a deep bench, you will have to mix it up to get through a game.

In conclusion, I summarize what I consider to be my two main points for this article:

1. Add to your thinking of how to beat a zone:  create unattended cutters.

2. Against a zone, consider moving the corner spots in to the short corners for some players.

  1. paulpaul09-29-2014

    following up on a question i sent on corner movement with dribble penetration from the top/point. this was for a 5 formation and i’m coaching 5 & 6 graders on a rec team w/ 1 practice per week so i’m trying to keep it simple.


    • Tom7Tom705-12-2015

      Yes, simple is smart. As you know, the players in the corner always cut along the baseline first. If they see the ball handler is driving and dribbling with the hand closest to them, then they cut through the key toward the opposite corner. If they see the dribble happening with the hand further from them, then they V-Cut and run out to the wing spot. Hope that helps.

  2. RyanRyan07-31-2016

    When passing to the cutter (hook and look) in the paint does the passer Laker cut like he would if passing to the post?

    Do you have any video to share?

Leave a Reply