In Dave Hickey’s seminal basketball essay, “The Heresy of Zone Defense,” he celebrates and argues that the game of basketball has been fair, civil, and liberated, from its very inception. Hickey celebrates basketball’s continuous evolution toward freedom, though he has nothing but contempt for college basketball and (naturally) zone defense. By the time Hickey wrote and published his essay in 1995, zone defense had been outlawed in the NBA in favor of the now defunct illegal defense rules. Obviously, the illegal defense rules morphed into its own form of limiting monotony, and though it does not appear that Hickey expected such an evolution, there’s no doubt that he’d support its elimination once it ceased to inspire innovation. In 2020, zone defense is back with a vengeance, but the reality of zone defense today is different from the one Hickey saw as dangerous, uninteresting governance.
NBA teams have been steadily increasing how much zone they play over the last few seasons, but the Toronto Raptors and Nick Nurse are the current poster-children for the modern NBA zone. Nurse employs it often and uses all of its many forms; the box-and-1, the triangle-and-2, the 3-2, and the occasional 2-3. In some cases, the Raptors zone looks and feels like man, at other times the zone is abandoned for man defense in the middle of a possession. You can watch Coach Nick breakdown the Raptors’ zone in the first half of this video. The Raptors roster is full of long, athletic, intelligent defenders—the perfect ingredients for Nick Nurse’s mad scientist approach to coaching. Nurse will try anything once, and if it works, even in the slightest, he’ll do it again. Nurse’s winding journey to the NBA has made him well-prepared and a bit irreverent, something of an anti-traditionalist. Nurse spent the majority of his basketball career coaching at lower levels in pretty significant obscurity. He’s got a long history of unseen trial, error, and creativity. We may not have seen the lumps he’s taken—since he won a title in his first year, and has his team in second place in the East in his second season—but he’s certainly taken them and they’ve made him the perfect quarterback for both iterations of these exciting, versatile, oddball Raptors teams.
At the heart of Hickey’s essay is the idea of liberation versus governance. Hickey argues that it’s a league’s responsibility (and society’s responsibility) to swiftly enact change whenever a law begins to “govern rather than liberate.” Basketball’s evolution has been mirrored or spearheaded by the NBA depending on the time period you’re examining, but a strict allegiance to liberation has been the defining quality of NBA rules changes. It feels apt then that two of the most unencumbered figures in the sport teamed up to win the 2019 NBA championship, stopping one of the most dynastic runs in the sports history.
I’m of course talking about Kawhi Leonard and Nick Nurse, but you could say similar things about players like Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Pascal Siakam. Each of them, for various reasons, was unbound to a greater degree last season than they ever had been in their careers before. Almost every player on the team had the appropriate amount of cover—as underdogs (undrafted or late to the game of basketball), as teammates with better players, and quite honestly as adopted Canadians to achieve and then reinvent the best version of themselves. Kawhi Leonard spurned the man believed to be one of, if not the best coach in NBA history, in Greg Popovich. Kawhi Leonard is empowered freedom incarnate. Not only did Leonard force his way out of San Antonio, he also left the Toronto Raptors and all of Canada, a country that would have loved him with a fervor only an oft-maligned non-American little brother could muster. He left Nick Nurse—the fearless, outside-of-the-box thinker who coached the Raptors through a tough playoff journey—he said goodbye to Masai Ujiri, championship winning teammates, and the game’s best physiotherapist in Alex McKechnie. Kawhi took some lumps on the way, but he’s forced his way to freedom, all the while winning two championships. The injury Kawhi suffered while in San Antonio is still affecting him today, and that injury seemed to be the catalyst for Kawhi’s unceasing power-play. Maybe he’s worried Father Time will come calling sooner than expected? Speaking of Father Time…
It’s hard not to wonder if Father Time has come for Greg Popovich. There have been a number of head scratching decisions made by Pop and the Spurs of late, including trading Kawhi Leonard for the limited return of DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 first-round pick. You can add letting Davis Bertans go in order to pursue Marcus Morris. You can also add Popovich’s decision to leave Bam Adebayo off team USA’s 2019 FIBA World Cup roster this summer in favor of Mason Plumlee. Based on the logic of Dave Hickey’s essay, which I’ve decided to apply to everything at the moment, Greg Popovich’s coaching has ceased to liberate. Kawhi Leonard was not afforded enough freedom, favorable treatment, or whatever was necessary to make him feel at home in San Antonio; so he left. Bam Adebayo was incapable of fitting his game into team USA’s “system” and so he was left out. But failing to marry “a system” with the virtuosic abilities of players who might potentially play in that system, is an elemental failure. It’s one of control, limits, and inflexibility. It’s conformity. It’s a bad zone defense.