The era when a team expected to win with offence alone has passed. The only way to win consistently is to play alert, restricting defence. Defence is the great equaliser, the instrument that enables the underdog to rise to the heights against athletically superior opponents. It is the chief characteristic of the champion and the trademark of the underdog. Defence wins championships.
If a player is sound defensively he can contribute to the team effort by containing his man. He must work conscientiously all the time and put a maximum effort into the defensive drills, which must be practiced regularly.
More coaches these days spend more time working on defence than ever before and a greater variety of defences are used to combat improving offensive skills and team tactics. Teams may vary tactics from passive and conservative to aggressive and pressing. Young junior teams often choose to retreat close to the basket with only modest pressure on the ball-handler, relying on opponents not to shoot a high percentage. Others may choose to extend their defence well over the centreline to force errors or to disrupt the opposition’s offence.
Before any team can use complex tactics to upset their opponents they must remember that a good team defence will depend on two qualities: the mental and the physical. Players must have a firm desire to play defence, they must concentrate totally and believe that saving a basket is just as rewarding as scoring a basket. Each player must be convinced of his ability to contain his man, to pressure him into making mistakes and to harass him to the point of desperation throughout the entire game. Many games are won when a sound defence forces opponents into errors that lead to steals and morale-boosting easy baskets.
There are two basic defensive tactics: man-to-man and zone. In man-to-man defence each player sticks to his man, aiming to prevent him receiving a pass or harassing him continually if he has the ball. It may be desirable in certain man-to-man situations to switch opponents, particularly when the offence sets a screen. This requires good stance and positioning as well as good communication between the players.
With a zone defence each player is responsible for defending a particular area of the court. A zone defence usually allows the taller players to defend the area close to the basket and quicker players to defend around the perimeter.
My advice to coaches of young teams is to stick with man-to-man defence until their players are thoroughly familiar with the execution of the defensive fundamentals. Many young teams get away with using zone defences because their opposition lacks skill and the ability to create easy scoring opportunities. But when they progress to tougher competition they often find their lack of defensive fundamentals will prevent them from improving.
One-on-one defensive drills should be run from all positions on the court: the forward spots on the wings, the point at the top of the keyway, the low and high posts and full court. Defensive drills are very physically demanding, but there are big rewards for those who work at them.