As the media walked into Wizards training camp today, we were treated to a sight that looked pretty similar to last year: Flip Saunders explaining the matchup zone defense to his team. Saunders has long been a proponent of zone defenses -- he's said repeatedly how much it amuses him that nobody wants to play zone when, back in the day, teams always used to try to pass off "zone" defenses as man-to-man defense.
But the zone defense we saw last year really wasn't all that successful. The Wizards left shooters wide open, surrendered too many offensive rebounds and weren't able to use it except when the man-to-man defense was particularly bad. There was one memorable game against Oklahoma City last year where Saunders only went to a zone because "we can't guard anyone."
So is this zone just the same old matador zone defense we saw last year? Not exactly. After practice, Saunders said the Wizards didn't play the kind of zone defense he would have liked.
"Last year, we played a little bit, but not as much as I would have liked and not the zone that I would have liked. We want to play, as I call it, our hyperbolic
perimeter paraboloid transitional floating zone," Saunders said.
I was kind of stumped too, so I did a bit of research and stumbled on this 2003 Sports Illustrated article discussing the zone Saunders used back when he coached the Timberwolves.
More than any team, the Timberwolves have taken advantage of the new rules permitting zones-no surprise when you consider that Saunders, while coaching the CBA's Sioux Falls Sky-force in 1994-95, wrote a 45-page primer on the finer points of zone defense. Deploying what Saunders calls a "hyperbolic paraboloid transitional floating zone" (essentially a matchup) about 40% of the time, Minnesota has confounded opponents, holding them to 41.7% shooting through Sunday, third best in the league. Garnett, Smith and improving 7-foot center Rasho Nesterovic can each reach halfway to Duluth, allowing the frontcourt to cover vast expanses. They also provide vital support to the quickness-challenged Szczerbiak, who can use his height and bulk more aggressively on the perimeter knowing that he has help if he gets beaten off the dribble.
Basically, it's a really fancy way of saying "matchup zone." Odd, because it looked like the Wizards were using a matchup zone a lot last year. However, maybe what Saunders really meant is that he has better personnel for the system than he did last year. He talked about how much more athletic and lengthier this year's team is than last year's, and as the blurb above indicates, Saunders likes to use a lot of length on the front line. At one point today, Saunders had Andray Blatche, Yi Jianlian and Hilton Armstrong all on the same team, with Blatche practicing on the perimeter. Maybe that's what he meant.
Either way, the zone defense is here to stay. Saunders said he expects to employ the zone around 20-25 percent of the time, because "when you play zone, it helps your man principles." He said he's excited to put John Wall and his "6'8'' wingspan" on the top of the zone, and added that a zone might be necessary to stop the Miami juggernaut.
"30 percent of the games are going to be in transition, because of missed shots, like 30-35 percent, and the rest is man-to-man, so if we can get it up to 20-25 percent, we can use that as a good base," he said.