Offense and Defense

Offensive Systems

Below are general descriptions of different types of offenses that are used in basketball. This list is not meant to teach the specifics of a particular offensive system but to provide an overview of how each system operates. There are countless iterations, combinations, and modifications of each offensive philosophy making it impossible to precisely describe each offensive system.

Regardless of your team’s offensive style, here are some universal keys that every Great Offensive Team practices.


Great Offensive Teams…

1. Share the Ball

The great offensive teams get everyone on the team involved in the offense. This doesn’t mean that each player has to take the same amount of shots, but that each player plays an important role in the offense. Bad offensive teams tend to isolate their best players which causes the rest of the team to stand around and watch those players make a play. Great offensive teams move the ball, bad offensive teams hold the ball. Even teams that feature talented 1-on-1 players and offensives that encourage dribble drives, the ball should move from player to player until they find the matchup or shot they want.

2. Play to their Strengths

Great offensive teams know their identity and stick to it. The composition of the team should determine the style of offense. If your team is full of great shooters, then the offense should be designed to create open shots from the perimeter. If your team has quick, athletic players then your offense should create opportunities for driving lanes to the basket. If your team has a size advantage over most teams, you should focus on getting the ball inside to the post. Great offensive teams understand what makes them good and stick to it.

3. Limit Turnovers

The more shots your team gets up the better chance you have to score. You can’t get a shot at the basket when you turn the ball over. Turnovers kill offensive efficiency and lead to easy transition buckets for the other team. If your team can get a shot at the basket every time down the court, you will dramatically improve your scoring totals and limit the number of easy buckets the other team gets.

4. Take their shots

Similar to #2, great offensive teams dictate the types of shots they want to shoot. For example, a team with talented post players will make sure they shoot a majority of their shots close to the basket. A team with great post players will accentuate their strengths by feeding the ball into the post before they take outside shots. Great offensive teams don’t allow the defense to force them into taking shots outside of their comfort zone.

Check out these highlights of the Miami Heat from the 2012 NBA Finals and notice how they share the ball, use their defense to fuel their offense, and take what the defense gives them.


Spread Offense

The spread offense usually starts with some kind of big-little screen (big man screening for a guard). This is often a down screen in which the 2 or 3 guard catches the ball on the perimeter to initiate the offense. After the point guard initiates the offense there are usually a series of screening actions away from the ball set by the 4 and 5 players. Coaches who run the spread offense value spacing, good screen setting, and ball movement. They would prefer to score after several passes and screening actions that lead to an open shot or driving lane. If the post-players set good screens they not only free up the guards, but also create space for themselves to score on slips to the rim and post-ups.

Continuity Offense

The continuity offense operates exactly as it sounds. This offense has a pattern of cuts and screens that a team can run through an infinite amount of times without having to reset the offense. Continuity offenses are popular with high school coaches who want to give their players a simple framework to play in. The offense simplifies the game for players and helps them make better decisions on offense. The continuity offense forces the other team to play defense for an extended period of time, slows the game down, and takes time off the clock. You don’t see as many teams running continuity offenses in the NBA or College because of the constriction of the shot clock.

Motion Offense

Basketball purists love the motion offense because it allows players to make reads and play off their teammates. A true motion offense does not have predetermined plays but has guiding principles for players to use. There may be rules about what you do after certain actions (ex. after you feed the post you have to pass to the corner or swing the ball, etc) but the majority of the offense is based on screens, movement, and reads. Motion offense gives players a lot of freedom to use their abilities and smarts to make plays. This offense can be difficult to defend since there is no set pattern that players follow; if you have enough smart, unselfish players who enjoy playing together, this is a great offense.

Run and Gun

The Run and Gun philosophy values an up-tempo style of play, high number of shot attempts, constant fast-breaking, and intense defensive pressure. The Run and Gun was a more common with NBA teams in the 1960’s when the scoring average was 20 points higher than it is today. Various teams have popularized this style such as the “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980’s, Loyola Marymount’s college teams in the late 80’s early 90’s, and most recently Grinnell College. Grinnell College is a division 3 school in Iowa that is an extreme example of the Run and Gun philosophy. The Grinnell men’s basketball team regularly scores in the high 100’s and had a single player score 138 points in one game.

Check out these Phoenix Suns highlights of a Run and Gun style offense.

Princeton Style Offense

This offense is predicated on timing, cutting, motion, spacing, and smart players making reads in the flow of the offense. The Princeton Offense keeps most of its players on the perimeter and has one post player that operates in the high post. Each possession features a series of passes, screens, and back cuts. Every player needs to have the ability to pass, shoot, and dribble in order to take advantage of mismatches. Teams will use this offense for a variety of reasons including; slowing the tempo against a more athletic team, spreading the floor to open driving lanes, back-cuts for layups, and forcing a team to work hard on defense.

Check out this clip of beautiful “Princeton” offense by the Air Force Men’s Basketball Team



Defensive Systems

The following are general descriptions of commonly used defensive philosophies. This is not meant to teach the specifics of a particular defensive system but to provide an overview of how each system operates. There are countless iterations, combinations, and modifications of each defensive philosophy making it impossible to precisely describe each defensive system.

Regardless of your team’s defensive style, here are some universal keys that every Great Defensive Team practices…


Great Defensive Teams…

1. Communicate

The greatest defensive weapon against any good offensive team is your voice. Teams that open their mouths and communicate on the floor erase a multitude of defensive errors through the course of the game. Communication helps eliminate open shots and gets players in the right position on defense. Teams that talk on defense also tend to play with more energy and effort because they are a united team instead of a 5 individuals. Offenses hate playing against defensive players that are constantly communicating as opposed to a team that keeps their mouths shut.

2. Love Getting Stops

Great defensive teams love getting stops and shutting down their opponent; these teams feed off their defensive energy throughout the game. A great defensive team is never content with getting a few stops, they are never satisfied and get angry whenever their man scores on them. Good defense always leads to easy to offense but bad defensive teams view defense as inconvenience that prevents them from playing offense.

3. Are Selfless Defenders

Great defensive teams approach defense as a team not as individuals. Players are less concerned about whether they are guarding “their man” and more concerned about helping the team get a stop. They buy into the notion that players score on the whole team not on individuals.

4. Perfect their Style

Great defensive teams buy into their defensive philosophy and perfect their defensive style. Regardless of the style teams choose to play, the entire team is on the same page and committed to getting stops. If a team plays a “build the wall” defense they will not try and become a high pressure defensive team at random times.

5. Effort

Great defensive teams give great effort at all times. They mentally and physically exhaust themselves trying to prevent the other team from scoring. Defense is not a place to rest, it is not a place to catch your breath, it is the place where the game is won or lost.

The Chicago Bulls consistently have one of the best defenses in the league, in 2012-2013 they ranked 3rd in the NBA in opponents points per game at 92.9. Check out the communication, effort, and positioning in this clip against one of the best offensive teams in the league.

Man-to-Man Defenses

Summary: Every player on the court has an assigned player to guard.

Havoc Style

This defense puts intense pressure on the offense by applying a range of presses and traps to disorient the ball handler and cause turnovers. This style is designed to speed up the offense, force turnovers, fatigue the other team, and force the other team to take quick shots. Shaka Smart (head coach of VCU) is a recent example of a coach who has embraced this philosophy. Teams that run this defense should have great on-ball defenders and good athletes. This is the defensive equivalent of a Run and Gun offense and the two are often used in tandem together.


This defense is a less extreme example of the Havoc Style defense. Pressure/Deny defense tends to be more disciplined in applying pressure on the offense players and takes less risks going for steals or trapping the ball. A defender will usually deny their opponent if they are one pass away from the ball while the player guarding the ball will apply disciplined pressure so the ball-handler can’t make an easy pass. The goal is to disrupt a teams offense without giving easy driving lanes to the basket or backdoor cuts. As you can see in the graphic on the right, X2 and X3 defenders are one pass away from the ball so they have positioned themselves near O2 and O3 to try and get a deflection or steal. X4 and X5 are two passes away from the ball and are ready to help their teammates.

Build a WallBuild a Wall

This defense is designed to keep the basketball out of the paint and force the offensive team to take contested jump shots. Players off-the-ball will position themselves in the path of the player with the ball to discourage drives to the basket. On each pass the defensive players should realign to “build a wall” around the ball. Offenses will be able to move the ball around the perimiter but will find it more difficult to throw the ball to the post or drive into the keyway. In the graphic on the right all five players are focused on keeping the ball out of the middle of the floor. Unlike a pressure/deny defense X2 and X3 are positioned closer to the ball and away from O2 and O3.

Funnel DefenseFunnel Defense

This defensive philosophy teaches its players to influence the ball to a particular area of the court where the help defense is waiting. Most teams will teach their players to shade the offensive player toward the baseline and never to get beat to the middle of the court. The goal is to make defensive rotations simple and the offensive team predictable. In this graphic you can see that defender X2 is not allowing the ball to be passed back to O1 but instead is funneling the ball towards X4.

Zone Defenses

Summary: Every player on the court guards an are of the floor instead of a specific player.

2-32-3 Zone

The 2-3 zone features two guards at the top of the zone (usually at the top of the key near the three point line) and three players spread out behind them near the baseline. The guards are responsible to guard the ball at the top of the key and on the wings. The bottom players are responsible to guard the corners and middle of the zone. The zone defense is designed to keep the ball out of the middle and make teams take outside jump shots, whereas the offensive team knows the secret to beating the zone is to get the ball into the middle near the free throw line (either by pass or shot). Click on the graphic on the right side of the page to get an idea of where all 5 players should be positioned on the court and their traditional areas of coverage.

3-23-2 Zone

The 3-2 zone is the inverse of the 2-3 zone and features three players at the top and two players behind on the baseline. The 3-2 zone makes it difficult to get open shots at the top and on the wings, but leaves the corners exposed. Syracuse University is known for making it difficult for other teams to score because of their 3-2 zone. Syracuse recruits long, athletic players which makes it difficult for opposing teams to make contested threes, pass the ball around the perimeter, and drive to the basket (which are all keys to beating a zone defense). Click on the graphic on the right side of the page to get an idea of where all 5 players should be positioned on the court and their traditional areas of coverage.

1-3-11-3-1 Zone

The 1-3-1 zone has one guard impacting the ball, three players spread out along the free-throw line and wings, and a single player guarding the corners and baseline. This zone protects the middle and wings well, but leaves the corners and baseline open. The single defender on the baseline in a 1-3-1 has the difficult job of protecting the rim and the corners. The zone is also designed to give teams opportunities to trap players in the four corner areas of the half-court. Click on the graphic on the right side of the page to get an idea of where all 5 players should be positioned on the court and the areas where you can effectively trap the offense.

Matchup Zone

The matchup zone combines the principles of man-to-man and zone defense. Teams can position themselves in either a zone or man-to-man alignment that is meant to confuse the offensive team. This defense is not a ‘true’ zone because there are times when players will leave their area of the zone to follow a specific player. Each team has different principles that guide how a player operates in the matchup, but most matchup zones feature a mix of man-to-man and zone defense. One of the advantages of the matchup is that opposing teams have difficultly deciding what offense to run.AH7

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