Fan or funnel? Analyzing which man defense works best By Matt Andrews, contributing writer

How many times have you heard coaches shout during a key defensive possession, “Don’t give up the baseline!” It’s a phrase that rings in every player’s ears at one time or another?

basketball funnel defenseStill, other coaches beg and plead with their teams to protect the lane; “No middle, no middle — force the ball outside,” they’ll scream. These statements are at the heart of a defensive debate that has raged for decades: Which man-to-man defensive approach is best — fan or funnel?

Funnel defense

To answer this question, one must first understand that generations of coaches — almost from the game’s inception — believed that the defense should prevent the dribbler from driving toward the baseline. This long-standing theory suggested that defenses should invite the ball into the middle of the floor, surround it, provide help from both sides, and keep the ball in front of the defense at all times. This is known as the “funnel” approach.

DIAGRAM 1: The funnel approach. One of the concerns the funnel style of defense is the idea of preventing the ball from getting to the (perceived) weakest point in the defense — the baseline. Another concern was allowing players to become isolated on a particular side while defending a ball handler.

DIAGRAM 2: Funnel toward the middle. A funnel system “allows” the ball handler to penetrate to the middle of the floor.

DIAGRAM 3: Funnel surrounds the ball handler. Middle drives trigger the defense to surround the ball.

Fan defense

During the 1970s and 1980s, another theory, which was polar opposite to the funnel approach, received broader acceptance. This approach, called “fan” defense, relied on forcing the dribbler to a side, taking away half the floor and eliminating half of a team’s offensive options. The idea was preventing them from effectively executing their offense.

fan defense basketball

In the fan approach, the ball is forced outside of the lane and to one side of the floor. It’s then contained on that side, with the weak side now becoming the definitive help side. If the ball handler picks up the dribble, the ball is denied from being reversed to the opposite side of the floor and, the ball handler is trapped.

DIAGRAM 4: Fan approach. Force the ball outside of the lane.

DIAGRAM 5: Fan to either side of the floor.

DIAGRAM 6: Fan style triggers help-side rotations. Passes on the perimeter trigger the weak-side rotations and players automatically know how to rotate. With the advent of the fan system, the defensive concerns that were addressed included:

  • Preventing guards from constantly penetrating the lane and breaking down the defense.
  • Relieving post defenders of their duty as being solely responsible for “discouraging” all dribble penetration.
  • Limiting a primary cause of foul trouble for interior defenders.

What works best?

So, which way is the best method for structuring your man-to-man defense? Should you fan or funnel the dribbler? How do you decide what approach will be most successful in your program?

The decision really depends on two equally important factors — your personnel and your perspective.

√ Personnel. The first consideration should always be the type of players on your team. Do you have several long-armed, quick-reacting post defenders who have the innate ability to block and change multiple shots without fouling?

If you do, before anything else, consider yourself fortunate. Then, decide which defensive approach makes sense for your team. Since you have interior size and depth, either approach works, though many coaches take the low-risk approach and instruct their players to funnel the ball handler to the middle and expect their shot-blocking post defenders to “erase” a multitude of mistakes.

Conversely, if you have players with comparable athleticism, experience and skills, a fan approach may be the best method — especially if the defenders are considered undersized relative to the majority of your opponents.

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Since, in this case, we’re examining a situation where all the players are similar in size and ability, forcing any one of them to turn back all penetration or shots is illogical. Forcing the dribbler to a side, fronting the low post, and denying ball reversals via dribble or pass can cause major difficulties for even the most talented teams.

In the event players need to rotate, size shouldn’t be an issue. Defensive recognition and reaction time for rotating are the most important issues to consider.

√ Perspective. The second consideration, unfortunately, often supersedes the first. This consideration is the coach’s belief system and perspective on the game. If a coach can’t put their heart and mind into teaching a specific tactic or concept to the team, it will not be successful.

basketball defense fan or funnel
Photo: John Feinberg

Teaching a new defensive tactic and having patience throughout the learning curve allows the team an opportunity to embrace the defense and become proficient in its execution.

Many coaches don’t trust new concepts, especially when they feel no reason to change what has been working. Usually, the difficulty in adapting to a new strategy occurs when it’s contrary to a pre-existing concept that a coach has had success with over many seasons. It’s easier to try a new strategy when the current one isn’t yielding the desired results.

Therefore, if you don’t believe 100 percent in a concept or approach, stick with what you do believe.

Don’t underestimate how much a change in tactics to fit personnel can enhance a team’s playing style. Teams that have always played a half-court, pound-it-inside offensively and take no risks defensively may find themselves in a season where they have smaller-sized players but possess great perimeter speed and skill. This may be the perfect time to change from a half-court to a fast-break offense and an extended-pressure defensive system.

Or, programs that rely on substituting five players at a time to wear down opponents with constant defensive pressure and create multiple possessions (at the expense of offensive teaching and efficiency), may find that they only go six, seven or eight deep in productive players during a given year. At that point, a low-risk defense and offensive efficiency may outweigh the defensive gambling.

System coaches vs. flexible coaches

Too many coaches fall into the doldrums of being with the same program season after season. For years, they’ll use their system because they don’t see the need to teach anything new, or they don’t have the desire or energy to attempt change.

If this is the case, these coaches should look in the mirror and ask themselves one question: “Am I taking away from my players’ experience in the program by remaining so rigid and system-oriented?”

If the answer to this question is yes, then it may be time for these coaches to freshen their approach by attending clinics, speaking to other coaches or by bringing in new assistants. New assistants may infuse the staff with enthusiasm and a much-needed change in perspective and teaching methods. Or it might even be time to step aside and let someone else try to bring vitality back to the program.

Dean Smith stated in his book, Multiple Offense and Defense, that there are basically two types of coaches — system coaches and flexible coaches. System coaches never change; every year they run the same offenses, defenses, etc., forcing players to change to fit the system.

Flexible coaches are open-minded teachers who assess the strengths and weaknesses of their respective rosters prior to each season. They change their teaching of strategy and tactics to fit what their players do best.

I’d rather be a hard-working student of the game, who thinks of his or her players first, teaches too much and never forces “round” players into a “square” style of play. It makes far more sense for one person to change when needed, than for 12 to 15 people to change.

When it comes to choosing a fan or funnel approach to your man-to-man defense, take a look at your personnel and assess their abilities and deficiencies. Try to determine if you can live with the necessary changes for an entire season. You may get the results you’re looking for with the change in defensive tactics.





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