Definition: A weak-side defensive rotation in which multiple defenders swap matchups to guard open perimeter players, literally creating an “X” in their paths of recovery.
Explanation: Two-Nine, Trap The Box, Sink and Fill: The four essential components of isolation help defense. In a traditional dribble penetration scenario, these defensive movements happen sequentially until everyone recovers back to his original man. But what if a kick-out to the three-point line induces another rotation? NBA defenses handle this by “x-ing out.”
During these help rotations, four out of five (excluding the on-ball defender) defenders are no longer specifically tasked with guarding their man. The trap-the-box man doubles the ball. The sink man jumps onto the trap-the-box man’s assignment. The fill guy might have to pick up to an open cutter or three-point shooter. While it’s ideal for everyone to return to their matchups on the kick-out, it’s not always possible. X-ing out, the final rotation piece, makes sure that everyone is guarded.
How To X-Out
Let’s return, for a moment, to an example from the sink-and-fill dictionary entry. Below, Tyson Chandler of the Phoenix Suns traps the box, Tyler Ulis sinks, and P.J. Tucker fills. When Paul George of the Indiana Pacers fires a cross-court pass to Jeff Teague, everyone returns to their original matchups: Chandler slides back to Myles Turner, Ulis scampers out to Jeff Teague, and P.J. Tucker finds Monta Ellis.
Now consider a parallel situation, with DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings driving from the right slot. Tarik Black of the Los Angeles Lakers traps the box, and his teammate Brandon Ingram sinks onto Kosta Koufos.
If this were the Phoenix play from above, Ingram would return to his man, Aaron Afflalo, in the weak-side corner, and D’Angelo Russell would stay on his guy, Darren Collison, who is on the left slot. But the process of recovery can be messy. The trap-the-box man can get stuck too close to the rim, or get pinned inside trying to prevent a dump-off pass.
In this situation, Ingram reacts slowly to Cousins’ pass to Afflalo in the corner. Russell, seeing this delay, immediately sprints out to Afflalo. In response, Ingram changes his path to Collison on the left slot. As seen by the green lines, their paths of recovery create an X.
This type of x-out — the trap-the-box and fill guy swapping matchups — is the most traditional when defenses scramble. The rotation itself is clean and straightforward. But unlike other portions of help defense, it isn’t prescribed: Most coaches don’t want their defenders switching unnecessarily. The x-out, therefore, is a read-and-react situation in which defenders are trusted to make a right and instantaneous decision. On this particular play, Ingram ends up guarding three players in a matter of seconds.
As evidenced by Ingram’s movements, we can see that he doesn’t execute this x-out smoothly. Despite getting a slow start, he still tries to get back to Afflalo. It’s only when he sees Russell well ahead of him that he changes course.
This is why better defenders yell “X” (or whatever specific defensive cue is assigned by that team) to signal the rotation. Ingram’s eyes are focused on the ball when Cousins drives. He cannot see the weak side. When he whips his head around to follow the ball, Russell should already be yelling so Ingram doesn’t waste any steps. Although his length allows him to contest the Collison shot anyway, those two steps toward the corner could have cost the Lakers three points.
Sometimes the chaos of drive-and-kick plays demands more complex rotations. At this point in a play, hard and fast rules give way to general guidelines. Discussing the form of an x-out in particular comes down to discussing where the trap-the-box man goes. In the most common x-out, he moves one pass away from the corner kick-out to the wing. In all other scenarios, the trap-the-box man rotates out to the perimeter player furthest from the ball. While he might be able to rotate to one pass away from the kick-out, there is often someone even closer than he. This is how the three-man kickout evolves.
Here it is in practice, with Phoenix defending the Dallas Mavericks. Seth Curry beats Eric Bledsoe down the right slot, which induces Phoenix center Alex Len to trap the box. This in turn forces Dragan Bender to sink onto Len’s man, Dwight Powell.
Curry, facing intense pressure at the rim, kicks the ball out. Phoenix must now scramble to find shooters as the ball pings around. Curry hits teammate Nicolas Brussino on the left wing. Bender, whose momentum is carrying him toward the rim, will have to pivot and turn 180 degrees to get back to his man. Given that this is unlikely, a new chain reaction emerges. P.J. Tucker leaves Dirk Nowitzki at the top of the key to cover for Bender; Leandro Barbosa leaves Deron Williams in the right corner to take Nowitzki. Bender, seeing the multi-part rotation unfolding in front of him, changes sides of the floor to greet Williams as he slides up the three-point line. Although the matchups get jumbled, everyone gets covered.
Barbosa ends up being the one contesting the shot by Nowitzki. These types of scramble closeouts are one of the most difficult in basketball. While it might be best for him to run Nowitzki off the three-point line (considering his long distance prowess) by sprinting at him, he decides to protect against the drive. It is always easiest for an offensive player to penetrate against a defender who is running at him. Defenders compensate by slowing their momentum down as they approach the shooter. Barbosa probably doesn’t play this one correctly as he should know that a Nowitzki three-pointer is far more deadly than a Nowitzki drive, but this play is nonetheless emblematic of the split-second decison-making defenders face. Not only does Barbosa have to rotate properly, he has to process and react to the strengths of his new man instantaneously. This is hard, and it’s where defensive possessions crumble.
What Barbosa does get right, however, is the angle at which he approaches Nowitzki. Remember that defenses are built on a no-middle premise. By pushing Dirk to his left, he’s forcing him to his weak hand while also giving himself a chance to defend it. Should he contest across Nowitzki’s face, Nowitzki’s natural driving path would be through the middle.
Now let’s take a look at the inverse scenario, in which it makes sense for Lou Williams of the Lakers to fly by Sam Dekker of the Houston Rockets across his body. Notice how, because of Williams’ angle of contest, it would force Dekker to drive to the baseline side. Although he fires a three-point shot, the defense is actually set up perfectly to trap-the-box, sink and fill once again.
This is how it works in a perfect help defense world: Trap the box, sink, fill, x-out (if necessary), trap the box, sink, fill, x-out (if necessary) over and over and over. By constantly closing out to the inside, the defense funnels the offense into manageable rotations. And by continually forcing the next drive and the next kick, it’s likely the offense will eventually throw a bad pass or have to reset.
Film Study: “X-Out”
Below is a video compilation of various examples of defenders xing-out. As the last component of help defense, also visible should be the trap the box, sink and fill rotations as well. Now that you know all the pieces in play, the chaos should appear somewhat more organzied. Also pay attention to the angle of the closeouts of the xing-out defender. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s not. See if you can spot the difference.