The Clippers, as a result, have used zone looks on 4 percent of their defensive possessions, according to Second Spectrum, and, like Carlisle’s Mavericks, have held the opposition to less than a point per possession when in a zone setup.
Beverley has said that, despite his own Payton-like determination to harass other guards, he has no issues when Rivers calls for zones. He played for nearly four seasons in Europe before establishing himself in the N.B.A., and zone defense is much more prevalent in leagues overseas.
Rivers, though, admits he will sometimes refer to it as a “flex zone” — or “more of a switching defense than a zone” — to encourage player acceptance.
The potential payoff of a well-executed zone is clear, despite the vulnerabilities it exposes in terms of rebounding and surrendering open shots. A good zone, at least for a time, can create confusion, inspire hesitation and potentially dislodge offensive supernovas such as Harden and Curry from their comfort zones.
Thanks to a lack of dependable perimeter shooters around the All-Star big man Joel Embiid, no team faces more zones than the Philadelphia 76ers. The most notable culprit for inviting that strategy is Ben Simmons, Embiid’s fellow All-Star, who has attempted only five 3-pointers all season — sinking two after shooting 0-for-17 from deep over his first two N.B.A. seasons.
The Athletic reported in December that the Sixers saw a zone on 156 possessions in a three-game stretch against Miami, Dallas and Washington over a four-day span. According to Synergy Sports data used in the report, 21 of the league’s 30 teams faced fewer than 156 possessions of zone defense for the entire 2018-19 season.
“We’ve seen so much innovation and change offensively over the last five years,” Toronto’s Nurse said. “It only makes sense that teams are going to try things and look for things defensively to counter that.”