How Basketball Teams Use Isolation Play for Points

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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 ballhandler tries to beat a defender one-on-one.

Every team at every level of basketball runs isolation plays—better known as 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 NBA superstar 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 tries to accomplish: 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 potentially weaker matchups are sometimes obvious from the very beginning of 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. At other times, however, potentially unequal matchups develop during a game, such as when an injury or foul trouble takes a key defender out of the game. When you have a player 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 lockdown 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. Indeed, Bryant once paid homage to Allen's abilities to stop the ISO, even without any assistance:

"He’s fundamentally sound defensively and he plays harder than everybody else defensively. He has a competitive desire to compete individually. That’s very uncommon. Most defensive players I face want help all the time. I’ve never heard him ask for help. He likes taking the challenge."

Sports website GameFAQs even named Allen one of the NBA's best isolation play defenders among shooting guards, better even than Bryant. And, when a player like Allen is defending an ISO specialist who is having a poor shooting night, isolation plays can become inefficient very 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. Even when a team leans on isolation too much, though, 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 double-teams, leaving options open for pick-and-rolls, off-the-ball cuts to the basket, or wide-open jump shots.