[EDIT: Before you read this article, watch this quick clip (0:52) that illustrates what I am trying to teach about unattended cutters and zone pressure points. Notice how this team (not mine) organically, within the framework of the Read and React Offense, uses zone pressure points and unattended cutters to get a quality “catch and shoot” shot.]
(The following is an excerpt from the coming book: Basketballogy’s Fundamentals of the Game: What every coach, player and parent should know about basketball. All rights reserved.)
The Road Less Traveled
In his book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck tells an interesting story that has stayed with me through the years.
As I remember it, Dr. Peck said he wanted to build “a happier and closer relationship” with his 14-year old daughter. That was his goal.
His plan was to spend an evening playing a game of chess with his daughter and visit as they played, have some fun and strengthen their bond. At the end of the game he probably envisioned a long, good-night hug with his daughter and a happy ending.
The game drug on though. And there really wasn’t much conversation because Scott thought so intently before each move. In fact, when she would ask him if he could please make his move he would “explain” that chess was a serious game that needs to be thought through to be played right.
But it was a school night and the later it got, the more his daughter, a well-disciplined and excellent student, expressed her desire to get to bed. Dad wouldn’t let her though.
At it got later and later, his daughter dropped hints from time to time, mentioning the big day she had, but he ignored her. His daughter then suggested that maybe they finish tomorrow, but Dr. Peck insisted that they finish the game that night, getting snarkier each time she brought it up.
Eventually his daughter, in tears of frustration, declared her dad the winner and stormed off to bed.
It wasn’t until that moment that Dr. Peck realized that he had blown it.
Confusing the Plan with the Goal
When I think about it, the only real thing wrong with Dr. Peck’s plan was that he confused it with his goal. His goal was not to win the chess game. Dr. Peck lost his focus on why he was playing chess, and fixated instead on successfully playing chess, and that shift of focus unintentionally ruined all he set out to do.
The great philosopher, Charles Barkley, once said, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.”
Well said, Chuck.
“The worst victory in the world is a battle won at the expense of the war.”
(– Tom L. Pittman VII)
It is pretty easy for coaches, players, and even parents to get so caught up in the “chess” of basketball that we forget the basic objective. Don’t confuse the plan with the goal; the prime directive of every offense, regardless the defense they face, is to create quality shots and score the ball.
Rediscovering the Value of Dribble and Pass Penetration
The fundamental goal of basketball offense is to create quality shots, and realistically speaking, for many teams, those quality shots will not be found at the 3-point line.
The Prime Directive of Basketball Offense is to create quality shots and score the ball. That directive does not change just because the opposition is using a zone defense, (including a “sagging zone”).
While the “chess” of playing against a zone defense may well include tactics such as:
- Shooting well from the arc
- Swinging the ball then flashing after the zone shifts
- Cutting, hooking and looking
- Using the dribble to attack the gaps, etc.,
We must not lose sight of the fact that the fundamental goal of our offense is still to create quality shots. And realistically speaking, for many teams, those quality shots will not be found at the 3-point line.
Coaches have long known that closer shots, percentage-wise, are quality shots. That is still true even against a zone defense.
Shooting percentages drop at least 1 percentage point for every 1.5 feet the shooter is from the basket.The importance of getting inside shots was never more clear to me than when I saw Sandy Weil speak at MIT’s 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics conference. Using sophisticated optical tracking technology to meticulously study and document NBA players, Mr. Weil revealed that, in the NBA, players’ shooting percentages drop 1 percentage point for every 1.5 feet a shooter is from the basket.
Of course if the talent level of your team happens to be below the NBA level, then you can safely assume that your players’ shooting percentages probably drop even more with each foot they are away from the rim.
So coaches, how do we get shots nearer the basket?
There are only 2 ways to get the ball close to the rim: dribble it in closer, or pass it to someone who is in closer. It turns out that this is a pretty important fact for coaches to keep in mind, even against zone defenses.
The problem is, it takes more than just being nearer to the basket for a shot to be a “quality shot.”
The Importance of an Open Shot
Contesting a shot takes a 50% shooter down to 38%.Sandy Weil had two more revelations for us at that conference. His data also showed that if a defender is within 3 feet of a shooter when he rises to shoot, his shooting percentage drops an average of 12 percentage points. (For more on Sandy Weil’s 2011 findings, see chapter titled: The Full Stop Defense.)
Wow, 12 percentage points is a LOT. Just think of it: among NBA players, some of the best basketball players in the world, contesting a shot takes a 50% shooter down to 38% percent.
Just think of what that does to your tactics if you rely mostly on 3-point shooting to “bust” a zone.
In fact, this one finding was so significant that Sandy Weil’s talk is often referred to by coaches and the press as “The Importance of an Open Shot.”
Against a zone, driving and posting up more often creates shots for others than for the ball handler.So you are facing a zone defense. When you ponder the importance of an open shot, ponder also the fact that a player attempting to drive toward the rim attracts at least one defender, as does throwing an entry pass to a player posting up a player inside. All that defensive attention is pretty much guarantees the opposite of an open shot for the person with the ball.
Consequently, against a zone, driving and posting up probably create shots for others more than they do for those driving or posting up, which hints at the topic of this chapter: the usefulness of unattended cutters.
I’ve long asserted that probably the deadliest offensive player against a zone defense is an unattended cutter. 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.
The concept of creating and capitalizing on unattended cutters against a zone is a Basketballogy original. In fact, I just Googled “unattended cutters,” and of the nearly 7 million results Google found on the Internet, 100% of the basketball-related references to unattended cutters were all references written by me. The other links to “unattended cutters” talk about things like the auto shutoff feature of your hydraulic core cutting machine.
Of course a lot of great coaches have outlined a lot of great ways to beat zone defenses, and “unattended cutters” isn’t on their lists, so you maybe be thinking, “Tom, none of this is news. Coaches have always known that open shots, and shots closer to the rim, are higher percentage thoughts. How does this prove unattended cutters are effective weapons against a zone? Tell us something we don’t know.”
Okay, I will.
Did you know that another of Sandy Weil’s findings revealed at that 2011 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference is:
Shooting percentages are higher when players catch and shoot — rather than shoot off the dribble or off a retained ball, and the higher percentages for catch and shoot shots hold up even if the shot is closely contested.
Other than a wide open layup or dunk, the most effective shot in basketball is a close shot by an unattended cutter.It’s the last part of that sentence that intrigued me most: a catch and shoot is a better quality shot, even if the shot is contested. There is no 12 point drop in shooting percentage.
In other words, other than a wide open lay up or dunk, the most effective shot in basketball is a catch and shoot close to the basket, even if it is contested: a.k.a. a close shot by an unattended cutter!
While that sinks in, consider again Sandy Weil’s 3 findings announced at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics 2011 conference:
1. Shooting percentages drop 1 percent for every 1.5 feet an NBA player is from the rim.
2. Contested shots lower a player’s shooting percentage by 12 percentage points.
3. Shots created off a pass, (a.k.a. “catch and shoot”) have a higher percentage of success than other shots, even if the shot is closely contested.
But You Knew That Already
Why do many coaches turn to the 3-point shot against a zone? Certainly they don’t expect to beat their opponent solely on the strength of their 3-point shooting. No, most coaches use 3-point shooting to help stretch the defense and create gaps.
Gaps for what?
When you move the ball from side to side and then flash when the zone shifts, what have you done? Created an unattended cutter.
When your point guard attacks a gap from the top and two defenders respond to stop him, what have you done? You’ve created an opportunity for an unattended cutter to slide along the baseline behind the defense, catch a pass, and shoot a high percentage shot — even if the defense is rotating to cover him.
When you think about it, many of the tactics coaches have been using for decades to beat zones are in reality efforts to create unattended cutters. In other words, you’ve already know about the value of unattended cutters and have been using them for years.
But as Dr. Peck’s experience with his daughter taught us, we have to be careful about focusing on our tactics to the point that we forget our overarching goal.
Now that I have “outted” unattended cutters as the weapons they really are against zone defenses, I hope to use that insight spark new thoughts in us all about how to create and use them in our overall game plans.
Before I go any further, let me take a moment to make sure everyone is clear about what I am NOT saying.
Catch and shoot shots by unattended cutters are some of the best quality shots we will get in a game.I am NOT saying unattended cutters are THE way to beat a zone. I do not believe that any more than I believe you should try to beat a zone with 3-point shooting. In fact, I know of no single tactic you can use all game long to beat every team.
What I am trying to say is that amidst all that “chess” we coaches use to beat a zone, we need to remember that what we are really trying to do is create quality shots, and that “catch and shoot” shots by “unattended cutters” are some of the best quality shots we we will get in a game.
Creating Unattended Cutters
Against a man-to-man defense, cutters are usually less effective because each offensive player has a specific defender assigned to him to make sure his cuts are never unattended. Ergo against a man-to-man defense, a cutter needs a screen, a burst of speed, a change of direction or a snoozing defender to create enough space to be considered momentarily unattended. This is doable of course, but not nearly as easily as against a zone.
Against a zone defense, we can exploit the fact that defensive players (especially young players), tend to think in terms of “guarding my area.” Consequently, with no one person taking responsibility to make sure every cutter is always attended, unattended cutters are MUCH easier to create against a zone.
When a coach thinks in terms of creating quality shots, he starts to realize how many ways he can create quality shots against a zone besides stretching the whole floor with multiple 3-point shooters. After all, unattended cutters can be created with a dribble drive, with a post feed, with a pin and skip, with perimeter ball and player movement, by swinging the ball from size to side and flashing after the zone has shifted… and by simply placing good shooters on certain spots of the floor.
There are in fact several ways we can create shots for unattended cutters, and I am ever on the look out for more. (Hopefully you will share some ways to create unattended cutters in the comments following this article.)
The 5 Zone Pressure Points
Perhaps the best way to learn how to beat a zone is to have your team play zone defense and pay attention to how they are getting beat. How do your opponents make enough space against you to take advantage of unattended cutters?
There are 5 places on the floor that I have found give our zone defense fits when occupied by an effective medium range shooter:
o The free throw line
o The elbows
o The short corners
I call these spots the Zone Pressure Points because good shooters in these spots put real pressure on zones. How? Well for starters, it can be vague to some defenses who should cover those spots.
- Do the interior defenders step away from the rim to cover a shooter at the elbow or short corner, and thus give up wide open layups to basket cutters behind them?
- Do the perimeter defenders sag back to cover shooters at the short corner or elbow, and thus give up wide open 3s, or catch-and-shoot shots to spot-cutters?
Zone defenders are truly reluctant to cover the elbows and short corners 100% of the time, because if they do they will get yelled at by their coaches for letting people cut behind them and score. Ignore the short corner players and you do us a favor. Cover them and you do us another favor.
If a team can put 5 players on the floor who are effective scorers from all 5 zone pressure points, and can play with good ball movement and player movement, they can force a team to stop playing a zone without ever attempting a 3-pointer.
Because of the special pressure the zone pressure points give to a zone defense, in my shooting drills, my practice assignments and my pained speeches to my players I really emphasize that every player needs to be able to confidently NAIL their shots from the pressure points. We even include shooting from the zone pressure points in our pre-game warm ups.
To help my players love scoring from those 5 spots, we sometimes have scrimmages where we count baskets made from the 5 Zone Pressure Points as a 3-pointers instead of 2.
As a coach, do all you can to encourage proficiency from the 5 zone pressure points. As a player, make sure you work to make scoring from the 5 zone pressure points automatic, you’ll likely be rewarded both in the box score and with playing time.
By the way, because all 5 zone pressure points are about the same distance from the basket, practicing from one pressure point actually helps you get good at the other 4, thus accelerating your effort to be proficient at them.
Now that you understand the value of unattended cutters, and know what I mean by “zone pressure points,” please watch that quick clip (0:52) again.
Again notice how this team organically, and within the framework of the Read and React Offense, uses zone pressure points and unattended cutters to get a quality “catch and shoot” shot.
Again, note that there are no special zone modifications to the offense such as “hook and look” in play; this is just RRO offense using zone pressure points and cutters to hunt a quality shot.
Confronting a Sagging Zone Defense
For some teams, a sagging zone defense can be a nightmare. I have heard coaches of very young youth teams whose teams lack dependable 3-point shooting say youth leagues should ban zone defenses, or institute a defensive 3 in the key rule.
I don’t know about that, but if I had a team without legitimate 3 point threats and we were facing a sagging zone, and we were running Rick Torbett‘s Read and React Offense (RRO), the first thing I would look at would be our spacing. For example, playing 5-out would be a horrible mistake; every player would be where we couldn’t score, there would be no reason for the defense to come guard us out at the arc. And when the players cut, the defense would be sitting exactly where it needs to deny them passes, and to rebound and run.
Again, assuming the RRO, the first formation I would turn to is 3-out with 2 high. Remembering my emphasis on all players being able to score from the elbows and the short corners, when a perimeter player passes to the high post and cuts, the sagging zone has a choice to make: do they cover the two players at the high posts and let the cutter go unattended? Or do they cover the cutter and watch one of the elbow player score?
And if the sagging perimeter defense opts to cover the ball handler and the other player at the elbow, and the cutter is covered by the interior defense, there is another opportunity developing as the cutter leaves the key and heads to the short corner. If the interior defender stays with the cutter as he goes to the short corner, the ball handler has the key free to dribble once or twice and put up a shot while moving towards the basket. And if the interior defender stays in the key, the ball handler can hit the outbound cutter as he gets to the short corner for an open catch-and-shoot.
The point is good looks can be created against the sagging zone with no one settling for a bad 3-point shot.
And with 3-out and 2 high, if a perimeter player started a drive at the sagging defenders, as the defense response to his threat, the strong side post defender will slide to the short corner. If the defense follows the interior player to the short corner, the key is clear for the ball handler to attack the rim one on one.
Another formation I would use against a sagging zone if I did not have reliable 3-point shooters to keep the defense honest would be a formation I have modified from the Read and React Offense.
When we are using a 5-formation against a zone, my players who are obviously not 3-point shooters use the short corner instead of the corner.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 if we are playing 3-out or 4-out, we need to keep 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.
Using the short corner as the perimeter spot for these players forces defenders to decide: either they 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 with non 3-point shooters in the short corners than it would be with non shooters standing in the corners being totally ignored by the defense.
I have a ridiculous number of basketball games filling up the disk space on my DVR. Courtesy of NBATV, I have game 5 of the 1997 NBA playoffs, when Michael Jordan played through a case of the flu. I have Jordan’s 1990 game against Cleveland where he scored a career high 69 points, with 18 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals. I have Kobe Bryant‘s 81 point game from January 2006. I have all 5 games of the 2012 NBA Finals. I even have game 7 of the 2011 NBA Finals. I just can’t bring myself to delete them.
And I have all of TeamUSA’s games from the 2012 London Olympics.
I don’t just watch these games, I watch them with a clip board, pad and pen.
I ask myself questions about basketball, then go to the DVR and see if I can find answers.
Last night I watched game 2 of the NBA Finals again. It was the turning point for that series. After losing game 1, the Miami Heat pulled off a close victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City in game 2. As I watched the game again I marveled at how surprisingly close the Thunder were to winning that game. Instead, game 2 became the first of 4 consecutive losses which led to LeBron James‘s first ever NBA championship.
As I watched, I started to make notes about how many of the points being scored were scored off of unattended cutters. There weren’t that many.
I contrasted that to the notes I have on Team USA’s Men’s Basketball victories in the 2012 London Olympics. International teams primarily used zones, often resorting to a sagging zone against USA, daring USA to beat them with the 3-point shot. Sometimes USA struggled from the arc, however their ball movement and player movement was unselfish and often found… [drum roll] unattended cutters to carry the scoring load.
Basketball at the very highest level in the entire world, the 2012 NBA Finals and the 2012 London Olympics, provided a timely confirmation for me as I wrote this chapter:
Against man to man defense, unattended cutters were bit players. Against a zone defense, unattended cutters provided a larger share of the offense.
We coaches all have our ways we like to use to battle against a zone defense. Some live by the 3 (and die by the 3). Some use 3-pointers to create gaps for higher percentage shots.
Obviously I really believe in the value of unattended cutters as an effective way to take on a zone defense, but it is all still just the “chess” of playing against a zone.
Whatever tactics you employ to take on a zone defense, do not lose track of your strategy of creating high quality shots, or else you may end up winning battles and losing wars.