The zone defense is a common defensive style in basketball, but that wasn’t the case in the NBA. For years, zone defense wasn’t allowed. The consequence for not guarding your man, but a specific area would be a technical foul. This meant that you had to guard your man, only your man, and this gave free reign to great offensive players, such as Michael Jordan, as it was made it very difficult to give (legal) help defense. Even after the zone defense was no longer forbidden, it wasn’t really accepted by the coaches, players and public, as it seemed a tactic for a weaker team.
Back when the zone defense wasn’t allowed, the opponents started to abuse the man-to-man defense. This meant that some of the offensive players would stay far away from the basket, which would make it very difficult for the defense to give help defense. Eventually, in the 2001-2002 season, that led to the fact that the NBA lifted the restriction on zone defense.
Nowadays, there is only one rule that makes the zone defense more difficult: the defensive three seconds rule. This rule is similar to the offensive three seconds rule, as the defender is only allowed to stay in the key for three seconds, while not actively defending an opponent. A violation of this rule will lead to a free throw for the opponent. Though there is a maximum amount of time a defender can stay in the key, this has boosted the help defense a player can give to his teammates.
Though the zone defense is still not very popular in the NBA, there are several teams that do play zone on some occasions. Recently, the Brooklyn Nets implemented the zone defense in a game against the Houston Rockets. That game, the Rockets had already scored 43 points in the first quarter, so the Nets decided to try their hand on a zone. It was quite successful, as it brought the Nets back to seven points in the second quarter. Though zone defense can lead to open shots from behind the perimeter, the offense has to make quick decisions, which often leads to a forced open shot or a turnover.
Maybe, in the future, we’ll see more teams in the NBA that’ll implement this strategy in their style of play.