Some of the most famous highlights in basketball history came as a result of Iso plays. Kyrie Irving’s game-winning three in the 2016 NBA Finals was an Iso play. So was Michael Jordan’s buzzer-beater in the 1998 Finals.
So, what is “iso” in basketball?
Iso is a basketball play that creates a one-on-one situation between the dribbler and his defender. This isolates the defender, creating room for the dribbler to make his move while help defenders are far away. Iso is designed for skilled dribblers with physical advantages over their defenders.
Iso is how lots of basketball stars make their best plays, but they’re also prone to making big mistakes in these situations! Keep reading to learn more about iso in basketball.
Isolation Plays in Basketball
The purpose of isolation is to use a one-on-one matchup to your team’s advantage. There is not one specific spot on the court to begin an iso play, but it usually requires the dribbler and his teammates to be far from the hoop (at least away from the paint).
The teammates also spread out to give the dribbler room to move freely. This also draws potential help defenders away. Isolation gives the dribbler an open path to the hoop if he gets past his defender, or space to separate himself from the defender for an open jump shot.
Pros of Isolation Plays
Isolation plays are effective in the right situations with the appropriate players. Here are some of the pros of iso plays.
Iso plays are useful in short clock situations. If there are eight seconds left on the shot clock, you probably don’t have enough time to run a full set play or go through a motion offense. Your best chance at scoring with limited time left is by giving the ball to your best player hoping he beats his defender.
Late-game situations also call for isolation plays. In a close game nearing the end of regulation, defenses tighten up and focus more, which makes it harder to run your usual offensive sets. When you need a score the most, running an isolation play for your best scorer might be the best strategy.
Another advantage to iso is your ability to exploit an individual defender’s weaknesses. In a one-on-one situation where a center steps out to defend a point guard, the point guard could use his quickness and low center of gravity to get around the center. Or if a smaller player steps to guard a much larger dribbler, the dribbler can back down the smaller player until he’s close enough to the basket, or in a position to spin around his defender.
Iso is also when you surround the dribbler with good shooters. This forces the defense to make a choice when the dribbler gets past his defender. Either step in to protect the paint, leaving a shooter open on the three-point line OR stay with your man and risk leaving an open lane. If the dribbler is a good decision-maker, he’ll take advantage of whatever the defense brings. He’ll either find an open shooter or take a layup.
Cons of Isolation Plays
There are bad situations for isolation plays, too. Here are some of the cons:
Isolation plays are less efficient than other styles of offense. In the NBA, Isolation plays score 0.78 points per possession. Other plays such as transition (1.12 points per possession) and off-ball cuts (1.18) result in more frequent scoring. In other words: on average, you’re more likely to score when running plays other than isolation.
Isolation plays don’t work well against zone defenses. It’s hard to isolate a defender when there’s not one person assigned to defend you. Zone defenses are designed for defenders to protect a specific part of the floor, rather than defend specific offensive players.
To break a zone, the offense needs to work together to find openings in the defense. Successfully breaking a zone involves lots of passing and ball movement. This is not something you can do in iso, which requires one player to dominate the ball.
Isolation plays don’t get everyone involved, and not everyone is fit for isolation plays. If you’re not a great ballhandler or you lack an athletic advantage over your defender, you probably won’t be called upon to run iso. Some players excel coming off screens or finding off-ball cuts to the basket.
Others are great screen setters or catch-and-shoot specialists. Iso requires all off-ball players to give space for the dribbler, so there’s not much moving around while the dribbler goes to work.
Best Iso Players in NBA History
James Harden: “The Beard” is widely considered to be the best isolation player in today’s NBA. Harden is almost impossible to guard in iso plays. First, he has a variety of step back and crossover moves that create open three-point shots. All he needs is enough space to see the rim when he’s shooting. Second, he’s one of the strongest guards in the league. If he gets past his defender, he can absorb contact while shooting a dunk or layup.
The only way to stop Harden is by fouling him, and he’s so good at drawing fouls. If only one player steps up to defend, Harden will likely beat them. If someone else comes to help, Harden will use his elite court vision to pass to an open shooter. Harden is one of the most difficult players to guard in NBA history.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant: Before Harden, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were among the greatest Iso players. Jordan and Bryant had almost identical styles of play. Both 6’6” and more athletic than their defenders, Jordan and Bryant could handle any one-on-one situation. Each liked to post up from just inside the three-point line, using fakes and pivots to get their defenders off balance. Depending on what the defenders did, Jordan and Bryant would make different moves. They could spin past the defender and drive to the hoop, fade away for a jump shot, or jump straight up to draw a foul.
Both players were great off the dribble, too. They could shake their defenders to create space or jump high enough to shoot over them.
LeBron James: Some players are so physically imposing that they’re dominant in iso plays. At 6’8” and more than 250 lbs., James is one of the quickest and strongest basketball players in the world. Centers aren’t quick enough to guard him, so a smaller player usually comes out to defend James when he has the ball. He can just turn around and back his defender down as he slowly moves toward the basket. Once he gets near or inside the three-point line, James has good passing angles. He can otherwise spin past his defender or shoot over them.
Kawhi Leonard put on a show with isolation plays during the 2019 NBA Finals. By the 4th quarter of Game 5, both teams were tired from a hard-fought series. As a result, the game had slowed down. Offenses weren’t moving much. So, the Raptors leaned on their best player to keep them in the game. For four minutes, the Raptors’ offensive strategy was to run isolation for Leonard. Between the 7:00 and 3:00 mark in the fourth, Leonard took his defender off the dribble, sometimes pulling up for jump shots and sometimes driving to the paint. During this sequence, he scored 12 points on 5/6 shooting.
How to Become a Better Iso Player in Basketball
Isolation plays require the dribbler to do everything without much help from teammates. To become a better iso player, you must work on skills that Iso players need the most. You must become a good dribbler, to the point where you feel comfortable battling a defender one-on-one. You need to be able to take care of the ball and get past defenders.
If you’re want to use shooting skills to your advantage, work on moves that can separate you from defenders. Whether it’s a crossover dribble, a fadeaway jump shot, or a step-back jump shot, work on moves that give you clean shot opportunities. You’ll also need to work on your strength and conditioning to become a better iso player. Perform exercises and drills that improve your strength and quickness.
How to Setup Isolation Plays in Basketball
To set up an isolation play, make sure the player running this offense is in a good position to start iso. Often, this could start beyond the three-point line or near the corner. No matter where the play starts, he’ll need space to take his defender without intervention from help defenders or teammates.
There are a few ways to set up an isolation play. One way is to get the ball to your best player and have him back out toward half-court while his teammates spread out around the three-point line. Nobody should be near the basket.
Another way is to force defenders to switch who they’re guarding. If the iso player already has the ball, set screens for him until a different defender takes him. If he doesn’t have the ball, set off-ball screens for him until he can come to the ball. Ideally, this creates a mismatch between the dribbler and his new defender. After that one-on-one matchup has been created, teammates should move away from the ball and away from the basket.
If iso isn’t working, you can bring a screener to help. When James Harden played for the Houston Rockets, one of their most popular plays started like an Iso play. Harden had possession at half-court while his teammates spread around the three-point line. If he needed help, he’d ask his center to set a screen between half-court and the top of the key.
The other three teammates would remain in position on the three-point line. Once his center (usually Clint Capela) set a screen, Harden would blow past both defenders and rush toward the rim. If one of the three remaining defenders tried to stop the ball, Harden would pass to the teammate whose defender had just moved.
The 2018 Rockets succeeded so much from this play, that they won 65 games and had the highest offensive rating in the NBA. Isolation shouldn’t be your team’s only offensive play. Sometimes, though, you just need to get the ball to your best player and let them create a shot. It could result in a highlight!