Isolation Play in Basketball

A Game of One-on-One

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles the ball against Manu Ginobili #20 of the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on December 28, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. Getty Images Sport / Ronald Martinez

The isolation play is quite possibly the simplest in basketball: As teammates back away to draw their defenders as far from the ball as possible, the ball-handler tries to beat a defender one-on-one.

Every team at every level of basketball runs isolation plays, or iso plays, at some point during a game, particularly in end-of-quarter or end-of-game situations. With 10 seconds left on the clock and a team needing a basket, many coaches will just give the ball to their best scorer and ask the star to make something happen.

When you have a great scorer like LeBron James or Kevin Durant on your team, the isolation play often produces a bucket.

Advantages of Iso Plays

Isolation plays do what every good coach does anyway: They take advantage of a team's best player. Scorers want to score, and iso plays give them the opportunities they crave. But these plays can also exploit matchups with weaker players; these are sometimes obvious coming into a game if a team doesn't have a good defender at a certain position or lacks the size or speed to stop a top scorer, but other times develop during a game, in the case of injury or foul trouble to a key defender. And when you have players as talented as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant on your roster, you're going to score points off of isolation plays.

Stopping Isolation Players

There's a significant downside to isolation ball, though. Teams that become too reliant on a single player can become stagnant on offense, one-dimensional, and too vulnerable to teams lucky enough to have that one lock-down defender who specializes in defending scorers in the isolation play.

Defenders such as Memphis forward Tony Allen have made careers out of stopping isolation plays, playing themselves into big contracts by prioritizing their defensive abilities to stop top scorers over scoring points themselves. And if a player is having a poor-shooting night, iso plays become really inefficient really quickly.

The Threat of Isolation

As advanced metrics have changed the way teams play basketball, iso plays have fallen out of favor with many coaches. But whether or not a team leans on isolation too much, having the threat of the isolation play is invaluable. If you can put the ball in the hands of a top-notch scorer like James or Durant, both of whom are terrific passers, you can exploit mismatches or draw a double-teams, leaving options open for pick-and-rolls, off-the-ball cuts to the basket, or wide-open jump shots.