How To Play Basketball: Man to Man Defense

Basketball defense is incredibly important because it gives you more control and helps you win more games.

As a coach there are a lot of things that you can't control in the basketball world, but defense is something that you can keep consistent day in and day out. For example, sometimes you can't control how well your players shoot the basketball. Sometimes they're going to have bad shooting nights, and sometimes they're going to have good shooting nights. But defense is something you can control.

When you happen to have a bad shooting night, your defense is there to keep you in the game and give you a chance to win it at the end. That's the reason that all the great teams play tough defense.

This why is almost every successful NBA and college coach constantly harps on defense!

So how do you play great defense and keep your opponents' shooting percentage low?

In this article we're going to give you a 12 part formula to a great man-to-man defense. Some coaches will use zone defense, but this article applies to man-to-man...

Before getting into the details of the formula, we must first agree on a goal. With most challenges in life, it's important to always "begin with the end in mind". And it's no different for this.

Once we're all on the same page, it will be easier to teach you how to develop a great basketball defense.

So what is the goal of your defense?

It's simple: Do NOT let the other team score!

This is the mentality. ALWAYS keep this goal in mind as you're teaching defense!

How do you stop the offense from scoring?

You must do one of these two things:

  • Force them to take a very difficult shot that is highly unlikely to go in.
  • Do not allow the offense to shoot by stealing the ball or causing them to turn it over. (NOTE: We don't recommend that you emphasize stealing the ball because there is a high risk to give up more points, especially against good teams.)

Now how do you accomplish YOUR GOAL as often as possible?

This is where our formula to success comes into play.

Here's an overview of the formula. I believe you must do ALL these things in order to develop a great man to man defense:

  1. Emphasize defense. If you want to have a great defense that keeps your opponents' shooting percentage low, you MUST emphasize defense. There is not one way around it! You can't go into this half-hearted. You MUST be fully committed to defense the entire year. By simply emphasizing defense everyday in your words and actions, you will GREATLY improve your defense. It's such a simple, yet powerful concept that you need to be consciously aware of. Your players will pick up on what's important to you. And you can't fake it!
  2. Develop intensity and determination. 90% of defense execution comes down to Positioning, Balance, and Intensity. Intensity is a key ingredient to a great defense. In fact, it's critically important. You must have great desire to stop your opponent without relaxing for a second. It only takes one second for your opponent to see a weakness and expose it. This is why great offensive teams will reverse the ball and show patience on offense. They know that eventually most defenses will break down, lose concentration, and get out of position. Even with marginal technique, intensity and determination can make for a great defensive player!
  3. Track your statistics and performance. It's very important to keep the correct defensive statistics and constantly evaluate them. The same thing applies to any successful business. Any successful business has to keep track of key performance indicators. They monitor those things so they know if they're doing a good job or not. The same things apply to your basketball team. How do you expect to improve your defense if you don't constantly measure their performance? The right statistics will tell you if your defense is improving and they will also tell you which areas you really need to work on. The right statistics also let you set smaller goals for your players and motivate them.
  4. Contain the ball and always apply ball pressure. Intense ball pressure means that you always have a defender close to the ball and they are harassing the offense. The defender should be up close to the ball (within arms reach) in an athletic stance and ready to move. They should never let the offense relax. This is a critical aspect of your defense because it does several things for you.  
    • It takes your opponent out of their comfort zone.
    • The person with the ball is the ONLY person that can score! So you better make things difficult for them and make it a priority to always stop the ball.
    • It makes it difficult for your opponent to make good passes. If you sag off the ball, it's really easy for the offense to make that perfect pass into the post. However, if you apply intense ball pressure, it's much more difficult to make a good pass that exposes your defense.
    • Ball pressure will cause more turnovers and give you more possessions. Don't overlook the importance of ball pressure!
  5. Deny penetrating passes. In order for you to keep you opponents' shooting percentage low, you must force them to take TOUGH shots. So what shots are easier? Close shots or shots far from the basket? We all know that shots taken far from the basket, preferably off balance, are the type of shots we would much prefer to give up. That's why as a rule, you should always deny penetrating passes. Our definition of a penetrating pass is any pass entered inside of the 3-point arc. Even passes into the post would be considered penetration. When the ball is in the lane, your defense is exposed. They have lots of options and a good chance to take an easy shot inside.
  6. Maintain good help positioning. Positioning is one of the most important and also the most difficult concepts to teach. Good positioning solves LOTS of problems for you. Good positioning makes your team appear quicker because they have less ground to cover. For example, if your players are perfectly positioned, they can quickly close out to the person they are guarding or they can step in to help. The great thing about positioning is that even slow players can get good at it. Positioning is more of a mentality and a habit than a physical ability. Even a non-athletic player can learn great positioning.
  7. Provide early help & quick recovery. Most coaches teach help side defense but they neglect to teach the "early" help and "quick" recovery. This is important because the only player that can score is the person with the ball. So you must always swarm to stop the ball. This subtle teaching point can have a tremendous effect on your defense! Early help keeps the ball from getting close to the basket. And quick recovery allows you to take away the easy shot when the pass is kicked out. This is a very subtle point that you need to teach, drill, and practice.
  8. Develop communication. If you want to have a great defense that keeps you opponents shooting percentage low, you MUST emphasize communication. Communication is one of the most important things in basketball. You could have some of the best fundamental basketball players in the world. But without communication, they could get eaten alive. Although you should emphasize communication, you should never have meaningless communication. Every type of communication should have a purpose.
  9. Improve anticipation and quickness. You can literally double the quickness of your team just by incorporating a few simple techniques. This quickness allows you to take away easy shots and scramble to close out, even when you get beat to the hole. Quickness simply makes a defense difficult to score against. There are four key methods to improve quickness.
    • Teach your players to move on the pass, NOT the catch. This tactic alone can double to quickness of your team and make it seem like you have a super quick swarming defense.
    • Drill your players into the habit of always keeping their knees bent in an athletic stance, even when they are two passes away on help side defense!
    • Practice anticipation and mental quickness.
    • Incorporate quickness drills that will improve physical quickness.
  10. Secure the ball. You just busted your butt to get a stop, so you better block and secure that ball! Nothing is more depressing and de-motivating to a defense than working your tail off for 35 seconds and then your opponent getting the ball back on an offensive rebound. Not to mention, offensive rebounds are often tip-ins that result in easy high percentage shots. Basketball is a game of possessions and shooting percentages. You always want to have more possessions so you can get more shots than your opponent. In order to get more possession, you must block out. This means that ALL 5 defensive players MUST block out on every shot and every possession.
  11. Get back in transition. In order to get stops, your defense must get back quickly and get set. You can't overlook the importance of hustling back on defense. You can have the greatest half court defense in the world, but it won't do you any good if your defense never hustles back to get set. Your help defense will not be there, rotations will be broken down, and all the great defensive fundamentals you've worked on can be thrown out the window, because the offense always has the advantage. You just can't play good defense if this happens. Hustling back on defense is something that you'll need to constantly drill and emphasize in practice.
  12. Strive to improve. As soon as you get complacent, your defense will get stagnant and someone will pass you by. The best teams and players in the world are great because they never settle or get complacent. They keep working to improve everyday. They think out of the box. They come up with new ways to get better. They study. They practice. They perfect. Steven Covey's book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, claims that the most successful people in the world will "sharpen the stone" on a daily basis. This means they continue to learn and improve themselves. They never settle. This is also very true for your basketball team and your defense. You must continue to improve by studying game and practice tapes, watch your statistics and performance indicators, find new defensive basketball drills, and continue to learn.

Every step of this formula revolves around keeping the ball as FAR from the basket as possible. All players must be positioned properly and work together to keep the ball far away and force VERY difficult shots.

You must dictate the offense. You decide what you're willing to give up and allow. Don't let the offense dictate you.

This 12 part formula might appear simple and it is -- but don't overlook the power of the simplicity!

It includes both the key tactics to great defense and key philosophies that will keep everything in balance and ensure that your team reaches their potential!!

Jeff Haefner operates Breakthrough Basketball, a vast resource for coaching information and products. 

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Great stuff, Jeff! Maybe you could teach Billy Gillispie a thing or two.

By Alan Hammond