DALLAS -- Rick Carlisle isn't necessarily trying to turn the Dallas Mavericks into Syracuse of the NBA, but he is seemingly taking the use of zone defense from game to game to a new level.
"You can’t just be a zone team. That’s just not going to work in this league because teams are going to adjust," Carlisle said. "But, look, it’s something that we have pride in. It’s something we work a lot on and it’s something we’ve got to continue to keep working on because we want to be the best zone team in the game."
According to guard Jason Terry, the Mavs are already that.
"We’re the best zone team in the league, by far," Terry said. "It’s not even close and I think it’s because we work on it and guys take pride in it. NBA teams just don’t prepare for zones as much as college teams."
Almost every NBA team does play some form of zone defense during a course of the game. If it's not an obvious 2-3 zone, principles of zone defense will show up in man-to-man coverage. But, the Mavs seem to be playing it a lot more than ever before and perhaps more than anyone in the league.
Carlisle started tinkering with the zone in his first year, increased its use last season and apparently has the team believing in the benefits of more zone this season. Carlisle said zone is not designed to cover up weaknesses, such as defensive mismatches on the perimeter against point guards such as Chris Paul or Derrick Rose or Tony Parker -- who the Mavs will see for the first time this season on Friday -- that can consistently beat their man and get in the paint.
"That’s not why we play zone," Carlisle said. "We play zone because it’s a defense that can be effective against any lineup if you know your job within the zone, if you can cover your areas and, most importantly, get your block-out assignments."
The zone, Carlisle said, is beneficial for the Mavs because it plays to a strength, tremendous length on the back line. The key for Carlisle's push to zone this season is the 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler. The athletic and agile center provides a wide wing span that anchors the zone when teammed with fellow 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki and either Shawn Marion or Caron Butler. And Chandler is quick enough to hop in and out of the lane to avoid a littany of defensive 3-second calls.
"It’s been great for us," Chandler said. "Sometimes teams have been hot, we go into zone and they get stagnant. At Atlanta it was huge for us because that’s a team that likes to play a lot of one-on-one, likes to drive. We played a zone and they’re looking at three guys in front of them. We went to it early in the [first] half. They were stagnant. If you can get a team to be stagnant three or four possessions in a row, it allows you to bust out."
Rebounding has been somewhat of a problem when playing zone. When in mand-to-man, it's easy to pick up your man and box out. In the zone, players cover an area and have to seek out a man to prevent a significant number of offensive rebounds, such as the Chicago Bulls turned 20 offensive rebounds into 25 second-chance points.
But, it can also provide a changeup and lock up offenses that get on a run. On Saturday against Atlanta, as Chandler pointed out, the Mavs turned the zone early and it grinded the Hawks' offense into a funk, leading to a double-digit Mavs lead.
"They looked kind of hesitant when we put the zone out there," Terry said. "Our length is what gives the zone great ability to stop people. Teams that play one-on-one basketball and don’t have good ball movement tend to struggle more [against the zone] than teams that are used to swinging the ball around and making three or four passes."
Said Chandler: "The zone can be effective against anybody. It can be effective against a guy like Dwight Howard, who likes to iso [isolate] guys or use his strength. Instead of using his strength and, for example, trying to pin me under the basket, he’s got Caron Butler sitting in his lap. Against a guy like Joe Johnson, who’s used to lining guys up, being able to go one-on-one, being able to post smaller guards, now he’s looking at Jason Kidd at the top, me from the weak side, he doesn’t know where the help is coming from, so it can be difficult for offensive players."
But, can a team ultimately be successful playing a lot of zone defense in the NBA where every team has two or three shooters that can knock down 3-pointers on a regular basis? While the Mavs might be using the zone more than just as a "change-up," it seems to be working.
They're fourth in the league in scoring defense, allowing 92.3 percent and sixth in field-goal percentage at 43.5 percent. They haven't been getting killed from 3-point range, ranking in the middle of the pack at 35.2 percent.
"If you understand anything about basketball, [every] team is playing zone these days," Nowitzki said. "You look at the Lakers. They might start in man-to-man, but once there’s some action on the strong side, the big guy comes over and zones it up. We played New Orleans, who is one of the better defensive teams this year. They switched everything down the stretch in the last five minutes, which really ends up being a zone. I think the best defensive teams are going to play zone with man-to-man principles and man-to-man with zone principles.
"Guys are just too good in one-on-one and they can beat their man at any time. So the zone is a great factor of taking guys out of what they want to do and just making them run something else; not killing you with pick and roll and not killing you with post-up and isos."
For the Mavs anyway, more zone is paying off.