Did George Karl Really Say That? AKA the Post About Man to Man Defense with Zone Principles

As a Denver Nuggets blogger I realize that I will probably not get a lot of Nuggets fans bookmarking my blog and coming back for more if I make a habit of defending George Karl.  Nevertheless, I think he is being unfairly skewered by fans for some comments he made to the Denver Post.  And I am nothing if not a man who will fight for justice. 

George said the following in the aforementioned Post article:

“I’m not a zone guy,” Karl, a man-to-man master, admitted. “I think you should have one out there, but I don’t know how it works or why it works — but I know it does work. At least in man-to-man, when something goes wrong, we know who made the mistake and I can yell at someone or direct someone. In zone, I don’t have any idea.

“I don’t know exactly where we’ll go with it, but our basketball I.Q. is stronger than it was last year — and our size is bigger — so maybe we can tinker with matching man-to-man and zone in the same possession.”

A lot of those who have read that quote are going crazy about Karl saying he does not understand how or why the zone works.  You can be rest assured that George Karl knows the principles, strengths and weaknesses of a 2-3 zone defense.  It is somewhat of a gimmick defense in the NBA.  The only coach I ever remember anyone ever saying was successful in creating original and effective zone schemes was Flip Saunders when he was in Minnesota. Zone defenses have so many gaps and holes in them it is kind of surprising when they are effective at the NBA level.

The comment about not knowing who to blame for a breakdown may sound ignorant, but I can see where he is coming from.  In a straight zone defense no one is responsible for any single opponent. If a guard catches a swing pass and the weak side guard catches a pass, drives down the lane and scores over whoever is playing in the middle of the back line who is responsible for giving up the bucket?  Was it the guard who was not able to recover from his help position and choke off the penetration?  Was it the big in the middle for giving up the basket?  Was it the weak side forward for not helping on the drive?  There is a collective responsibility and thus as Karl said, no single player to instruct.

The article starts off by saying that Karl is not a zone guy.  At the NBA level I am not either.  Show me which one of the top defensive teams in the NBA play zone defense?  When you play good team man to man defense there is no need to play zone. None at all.  As a side note the Nuggets did indeed play a couple minutes of zone defense in one game (I think it was against the Pistons, but cannot remember for sure) and it was not terrible, but it was not very effective either.

The interesting part of the quote above was where Karl talked about mixing man and zone together.  If he is talking about what I think he is I am on board.  How can you play man to man and zone?  It sounds like a contradiction, but you can run a man to man defense and utilize zone principles. The first time I have really noticed this tactic was when the Celtics started running it last season (and oh by the way, they were statistically one of the best defenses ever last season).  Since then I have seen the Nuggets run it from time to time, but primarily against dominant perimeter players. 

Instead of trying to explain it to you with words I have put together a little video segment so that you can see it in action.  

As Karl noted in the Post article the Nuggets have good size and athleticism and this style of defense is ideal for their personnel.  This style of defense can help reduce the danger of penetration from the wing as well as slow down the pick and roll.  This is not a new concept for the Nuggets, but they have not used it much this season.  If they can put it into practice along with their improved rotations and overall awareness from earlier in the season they have a chance surpass the defensive standard they set during the first month of the season.

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