This article was written by Basketball HQ Co-Founder Kyle Ohman.
Great team defenses in basketball don’t just come together overnight. They must be game planned for and put together with a consistent effort from everyone involved. As a basketball coach, you are responsible for this progression and understanding what all goes into creating a defense that will allow you a chance to win games and, hopefully, championships.
This basketball coaching article will breakdown all of the factors that go into creating a winning defense and will give you the game plan to follow for defensive success.
Creating a Basketball Defensive Identity
You will always become what you spend the most time on and what you value the most. So if you want your team to play defense at a high level, you must be willing to spend the time needed to create that identity within your program. It can’t be a little bit here and a little bit there; it has to be an everyday commitment to what is important to you. You must get your entire team to buy into the idea of defense being exciting and fun.
One of the best ways to build this identity with your players is to explain why doing something is important. Like you, players will be much more likely to do something if they know why it is important. Your team’s defensive identity will come in 3 parts; teaching what to do, explaining why it is essential, and then holding player 1 through 15 accountable every day. This is how you create a winning culture.
Finding What Defense Works Best for YOUR Team
It doesn’t take watching much basketball to realize that there are many different types and styles of defenses that are successful. Jim Boeheim has been using a 2-3 zone defense for decades, Calipari uses his defensive length to pressure and harass, and Tony Bennett implements his pack-line defense. All completely different strategies but all successful. It is up to you to find what works best for the pieces that you have and to recruit the types of players that best fit your defensive system.
Regardless of what you choose, though, it comes down to your players buying into your system and what you are trying to do. For example, you can’t have a few players playing pressure defense and a couple not, or have players gambling when it isn’t in your game plan. Every player in your program needs to know your defensive system forward and backward and must fully understand what is expected of them in every type of defensive situation.
You don’t need to feel locked into one defensive strategy either. If you can have several different defensive schemes that you can implement throughout a game, you will keep the offense off-balance and reacting instead of anticipating. The key, though, is that all 5 players on the floor must be on the same page and know exactly what they are responsible for. For example, you may have a specific defense that you play on a make and one you play on a miss. This means that every player needs to be communicating what is going. Everyone must be on the same page and fully understanding what is required of them.
The better player leadership you have, the more you can trust your players to switch back and forth between different defenses in the middle of the game. Another great option, though, for a younger, less experienced team is to switch up defenses for a couple of possessions coming out of a timeout. This will allow you to re-explain defensive responsibilities and make sure that everyone knows what defensive scheme is going to be deployed.
Defensive Basketball Keys
If you looked at the majority of these defensive keys on an individual level, you might not think of any of them on their own being that big of a deal. However, if you are trying to be an elite-level defense, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. These defensive keys combine to make an elite level defense that continues to stay disciplined throughout a game, does all of the little things, and comes up with stops consistently and in big moments of the game. If you want your defense to play at a high level and give your team a chance to do something special, these are the keys that you must focus on.
This has already been said once but is worth repeating. If you want your players to buy in and master these defensive keys, you must break each one down, fully explain the importance of why it should be done, and then consistently emphasize them.
Basketball Transition Defense
One of the most vulnerable times for any defense is transitioning back from offense and getting set on defense. The other team also knows this and will look to exploit it if there are available opportunities. That is why it is essential to spend the needed time working with your basketball team on your transition defense and making sure that players are giving maximum effort, communicating, stopping the ball, and getting matched up efficiently. Making sure that your transition defense is fundamentally sound will force the other team’s offense to have to earn all of their points against a set defense rather than with their transition offense.
Most of the time, getting matched up in transition or giving the other team an open look will be determined in the defensive players’ first three steps. If you can get all of your players to buy into dead sprinting back for the first three steps, you will put yourself into great defensive positioning to stop the other team’s transition offense.
Another big part of transition defense is stopping the ball. If you have a quicker guard that can turn the ball handler once or twice or make them nervous with the ball, your other players will be able to get back and get matched up.
Lastly, but still extremely important, is communication. Transition defense and getting matched up can get confusing, especially if players aren’t talking to each other. Your team must communicate at a high level in transition if you want to get stops.
Make Defensive Basketball Plays That the Team Can Rally Around
Great defenses run off of energy and effort. Yes, there is a lot of discipline and defensive fundamentals that go into having a great defense, but it is when energy is applied that a great defense really gets going. This energy comes from players giving the extra effort and making plays that inspire and fire up their teammates.
This could be a hustle back chase-down block, diving on the floor after a loose ball, laying your body on the line to take a big charge, etc. You need players that are willing to make plays that the team can rally around. A big part of this is making sure that players know how important these plays are and then rewarding them for making them.
So when you are watching film with your team, make a conscious effort in pointing out the players who make these types of plays. In basketball practice, celebrate and encourage your team to get fired up when a teammate makes a winning defensive play.
It doesn’t matter how great your defensive strategy is if your players aren’t all on the same page and communicating their way through what is going on. Communication needs to be a non-negotiable for anyone that steps on the court. Personality is not an excuse either. Players must be willing to get out of their comfort zone and open up their mouths to communicate with each other.
Once you get everyone talking, you need to make sure that your players are using relevant communication. Players need to all be on the same page and communicating in terms that everyone understands. It is up to you to make sure that the terminology of your program is understood and used by everyone regularly, with no exceptions.
Guarding the Basketball
Each player must know what they are capable of doing on the ball. If they are quick enough to put pressure on the ball, they should be putting pressure. If they are getting beat off of the dribble, they need to give some space. Every player must be able to guard the basketball and keep it out of the paint.
Payers also need to be able to guard with their chest, not with their hands. You want to have active hands, but not reaching hands or hands that are trying to guide the ball handler and picking up fouls. The on-ball defender needs to use their chest to cut off the ball handler and direct them to where they want them to go. You must be spending time emphasizing this in practice regularly.
You want your players to be aggressive in practice and get after it, but you are doing your team a disservice if you allow your players to practice bad habits that are going to be called as fouls in a game. So make sure that you are doing a great job of encouraging aggressive defense without fouling.
Off the Ball Defense in Basketball
The player guarding the ball needs to know that they have help behind them. This means that there needs to be defensive accountability for the other four offensive players off the ball. These off the ball keys are more geared for a man to man defense, but they still apply for a zone defense.
- See Man and Ball – It will be impossible for your players off the ball to help if they are not aware of where the ball is. An off the ball defender in basketball must be able to see both their man and the ball. There will be times when a defender is chasing a player on a down screen or something, and they cannot see the ball, but this needs to be for as short of a period as possible. The more aggressively you are trying to deny, the harder this will be, and it can be a lot to ask a player, but it makes a big difference. Seeing the ball will also help with deflecting passes. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a defender face guarding an offensive player thinking that they are playing lockdown defense, only to have a pass whiz by their ear to the man they are guarding for a back cut finish or shot. Defensive players off of the ball must be able to see both man and ball.
- Positioning – The four players off the ball must be in the right positioning to help the on-ball defender if needed. Defenders cannot get over spaced. A good offensive team will try to create space and player movement to get driving angles and open shots. As a defense, you need to always have players that can stunt, help, and rotate if needed. You can only do this, though, if the players off the ball are in proper defensive positioning.
- Recovery Angle – If an off-ball defender does have to help with a stunt and recovery, they need to make sure that they take a good return angle when recovering to their man. The recovery angle needs to be below the offensive player so that the defender can close them out square and not give up a driving angle. This is something that needs to be explained thoroughly and drilled on with your basketball team. The best time to drive the ball is after a drive and kick, so it is imperative that a good angle is taken and the offensive player is squared up and not given a direct line drive to re-drive the ball.
- Rotating – The goal is to prevent dribble penetration or penetrating passes. Still, if they do happen, your defense must be able to rotate out of it correctly and scramble to get matched up again. Players must be able to help, knowing, and trusting that one of their teammates, in turn, is going to help them. You must spend the needed time breaking down different defensive situations with your players and teaching them how you would like them to rotate out of them. At the end of the day, though, defense in basketball sometimes gets ugly, and your players must be able to do whatever it takes to get the job done in a scramble situation. This goes back to having basketball players who will step up and make a defensive play that the team can rally around.
All 5 Players Must be a Part of the Same Defensive Strategy
Players must know what the team is doing and be a part of the overall plan to guard the other team. Each player is defending a specific guy, but they are also working together with four other teammates to guard the entire team. Every player on your basketball team needs to know what the defensive game plan is for every situation they are going to face.
Whether it is defending screens, help rotations, double down rotations, etc., every player needs to be on the same page and a part of the TEAM defensive strategy. You want to inspire your players to play with confidence and trust their reads on defense, but it must be within the team’s defensive strategy. Otherwise, they are just doing more harm than good.
Your defensive basketball strategy could change from game to game in the middle of a game depending on an adjustment you saw, based on the scouting report, or different defensive rules that you have based on time and score. It is up to you to make sure that every one of your players is on the same page regarding your basketball team’s defensive strategy.
Don’t Allow Players to Take Themselves Out of the Play
This was mentioned a little bit earlier, but it deserves more of a breakdown. Undisciplined defensive players in basketball leave the rest of their team out to dry when they choose to reach or gamble for a ball they have no business going for. The player doesn’t get the ball, and then the other four defensive players are left scrambling to cover. This situation against a good offensive team in basketball almost always ends up in a great look for the offense.
If you are a trap and scramble basketball defense or are looking to really pressure and then help out of it, gambling is sometimes part of your defensive strategy. However, if you play a more traditional basketball defense, you need to consistently emphasize discipline and staying committed to the TEAM’S defensive strategy.
You don’t want to kill a player’s defensive effort, but it needs to be harnessed into ways that they are not exposing the rest of the defense and most likely giving up easy scoring opportunities. Most of the time, it is a player thinking that they are doing something to help the team out, but they really are hurting the team.
Coach your players to have extra energy and effort when it comes to having active hands on the ball, active hands in passing lanes, communicating, stunting in the gap, defensive rotations, scrambling when needed, etc. Whatever your basketball team defense is, get your players to buy into that defense and giving all they have in an organized defensive scheme.
Play with Defensive Toughness
When it comes to running a great defense in basketball, strategy and execution are essential, but without defensive toughness, you will not get very many stops. Players can know the exact way to hedge and get back on a ball screen or how to be in a great guarding position, but if they are not willing to put their body on someone and make it tough for the defense to execute and run their basketball plays, it honestly isn’t going to do much good.
If the other team is running a good offense and gets comfortable, it will be a long night. With a tough defense in basketball, you have players that are willing to get into an offensive player, be physical with them, and prevent them from doing what they want. Offenses want to be pretty and execute with space, player movement, well-spaced screens, etc. Defenses need to be ugly and throw a wrench into anything that the offense wants to do. This looks like ball pressure, bumping cutters, pushing the offensive player out away from the basket, etc. This only happens if you have a team defense that is tough.
Limit Fouls on Defense
It is almost impossible to play great defense in basketball if you are not able to play defense without fouling. Players need to be able to play without using their hands. They must understand body positioning when guarding, trust the help and rotations, and don’t bail out the offense with mental lapses. A big part of this comes down to what you allow in practice every day.
There is a very fine line between challenging your team to be tough and competitive with each other in practice and allowing your defense to create bad habits by fouling to get stops. You need to constantly be teaching good defensive basketball habits and emphasizing the importance of playing without fouling.
There are obviously some situations within your defense where a foul could be used, no free layups, stopping a fast break, looking to stop the clock, etc. Your players need to understand these differences. They also need to know scouting report defense and knowing who to foul and who not to foul. If you want to have a basketball team that plays excellent defense, they need to learn to do so without fouling.
Individual Defensive Accountability and Team Defensive Accountability
As a basketball coach, you must hold both your players individually accountable and your team accountable as a whole. A good defense in basketball requires all five players on the court to work together to get a stop, and you must be making sure your team is communicating, rotating, etc. It is also important that each player knows that they will be held responsible for their defensive role.
A great way to hold your team accountable is film. Players may think that they are playing good defense and are doing something the right way, and it isn’t until they see themselves on film that they see that they need to adjust. If you want to have a great team defense, you need to hold both your team and your individual players accountable.
Don’t turn a blind eye to your best offensive player either. You will have some players who are naturally better at playing defense, and you may have an offensive player that struggles to play great defense but is essential to the offense and plays consistent minutes. In cases like this, this player must still be giving max effort and also that you are continuing to coach them up defensively.
What will kill your defense in basketball is allowing a good offensive player to stay in the game because of their offense, even if they are not willing to give 100% on the defensive end of the floor. This will undercut anything you say to the rest of your team, and other players will begin to take plays off defensively or not give their best effort.
Active Hands on Defense
This has already been mentioned in a few different defensive basketball keys, but it sometimes gets overlooked, or maybe talked about but not consistently emphasized; it shouldn’t, though! Active hands may seem like a minor thing, but it can lead to a lot of stops. Even if defensive players never touch the ball, active hands can create so many issues for the offense.
Offenses run off of timing and space. With no hands pressuring the ball or in the passing lanes, the offense can pass and move the ball as needed and desired. However, if you can mirror the ball with a hand and take away a cutter who is open for a second or have active hands in a passing lane and force an offensive player to have to go farther out to catch a pass, you disrupt the timing and the spacing of the offense, which hurts offensive execution.
Having active hands is something that any basketball team and defense can do. So there is no reason why your players shouldn’t always mirror the ball, have active hands in passing lanes, and contest shots.
Scouting Report Defense
Different players should be guarded differently based on their skill set. Your players need to know as much as they can about the other team’s offensive tendencies as a whole, and then also each player’s offensive tendencies. A big part of this is watching film and studying your opponent, but a scouting report may change throughout a game. Teach your players to make adjustments and pick up offensive tendencies. From here, they will be able to force different offensive players into positions or shots where they are not as comfortable or may shoot a lower percentage.
Finish Defensive Possessions
Playing great defense in basketball is awesome, but only if you can finish out the possession. Nothing is more backbreaking than to play tough defense, force the offense to take a low percentage shot, and then allow for an offensive rebound. Your team needs to be able to finish defensive possessions. Whether it is getting a rebound, stepping up to take a charge, or getting on the floor to fight for a loose ball, you need to have players who are actively trying to finish out defensive possessions within the defense system that you are playing.
Player to Player Accountability
This is the absolute Holy Grail when it comes to having a great defensive team. If you can get your players communicating the right way with each other and holding each other accountable to do things the right way on the defensive end of the floor, you will have a chance to do something special.
As a coach, you need to be empowering your players to step up and be leaders. A team that is led by coaches has a chance to be good, but a team with excellent player leadership has a whole new level that they can get to. Spend time with your players one on one and in small groups encouraging them to be leaders with their teammates. This takes time and great team culture, but once you get it started, it quickly spreads between all of the players.
Turning Defense Into Offense in Basketball
It doesn’t matter what style of defense you play; you can still use it to help lead into your offense. Obviously, with a pressure defense, you are looking to speed the game up and get the ball moving up and down the court quicker, but even with a pack-line defense, you can do this. If you play great defense, the other team will eventually get frustrated and begin forcing up bad shots, which leads to offense.
One of the knocks that great defensive teams typically take is that they are great on the defensive end but seem to struggle on the offensive side of the floor. Sometimes it comes down to player personnel, but if you have players that can score the ball and you have done your job with putting in a good offensive scheme, turn your players loose and let them play with confidence. Players that are making shots are a lot more likely to compete on the defensive end of the court compared to players that are struggling to get quality shots. Inspire your players to play with confidence on the offensive end of the floor, and it will pay dividends on defense.
Ways to Improve Your Defense in Practice
It is great to talk about different defensive keys and what your team should be doing, but you won’t get much accomplished without a game plan to work on them. Here are some ways that you can improve your defense in practice.
If you want your players to play defense at a high level, you first need to teach them the right way to play defense. You can’t begin to hold players accountable if you haven’t first taught them the right way to do something.
- Defensive Slides – Defensive slides seem like such a fundamental part of the game that sometimes, as coaches, the technique can be overlooked. Great footwork and technique allow quick players to be great pressure defenders and “not as fast” players to still guard quicker players. Regardless of the level you are coaching at, it is worth taking the time to make sure all of your players execute a defensive slide correctly and efficiently.
- Closeouts – Whether it is a stunt and recover, a skip pass, etc., a great closeout is key to keeping the offensive player from getting a shot off or a driving angle to the basket. A big key to this is being there on the catch. As the ball moves, the defensive player should already be moving and closing out on the catch. If they allow the offensive player to catch the ball before the closeout, there is just too much time. Another big key is knowing the offensive player. Do they like to shoot? Do they like to drive? Are they good at both? If you are closing out a shooter, you will want to close out tighter and force them to put the ball on the ground (don’t give up a straight line drive). When you are closing out a slasher, you will want to close out shorter so that they cannot get a driving angle. If you are closing out someone good at both, you just need to do your best to read their body language, and then the better you time up your closeout to being there on the catch, the easier it will be.
- Turn and Sprint – You must get your defensive players to get into the mindset of turning and dead sprinting back in transition. The first three steps need to be a full out sprint getting back. From here, they can begin to stop the ball and get matched up. If your player’s first instinct is to watch or jog back, it will be too late, and they will be behind the play.
- Help Defense – Different coaches are going to have different strategies when it comes to help-defense positioning, rotations, etc. You can get into which defensive scheme is better, but what really matters is that every single one of your players knows exactly what is expected of them. You need to teach your players exactly where you want them and how to rotate in every defensive situation that they come across. It is impossible to try and begin to hold your players accountable until you have thoroughly explained what is required.
- Active Hands – After stressing the importance of active hands and making sure that every one of your players knows that it is a non-negotiable, teach them how to mirror the ball, keep a hand up in the passing lane while also staying connected to their man/woman, how to contest a shot correctly, etc.
Communicating on Defense
As you may have already gathered, communication is a must for playing a high-level of defense. So what are some ways to improve communication in practice?
- Make it a non-negotiable for every player regardless of position, playing time, etc.
- Make sure that everyone knows the terminology for different actions like screens, being in the help, etc., and then practice that terminology when defending these different actions in practice. Stop and correct any player that does not use your correct terminology.
- Reward players that communicate at a high level. It is not enough to have a punishment for players not communicating; you also need to reward the players who are communicating the way they are supposed to.
- Crank up some music and create an environment that simulates a loud game. This won’t fully replicate a loud game environment, but it will encourage communication between your players.
Competitive Defensive Basketball Drills
Players need a live-action environment where they can work on and figure out a way to get the job done. It is essential to work on the fundamentals of defense and teach, but you need to turn your players loose and force them to figure it out once that is done. Put them in situations where they have to get multiple stops in a row or guard a bigger or quicker player that they may have to face on a switch.
One on One Defensive Basketball Drills – There is nothing that exposes who can and who cannot play defense like one on one. There is no hiding behind anyone, and it is up to the player to get the job done or get scored on. You can work on different situations as well, whether it is on the closeout, out of triple threat, transition, etc. This goes back to making sure that players are also individually accountable for guarding. This is also an excellent way for offensive players to work on their game as well. You are feeding into that idea of building offensive confidence with your players.
1 on 1 Live Wing Closeout Drill
1 on 1 Hawk Defensive Drill
More One on One Defensive Basketball Drills:
- 1 on 1 Chairs Wing Closeout Drill
- 1 on 1 Dribble Line Drill
- 1 on 1 Plug & Closeout Drill
- 1 on 1 Post Flash Drill
- 1 on 1 Spot Triple Threat Drill
- Lane Line 1 on 1 Defensive Drill
- 1 on 1 Middle Channel Hawk Defensive Drill
- 1 on 1 Zig Zag Triplets Defensive Drill
Two on Two Defensive Basketball Drills – Two on two is very similar to one on one in that there is not really any hiding, but it will also allow for working on stunting and recovering and communication.
2 on 2 Help and Recover Defensive Drill
Shell Basketball Drill – Shell drill is a defensive basketball drill that every team should be doing consistently throughout the season and really the rest of the year as well. Even if you already have a great defense, the shell drill will reinforce the great habits of communicating and working on different actions that you will need to guard. You can put rules on the offensive players so that the defense must work on different defensive situations. Here are a couple of options.
Basic and Cutters Shell Drill
Down Screens and Baseline Drive Shell Drill
Here are some more shell drill options. As seen in the videos, you can do these situations for as long as you would like and then call out “live.” From here, the offensive players are looking to score rather than just play dummy offense. This will allow the defense to get reps but then, ultimately, force them to get a stop against a live offense.
- Offensive players are looking to face cut, and the defense must bump the cutter and force them to cut behind. This is great for learning that there are no face cuts or free cuts through the lane and working on seeing man and ball.
- Offensive players are going to back screen for each other and are not allowed to dribble; defensive players must negotiate the back screens and work on ball pressure.
5 on 5 Half Court Defensive Basketball Drills – Once you have gotten down all of your terminology and defensive schemes, you must practice it in 5 on 5 situations. Go through the different in-game situations that your team will face on the defensive end of the floor and make them guard it. When doing this, make sure to set up different wrinkles for the offense. This will help to keep defensive players honest and keep them from trying to cheat the action. A great way to do this is by breaking your team up into two sides and then allowing an assistant to coach each side. The offense can huddle each possession for a brief time to discuss the play, and the defense must guard it. If you are preparing for an upcoming opponent, have the offense run the other team’s sets.
5 on 5 Transition Defensive Basketball Drills – 3 on 2 and 2 on 1 transition drills are great and should be used, but you also need to spend time doing 5 on 5 transition defense. Your team needs to get reps at getting back and getting matched up, but more than anything, they need to get in the mindset of sprinting back and setting the defense. The second drill is a good basketball rebounding drill for being able to work on closing out defensive possessions and then getting right into transition offense.
- 5 on 5 Baseline Advantage Basketball Drill: 5 offensive players evenly spread out across the baseline and 5 defensive players on the free throw line facing them. The coach will throw the ball to any of the 5 offensive players on the baseline, and the offense will all take off to run the transition offense. When this happens, the defensive player facing the player who received the pass must sprint and touch the baseline before sprinting back in transition. The other 4 defensive players must sprint back, stop the ball, communicate, and hold down the fort until the 5th defender gets back into the play. The drill continues until there is a bucket, stop, or foul.
- 5 on 5 Circle Basketball Drill: There will be 5 players of one team in the paint and 5 of the other team spread out around the paint. The players outside the paint are going to start circling the paint. At the coach’s choosing, they will shoot the basketball (trying to miss), and the players in the paint must find a player to box out and then rebound. If the players in the paint get the rebound, they are going to outlet and transition with the players outside the paint running back on defense. If the players circling the paint get a rebound, you can either have them play live or reward them with double points and reset the drill to go again.
5 on 5 Defensive Special Situations – Whether it is an end of a game situation or a situation where your team is down and needs to get several stops in a row to get back in the game, you must put your team in these different situations. One, so that they can get practice at doing them, but then two, so that when they face them in an actual game where it matters, they have the confidence of already having succeeded at it before in practice.
Charting Your Defense for Accountability
A great way to hold your basketball players accountable is charting. You can do this with managers live in practice or record practice and then go back through the film and chart. Create a scoring system and reward the players that are doing well and continue to teach the players that are not consistently practicing good defensive basketball habits. This is also a great thing to do with games, and it will help you better determine which of your players can get it done when the lights are brightest.
Defensive Consequences and Rewards
A great way to motivate in practice is with consequences. Set up a scoring system for different defensive basketball drills and then set a consequence for the losing team. Whether it is running, burpees, planks, etc. If everyone is competing and working hard, the consequence doesn’t have to be severe, but having a punishment for the losers of a basketball drill will help to keep everyone engaged and giving their best effort.
For a reward, you could do something along the lines of rewarding the “defensive player of the week” or, however, you would like to do it. You need to be creating an environment that encourages your players to do what you are asking of them, and rewards are a great way to do that.
Watch Film to Study Defense
Whether it is film of your basketball team or a team that runs a similar defense that you would like to use, film is a must for players learning a new defense. If a player can see what is required of them and can study different rotations and keys to a specific defense, it will drastically improve their ability to pick it up and master it when on the basketball court.
Also, a player may think that they are doing what they are supposed to do in different help positions, rotations, etc. when in reality, they aren’t where they need to be. Watching film with your team and with specific players, one on one will help to clear up any confusion and allow your players to understand better where they should be and what they should be doing at all times.
Complete Team Basketball Defensive Gameplan Conclusion
As you can see from this defensive basketball coaching article, many things go into building a great team defense in basketball. It is a process that isn’t going to happen overnight. There is a right way to do things, though, and even if it may be challenging initially, it will payout in the long run over and over again.
Eventually, it will go from not only the coaches believing and preaching defense, but everyone in the program. It must be built up the right way, though. So set out a basketball defensive game plan, be consistent with it, and don’t let anyone be bigger than the team and what you are trying to accomplish. Good luck building your complete team defense!
Please feel free to comment below with any questions or feedback that you may have as well!