Running A Motion Offense vs A Zone Defense

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One of the great advantages of a motion offense is its adaptability to be able to play against any type of defense. It is a great advantage not to require your team to learn multiple offenses to be able to play against multiple defenses. The time commitment to practice several different offenses in practice is enormous. Just think of the time you take where you can't practice skill, defense or whatever your weaknesses may be.

By using the motion offense, all you need is a few adjustments the same offense you have taught everyday in practice is ready to go. Your team does not have to re-learn anything or have other offenses confuse him. Just play.

Adjustments Against a Zone

The first adjustment you make against a zone is to adjust the spots you use for spacing to match with the weaknesses against the zone. Depending on what zone you are playing against, you might want use a 1 man or 2 man front. You might want to use a spot in the short corner or in the mid-post. Below are some sample spots against the zone.

These are the spots I use when I run a motion offense against a zone.


Top – can find shots but is especially important for ball reversal

Wing – can find shots and used on the Weakside to stretch the defense

Corner – primarily for shots but also provides opportunities to pull defense off the mid-post and to
stretch defenses on the weakside.

High Post – can look for shots but can be use for ball reversal in place of a top position.

– Sets above the 2nd lane marker and spaces off the short corner

Short Corner – on baseline, behind the backboard about 5 feet off the foul lane.

 Motion against the Zone

Here are some sample alignments against a zone

2 wings
Short Corner
 Motion against the Zone
 High Post
2 Wings
2 Corners
 High Post
2 Wings
Short Corner
Motion against the Zone 
High Post
2 Wings
2 Short Corners

Again, these are just suggestions, based upon my experience. Your experience might lead you to some other spots. Coaches are always looking for some hard and fast rules, such as "where should I put my players against a 1-2-2 zone?" Well, you have the wrong offense and the wrong person if that is what you want to know. You know your players, makes decisions according to what you feel is best for your personnel. Put players where you are comfortable against the zone.

I believe there are some offensive options that should always be present against a zone, regardless of what type of zone you play against. They are "ball reversal," "strong side shot option," "weak side shot option" and "short corner." Notice that I don't believe in a low post option, and use the mid-post instead. Since I strongly believe in the effectiveness of a short corner and the problems it causes with zone coverage, I feel the having a low post creates spacing issues. By moving the postman up the lane to the mid-post you can not only create better spacing but more match-up problems as well.

Once you establish your spots, how the players get to those spots is almost irrelevant. They can cut through the middle, run along the baseline and no 2 cuts will be the same. Think about how difficult that would be for a zone to play.

The second adjustment would be on your screens, if you decide to use them against a zone. Screens differ against a man defense and a zone defense in this manner. When screened, a zone reacts the same way a man defense does when they switch. Rarely does a zone defense fight through a screen. That is not the way a zone works. As a cutter comes off the screen, he moves into a different zone. The defender that is responsible for that zone will now play the cutter and no advantage is gained.

Against a zone, Players shoot from behind screens instead of coming off them. Shooting from behind a screen really causes a problem for zones. It overloads one position and forces other positions to make adjustment really weaken a zone. In addition, if you do have players that come off screens, look for the screener to be open. Because of the way that zones react against screens, by properly setting a screen, the screener will be between the ball and the defense when the cutter clears the screen. That is a great advantage for the offense.

Below are some illustrations of how a zone reacts to screens.

Screen against a man defense

Ball is on the wing with O2.
1 screens away for 3
3 cuts to the ball

A man defense will either fight over the screen or go
under. The defense is responsible for defending the same
man as before the screen and cut.

O2 will then pass to O3 as he frees up after cutting off
the screen

Zone defensive action against screen.

 D1 defends the top
D2 defends the ball
D3 defends the weak side wing
 Motion against Zones

Ball is on the wing with O2
O1 screens for O3
O3 cuts off the screen to the top.

Defense, since it is a zone, is responsible for playing
whomever it is that fills his zone.

The result is the O2 is being played by D1 on top and
O1 is being played by D3 on the weak side wing.

 Motion against Zones

 Offensive screen action against a zone

 D1 defends the top
D2 defends the ball
D3 defends the weak side wing

O1 screens for O3
O3 cuts BEHIND screen by O1

Result is D3 can not get over the screen and O3 cuts

D1, with no one cutting into his zone, has no one to play
and can offer no help.


Lastly, use the post to reverse the ball. If getting the ball into the post hurts a man defense, it really destroys zone. When the ball gets into the lane, everyone must pay attention. The wings collapse, the players on top come down to the ball. Once the ball gets into the middle, it is very hard for the zone to recover. Use the post, whether it is high-post, mid-post or low-post, to reverse the ball.

Above all, even against a zone defense, the motion offense is a free form offense, no pre-program cuts. Let your players cut, look for dead spots in the zone and use the constant motion created to break down and beat the zone.


Don Kelbick

Coach Don Kelbick has had 27 years of coaching experience, 25 at the college level including 14 years as a head coach and 10 years as a Division I assistant including stops at Hofstra University, Marist College, Keene State College, and Florida International University. In 2 years as a high school coach, his teams produced 6 Division I players and was ranked #1 in Florida 28 out of a possible 34 weeks. In addition to coaching he has scouted for NBA teams, including the Knicks and the Hawks, and served as a general manager in the USBL.