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Clippings: The Clippers are trying to get in the zone

Just because Doc Rivers is gone, don’t expect the Clippers to go away from zone defense.

LA Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the interesting features of the Clippers defense in 2019-20 was that the team used more zone defense than in previous seasons. Despite having two of the best isolation defenders in the league, Doc Rivers thought it was helpful for the team to have a curveball in its defensive repertoire to throw opponents off their rhythm. What resulted was a hybrid zone that could morph back to man-to-man within the same possession, something Rivers called a “flex zone.”

Even though Rivers is gone, the Clippers still have much of the same personnel, and Ty Lue intends to keep the zone as an option for this year’s squad. The Clippers threw out the zone for the first time against Utah in their third preseason game, and the Jazz responded by shooting an unconscious percentage from 3-point range. Lue doesn’t see that as a reason not to play zone, rather as a sign that it still needs some work.

“We didn’t look very good in our zone the other night,” Lue said before practice Saturday. “We have a lot of clips that we need to show what we need to get better at. It was our first time playing it in an actual game, so it didn’t look as good. But I’ve always liked the zone. I know in Cleveland, we didn’t play a lot of zone, but I think you need zone in your back pocket to disrupt guys in the game, when guys are in a flow, or there’s one player or one set that’s hurting you, we can go zone and just kinda mix it up a little bit. And I think when you have teams that are great at out of timeouts, doing zone in a little bit just to keep them off guard, is very good as well.”

That last piece is a tactic that Rivers often went to, because after timeout plays are designed to go up against man defense; there are rarely counters for a zone.

Lue reiterated that he doesn’t plan on using a heavy diet of zone or even using it in every game, but it’s an important counter to have to be flexible. Making deep runs in the playoffs requires a certain degree of adaptability, and zone defense is a part of that. Lue also mentioned that Serge Ibaka and Nic Batum are excellent players for a zone because of their length and smarts, and Ibaka played in a variety of zones under Nick Nurse in Toronto. Dan Craig was also part of a group in Miami that used zone more often than just about any other team.

The players seem to be on board with the zone. Patrick Beverley hilariously said the zone was basically a break on defense last season, as if he needs one, but the Clippers recognize its utility given the roster composition.

“We are getting better as time goes on, as games go on,” Paul George said about zone defense. “I think it’s a great defense for us with the personnel that we have, with the length, the quickness, the speed. I think it’s something to mix up and I think a good adjustment to make.”

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