Does Your Defense Match Your Purpose? A Look at Defensive Alignments

By Mike Zavada

During the summer and fall, many coaches are in the process of planning for next season. You may also be tinkering with your defensive schemes. Many coaches throw numbers around for our defensive sets: 1-2-1-1, 2-3, 2-2-1, etc.

But what do those numbers really mean?

Sometimes, you fall in love with a certain combination thinking it will be a panacea for your team. Some of you also think certain personnel dictate a specific scheme. A common point of view is that the team with the better personnel should play aggressive pressure to create more possessions and not allow the underdog to compete (see a reference to the contrary from one of America′s best contemporary thinkers at the bottom of this article).

Big teams seem to automatically feel a 2-3 half court makes the most sense. In my early coaching days, I fell in love with the 1-3-1 mostly because I felt I had two quick players to play the front and back and tried to hide the other three.

Choosing Your Defensive Alignment

Truthfully, there is a lot more to a successful pressure defensive scheme than personnel. These numbers should not be as random as a roulette wheel. That means “beginning with the end in mind.” You need to resist falling in love with a set defense, but rather ensure that the defense we put on the floor gets us quickest to our desired outcome during a stretch of the game. The specific numbers you use in your defense set a tone, style of play, and give your team an identity.

Within a game, it can set your team’s mindset during a specific stretch of the game. Are you trying to speed up tempo to get more possessions because you are down? Are you trying to slow the game down with something like a soft 2-2-1 back into a ½ court zone so that your opponent has to run clock while you have a lead? Are you trying to send a message to your team with your scheme? Or are you trying to send a message to the other team?

When I was coaching in ultra-fast tempo systems ala Paul Westhead or Grinnell style, I wanted to set the tone with my team very early that we would be extremely aggressive and the pace needed to match that tone. That meant playing the 1-2-1-1 with a man on the inbounder, and two quick guards pinched up to the foul line. This defense said to the opponent “go ahead make our day.” We knew we would give up some layups. We also knew that our defense would create many turnovers, which would in turn give us more possessions. We knew if we had more possessions, we would score more.

We stuck with this defensive alignment most of the time, but slightly altered our tactical positioning of the players. Sometimes, we would take the on-ball defender and have him turn his back to the ball. This allowed him to double the corner quicker or deflect the intended inbound pass to the opponent’s point guard. Other times, we never left the inbounder to trap after the ball was inbounded. We did this to deny an inbounding point guard. Sometimes, we played the trapping foul line guards soft to ensure a corner trap was easily set up. Sometimes we played those guards tight in a man to man with the opponent’s guards denying an inbounds pass. Each variation gave us an opportunity to achieve a different mini-outcome at critical points of the game.

Here is a list of adjustments we made with each desired outcome within the 1-2-1-1:



Desired Immediate Outcome

Desired Game Plan Outcome

Inbound Defender

Shadow Ball on Inbound

Deny First Pass in, Create Turnovers

Mentally wear down inbounder, speed up tempo

Inbound Defender

Play off the ball into likely entry passing lane

Really Deny First Pass in, Create Deflections

Fatigue Point Guard

Inbound Defender

Play off the ball, leaning to trap area

Set up trap after the first pass

Get the ball out of Point Guard's Hands, make him throw out of the trap

Pinch Guards (second line of 1-2-1-1


Play Backside to Ball

Deny any guards coming to the ball

Make opponent throw over the top, increasing tempo

Back line

Play over half court so that all 5 defenders are in the opponent's backcourt

Full denial in the backcourt; invite long baseball pass. Make those uncomfortable handling (bigs) handle.

Seriously increase the tempo of the game. Increase opponent's turnovers

Move whole zone back so pickup point is foul line

Allow entry pass in and allow ball reversals.

Offense will have to make many passes to get the ball over and may have unforced turnovers.

Greater basket protection while still maintaining pressure. Slows tempo.

Inbound Defender and Guard closest to point

Double deny point guard with Inbound defender and guard closest to point guard.

Keep Ball away from point guard; disrupt offensive flow of opponent.

Force opponent to make broken plays. Cut the head from the body so to speak by disengaging the point guard. Fatigue point guard.

Alignment Considerations Checklist

Here is a list of items you should think through when you send out a specific defensive alignment. Ideally, you will have thought out and written down your positions on each of these considerations with your staff prior to the first game.

This could be a great exercise to go through with your staff while away at a clinic or during the summer when minds are clear and sharp.

  • Does the defensive alignment (DA) fit your team′s philosophy?
  • What type of intensity will you encourage in your players with this DA?
  • Does the DA fit your personnel?
  • Does a particular DA allow you to play more personnel?
  • Does this DA fit the time/score situation your team is in? Do you want to be pressing with a lead late? Do you want to be in a soft zone when you are down?
  • How will this pressure alignment convert into half court defense? Will it be a smooth transition?
  • Do you want to show this defensive alignment at this point in the season or save it for a critical stretch?
  • How will this DA affect critical components of the game situation like foul trouble?
  • Will this DA create more or less possessions in the game? Will more or fewer possessions favor your team?
  • Can I maximize practice time by utilizing a DA that can easily be converted to another DA?
  • How hard is it for the opponent to prepare against this DA?
  • Does this DA accentuate my team′s strengths and hide weaknesses?
  • How often do my primary opponents see this DA? How comfortable are they against it?
  • Does this DA fit my team′s offensive philosophy?

Is it possible to teach this DA effectively program wide? Can it/ should it be brought down to my middle school feeder?

What defense should you use?

So, what’s the answer to “What defense should you use?” Well, I hope that if you got anything from this article it is that the answer lies in thinking for yourself. Go through these concepts with your team in mind. You know your team best. Do not let the “conventional wisdom” dictate what you do. The conventional wisdom usually means a .500 or worse season. Many of you are in a situation where your defensive alignment will be critical to “stealing some wins.”

More food for thought on this manner of thinking was written by a great contemporary thinker Malcolm Gladwell, writer of best sellers Blink and Outliers. In a May 11, 2009 article entitled “How David Beats Goliath,” Gladwell counters the conventional wisdom about pressing defenses (

It will get you thinking and it will get your team on the path toward winning.

Related Pages and Helpful Resources

Pressure Defense
Zone Defense Concepts & Tips
Man to Man Defense

What do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments, suggestions, and questions...


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Daniel Freeman says:
11/12/2013 at 12:35:31 PM

Very interesting I had never thought of the mant different ways to play this particular defense. it has really made me think that there may be some more ways to play this defense. In fact I have thought of one already. Thanks a bunch and keep up thr good work. Lots of luck.


Dale says:
10/29/2013 at 9:51:34 AM

Since my team is developmental for high school, we stick with Man to Man, but some of these adjustments will fit in quite well in different game situations. Thanks.


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