ISO Basketball

What is ISO in Basketball (Isolation Meaning)?

Isolation in basketball, aka ISO, is one maneuver that is yet to face the casket. Despite information coming out against the maneuver, major basketball teams to regular school teams still use it. This may be because it is useful, especially when looking to beat the buzzer. 

ISO refers to when a player faces off with the defender from the opposing team to score. During ISO, the other team members step back, offering no help so that the two opposing members can go mano-a-mano. This strategy typically works if the player seeking to score possesses superior skills compared to his opponent.

How ISO Affects a Game

ISO in basketball is different from typical ball possessions because the offensive team does not make any moves to help the scorer. The offensive team lays off, making cuts to the basket or setting screens. They all basically pull back to give the ball handler the space and focus he requires to beat his opponent.

ISO is not usually effective unless the coach weighs the matchups correctly. Simple miscalculations can lead the ball-handler to underestimate his opponent and lose his shot. A scenario where the ball-handler does not have top-tier dribbling or shooting skills will result in failure. It would be best if the ball handler such as Kevin Durant with superior skills faces a weak defender who is unable to stop him.

Coaches have been drawing up ISO maneuvers for many years, and there are several reasons behind it, but we will focus on the major ones. First, it is among the best methods to score if game time is approaching the end. If the teams are in a tie, you can let the two best players face off.

Another reason to engage in the ISO maneuver will be if the other team’s defense is too weak to keep the other team from scoring. An excellent example of this would in 2006 where Kobe Bryant massacred the defense for 81 points. All Kobe’s team was doing was to feed him the ball and let him score because the defense could not handle him.

ISO in the NBA Currently

There are teams that have thrived off using the three-ball maneuver, such as The Golden State Warriors. They based their defense on off-ball screens to ensure their shooters had easy access to the basket. The Warrior at the time did not put much thought into ISO, and they ended up listed in the bottom five when teams relying on isolation were brought up.

The method enlisted by The Warriors led them to play five consecutive finals and win three championships. Using the three-ball shooting method, The Golden State warriors proved that there were other methods that teams could employ to run successful games apart from isolation.

This does not mean that ISO is ineffective because players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook have built successful careers by employing this maneuver. Isolation can be a deadly weapon for coaches who know how to employ it the right way. High-level scorers are comfortable with the maneuver, but coaches should ensure that it is not the only trick up their sleeves. Using ISO in every game creates predictability which gives the opposing team a competitive edge.

To maximize the benefits of isolation, the team needs to know the perfect time to employ the maneuver. A team running a tight ship game-wise would continue passing the ball and running around normally before suddenly stepping back. The element of surprise would throw the opposing team off their game for a few seconds, which is enough time to score.

A team that utilizes this maneuver to a tee is the San Antonio Spurs. Recently, they run isolation only 5.6% of their games but still managed to dominate when it came to field goals percentage devoid of isolation.

Top ranking ISO Players

James Harden

When people think of isolation in basketball, James Harden pops to mind. The great player took notes from his predecessors like Kobe and Allen Iverson, and he employs ISO very well. Most people would stake a bet that Harden would beat the opposing defender in a mano-a-mano situation.

According to the NBA, between 2019 and 2020, 45% of James Harden’s possessions have been ISO-related. That is a high percentage compared to his fellow teammate, Russell Westbrook, with 25%. While these two players have attained success in the game, their milestones cannot be compared to their peers dominating the league. Championship caliber shooters like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have lower ISO percentages at 17.5% and 14.7%, respectively.

James Harden is not the only one thriving on isolation in Houston because Coach Mike D’Antoni likes to employ isolation in games. In 2020, it seemed that the Houston Rockets are running more isolation games as their top three players had the highest isolation possession percentages. People can correlate the reason Houston hasn’t qualified for the NBA finals because they rely heavily on ISO.

Kyle Irving

Playing for the Brooklyn Nets, Kyle Irving creates impressive shots during his games. His stats are not as impressive as James Harden, but his confidence in his shots is evident. Kyle Irving moves like a protective mother hen when the defense tries to steal the ball from him.

His ISO move consists of lateral steps, outstanding ball-handling skills, and fast speed. Irving is one of the most entertaining players to watch because fans cannot stop gawking at his nifty moves.

Compared to James Harden, Kyle Irvings ISO percentages are not that high as he is operating at about 39% of isolation-related possessions. He is a bit shorter than Harden, so making the perfect shot can be a bit challenging. The fact that he is thriving in ISO makes, despite his height, makes the games even more enjoyable. 

Tips on Becoming a Better ISO Player

Now that you understand a little more about isolation, here are a few tips to guide you on becoming a better ISO player.

  • Perfect Ball Handling

Ball-handling skills can be the difference between winning and losing a game. A shooter with poor ball-handling skills increases the likelihood of the offense prying the ball from them. Mastering tight dribbles and using your off-hand effectively is essential in ISO games. If your ball-handling skills are lacking, put in more practice to hone them.

  • Practice One On One

Practice makes perfect, and playing one on one against a team member or friend is an excellent way to do it. With every ball that you lose to the opponent, you learn what you did wrong. Learning the things that you do wrong and correcting them will improve your isolation game dramatically.

  • Situational Awareness

An ISO maneuver employed at the wrong time is ineffective. As a player, you have to be aware of what is happening on the court as you play. Being aware makes it easy to take advantage of scoring opportunities when they present themselves. 

When you read the game, please communicate with your team members using signs to tell them when to fall back. Being at the right place at the right time is something every player should strive for.


Isolation in basketball is not going anywhere anytime soon, and in fact, it may persist for decades because it is enjoyable to see players face off. Instead of using it as a crutch, teams should use it when required to realize its full effect. If you seek to be one of the great ISO players in the future like James Harden, consistent practice is your friend. Practice those one-on-one matches and grow your confidence in ball handling.

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