In professional basketball, teams use various offensive strategies to outwit their opponents and put points on the board.
Well-designed offensive plays involve proper positioning of all five players on the court.
In response, the defensive team also positions their players as a counter measure.
So, in order to create space, the players will shift from their initial positions on offense.
Furthermore, they may use themselves as a pick to confuse their defenders and break coverage.
Some of these plays will result in successful pick-and-rolls, three-point shots to well-timed alley-oops.
One particular play is used to showcase an individual player’s superiority over their opponent in what is known as “iso”.
In essence, the strategy is for the remaining teammates to stand down and create space.
What is ISO in basketball?
Iso or isolation refers to a strategy in which an offensive player attempts to beat their defender one-on-one, without help. They are used when a team wants to create space for a skilled offensive player to lead the drive. The player will attempt to make a shot or pass to a teammate if the defense collapses.
The isolation play is often used to take advantage of a favourable matchup, exploit a defender's weakness, or give a skilled offensive player the opportunity to showcase their individual scoring ability.
While isolation plays can be effective in certain situations, they also carry risks, as they can lead to a lack of ball movement and team involvement on offense.
As a note, the NBA officially tracks various playtypes for individual players, including iso play situations. Make sure to check out the success rate for isolation by your top players here.
Why do teams use isolation plays?
There are several reasons why teams run an isolation play against their opponents. The ultimate purpose is to buckets the easiest way possible.
Let’s take a look at these different scenarios.
Exploiting Individual Matchups
The isolation play is most optimal when a gifted team player can easily outmaneuver their defensive coverage.
This mismatch is often due to discrepancy in talent, but can also be due to physical mismatch.
In crucial moments of a close game, teams may resort to isolation plays to give their best scorers the chance to create their own shot.
This allows them to take control of the game's outcome and potentially secure a win.
Isolation allows for star players to run the play at their own pace, giving them a momentary break during the possession.
The break allows for every player to rest and regain their endurance, especially for teams with a short bench.
Breaking Defensive Pressure
Teams that face aggressive defensive tactics like full-court press or double-teaming, can opt to use the isolation play to relieve the pressure.
The isolation play can allow the offensive player more space to maneuver on the court.
A successful isolation play does not need to result in an immediate basket. Sometimes drawing the defensive foul is just as valuable.
The resulting illegal contact not only the foul count for both the defender and his team, but can also result in subsequent free throws.
And as pointed out earlier, the most skilled players are designated to run the isolation play on offense.
So, you can bet that their free throw skills are just as money as their abilities to score field goals.
Isolating a defender against a dominant player can mentally wear them down. The opponent will lose confidence knowing that the player has their number.
How does an isolation play differ from other offensive strategies?
The isolation play is strictly a one-on-one matchup.
The purpose is for the offensive player to outmaneuver their counterpart entirely on their own.
For comparison, the offensive screen requires at least one additional teammate to properly carry out.
The screen (aka “pick) is designed to confuse and stagnate the defenders for a teammate to dribble or get open for the shot.
Which players run ISO plays?
NBA teams typically choose players with exceptional one-on-one offensive skills and scoring ability to execute isolation plays effectively.
They have a variety of strategies in their arsenal to succeed in scoring.
That includes driving the paint, step backs, long range jumpers, fade aways and so on.
In today’s game, players that come to mind include: LeBron James, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo just to name a few.
My favourite was Kawhi Leonard while he led the Toronto Raptors to the NBA Championship in 2019.
Given that I’m Canadian and there is currently only one Canadian NBA team, you can understand why.
How do defenders counter isolation plays?
The best way to counter isolation plays is for the defender to stay low and force their opponent to the weak hand.
Of course it helps if the defender has quick lateral movement and remains composed.
To prevent the easy basket, the defender must use their physicality throughout the play and hold position between the player and the basket.
Contest the shot without committing a personal foul in the process.
In the end, the offensive player may score on the play, but the defender made them earn it.
That should be enough to have them think twice about running the play again.
While isolation plays put on full display the athleticism of a particular player on the team, it can have an impact on the overall chemistry.
That’s because it turns the remaining NBA roster into highly paid spectators.
If the iso play doesn’t succeed, especially at the end of the game, it can cause a rift on the roster.
Other players may ask themselves: “Why wasn’t I given the opportunity to close?” or “What is my role on this team?”
Coaches are not perfect. But they are chosen to make the tough decisions.
Not every play is going to pan out.
But the thought behind the isolation play is that their star player will come through most of the time.
Leaders like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were rarely questioned by their peers.
If they were, those teammates would quickly learn their place.
As a fan there is no doubt that the isolation play is thrilling to watch.
Nothing is more memorable than a one-on-one confrontation and heart-sinking basket at the buzzer.
Throw in the fact that it took place during the playoffs and you’ll be seeing that shot in highlight reels for years to come.