(English) The game of basketball continues to evolve as the athleticism and skill level of players changes and coaches devise strategies to take advantage of, and also to negate, the changing skills of the game.

What is an Offensive or Defensive Scheme?

Coaches need to determine how they want their team to play the game. Offensive and defensive schemes simply represent the overall tactics and philosophies by which the team will play.

Many junior teams, particularly young teams, will have a singular and uncomplicated approach to the game (e.g. play “man to man” defence) and it is only when a team’s preparation involves a number of separate tactics (e.g. offensive set against “man to man” defence, offensive set against a “1 guard front zone”, offensive set against a “2 guard front zone” etc.) that we refer to it as a scheme.

Your Philosophy “versus” Your Team

Many coaches get a reputation for being particularly adept at particular parts of the game (e.g. “he is a great defensive coach”, “she is a great shooting coach”) or become associated with particular patterns of play (e.g. John Wooden’s “UCLA Offence”, Pete Carril’s “Princeton Offence”) or styles of play (e.g. Paul Westhead and “Fast Break Basketball”).

Indeed, coaches should develop their philosophy on how the game should be played. For example, FIBA very much encourage coaches of young players to focus on teaching the fundamental offensive and defensive skills of the game before moving to particular patterns or “set” plays.

(English) “Introducing a defensive scheme should empower your athletes to have the confidence that they can influence and control the tempo of the game.” 6

Joanne P McCallie

(English) When coaches have more experienced and skilled players the opportunities to devise more complete schemes for a team to implement increase.
In doing this though, coaches should be conscious of the attributes that the players in their team have. There is little point running a system that requires players to have certain attributes, if the players in your team do not have those attributes!

Of course, through well-directed practice, players can develop skills that they don’t have and accordingly the coach must decide:

  1. what attributes and skills are needed to run the coach’s preferred game style;
  2. to what extent do the players on the team have those attributes and skills already;
  3. to what extent can players on the team acquire those attributes and skills.

It is only when the coach believes that the players have, or can acquire, the attributes and skills needed for a particular style that the coach should implement that game style with that team. In making this decision, the coach must also consider how much preparation time they have with the team and be realistic in an assessment of how much can be introduced.

Many junior coaches have limited scope for recruiting specific players (or types of players) to their team and as such may find themselves in a position where they cannot play their preferred style of game with a particular team because they lack the skill, experience or physical attributes required or do not have sufficient time for preparation.

Benefits of introducing a Scheme

An offensive or defensive scheme is simply preparing a team to be able to play more than one “set” or structure. For example a defensive scheme
may include:

  • full court pressure defence;
  • transition defence rules;
  • half court man to man rules;
    • guarding post players
    • guarding perimeter players
  • half court zone rules.

And within the half court “man to man” and zones structures there may be high pressure options (which can often quicken the tempo of the game) and options that may slow the game.

There are a number of direct benefits from having an offensive or defensive scheme rather than a single style
of play:

  1. being hard to “scout”;
  2. being able to change the tempo at which the game is being played;
  3. being able to adjust during the course of the game to the strategies of your opponent;
  4. giving your players confidence that they can adjust and that they can withstand different tactics from opponents;
  5. being able to adjust quickly between games, which can be particularly beneficial during tournaments and finals series.

Often one element of a scheme builds on the foundation of another part of the scheme, such as the 1-1-3 match up zone discussed earlier that is also the foundation for introducing a “Box and 1” and the 1-3-1 match up zone.

Designing An Offensive Scheme

Neither an offensive or defensive scheme needs to be overly complicated. Many coaches, for example, will use the same basic offence against both man to man and zone defences and within that offence have particular emphasis depending upon the defence:

  • screening angles and positions may change – e.g. against a zone, screens to the “outside” of the zone may be utilised;
  • the relative advantage that a team has may be different depending upon the opponent – e.g. a team may be “relatively” big compared to one opponent but have strength in perimeter positions compared to another opponent.

In considering aspects to introduce into an offensive scheme, coaches should consider:

  • creating options for post play and perimeter play;
  • create elements that tend to “quicken” the offence as well as those that “take the air out of the ball” and slow the tempo;
  • the team knowing from where they want to take most shots and who should be taking those shots;
  • avoiding designing a scheme that relies exclusively on one or two players. Whilst they may execute better than other players, they may also be injured or in foul trouble and not able to play;
  • where possible, having rules that are consistent within elements of the scheme;
  • how to measure the effectiveness of each element of the scheme both within a particular game, and also throughout the season.

Most importantly, the coach needs to consider how much time they have with their team because ultimately that will determine how effectively they can put in an offensive scheme.

Designing A Defensive Scheme

A defensive scheme can provide a team with the ability to vary how they are playing as opponents, and game situations, change. It is more than changing from playing half court man to man, to full court man to man, and the scheme should give the team confidence that they can play different styles as necessary to counter their opponents’ strengths.

In designing the scheme, the coach should consider:

  • what is the “standard” defence the team should play;
  • what defence will they play if they wish to increase pressure;
  • what defence will they play when they are behind and need to “catch up” (increasing tempo);
  • how will they defend a team with dominant post players;
  • how will they defend a team with dominant perimeter players?

Important to any defensive scheme is the players’ ability to execute fundamental skills. For example:

  • players are taught various techniques to defend an on ball screen, “over”, “under”, “double”, “switch” or “push” (away from the screen);
  • in a pressure defence they may “double”;
  • against a good perimeter shooting team they may go “over” or “switch”;
  • against a good post team they may use “push”.

A scheme does not necessarily need to have a large number of options and, like an offensive scheme, what can be implemented with the team will very much reflect how much preparation time the team has.

Implementing an Offensive or Defensive Scheme

Many coaches use keywords or visual cues to define particular elements of a scheme:

  • “Red” may be a pressure defence, particularly double-teaming the ball handler;
  • The ball handler tapping their singlet may signify a particular offensive play.

The use of such cues can make it easier for the coach to relay instructions to players and certainly, when scouting an opponent, coaches look for these cues so that they can pre-empt what the opponent intends to do during a game.

Whatever cues are to be used, should be used at practice as well, so that players get used to both looking for and recognizing the cues just as much as they develop familiarity with the elements of the scheme.

Measuring the Effectiveness of the Scheme

In developing a scheme of play, coaches should also establish how they will measure its effectiveness. Whilst the ultimate aim of basketball is to outscore an opponent, watching the score is not necessarily a reliable indicator of how effective the team is being.

For example, if a coach chooses to play a 1-1-3 zone defence to force the opponent to shoot from outside, the fact that the opponent may make some of those shots is not necessarily an indication that the move to zone has been unsuccessful. In this situation, the coach may assess the effectiveness of the defence by:

  • Tracking from where the opponent is shooting;
  • Number of “post touches” the opponent gets;
  • Number of times the ball penetrates into the key;
  • When (in reference to the 24 second shot clock) is the opponent shooting?

Similarly, a coach might assess the effectiveness of their offence by reference to:

  • Where shots are taken;
  • Who is taking their shots;
  • Whether the team is penetrating by dribble or by pass;
  • How often is the team scoring because of specific elements of their offensive scheme?

FIBA Hall of Fame coach Lindsay Gaze used the expression “the operation was successful, but the patient died” to describe situations where a team creates the shot they want to, but the shot is missed. The coach, and team, must have the confidence to persist and not abandon a tactic simply because they didn’t score.

To measure the effectiveness of a scheme, the coach should have specific metrics (that may be different to official statistics) and it can often be useful for an assistant coach to be given the task of tracking those metrics. For example:



Offensive / Defensive Tactic


Defence –
Trapping Full Court

  • Time left on shot clock when offence progress into front court
  • Ball not with point guard when opponent’s offence starts
  • Deflected passes
  • Opponent’s offence starting on non-preferred side of court

Defence –
“pack line” half court8

  • Number of times offence “reverse” the ball (pass from one side to the other)
  • Number of times opponent penetrates/the ball enters the key
  • Number of times penetration is stopped by a rotating defender
  • % of shots taken from outside key

Defence –
double-team low post

  • Number of times the low post player passes the ball (% of touches)

(English) In determining metrics, the coach should also consider what the opponent’s response might be. For example, double teaming the post may result in more open outside shots for the opponent. Full court pressure, may result in open lay-ups if the opponent “breaks” the press.

By having a clear metric, the coach can avoid an impulse decision that can occur if they simply look at whether or not the opponent scored. For example, the opponent may get 2 open lay-ups, but if they had six possessions where they took a pressured shot the full court defence may be regarded as successful.


(English) Coach Joanne P McCallie, Duke University Women’s Basketball Head coach
(English) Harry Shipp, midfielder with the Chicago Fire, in the USA’s Major League Soccer
(English) “Pack line” defence is a sagging man-to-man defence, which is designed stop the ball penetrating into the key, particularly to stop any dribble penetration.