Defensive Plan


Our basketball program needs to build a reputation for tough, unrelenting defensive play. That reputation must not only impress other teams, but also develop a sense of pride within the program so that the players are willing to encourage teammates to take defensive team skills to increasingly higher levels. Each player must make a complete commitment that he will support the team goal and will sacrifice whatever is necessary to meet that defensive responsibility.

We need to have specific goals on defense. I'm not talking about holding opponents to a certain number of points per game. What I mean is having a certain result the entire team is working to achieve every time the other team has the basketball. With that goal defined, every player should know what we are trying to do and be empowered to adjust his role as needed to help the team achieve that goal. Instead of trying to learn defense by rote (if this happens, do that), the players should endeavor to help their team accomplish a simple goal. That way they can use their instincts freely without sacrificing team play. That way they can stop playing defense in a reactive mode and start making things happen by using their latent anticipation skills. Further, with a defined goal we can structure our defensive strategies, drills and conditioning in one, unified direction.

Another point to keep in mind is the inherent athletic ability of our players. We need a defensive plan that is a good fit and has the best odds of success.


The team needs a defensive goal, something specific and obvious that we try to do every possession, whether playing full court or half court defense.

That goal is this:

We want the ball to go to the weakest area on the floor and stay there.

NOTE: The spots below the block and behind the backboard aren't marked because it's difficult to force the ball there, but when it happens, exploit the significant advantage for the defense)


The weakest areas are obvious and can even be prioritized.

  1. The Corners (great advantage for the defense and easy to force so our efforts will be concentrated there)
  2. The Wing (little advantage, but in the critical path to the corner)
  3. The Sideline (not a big advantage, but one step closer to the corner)
  4. The Center Lane (no advantage, but at least a neutral state)
  5. The Yard (disadvantage and dangerous) 
  6. The House (If the ball is here our defense is severely compromised. Do whatever it take to get the ball back outside)



Remember: We want the ball to go to the weakest area on the floor and stay there.

With our goal defined, we can easily prioritize defensive actions based on where the ball is located. 

  1. The House (All that matters is getting the ball back outside. Double team the ball.
  2. The Yard (everyone in help mode. Protect against interior passes, penetrating drives, stop the dribble, double team so the only escape is outside the yard.)
  3. The Center Lane (when the ball is here the defense resets. Balance out.) 
  4. The Sidelines (Steer the ball to the side)
  5. The Wing (the offense is a threat here, so pressure the ball and deny the posts, but above all, invite the ball to the corner)
  6. The Corners (ideally, get the ballhandler to pick up his dribble and everyone looks to exploit the pass).


Notice that no matter where the ball is, there is almost always a wedge pointing at the ballhandler.

Individual Roles and Responsibilities

The thing to remember is that each player's specific responsibilities are determined by where the ball is and who he is guarding. If you know those two things, you should know what your job is by following a few simple rules. If you don't know where the ball is or who you are guarding, then none of these rules will save you. Just answer these questions: Where's the ball? and Where's my man? and the rest will make sense.

The main idea is to protect the middle of the floor (the middle of the floor means the center lane as described in the first diagram).

Rule #1 When your man has the ball, overplay the middle side of the floor so he will dribble away from the middle toward the side. Also, play him close enough that he must dribble or pass toward the side.

Rule #2 If you are playing a man who is near the dribbler, position yourself so that the ball cannot be passed to your man if he is in the middle. However, if your man is closer to the side than the ball, you would not deny a pass. Instead you would try to be in a position to help the ball defender against a drive as that is a greater threat to the middle than a pass to your man on the side.

Rule #3 If your man is far from the ball, go to the middle of the key to protect the house. While you're there, watch for lob passes and skip passes as it is your job to deflect or intercept them.

Rule #4 Don't let the ball get reversed. Once we gain advantage by the ball moving toward the side and then the corner, Don't give it up by letting the team move the ball back to a neutral position.

Rule #5 If the ball does escape the corner or side, reset in the neutral position so we can start over.



A Quick Example of How it Works

Initial Formation

The first look we want to give the offense is a wedge, a 1-2-2. The offense is not pressured on the wings at all. We want the ball to go to either side.

The ball defender is tight on the ball. We want him to dribble to the side under pressure.  

The defenders (2 and 3) are ready to prevent a penetrating dribble. If the ball defender gets beat, he should run right into help.

Defenders 4 and 5 deny inside passes and wait for the offense to pick a side.

While the players in the diagram are numbered, the defender's job is determined by where the ball is located. You don't need to memorize a position. If your man has the ball, you play him tight. If he stops his dribble or passes the ball, you've done your job. The next two closest players to the ball are responsible for preventing dribble penetration, AND, if the ball has moved to a weaker area on the floor they are responsible for denying a return pass. The two players furthest from the ball are in help position. They deny inside passes and look for chance to steal long, cross court passes.



Guide to a Side

Remember, we want the ball in the weakest area on the floor and to stay there.

As the ball heads to the side, we must:

  1. Y1 keeps pressure on the ball
  2. Y3 invites the pass to the corner
  3. Y2 helps against a penetrating dribble and denies a reversal pass.
  4. Y5 denies pass to post
  5. Y4 is in complete help position



Ball Goes to the Wing

When the ball is at the wing:

  1. Y1 denies a return pass
  2. Y3 pressures ball
  3. Y2 invites pass to corner.
  4. Y5 denies pass to post
  5. Y4 is in complete help position


Ball Goes to the Corner

  1. Y1 denies a return pass
  2. Y3 denies a return pass
  3. Y2 pressures the ball
  4. Y5 denies pass to post
  5. Y4 is in complete help position

Once the ball is in the corner, we do not want it reversed. This is essential. We must put pressure on the ball handler and ideally cause him to pick up his dribble. Passing lanes to the posts are fronted and passes to the strong side wing and PG denied.

The options we want the ball handler to take are to either attempt a skip pass to the weak side wing or a lob pass over the wing (who is being denied). We will attempt to intercept skip passes with our help defender. Lob passes to the wing, if not intercepted or deflected, will end up at the intersection of the half court and the sidelines - the third weakest area on the floor. Because we must deny inbound and reversal passes so intensively AND intercept skip passes, we do not want to trap in the corner. Instead, we need the second trapper to play in a help position and be an interceptor.

If the defensive pressure breaks down and the ball is reversed, the defense resets, but has the same goal in mind - let's get the ball back in the corner and try again.

Do not give up ground we've gained. DO NOT LET THEM REVERSE THE BALL!

So, in summary, when the opponent brings the ball upcourt, our defense will be very strong in the center lane, or "tunnel", (imagine the lane lines running full court. That middle lane is the tunnel). Instead of denying the pass to the wing as we have taught in the past, we will encourage it by making every other option difficult. Why? because it brings the ball closer to our goal which is to have it in the corner. Once the ball is in the corner, we will do whatever it takes to keep it there and to steal any desperate passes from that spot.

If we play the defense well, our help defender should be able to intercept lob and skip passes and initiate a fast break opportunity.

Strategic Defensive Plays

The strategic part of the Defensive Plan can be broken into five phases. The ball will go into these designated areas dozens of times every game, so we will treat them like a set play. Depending on where the ball is, we will have a clear mission. Those five phases of the defensive plan are: 

  1. Neutral - vital part of defense where we must reset and get balanced
  2. Sideline - distinctly overplay middle and deny reverse passes
  3. Wing - only clear escape route is from Wing to the Corner
  4. Exploit - take big risks to get the ball
  5. What can go wrong?

Each of these conditions must be rehearsed so the players will know what to do based on where the ball is at any given time. For example, when the ball is in the corner, we must be the experts at that situation so we can fully anticipate what the opponent might do and take advantage of his predictability.

If the ball gets inside we will collapse and double team the ball. Once it is passed outside, we reset the defense based on where the ball was thrown.



Phase 1 Neutral State

The neutral defense is a critical phase in that it allows our players a chance to get reset. To get into our 122 initial formation in time, we will need to emphasize getting back on defense as fast as possible.

We can play this as a zone, but its intended to be m2m. The idea is get into these positions ASAP, then match up. If your man typically plays low, then set up in one of the lower spots. If you end up guarding a different player now and then, it shouldn't matter too much.

IMPORTANT! We must reset in the neutral state every time the other team gets the ball, AND every time the ball returns to the middle of the floor. For instance, if a wing picks up his dribble and gets trapped, but manages to escape by passing the point, we must reset our defense and start over.


Initial Formation vs Overload

The offense won't always set up in a 3 out 2 in set. For instance, if B2 goes to the corner, and we are playing m2m, his defender will go with him, but play back because we want to invite the ball to the corner anyway. Remember, the main idea is to allow passes (or dribbles) to the corner or the side and protect against passes inside and penetrative dribbles.

Since we can't predict how an offense will set up to start their offense, we must be prepared to alter our 122 to fit the position of the offensive players. The changes are minimal. We will always pressure the ball handler and the next closest defenders are always responsible for protecting against a penetrating dribble. Those rules stay the same. But, the back two defenders may need to move from the initial formation. If we can keep a 122 wedge pointing at the ball all the time, that's great, but here are a couple more common deviations we are sure to encounter. 



Initial Formation vs High Post

Because B4 has moved from low post to high post, Y4 needs to cover him. We cannot allow passes to B4. That puts the ball right in our house. If the ball gets to B4, we need to collapse and force it back out.

Notice that the wings are open. We want the ball to there. Y2 and Y3 are protecting the drive. Y4 is denying the ball to the high post. Y5 is protecting against a lob pass to either Y4 or Y5

Initial Formation vs Four Across

A flat offensive alignment such as a high 1-4 or a low 1-4 will force our wedge to flatten out as well. The danger with our Y2 and Y3 defender pinching the middle is that Y4 and Y5 are already there. Its very crowded. B2 and B3 would have excellent opportunities to cut behind the defense. So, Y2 and Y3 will need to sag off their men in the initial set and protect basket cuts.

Once the ball is passed to the wing, Y2 for instance, Y2 would play the ball, Y1, Y4 and Y5 would deny and Y3, furthest from the ball, would drop into the key in full help.


Phase 2 Sideline

Once the ballhandler puts the ball on the floor, we want to encourage him to dribble to the sideline. This will require overplaying the middle of the floor.

The biggest threat at this point is a penetrating dribble or a pass inside the yard. The biggest benefit will be a continued dribble to the side or a pass to B3.

If B1 tries to dribble to the middle, Y3 will help close the door and leave B3 open for a pass.

Y2 is helping against a penetrating dribble and a reversal pass to B2.



This diagram emphasizes the priorities when the ball heads to the sideline. We want Y1 to overplay the middle side of the floor for two reasons. One, to prevent a dribble back to the middle and two, allow Y2 to better deny the pass to B2 and not worry so much about stopping a dribble by B1. Y3, on the other hand will be very important in helping to contain a drive by B1. That's OK, because we want the ball passed toward the corner.


If the ballhandler drives to the sideline and picks up his dribble, we need to transition into exploit mode. This means the Y1 is chest to chest, arms high, making a pass as difficult as possible. The rest of the team is in pass denial and hoping to pick off a pass.

Note that Y3 is no longer looking to invite a pass to B3. Instead we want to steal that pass.


Phase 3 Wing

Let's say the ball was passed from B1 to B3 and B3 picks up his dribble. Again, we will exploit this opportunity. Y3 will try and force a weak pass and the rest of the team will close off passing lanes and look to steal the ball.

Do not try for a held ball. We only get a 50% on those and we run the risk of a foul costing us our advantage. The best result is a 5 second call or a weak pass.


Most offenses like to start with the ball at the wing so they will be comfortable with the ball in this position. Therefore it is very important for the ball defender to apply pressure (without getting beaten) and we must deny passes inside and reverse passes. 

Remember, we want the ball in the corner, so allow this pass (or dribble) to happen.


By playing so aggressively on the ball, we are sure to get beaten from time to time by the dribbler. When this happens, it must be clear that the only area we can afford to give up is the corner.

As B3 drives past Y3, Y3 yells for help. Y2 should see this developing as well and moves up to contain B3. Y3 calls switch and moves behind B3. If Y3 has an opportunity to knock the ball away from B3 do it. Otherwise, cover B2, but not too closely as we would much rather have the ball in the corner.

Note that Y5 denies a pass to the post and Y4 is in full help looking for a lob pass inside or a long cross court pass to B4.

Also, because B3 has broken into the yard, Y1 has backed down into help as the present position of the ball is more dangerous than a reversal pass. However, Y1 should still look for the opportunity to get that pass to B1 if he can. If the ball is successfully kicked out to B1 we will need to reset to Neutral State.



Phase 4 Exploit

1. Ball is in Corner -

This is the result we have been working for, so let's make the most of it. We have pressure on the ball and no clear passing lanes. We have our wedge defensive shape, so we are well protected against a drive. Our hope now is for the offense to try and escape by throwing a cross court pass to B4 which we will intercept and dunk. Lob passes to B5 or B3 should be very difficult to execute.

2. Ballhandler picks up his dribble -

Anytime a ballhandler stops dribbling, his defender should close in chest to chest and make passing as difficult as possible. When that happens, the other four defenders should be in denial mode, hoping to pick off a pass.

3. Ballhandler is trapped -

Anytime a ballhandler is trapped, the other four defenders should determine the possible escape routes and attempt to intercept passes from the trap. The most common escape passes are through the windows between the trappers, and sometimes over the trappers.


What Can Go Wrong?

The thing about basketball is that the offense always has the advantage. The defense must react to what the offense does. We are trying to position ourselves so that the offensive makes choices that are predictable. Once the offense is predictable, its advantage is considerably weakened.

Not only does the offense have an inherent advantage, good defense is physically demanding and difficult to sustain. Only a team that is united in communicating and helping each other has a hope of stopping a good offense. Even when everyone is working, sometimes a mistake will be made or perhaps the offense simply makes a great effort. The result is that the ball enters our yard, or even our house, and we must do whatever we can to protect our property.

Here are examples of situations where we will need to take emergency measures and get the ball back to a neutral place so we can recover and reset our defense.


The Missed Steal

Stealing a pass and making a great dunk is fun and a perfect end to our defensive strategy, but attempting the interception is inherently risky. Taking risks is very good ... as long as we have a backup plan.

Lets say Y4 tries to get the pass (red line) and fails. B4 is now in position to shoot a long shot and we probably can't stop that. But, we can fill the key with bodies and prevent a short shot.. Remember, if we make the offense shoot long instead of short, we'll come out ahead in the long run.

Y1, Y3 and Y5 fill the key immediately. Y1 and Y5 will have the best chance to stop dribble penetration. 


Y2 is the furthest from the ball so he will move into the help position.

Y5 is protecting against a baseline drive and Y1 is closing in on the ball.

When we miss an attempt to intercept a pass, we leave our defense outnumbered and compromised. But, if the offense decides not to shoot right away, we must recognize that the ball is in our yard and we must force it out. Anywhere (except in the key!) is better than in the yard.
Once the ball escapes the yard, we just need to reset in our neutral configuration and resume our efforts to get the ball to the corner.

Again, we want the players to trust their instincts and take risks. Its just very important that they use good judgment and that the entire shares in the risk by helping with the recovery.


Baseline Penetrating Dribble

The most dangerous thing the offense can do from the corner is dribble out of this situation. We want them to shoot or pass from the corner.

If the ballhandler attacks baseline, we must stop him as soon as possible and make him pick up the dribble. Because the ball is now in the yard, we are not in Exploit mode anymore. We must protect. So see how Y1 and Y3 have dropped down to help. Y3 can help further dribble progress by closing the gap between Y2 and Y3. Y4 has dropped lower to see the ball better.


If B2 manages to penetrate deeper Y5 will need to help. We must not allow them ball to go through to the other side. 

Y2 has been beaten and must call for help and switch with Y3. Y3 slides to stop further penetration.

Y4 must cover for Y5.

Y1 drops to full help.

The ball is in the yard, so a long pass out to B1 is preferred.


Now, if B2 picks up his dribble, everything changes. We can go back to Exploit mode. 

Y1 can race out to cover a long pass to the top. Y4 is in full help looking for a lob pass inside or a cross court pass to B4.

Y3 fronts B5. Y2 denies the pass to B3. 

If B3 cuts to the corner, Y2 would not deny that pass, but apply pressure once its received. Y3 would deny a return pass to B2.

If the ball gets back in the corner, we simply go into Exploit mode like in diagram 9a except Y2 and Y3 have switched men.



Emergency - Intruder Alert

We must rehearse conditions where the ball has gotten inside the house. In this case, B5 has received the ball from B2 and now we must transition from Exploit mode to Emergency mode. At this point, anything is better than having the ball on the block in B5's hands. The mission is to get the ball outside.

The biggest danger (besides B5) is player B4 who will likely cut to the basket. We have no choice but for everyone to collapse into the yard to help.



Defender Y5 must hold his ground and keep his hands high. Remember, the primary objective is to get the ball back outside, not block shots or force a held ball.

Once B5 catches the ball, everyone must retreat to help position.

Defenders Y2 and Y4 must be ready for B5 to turn. Once B5 turns to face the basket, we will trap with the defender he turns towards.

There are three great things that can happen from this situation. One, the best we can hope for is a 5 second call. The next best things are a weak pass that we can steal OR a deflected pass that we can recover. Worst case, we'll settle for a pass outside the perimeter and feel like we came out ahead in that battle.



Let's say B5 turns into Y4. remember, the next most dangerous player is B4, but Y4 and Y5's double team should be able to make that pass very difficult.

Note that Y1 has continued deeper into help position and will intercept a pass to B4. Y3 has moved up to take advantage of a pass to B1. The only safe pass is to B2 in the corner where we want the ball anyway. If the ball goes there, we can simply reset in Exploit mode.


Expanding the Defense to Full Court Pressure

We can apply the M2M defense to a full court level with the same principles as our half court M2M defense.



Full Court M2M

Y1 is pressuring the ball.

Y2 and Y3 are denying the middle entry pass, but allowing the pass to the corners. If B2 and B3 were positioned at the elbows, we would still bias our defensive to protect the middle and allow the corner pass.

Y4 and Y5 must roam according to where B4 and B5 decide to play. 

Y4 has double duty. He must deny a middle pass to Y4 AND anticipate a lob pass to either B2 or B3. recognize that the only lob pass that should work will be one that is thrown to the sideline, so Y2 and Y3 should be able to scramble back and pressure their man to stay on the sides.

Y5 must prevent a full court pass to B5. NOTE: It will pay off to have Y5 gamble heavily until the opponent proves they can make a full court pass and layup. If they tend to make turnovers in that mode, help them continue to do so.


In this example, the ball has been inbounded and it is on the side. That means we still have an advantage and will stay in the exploit mode.

Y1 prevent the return pass.

Y2 must deny a pass to the middle. If his man gets the ball there, the press is finished and we must hurry back to our half court Neutral State.

Y3 keeps his man on the side. The best result is if he can get his man to stop and pick up his dribble at the sideline. When that happens, everyone else is in Exploit mode looking to steal a pass.

Y4 and Y5 are looking for lob passes. They are also safety in case B3 breaks free.

Anytime a dribble breaks free of his pressure, the next closest defender must pick him up with the intent of containing the dribbler until his teammates can back to Neutral State.


Invariably, there will be times when Y3 will get beat on the sideline. This happens because our priority is to protect the middle. A quick ballhandler will slip by. If he gets to the middle of the floor, the full court pressure is off and we reset in the half court mode. However, if the dribble stays sideline, we can maintain our defense plan.

As soon as the ballhandler gets past the defender Y3, Y4 should be ballside and seeing the action develop. He call out for a switch and picks up B3 with the intentions of 1. Keeping him on the side, and 2. stopping the dribble if possible.

Y3 switches and must find and defend B4 and deny a pass to him.

Y1 continues to deny a reversal pass and Y2 stays with B2 to take away that passing lane.

Defensive Trapping Options

The Neutral State of our defense is ideal for initiating traps anywhere on either side of the floor. We can trap full court or half court from the same configuration. The main thing that changes in our philosophy is that we are not waiting to get the ball into the corner before we go into Exploit mode. When we are trapping, we will exploit any time we can establish a trap.

NOTE: Only trap on the sidelines, not the middle of the floor! If the ball gets in the middle of the floor, we must return to the Neutral State, invite the ball to a side, then trap.



Half Court Trapping Defense

We must hustle back to our Neutral State configuration. Leave the side open for a pass. The main concern at this point is a penetrating dribble. Y2 and Y3 are close on the lane lines to help if Y1 gets beat.

Once the ball is passed to the side, there will be two possible trigger points for setting the traps. The triggers are up the the head coach's discretion. They are either to launch the traps once the pass is received, OR when the receiver puts the ball on the floor. In the latter case, the Neutral State is maintained until the receiver dribbles the ball.

Y3 and Y4 are in pass denial positions. They must move as needed to deny passes from the trap. 

Y5 is in full help. 

If the ball is passed to the corner, we will trap there, too, as it is on the side of the court. Since the corner is a full Exploit area, we deny all passes. 

Since we will always be a man short denying passes while trapping, the player we won't guard is the one furthest from the ball (B1). 

Note the rotation by Y2. He leaves the first trap to help set the second.

If the ball goes back to B2 we trap again as in diagram 10b, and if the ball goes to B1 we reset as in diagram 10a.

The trap rotation works the same on the other side of the floor. Y1 and Y3 would trap B3 on the other sideline.



Full Court Trapping Defense

Our initial alignment is the same as half court. We just extend the defensive plan as far as the far free throw line. 

We still protect the middle, the difference being that we will trap anytime we can on the sidelines. 

Because we are trapping, it will be impossible to deny the reversal pass. So, we will have to transition from trap to neutral to trap when the ball is reversed.

In this diagram, we are inviting the corner pass. Once the pass is received we have two triggers to start the trap, either the reception of the pass or the dribble. Which trigger to use will be decided by the coach.

Y4 and Y5 must roam with B4 and B5. Y4 has the added responsibility of intercepting or deflecting lob passes to B2 or B3.

If the ball goes to B3 and he is trapped by Y1 and Y3, then Y2 must vigorously defend against a middle pass to B2. If that pass is made, we retreat to our half court defense.



Once the ball is inbounded, we have a choice when to set the trap, either when the ball is caught or when the ball is caught and then dribbled. As soon as the preferred trigger occurs, the top defender, Y1, and the ball side trapper rush the ballhandler. Protect the middle of the floor. The ballhandler should have no choice but to dribble toward the sideline or try to reverse the ball.

Another key point is that Y2, Y4 and Y5 must cover the passing lanes. Note the gap between Y1 and Y3. Do not let the ballhandler escape there by dribble or pass.

Y4 and Y5 can hedge somewhat. Ideally, they would like to pick off a desperate pass to either B4 or B5. But, they must not allow a completed pass or the press is broken.


A good dribbler will be able to slip by the traps once in a while. That's OK if we are prepared. The main point is to not let the ball get in the middle of the floor. As long as it is on the sideline we can continue to trap.

If the dribble breaks the first trap, Y4 must immediately call for a switch and stop the progress of the ball. As soon as the switch is called, Y3 must forget the ballhandler and take Y4's man, protecting the middle of the floor on the way. Y1 will be the second trapper. If Y4 does a good job stopping the ball, Y1 will be coming from behind and may even have the advantage of the ballhandler turning toward him unawares.

Y2 and Y5 must each protect the passing lane to their man.

The one pass that B3 has is back to B1. If that happens, we can reset the press. The offense must break it again, only now they have less time to do so.


Once the ball is reversed, we return to our neutral state. We have pressure on the ball and we are protecting the middle of the floor. We allow a pass to the side.


The ball has been passed to B2. Y1 and Y2 immediately jump to the trap upon the proper trigger point (pass reception or dribble).

Y3, Y4 and Y5 are in pass denial mode waiting to exploit the trap.

The same rules apply concerning switching and protecting the middle of the floor. We can set as many traps as we can as long as the ball stays on the side of the court. Once the ball is safely passed to mid-court, we reset to neutral mode again, eventually working our way back in to our half court defense.