Before we start, let’s check out this video of top iso moments in basketball to get a vivid picture of the play:
What Does Iso Mean in Basketball?
Iso in basketball is a play whereby the ball handler is isolated in a position on the court, putting his defender in a one-on-one confrontation. In these confrontations, teammates don’t typically help the offensive player. That means no ball screens, handoffs, or backdoors to beat the opponent. It’s just you, the offensive player, against the defender.
Why the Iso Play?
It’s a Relatively Safe Play
Isolation play is a safe technique that players and coaches typically fall back on to get the upper hand. It’s often a basic, safe decision rather than a smart one, but it sometimes holds the entire game by a thread.
Been Here for a Long Time
Iso play has been an integral part of NBA basketball for a long time and will probably continue to be in years to come. It’s fun to see play out, especially when some of the best athletes in the game go at each other. At this point, iso-ball has become part of the NBA’s offense game.
In some games, a team’s moves could break down. In such situations, the iso is the most logical point of attack. Some players have also gotten fond of the playstyle, making it a regular part of their game. Ballers like Harden are known to use the iso even when they’re other options available.
Pros and Cons of the Iso
If a team has talented offensive players, iso plays can yield some significant benefits. On the other hand, there are cons if you cannot take advantage of the benefits. Check out the pros and cons of iso-ball below:
Landing Open Shots
Some ball handlers open up space in the court when they play one-on-one, giving them opportunities to make shots from a distance. In most of the isolation scenarios, the defenders play to protect the lane.
If a player gets past an opponent in a one-on-one confrontation, they have to dunk at the basket or have an open lay-up. This is why defenders often try to make sure the lane stays closed and prevent damage from dribbling. The effort in protecting the lane is what allows offensive players to have space to take open shots.
Easier Reach to the Rim
In an iso moment, the most skilled player usually takes control of the ball; this is the person making the essential shots. During the play, the stronger offensive players contact the weaker, defensive players giving them a higher chance of success. Since offensive players typically control the game’s pace, it might be easier for them to get the weaker defenders off their backs and the ball to the rim for the finish.
Takes Advantage of Help to Create Open Shots
A common counter-style some teams use for the iso play is sending another defender to assist the isolated one. In such scenarios, the offensive team can take advantage of the open player due to the extra defender. With enough practice, they can figure out good spots to make excellent shots so that even with the defenders lurking, they can quickly get the ball in a threatening position.
This playstyle makes it easier for strong and intelligent players to create contact and get fouls from their opponents. To this effect, most offensive players are taught to attack the rim when in isolation because it might lead to the defensive player committing a foul or giving up an easy basket. If the offensive player is capable enough, they can get the defenders shaken, so they lose their balance and attack them as they move towards the rim.
Since many defenders are not in isolation plays, they have more time to rest throughout the play if their marks are stagnant. The opponents might use this opportunity to rest on the defense and boost their offense. Teams practice defending isolation plays to make each other open even if the ball isn’t in their court, so they can counter when they get a chance.
Left out Players
Continuous use of the iso in games can leave some players out of the offensive plays and make them feel demoralized. Since basketball is a team sport, leaving some players out of the game on the offense might make them feel less relevant to the team. This could develop and worsen, especially if the isolated player keeps making turnovers or does not make shots.
Tired Player in Important Game Moments
Since the vital player/players are continuously used in isolation plays throughout the game, they might get worn out fast. As the game approaches the end, players who used isolation plays constantly may not perform optimally.
Top 5 Iso Players of All-Time in the NBA
1. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
You cannot talk about iso play in the NBA today without mentioning James Harden. In the 2019-2020 season (while he was still with the Houston Rockets), he had an average playtime of 37.5 minutes, meaning he spends a lot of time on the field. He is regarded as one of the most offensive players, which is often a huge boost for his team. His diverse moves, incredible ball handling, quick dribble, crossover, and fake shot are outstanding, making him an excellent iso player. Stats places his iso goals at an average of 12 per game, and he scores an average of 17 points each game.
2. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
By simply watching a few of his games, you can see the raw skill Kyrie possesses. His ball-handling abilities and lateral moves are off the charts, and he makes a fantastic iso player. About 14% of all his plays are iso ball, with a goal percentage of 39.5%. Kyrie consistently shines in every game, showing other ballers a template for a fantastic iso player.
3. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Yes, it’s bonkers that the Nets have three players in the top 5 iso ballers in the NBA. However, that’s the reality of their 2021 franchise. Durant’s skillset is the ideal combination for excellent iso plays. His shooting accuracy is unmatched, and he is widely regarded as one of the best finishers on the rim, most notably by contact. His stats rest on 1.05 points per possession in 2.5 isolation confrontations per game. He has an impressive score in 48% of all his isos, hitting a shooting foul in 17.9% of them and converting 5.9%.
4. LeBron James, LA Lakers
LeBron has perfected his signature playstyle, and that is why he takes this spot. Even though the whole team doesn’t rely heavily on him, he is still undoubtedly one of the league’s best iso players. He has an impressive 111 points from these plays, which doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. He is known for his remarkable physicality and fantastic skill, often bullying players that stand in his way.
5. Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers – Retired (RIP Legend)
Kobe was one of the greatest closers in the league and was one of the best isolation scorers. Even though he changed his game slightly in the 2010-2011 season to be more post-oriented, his past feats cannot be forgotten. In the same season, he scored 41.9 percent of his isolation plays. Kobe was known for his unmatched instincts that consistently put him ahead of others. His ball-handling was A+, and hitting the fadeaway under pressure was his move, which allowed him to dominate defenders in iso situations.
How to Set Up Iso Plays
Positioning the Right Players
Teammates on the court can still affect the iso play, albeit indirectly. Coaches should put players on the court that will be difficult for the opponents to leave open. Surrounding the isolation player with shooters will make it more difficult for the opponents to leave shooters open to double teams.
Ball handlers should start iso players in the court areas that they are most vital. For example, if a team has ball handlers that are great at attacking the rim or making open shots comfortably from the center of the court, they should start iso plays from there.
Teams should develop unique signals while practicing so they can start iso plays without the need for any verbal cues. It is harder for the opponents to understand signs so that they won’t make a counter.
Setting it Up for the Right Defender
Iso plays work with matching a stronger offensive player with a weaker defensive player. Pick-and-rolls can put the opponents in a position to make that switch, so the weaker defender and the ball handler end up in a confrontation.
3 Ways to Become a Better Iso Baller
Knowing how to handle the ball to excellent levels is an integral part of being an iso baller. You should practice good ball-handling techniques to learn how to act in isolation confrontations. Your dribbling skills must be top-notch so that you can keep the ball away from the defender, even in confined spaces.
Iso play is about getting over a player in one-on-one plays. Practicing one-on-one confrontations will help develop skills to stand out in scenarios like that. Spend a lot of time repeating one-on-one drills with friends, and you will get more comfortable with it.
Taking Contested Shots
Iso plays give players space to get their shots off, but it doesn’t mean defenders won’t contest them. Practice and work on knocking shots off the dribble to get better at them. Since there will be hands launching to block the ball, practice frequent shots with defenders coming at you. Jump shot technique such as the fadeaway is very effective in such situations because it helps you create space and draw the defender into making a foul.
The iso ball is an integral part of NBA games, even with numbers showing the inefficiency of the play style. With the right team combination, it can be a fun ride that reiterates basketball’s best qualities. We’ll never forget Kobe Bryant Game Tying Three Vs Pistons 2004 Finals with 2 seconds on the clock. It’s legendary moments like this that make the iso a big part of basketball.