Basketball Isolation Plays

Great basketball coaches have several offensive play designs that they switch among, giving their players as many opportunities to score as possible. The isolation play is a design that was once popular for utilizing exceptionally strong scorers. Keep reading to learn more about isolation plays in basketball.

What Is an Isolation Play in Basketball?

Isolation plays, also known as ISO plays, are offensive plays designed to create one-on-one game situations. An isolation play’s goal is to score purely based on a player’s offensive skills (or another player’s lack of defensive skills). In an isolation play, usually the team’s most talented scorer gets the ball while their teammates spread the court to give them space. That way, the player with the ball and their defender truly get isolated and have space to play one-on-one.

ISO plays are great when there is little time left on the game clock at the end of a quarter or game. In that scenario, the team’s best and most decisive player will be the one in isolation. Every coach should use some isolation plays in their playbook. However, ISOs are not appropriate at all times during a game, and are not always effective; let's look at the pros and cons of ISO plays.

Pros of Isolation Plays

There are lots of advantages to isolation plays and why they are effective in a basketball game. Here are the reasons why ISO plays should be in your playbook:

  • Your best player, who you trust to make shots, gets the ball.
  • You control the pace of the defense by making it a one-on-one situation.
  • You have a high chance of success if you create a player mismatch.

Cons of ISO Plays

There are a few reasons why you should consider not using ISO plays in your playbook:

  • You become too reliant on one player; they could get injured, tired, foul out, or tightly guarded.
  • Building out your roster's depth is important for the long-term growth of the team.
  • Isolation plays are predictable, so the defense may double team on your best player and force a turnover.
  • Isolation plays aren't very effective against zone defense.

Isolation Play Types

There are limitless possibilities for how to set up an isolation play, but the core concept remains the same. If you can create a one-on-one situation with your best player, you have a great chance of success. Here is a list of isolation play types you can incorporate in your playbook:

  • Use cuts like v-cuts, l-cuts, and backdoor cuts, to get the dribbler open on the court.
  • Use screens like double screens, back screens, or cross screens to confuse defenders.
  • Design ISO plays around the perimeter, wings, and corners of the court.
  • Design ISO plays that have your best player drive towards the basket for an easy layup.

Player Mismatches in ISO Plays

basketball mismatch

ISO plays are most effective when teams take advantage of player mismatches. Coaches attempting to run an ISO play will typically use a combination of screens to force defenders to switch matchups, creating a mismatch. When a mismatch is obvious on the court, it's a good sign for running an ISO play. When designing an isolation play around a player mismatch, look at the following things:

  • Size advantage
  • Height advantage
  • Quickness and speed
  • Number of player fouls

How to Setup ISO Plays

To set up an isolation play in basketball, you need to draw defenders away from the basket and from the dribbler. The best way to set up isolation plays is with a combination of screens and cuts, such as the ones mentioned above. Coaches should follow these steps when planning their isolation plays:

  1. Understand what defensive formation is being utilized (i.e., zone or man-to-man).
  2. Know your players’ strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Decide which player should get the ball, preferably the most talented scorer.
  4. Find a player mismatch by exposing the opposing team's weaknesses. Look for things like height, speed, and foul limits.
  5. Draw defenders away from the dribbler with a combination of screens and cuts.

Isolations at the End of the Game

Isolation shots at the end of games are the toughest because the game clock is winding down. The offensive player has to be able to make their move in time to get the shot off and potentially win the game before time runs out. The coach can put the ball in the best player's hands at the end of the game and live with the result, whether they make the game winner or miss the potential winning shot.

Examples of Great Isolation Players

Some great isolation players taking the last shot are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Damian Lillard, and Kyrie Irving. These players are dangerous end-of-game isolation shot-takers and makers. For example, Jordan and Bryant had a killer instinct that was unmatched, and they were renowned for making game-winning shots. Another classic example is Irving, who is a ball-handling wizard and can shoot the ball exceedingly well. That combination is deadly for a defensive player. Most recently, Damian Lillard has twice hit a series-winning shot in the NBA postseason.


What does ISO mean in basketball?

In basketball, ISO is an abbreviation for an isolation play. These plays involve getting the ball to the best offensive player while the remaining players draw the defense away, creating a one-on-one matchup. ISO plays were traditionally used by teams with exceptional players, but they have fallen out of favor in the modern NBA as the overall level of play has risen.

When are isolation plays most effective?

Isolation plays are most effective when you have a player mismatch. Since the core of an isolation play is to draw the defense into a one-on-one situation, isolation plays work best when you can match a larger and more skilled player against a smaller and weaker defender. The more distinct the mismatch, the better chances of success.