What Is Isolation in Basketball?

What Is Isolation in Basketball?

Isolation is a type of offensive play used against man-to-man defense. The idea is to give the ball handler room to play one-on-one against an inferior defender by preventing the remaining defenders from joining the play. This gives the intended shooter a better chance to shake his defender free for a jump shot or a drive to the basket. Teams try to get the ball into the hands of one of their best shooters for this play, as exemplified by the Lakers' crunch-time offenses with Kobe Bryant controlling the ball.

Setting Up the Play

The spacing of the offense is the key to making an isolation play work. The biggest players should position themselves low along the baseline, with guards moving toward the three-point line. As a player dribbles the ball into the offensive zone, the remaining offensive players need to open enough room for the ball handler to effectively play one-on-one against his defender. At the same time, they need to be far enough apart to ensure that there are viable passing lanes should the defense opt to double-team the shooter.


Once the isolation play is set up, an offensive player cuts toward the player dribbling the ball into the zone, who then passes it to the cutting player. The remaining offensive players tie up their defenders, giving the ball handler extra time to play against his lone defender. If another defender shakes his man and double-teams the intended shooter, the offensive player passes the ball to his newly open teammate, ideally giving him a chance for an easy basket.

When to Run an Isolation Play

An isolation play can be ideal when the shot clock is running down and the offense needs to quickly set up a high-percentage shot. Running an isolation play is also a good tactic to use when a defender is on the verge of fouling out. The player is likely to defend more passively than normal, giving the ball handler a greater chance to score. If he doesn't, the ball handler has an excellent chance to draw a foul, removing the defender from the game.

Ball Handler Attributes

The player bringing the ball into the offensive zone needs to be patient and cognizant of the shot clock but collected enough to allow the rest of the offense to get into position before setting the isolation play into motion. The intended shooter needs to be skilled enough to evade the opponent while able to read the other defenders and be alert to an imminent double-team. Ball hogs are often poor choices for spearheading an isolation play. If the intended shooter gets double-teamed, he needs to be enough of a team player to pass to the open player instead of taking a low-percentage shot.