What is the Meaning of Iso In Basketball?

By Max Kesler

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isolation play situation in basketball

Watching a basketball game can lead to seeing a lot of different plays. While different teams have different offensive styles, there are two plays that you’re going to see no matter the team you’re watching. The pick and roll and the iso.

Pick and roll is one of those “easy to learn, hard to master” plays that looks deceptively simple but it can be spiced up with a lot of wrinkles and nuances that creative coaches are introducing to the game. The screening player can “pop” for a shot instead of rolling to the rim or slip the screen entirely to catch the defense off guard. Variations such as the Spain pick and roll introduce a third player into the mix. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The iso, short for isolation, is a lot simpler. Here’s the executive summary – give the ball to player X and get the hell out of his way. The most common spots to start the iso are either at the top or the three-point line or in the post. 

The remaining four offensive players usually all go behind the arc to space the floor as much as possible and create a one-on-one situation between their star ball handler and his defender.

When are ISO plays most effective?

While some teams have successfully relied on iso basketball as their primary form of offense, it’s usually a bit controversial. Even with the most skilled iso players, stopping the ball and waiting for a one-on-one showdown is an inefficient scoring method compared to moving the ball as a team to get ahead of the defense.

Depending too heavily on your superstar iso player will also mean your team is at the mercy of his health and form, and over time opponents will find ways to adapt and overcome the predictable nature of iso plays.

However, iso basketball is definitely an effective strategy when the time calls for it. The most obvious one being late-game situations.

Iso makes it easier to run the clock down shoot at the buzzer than running another play where you don’t get to control the pace of the defense. This is one of the reasons isolation is the most frequently run quarter-ending play.

Why are isos so commonly run in the NBA?

Mismatches. Any basketball competition in the world always hunts for mismatches and exploits them without mercy. The NBA is especially guilty of this since it is, was, and always will be, a league of matchups.

Players love going one on one with their defenders, especially when the offensive ball handler is a quick guard and the defender is a slow center. That’s the kind of situation for which iso basketball was born. You just know that the entire offensive team smells blood. Everyone clears out and the guard goes to work.

Isolations can also happen with post ups. Imagive a 7’0”, 260 lbs center posting up a 6’5” 200 pound weaker defender. Every center dreams of this for obvious reasons.

That leads quite well to the second reason, and that is great offense. Don’t get me wrong, the iso itself isn’t always great offense, but the play that develops from it usually is. Let’s go back to our previous two situations. The most obvious outcomes are either a shot at the rim or a foul.

Obviously, no team wants to give up a shot at the rim, especially if the primary defender was badly beaten. One of the remaining defensive players might decide to leave their man to help cut off the drive to the rim. That’s where things get fun because of the spacing the offensive team has created by spreading their players around the three-point line.

Leaving a basketball player who is behind the arc to help under the rim leaves the offensive player wide-open. That’s why the isolating player will usually kick the ball out to that open player. That can lead to an open three or it can trigger a second defensive rotation which is likely to leave another offensive player open.

That rotation is coming from one pass away, so the ball is going to move much quicker that the defense and the defense starts to scramble. Scrambling is chaos, and chaos is easy to take advantage of for any competent five-person roster, let alone one made up of NBA players.

How are isos initiated?

Iso plays are used to exploit mismatches or just poor defenders. Coaches know this, and that’s why they try to hide bad defenders by having them guard lesser threats on offense. No coach in their right mind would cover the opposing team’s best scorer with their worst defender.

On the other hand, no offensive player in their right mind would willingly isolate on defenders such as Ben Simmons or Kawhi Leonard. The question now becomes how to force a player mismatch situation or get the worst opposing defender on your best offensive player.

Forcing a switch with a screen seems like (and usually is) the simplest solution. This is more often than not enough to get you the matchup you want and it works amazingly well against teams that defend screen by always switching.

The story is a bit different in the playoffs. When you need to play at least 4 games against the same opponent, you’re going to prepare much better for their specific style of offense. Players will fight through screens and potentially switch less in the playoffs.

That’s why setting a screen and getting the matchup you want usually doesn’t work unless the defenders are stubbornly holding onto their switching style of defending screens.

In most cases, you’ll see secondary actions and movements being utilized to disguise the main goal of forcing a switch. If you want a good example of how hunting for matchups works in the playoffs, look at the 2016 Finals series between the Cavs and the Warriors. The Cavs were mercilessly hunting for Steph Curry and putting him up against either Irving or James.

Who are the best ISO players in NBA history?

Naturally, most NBA stars you’ve heard of are among the top iso players ever. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are all considered excellent isolation players.

Some players like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, James Harden and Damian Lillard are especially known for isos being their go-to play, while the likes of say, Lebron James, are very capable of it but utilize it slightly less often.

We also shouldn’t forget great post-up isolation players like Shaquille O’Neal or Dirk Nowitzki. Shaq in particular was extremely dangerous as an isolation player, because of his unmatchable physicality in the post, meaning opposing teams had to strategize new ways to play around the big man.

How prevalent is Iso Basketball outside the NBA?

Let me put it like this, nobody is going to say no to a favorable matchup and an easy bucket, but players in international leagues won’t be hunting for them nearly as often as their NBA peers. 

The international game is much less about individual stars and much more about team basketball. The coaches have a lot more authority than in the NBA, so they can and will bench players who don’t adhere to the team’s style of play.

The stars still get some preferential treatment, but nowhere near as much as in the NBA. In my personal opinion, NBA players sometimes force isolation basketball when they’re clearly not the best solution for no other reason than satisfying their personal egos.

You won’t see that nearly as often overseas. So, if you’re a fan of team basketball, I highly suggest you give the European Euroleague a chance. The level of competition is insanely high but with much more team basketball than the NBA.

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Written by Max Kesler

Max Kesler, a Philly native, is the chief editor at HoopsBeast. He has covered the game at NBA and NCAA levels. He hopes to see his beloved 76ers win a championship soon.

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