Forcing Baseline vs Forcing Middle: A Brief History

December 15th, 2011 | by Spencer Hall

Rod Zundel explains the defensive changes.

Much is being made of coach Ty Corbin’s decision to modify the Utah Jazz defensive philosophy. The SLTrib breaks it down here. You can watch KSL’s Rod Zundel diagram the basics here. Jerry Sloan’s teams were coached to force the player with the ball to the middle, but now the team will attempt to force the ball to the baseline.

Here’s a nice explanation from @HoopsU:

By forcing baseline, the low post ballside can help stop penetration. The weakside low post can then rotate over to cover the offensive player in the ball side post. The top guard can rotate over ballside if need be to cover a possible kick back to the ball side wing. The weak side defensive guard can rotate into the lane to cover a high post flash. If defended and executed properly, the only open offensive player is on the weakside wing. The only pass available to get it over there is askip pass. By the time the skip pass reaches its target, the defender will be able to recover and closeout in plenty of time or possibly even intercept it.

The one and only time I may decide to force middle is if I have a phenomenal shot blocker. Funneling the offense to a shut down shot blocker may be of benefit to forcing bad shots and bad decisions. How often, however, do we have that kind of player?

To my knowledge, the only teams in the NBA that forced the ball to the middle last year were the Jazz and the Orlando Magic. One of those teams had a dominant center.

Ross Siler likes the change:

Big fan of Ty Corbin’s change in defensive philosophy for the Jazz. It’s not so much forcing baseline as it is forcing away from the paint. Sloan insisted on forcing to the middle because he believed it was easier for other players to step up and provide defensive help.

I can understand the thinking, but it was counterintuitive to how everyone learns to play defense growing up. You force right-handed players to the left, left-handed players to the right, and you don’t let anyone drive the middle of the lane. Sloan’s defensive system encouraged giving up drives down the lane.

The Jazz might not be better than an average defensive team, but I think it’s preferable to be reacting and not thinking about everything on the defensive end, especially for such a young team.

I like the change and think it will be helpful, but as Al Jefferson says in that clip from KSL, it won’t magically solve all the team’s defensive problems. Guys still need to commit to the philosophy and help each other out. Forcing baseline can be a disaster if the ball handler can turn the corner and get to the rim.

That being said, some are treating the philosophy of forcing middle as if it were archaic or silly. Ross Siler also makes the assertion that most guys grow up learning to force to the baseline, which I don’t necessarily agree to be true. Salt City Hoops correspondent Eric Jackson played a little college hoops and had this to say:

I’ve never had a coach that wanted us to force baseline, but I also know what it does to the D if a guy gets to the paint on the drive. You’ve got to have great help defense to force middle, and I think the Jazz have the right big men to do it. They move well and are smart.

In the NBA, with no hand checking and superfast, scoring point guards who can get in the lane, it’s usually too dangerous to force middle. The options for an offense are more limited on the baseline and it’s harder to finish at the rim in the NBA. Forcing baseline takes away some of their options.

The coaches at my alma mater Provo High preach a switching/help man-to-man defense that is based on the philosophy to never give up the baseline and that all your help is in the middle. Players are taught to get a foot on the baseline and never give it up, like the opposite of Al Pacino’s “Inch Speech.”

Jerry Sloans’s team defense philosophy was based on his ideas of rugged individualism and the idea that every player should take responsibility for stopping his man. Unfortunately, the current state of the NBA makes it nearly impossible for anyone to keep the D.Roses of the world from getting in the paint at will.

I’m looking forward to seeing a new look from the Jazz, but any defensive success will still require commitment and trust. Hopefully the days of olé defense are in the past.

Update: Ross weighed in on Twitter with an important addendum:

I hate the description of forcing baseline. Nobody wants to give up baseline drives. It’s forcing away from the paint. The angles are just so much better forcing away from the paint.

It’s true. “Forcing baseline” shouldn’t be mistaken for “giving up the baseline.”

Spencer Hall
Founder Spencer Hall has covered the NBA, Team USA and NBA D-League since 2007 and launched Salt City Hoops in 2009. Spencer is now the news director at KSL.com
Spencer Hall
Spencer Hall

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