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Phil Jackson explains why the zone defense was banned in the NBA

And why the Knicks still used it in MSG
Milwaukee Bucks guard Oscar Robertson is defended by New York Knicks defenders Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas, Walt Frazier, and Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson shared thoughts on the NBA banning zone defense

In the 1960s, the NBA was yet to install a three-point line on their courts. There was no such thing as three-point shots back in the day when the likes of Bill Russell, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Phil Jackson, Oscar Roberston, and many famous legends took over the league.

Not only did this affect a team's offense but also their defense. In fact, the unavailability of the three-point line dictated what defensive coverages were and were not allowed back in the day.

One coverage that was strictly prohibited in the 1940s until the 1970s was the zone defense, one of the most popular schemes in today's era.

Man to Man defense only

In his New York Times bestseller book entitled "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Sucess," Phil Jackson talked about the experience during his playing years with the New York Knicks. According to Jackson, there was a particular reason why the zone was prohibited.

"In those days, it was illegal to move more than two steps off your man to double-team another player, so we had to institute a zone defense, which was also illegal but less likely to get called in front of raging Knicks home crowd."

Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success

The NBA banned the zone defense in the 1940s because they feared that it would change the game's dynamics. The man-to-man coverage significantly depicted the essence of basketball back in the day, so the league didn't want to mess with that.

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Another reason why the zone wasn't prominent back in the day is because the league didn't accept the fact that the scheme would dare offenses to shoot, which would mess with players' true shooting efficiency.

The reason why teams utilize the zone in the first place is to dare their opponents to score outside the paint, and the NBA didn't want this to be the case during a time when scoring in the paint was the biggest source of points.

So how exactly did Jackson and the Knicks attack the man-to-man defense in the finals?

"… Dave DeBusschere lured Chamberlain away from the basket with his pinpoint fifteen-footers, freeing the rest of the team to move freely inside. That led to a decisive 107-100 win against the Lakers," Jackson, who won his ring in 1970, said.

The return of the zone

The zone defense was gradually allowed in the late 1970s when the three-point line finally arrived. The first rule that was changed was that defensive players were allowed to legally leave their man and go within 16 feet (but not 12) of the hoop.

This then helped players apply the zone's principles as multiple tactics like being ready to help, sloughing in on the weak side, or doubling the ball-handler if someone got past their defender was allowed.

Then, as the game evolved and players slowly developed the habit of taking three-point shots, the NBA finally disbanded the no-zone defense rule entirely from the year 2000 and onwards.

Safe to say that the league made the right choice, given how the modern era of basketball now significantly revolves around the three-point line. 

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