In pickup basketball, offense is as unpredictable as a dinner date with Ron Artest. (That's just a wild assumption, by the way. I've never actually had a dinner date with Ron Artest. As far as you know.) Some nights your teammates won't pass the ball, other nights you might not hit your shots. There are a lot of unknowns on offense.

But you can almost always play consistent defense.

Defense isn't about natural physical skills. It's about focus and effort. That's why guys like Bruce Bowen and Raja Bell -- fairly average NBA athletes -- were able to become elite defensive players.

Several years ago, I decided I wanted to become a better defensive player. This attitude is pretty rare in pickup ball. After all, it's the first team to 11 points, not 11 steals, right? But trust me, you can swing games by playing great defense.

Here are the defensive principles I live by:

Commit to defense: The majority of pickup ballers are pretty lackadaisical on defense. In most cases, the only time they actually try is when their man has the ball during a halfcourt set. They jog back in transition and they space out when their man isn't directly involved in the current play. This behavior results in easy baskets for the other team. Consistent effort results in stops.

Committing to defense is step number one to becoming a better defender.

Develop the proper defensive stance: This is step number two. Here are the 10 keys to a great defensive stance from Breakthrough Basketball:

1. Fronts of the Feet - Most of your weight should be on the fronts or balls of your feet and the majority of the weight should be on the big toes. Heel should still be in contact with the ground.

2. Wide Base & Feet Turned Slightly In - Your feet should be pointing straight ahead or slightly turned in (pigeon-toed). This creates an angle that allows you to provide more force against the ground. In the picture to the right, the feet are bowed out which is improper form.

Your feet should also be slightly wider than shoulder width apart.

3. Hips Back & Knees Bent - Butt should be behind the heels and your knees should be pointing forward, but not past the toes.

4. Knees Inside of Feet - This helps create better push-off power.

5. Butt Down - Staying low helps maintain balance.

6. Shoulders Over Knees - Your shoulders should be over your knees with your chest out and back straight or slightly arched.

7. Hands up - Depending on the tactic (Hands out or hand up to defend shot/dribble).

8. Eyes focused on the player's waist or chest.

9. You should be able to draw a vertical line from the front of your forehead thru the front of your knees thru the front of your toes.

10. All of this should create GREAT BALANCE.
Watch your man's midsection: No, not to admire his six-pack abs. This is a follow up to step 8 of a great defensive stance. Watching the midsection is the best way to determine which direction he's moving. That way, you won't get tricked by ball fakes, head fakes or foot fakes.

Play off-the-ball defense: Karate Kid III taught us that "If a man can't stand, he can't fight." Similarly, if a man doesn't have the ball, he can't score. Chase your man all over the floor. Deny him possession whenever possible. This doesn't always work in the NBA because coaches are able to write up plays that free up their players, and the players are good enough to execute those plays. Pickup basketball isn't that organized. With the right amount of effort and intensity, you handicap your man by limiting his shot attempts.

To do this, pay close attention to the ball-man line. That's what coaches refer to as the imaginary line between the ball and your man. Do your best to a) stay between that line and the basket and b) impede that line so that your man can't easily receive the ball.

Sprint back on defense: It's amazing how many buckets you can stop by doing this. I can't tell you how many two-on-ones and even three-on-ones I've stuffed just by getting my ass back in transition. Remember, this isn't the NBA. There's no guarantee a pickup baller is going to finish a fast break.

Block out: They call them "defensive rebounds" for a reason, people. Rebounding is the final step of a successful defensive play. When the ball goes up, put your body between your man and the basket and make contact so he can't get around you. It's as simple as that. But you'd be surprised how many people can't or won't do it.

Grab rebounds with two hands: Dr. J was the master of the one-handed rebound. When he did it, it looked fucking cool. Guess what? You aren't Dr. J. Don't try to one-hand the rebound. Don't tap at it. Go after it and grab it with two hands.

Jump to the pass: Whenever somebody passes teh ball, take a few quick steps in the direction the pass was thrown. This will put you in the proper position to stop your man if he cuts to the basket or help a teammate who gets beaten off the dribble.

Call out picks: Seriously. Your teammates need to know.

Fight through picks: A lot of people get stopped cold by picks...or they stop themselves cold. Seriously, a lot of people hit the pick and then give up on the play. Fight through it. Again, this isn't the NBA. You can get through that pick.

Pressure your man when he has the ball: Make him work. Make him think. And whatever you do, don't keep backing up and letting him move to his sweet spots. Never concede anything. The harder you make life for the man with the basketball, the better the chance your team gets a stop.

When pressuring your man, keep your hand up and active so he can't see the court, shoot an open shot or make an easy pass.

Stay between your man and the basket: That's where he's trying to go. On that subject...

Slide your feet: When guarding a man who's dribbling the ball, step sideways with the lead foot (the foot closest to the direction you want to go), then push off with your trail foot. Keep your feet in contact with the floor. Stay in a low stance and keep your feet wide. Make quick slides.

Deny the middle at all costs: Always keep your inside foot high to deny dribble penetration toward the middle of the court. Overplay toward the middle to force your man baseline. This way, the baseline becomes an "extra" defender. The backboard can also become an extra defender if you force yoru man to dribble partially behind it.

Get in your man's shot pocket: Never heard of the shot pocket? Here's the definition: The position the basketball is in when a player begins his jumpshot. Typically, the ball is "in the shot pocket" when all parts of the shooting arm -- upper, lower, hand, and two shooting fingers (index and middle) -- are in a vertical plain to the side of the face, out in front of shoulder.

If you keep a hand inside your man's shot pocket, he's going to have to move the ball around your hand in order to shoot. This effectively takes him out of his natural shooting motion. Muscle memory is a key component of shooting, so making a player shoot in an unusual way often results in a missed shot.

Contest every shot: But do it the smart way: Stay on your feet and keep your hands up.

Do some scouting: Remember: Most pickup ballers have limited skill sets. They probably have only one or two moves. They can only hit a few pet shots. You should be able to figure out what someone's tendencies are after a handful of games. Once you know what they like to do, you can stop them.

My buddy Mister P loves to shoot threes from a specific spot. I always put extra pressure on him when he's near that spot. He also has this move where he takes on hard dribble to the right, comes back to the left and then pulls up for a jumper. When he's going into that motion, I overplay him left because I know he wants to come back that way. It disrupts the move and he usually has to pass the ball away.

Guard everybody: I don't care if your man isn't an offensive threat. D him up anyway. Why give somebody an open shot? Even bad players hit the occasional jumper. Or they earn garbage points -- open layups or putbacks -- because their defender isn't paying attention. I've been on teams that lost because bad players were given the green light. Many times. On the flip side, putting intense pressure on lousy players can cause turnovers. That's a better outcome, right?

Avoid All-Star Defense: Blocked shots and steals. There are people who think these are the only defensive plays that can be made. Blocking lots of shots or grabbing a lot of steals help make people an All-Star in the NBA. They also make SportsCenter. But fundamental defense rarely results in blocks or steals. Going for them, on the other hand, will get you beat. I play with guys who love to gamble for steals so they can go the other way for an easy bucket. Unfortunately, more often than not, the team defense gets disrupted by their wild gambles.

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Blogger AnacondaHL said...
10. All of this should create GREAT BALANCE.

- I Ching

Anonymous Geert said...
Another thing that works while playing on-the-ball defense: watch the ball. I see lots of players looking their man in the face. Maybe try to intimidate him into a turnover, I dunno, but you fall for fakes a lot more while watching the guy instead of the ball. And he isn't going anywhere without it. So watch the ball, not the guy.

Blogger jim said...
as regards the defensive stance--unless you're standing still, your heels will almost never be touching the ground. it's incredible how some people don't realize this, or clomp around flatfooted.

along with denying the pass, another thing that drives players nuts is when you deny them their off-the-ball cuts.

denying post position, too, is huge. i'm not very tall, or even very big and strong, but with the right discipline can frustrate the hell out of guys four, five, six inches taller than me.

most pickup post players tend to swing the ball down low before bringing it up for a shot. trying to block it down low is twice as easy as trying to get it high, and for shorter players is often the only way to do it.

taking advantage of sloppy fundamentals: a lot of ball handlers tend to cradle the ball, or dribble high, or leave it off their hip on a spin move. if you've scouted them, and know how to time it right, you can absolutely abuse someone who may even be faster or more skilled.

help defense--it's pickup, so you're going to have to help. the rules for this are different than in organized basketball, but there are some similarities. never help off of a shooter. double-team to deny a drive, but rotate back immediately afterward. don't help off of a shooter. if you're the one who got beat near the basket, slide to the weak post. don't help off of a shooter. goddammit, don't help off of a shooter.

sometimes, instead of denying middle, it's more effective to deny the man's strong side. half of the righties can't go left, and half of the lefties can't go right, and making them do so is an almost guaranteed pass away or bad shot.

did i mention about never rotating off shooters?

Blogger Siddarth Sharma said...
Is it just me or do the principles seem like that of a pro baller's mindset rather than a pickup baller's?

I'm a full throttle defender, hated by the opposition, but I never gave so much thought to the proper stance or to cutting my man off from the vulnerable spots. Live and learn.

I noticed the absence of drawing charges in this list. Many guys I've come across will just tuck the ball, lower their shoulders and drive in like a running back taking it for granted that no one will stand in their way. Real effective way to stop these hothead cold in their tracks.

Blogger Rich Clearlake said...
Defense is more about strategy and schemes and less about one-on-one defense and form (even in pickup). Scouting is single-handedly the biggest strength youc an have in pickup ball because unlike any organized ball most pickup players can't score if you take away their bread and butter.

For me, as a 6'9" forward, I always instruct my teammates to let me have either a) the guy who's too small to post up and has no outside game or b) the worst player on the team. Being able to help off because my guy can't hit a shot outside 10 feet is the single most beneficial aspect to my defensive game. I'd also highly disagree with good defense never resulting in blocks. There's a big difference between Bill Russell blocks (maintain possession) and Dwight Howard blocks (whack it out of bounds). In pickup 90% of the time if a guy is driving towards the basket and makes it below the FT line he's going up with it...if you play with the same people, you learn their layups which leads to easy Bill Russell blocks for me.

Blogger Renato said...
Pretty good summary.

The funny thing is that most of the NBA pretty much ignores it as well.

Blogger Rickjr82 said...
Drawing charges:
Not a good idea in pickup ball- best you can hope for is a no call (and that you don't get landed on and injured). Stand your ground (focus on absorbing the contact) and don't let the cheap fouls get called.

Be Aware of your teammates and opponents:
Know who can stop somone off the dribble and when to give help- if you surprise a non passer with a quick double- you can force a bad shot.

Be Aware of positioning:
Don't get sealed off deep in the paint- know when fronting is appropriate.

Blogger DC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger DC said...
In truth, I was always a somewhat mediocre on-ball perimeter defender. I was a fine post defender because I was a post player, so I therefore could guess my opponent's moves (provided my man didn't outweigh me by 50 pounds and just throw his shoulder into me). But I was somewhat clueless in the perimeter besides just following my guy.

Yet somehow, I've recently become a "world-class" perimeter defender capable of shutting down high-scoring perimeter players in pickup ball. How?

The answer is World Cup soccer. Or to be more exact, the US Team's atrocious defense at the beginning of games that led to many opponents scoring within 5 minutes.

I'll explain. With 'Gooch Onyewu still recovering from his knee injury, his quickness and speed were severely diminished. That led to his playing off his man just to keep up with them. Unfortunately, this also allowed his man the space to get in rhythm to get his shot off. Subsequently, that led to me screaming "Close the gap! Close the gap!" at the TV whenever the opponents were threatening for a scoring opportunity.

So what does that have to do with basketball?'s mentality when it comes to perimeter defense seems to be "stay close with the shooters, give the space to non-shooters who have the quickness to burn you if you stay too close". And after the World Cup, I realized that this mentality was completely wrong.

As the defender, you want to force your opponent to go where you want, and you want to make them as uncomfortable as possible. If they get in rhythm, you're now forced to work harder than before because they're "feeling it". So basically, you need to make them uncomfortable from the start.

That means playing them as tight as possible (especially if them have range 5 feet beyond the three-line). That means forcing them to make their moves in the tight confines of your defense. That means giving them no quarter when it comes to when they make their rhythmic motions that leads to their pet shot.

The end result should be making your man less of a scoring threat, and putting the ball into lesser scorers' hands.

Blogger DC said...

Will you get burned with this defense a few times if your defender blows by and finishes at the rim? Without a doubt. But if you're facing a shooter who can shoot and drive-and-finish, you have to play your percentages. In my case, the percentages say that my man was hitting all of his jump shots last game, so I need to shut down at least that component of his game and force him into another. The percentages also say that if he blows by, he'll likely score anyway because help defense at the rim is a foreign concept in these games. And with those two premises known, I know that if my man tries to blow by me, he has two options at the rim - finish strong with a layup, or stop and pump-fake until he has a clear shot. Since he's an exceptional finisher, I need to get him to do the latter. Therefore, I need to beat him to the rim, force him to make his pump-fakes, and keep on my feet without biting.

This mentality works for pickup games and leagues where you're allowed to be a little more forceful. In the NBA, where perimeter defenders aren't even allowed to sneeze on their opponents, it's a slightly different story. But the concept should be much the same. There's a reason why Cleveland couldn't defend Rondo - giving 8 feet of space for a non-shooter may tempt him to shoot, but it also allows him more room to make his moves, and it allows him more spaces and angles to make his passes.

Another thing that pickup ball players (and basketball players in general) have trouble with is the pick-and-roll. There are many ways to defend it, but there is one key that I must emphasize - Never find yourself in the no-man's land, where you're too far away from either player, and where you haven't committed to defending either player. Just stick with one and let your teammate get the other (or expect help if the man is rolling to the rim). Otherwise, you're giving too much space for the ball-handler to shoot or do whatever.

Anonymous JJ said...
Jim mentioned help D and I totally agree with that. I think that's actually most important aspect of defense in pick up basketball. A likely scenario in a pick up basketball game is that you and/or your teammates probably don't have the skills or talent to be true shut-down defenders no matter how hard you try. Also, it's very likely that you or your teammates may not favorably matched up in man-to-man. But, if everyone is willing to provide help D, especially to shut down 1 or 2 key guys on the other team, it usually makes up for a lot and gets you the W in my experience. After all, this is a team sport so team strategies are naturally the most effective.

Still, I admit it's very hard to implement any kind of team defense in pick up ball. After all, you're not paying them to play and can't control their minutes. In fact, they might even be the ones paying to play. Thus, they believe they're entitled to play however they feel like. But, I always want to ask those people (and sometimes I do), "If you're not playing to win, why play a game that keeps score?"

Blogger Unknown said...
Call out picks: Seriously. Your teammates need to know.

A caveat would be the person being picked needs to call "switch" if necessary. So many times, my guy sets the pick, my teammate says nothing, then both of us move to one man, leaving the other wide open. Or, my guy will pick my teammate, I'll call switch, and my teammate freezes, creating an opening for either offensive player. Try to fight through it, but if you can't, as the guy being picked, it's your call to switch players.

And talk about scouting, I usually target quiet defenders when setting picks, because teams that don't talk on defense make mistakes like the ones above.

Bawful, you can probably do a whole section on how to defend the pick (and the pick-and-roll).

Blogger Unknown said...
Also liked that there is no mention of zone defense. It has no place in pick-up basketball unless you're playing a game of 5-on-4.

Blogger Will said...
Where's the section on the gay elf defense Mr Korver is displaying so well in the banner?

Anonymous kaos021 said...
In my experience, help D in pickup games is usually a disaster unless you've played with the guys on your team multiple times. As was mentioned, it usually just results in people turning away from their man and leaving wide open jumpers and layups. I'd much prefer that everyone just stick to their man and live or die on that as opposed to people attempting the help and just making it worse. There's nothing more frustrating or demoralizing than watching uncontested baskets on defense.

Anonymous Axe Head said...
There's a view of things in the computing security industry, which says, "you don't have to be perfectly secure, you just have to be harder to crack than your neighbors." It applies--in modified form--to pickup ball defense. Just giving the effort, and helping each other, is about 90% of the way there to having a good pickup game defense.

All the other stuff, while necessary to play excellent defense, is refinement.

Anonymous the Oden Apologist said...
Great list for pick-up ball.

I would throw in make people go to their weak hand unless you know they can use it. 90% of folks never go to their weak hand or think they can an dribble and off their foot it goes.

Also learn how to play 2 on 1 D. E.g. jab step at the guy with the ball and make him pick up his dribble. Many times they end up picking it up pass and get stuck at the top of the key. And if behind the layup guy, swipe but dont touch in front of him. about 30-40% of the time it distracts them enough for the blown lay up.

Anonymous AK Dave said...
I would add:

"Fitness matters." People who are out-of-shape get tired after a few series, and can't play defense, even if they have otherwise committed to it.

Furthermore, superior fitness and endurance is something that even otherwise un-athletic people can attain. You may never be able to dunk, but anyone can hustle for a whole game if he gets himself in good shape. I recommend running, swimming, and lifting.

So get your ass in shape, fatty. Put down the cigarrette/weed/McDonalds and start eating healthy and exercising.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
that's a terrible defensive stance. maybe in an officiated game it works, but not in pick up. what are you going to do when someone charges shoulder or elbow first into your chest/face/groin? complain to the imaginary ref? start a fight? also, toes pointed inwards? i've never even heard of that. you're also slower with your hands always out like that.

don't watch the ball. you will get tricked into reaching in and get crossed. the man controls the ball, not the other way around. he can pass it and cut while you're looking at it, fake throwing it at your face, or distract you with it while grabbing/pushing you with his other hand. sometimes you want to watch the ball, but don't focus on one thing all the time.

watch the hips and watch the arms. the arms always move before the body does.

Anonymous dominikson said...
I feel different aobut the one-handed rebounds and taps. If I play against a taller/jumping higher guy, and the blockout didn't go perfect, I often use one hand or a tap to gain height on the ball and limit the guy's vertical advantage. This includes rebounding with one hand and bringing the ball to the other, tapping to myself in my chosen direction (often on off. rebs) or tapping to a teammate i see open. This helped me maintain my good rebounding skills in my present fat era.

Blogger @huynhjeff said...
I feel like there should also be a section on defense don'ts. I know these were included, but I meant more on the side of people who "over-hustle" on defense and end up fouling... in the name of "good defense."

For example, I have a buddy who embodies this through and through. A ball will come down and he'll crash into me and move his arms in so fast at the same time to tangle with mine's he's actually just punching my arms in an attempt to rip the ball away. When I start to bring it up after the tenth time, he'll just exclaim that he was just hustling after the ball and that I should just deal and hustle up to his level of D. It makes me want to strangle him.

Or my favorite, I'll be cutting past a defender for a layup and he'll run into my path to stop me, which is good, but he won't stop until he's run into me.. which is cat-scratching-blackboard, listening-to-shaq-talk-and-anything-vujacic-related annoying. His eye rolling after I call the foul (which I only do when I find myself reeling back from, what is essentially, a tackle) is the menstrual-blood filled cherry on top.

Anonymous Flakov said...
This is a great post.
it's too near perfect, but i jus wanna point out that u dont ever PUSH your hind foot on D. U actually drag it. it eventually leads to a dude "hopping" n shit nd if a the offense changes direction u could find urself FLYING

On anotha random note,
did u see this link?

it might b 2 late @ this point :/

Anonymous Waltonia said...
+1 to making them go to their weak hand-most pickup games I just camp on a players strong hand and make them go left-8 times out of 10 they aren't scoring on drives the rest of the game. Most pickup players just do not work on their off hand.

Anonymous Stockton said...
That post is more suitable for pro players than pickup players :)

Anonymous JJ said...
Dominikson, I also believe 1-hand tapping have their uses. Especially as I'm getting older, I don't jump as high as I used to or sometimes I'm just not quite ready to jump when the ball bounces my way. In those cases (in addition to the situations you've mentioned), I find it very useful to try to 1-hand tap the ball my way or my teammate's way since you can reach a little higher with 1 hand than 2. Some people thought 1-hand pass no good until Nash made it fashionable. Similarly, I think some people just have a bias against 1-hand tapping because they see a lot of people just tapping around a rebound without a purpose and not grabbing it, which is definitely frustrating to look at. But, I believe all skills have their uses and we should be open-minded about them.

Stockton, you're right, but I think learning what the pros do also helps pick up players a lot. I mean, it works for them, right? But, I can see having all those pointers can seem a bit too much. Simple tips for becoming better pick up basketball player (as other mentioned) are getting yourself in shape and making the effort to hustle when playing. Especially on full-court, keeping yourself in good shape alone can make you outplay many people.

Anonymous DJ said...
'Bawful your post on made me think of watching this tape growing up.

Yes, I still have this VHS tape somewhere...

That clip didn't have the section on defense, so here's another good one on balance:

Blogger merl said...
Bawful, this was a really useful post. But there's no mention of Zone defense? Given the erratic shooting alot of 'guards' have, why no concede three pointers to the one or two wings on the other team that can't make them?

Also, when I'm talking to players about offense I explain it like this - There are four shots in basketball:
1. Open inside shot
2. Open outside shot
3. Contested inside shot
4. Contested outside shot
In that order.

The whole purpose of the offense is to get the best shot you can against the defense. Ideally that would be an open inside shot, but attacking the basket or shooting open jump shots are a decent alternative (depending on the quality of your perimeter shooters 2 and 3 may be transposed). There is NEVER a justification for taking contested jumpers, however.

Blogger 80's NBA said...
I always took defense seriously when playing. I always wanted to take the best opposing player because I knew that (usually) no one else on my team would want to do it.

One thing I ALWAYS did if the guy I was guarding got into a zone when shooting was to foul him on purpose. I found that a hard whack to the shooting hand or arm would snap him out of the zone quicker than trash talking or any other tactic I tried.

If I happened to know beforehand (through scouting) that a guy I would be guarding was a good shooter, I'd sometimes foul him like that near the beginning of the game, just to get him thinking about it. It almost always worked.

I have only heard one other person ever talk about doing this type of thing - Charles Barkley.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I am fine with lots of different kind of defense, even bad defense with the exception of two instances.

first the jackass who chooses to guard the best player and then never actually get back on D. And the come from behind on the fast break layup to foul the shit out of a guy. I just can't stand when someone gets undercut on a fast break or going for a dunk. It is pickup basketball not important enough to put someone else's health at risk.