With one of the least artistic championship-series games in recent history as a fresh reminder, it's appropriate that on Tuesday the NBA will gather some of the best minds in basketball to begin figuring out how to fix the game.
What only a few years ago was an aesthetically pleasing showcase of athletic grace has somehow degenerated into a low-scoring, poor-shooting product that often looks more like professional wrestling than professional basketball. If the NBA, by convening this meeting, isn't in a state of red alert, it at least is demonstrating a sense of urgency about addressing what concerns people -- from casual fans to basketball Hall of Famers.
Look for those dozen or so people, including NBA Commissioner David Stern and his deputy, Russ Granik, to make suggestions ranging from the adoption of a wider lane, to eliminating the illegal defense rules, to eliminating hand-checking, to implementing a five-second count. A combination of new rules and measures could be -- I'd argue should be -- adopted before next season.
The two games between the Knicks and Spurs in San Antonio have been an aesthetic nightmare. The Knicks are shooting 35 percent in the series through two games. There's mayhem in the low post, little in the way of creative medium-range offense, and defense that seems to have too much of an advantage over the offense.
"It's not a fluid game at all anymore," Isiah Thomas, the future Hall of Famer and current NBC broadcast analyst, said after Game 2. Thomas, like others who played in the wide-open 1980s, sometimes barely recognizes the game being played now. "It's just evolved into a game where you use all the strength you've got to fight to establish position in the post, the other team double-teams, the offensive player kicks it out and somebody launches a three-pointer," Thomas said. "Something has to be done to clean up the play in the post. The game just can't have this much pushing and holding.
"And something has to be done to free up the offensive players to use their skills. Something has to be done to induce coaches to open up the game and take quicker shots," added Thomas, who will take part in the group meeting Tuesday. "The coaches are suffocating the game. We need something like the NFL did a few years ago, when it decided you can't bump a receiver after five yards from the line of scrimmage. The defense now has too big of an advantage."
What rules to adopt, change, or simply enforce more strictly is one of the biggest topics of conversation during these NBA Finals. Longtime NBA assistant Brendan Malone, in a conversation at the Alamodome on Friday night, mentioned the possibility of reducing from 10 seconds to eight seconds the time allowed to move the ball into the front court. "Chuck Daly's idea," Malone said, "is to force faster play. Also, what about a five-second or four-second count when people are just pounding the ball and backing in below the foul line-extended?"
Jack Ramsay, who coached the Portland Trail Blazers to their only championship and now works for ESPN as an analyst, also has suggested a timed possession count. I'm in favor of it because it would serve two purposes. First, guys such as Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, Mark Jackson and Nick Anderson would be prohibited from hogging the ball for the bulk of the 24 seconds on the shot clock. They would be forced, by rule, to give it up. That creates ball movement. Second, if Shaq only has a few seconds to drive his rump into a defender's stomach, it eliminates some of the slam-dancing that goes on in the low post. Less contact, by rule. Guys who can make quick moves, such as Tim Duncan, would be rewarded. Guys who don't have a quick move had better get one.
The problem with this idea is that the refs would have to count, which would be another thing to keep track of.
Quinn Buckner, first a player, once a coach and now a broadcast analyst, said he'd like to see the same result achieved by using a different method. Buckner is one of many who would like to see the illegal defense rules eliminated altogether, or at least liberalized so that a defender can fake a double-team or come halfway. "Make it so the defense can force it out of the hands of those guys who try and pound it in, rather than legislating it with a five-second count," Buckner said.
Kenny Smith, TNT's analyst and a member of both Houston Rockets championship teams, is one of many who sees whatever legislation is adopted having little chance to survive what coaches are doing to the game. "You know how in grade school you're taught on a fast break to fill the lanes?" Smith said. "Now, coaches have guys fanning out to the three-point line instead of filling the lanes. They sit out and shoot a three-pointer, which is a lower percentage shot. You get so many of those situations per game which aren't converted, and you're losing what used to be easy points. It's one of the reasons games are lower scoring. It's coaching philosophies."
Malone, even though he's a career coach, agreed, calling the illegal defense rule, "like a tax loophole . . . and the coaches are the accountants."
That's why Buckner said, "I'd like to tell you rules changes would help, but I'm in favor of enforcing the rules as they are written."
Not every rule change needs to be radical. Former player and current ESPN analyst Fred Carter says he would like to see the elimination of back-court screens, the illegal defense rule modified so that it is more difficult to double-team, and hand-checking called a foul as it once was.
One of the few basketball writers who knows as much about this as players and coaches is USA Today's David DuPree, who 30 years out of college can still beat some NBA players in H-O-R-S-E. Here's what DuPree says: "Outlaw illegal defenses and widen the lane. It will force ball movement. You widen the lane, it will open the court. Guys who like to back in could only get so close with the wider lane because he'd get called for three seconds. Plus, I'd put an electronic beeper on people. You touch somebody, it's a foul. If an offensive player dislodges somebody the way Shaq and some of these big guys do, that's an offensive foul. Call it."
DuPree and I were trying to figure out how it evolved to this. We watched old games, even games from the mid-1980s, and you could go three-quarters of the game and not see one double-team. "That's because defense was never the primary concern," DuPree said. "Here's a clue about how the NBA felt about defense: The blocked shot wasn't even an official stat until [the 1973-74 season]."
When these playoffs started, I began asking players and coaches -- current and former -- who is to blame (or credit) for the obsession with defense, which has over the last 15 years created the game we see today. Here's the result of my poll: The late 1970s and early 1980s Celtics, John Thompson, Pat Riley, the Bad Boy Pistons.
Hardly anybody agrees on what rules should be adopted, or who is responsible for the direction the game has evolved. But the one thing on which almost everyone agrees is something has to change and maybe that change will begin Tuesday. "Everybody is playing the same way." Brendan Malone said, "and that is no good."