The flow of its game was lost, the NBA concluded this summer. Pushing and shoving had replaced fluidity and athleticism as the league's signature. With the hope of restoring aesthetic appeal, league officials voted recently on major rule changes designed to enhance the rhythm of the game. The rules probably will, in the process, bring scoring up from last year's yawn-inducing average of 91.6 points per game--down 10 points from just four years previous.
There remains, however, another flow-of-the-game issue, a different interruption of continuity from which the league is still trying to recover. The league's greatest ambassador in its 52-year history, Michael Jordan, retired last January. The move coincided with the end of a three-month lockout caused by a labor dispute that delayed the start of the 1998-99 season. Suddenly, the NBA and its players, mourning the retirement of the league's biggest draw, were facing another reason for fans to stay home.
Not surprisingly, the length of the NBA season wasn't the only thing that shrank last year. Crowds fell off by 2.3 percent. TV ratings numbers at the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs plummeted compared with the previous season--when Jordan was playing for his sixth and final championship.
"I think there is a little bit of an identity crisis going on now in the NBA," said Phil Jackson, the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
League officials hope this year's rule changes, as well as an increased push for players to sign autographs and interact with fans and a new emphasis on marketing teams rather than individual stars--none of whom, perhaps, ever will replace Jordan--will revive the league's sagging fortunes, propelling the NBA through what already has been a rocky post-Jordan era.
It is as if the league has gone retro. It was in the 1970s and '80s that the NBA was defined by high scores and fast-breaking fluidity. It was also during the '80s that the then-struggling NBA attracted new fans in droves through the exciting, decade-long rivalry between Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird's Boston Celtics, two of the league's legendary teams.
"After the lockout, both teams and players recognized that they had done some real potential damage to business," NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik said. "We would like that [awareness] to continue, not to just make it a one-year phenomenon. . . . All things considered, with what we went through in collective bargaining last year, it was a pretty good year. Attendance held pretty firm. So did TV ratings--before the Finals."
Having enacted an array of fan-friendly post-lockout promotions, league officials were relieved at what seemed to be minimal fallout at the box office when the season resumed in February. The post-labor dispute attendance drop was not nearly as catastrophic as Major League Baseball's--a 20 percent decline the year after its 1994 strike. The average crowd of 16,738 fans at NBA games last year, in fact, was just 3.0 percent lower than the all-time attendance high of 17,252 fans per game during the 1995-96 season.
More disturbing were the television ratings numbers for the NBA Finals after a regular season in which there was a negligible change in TV numbers. The five-game Finals on NBC saw huge declines compared with the Chicago Bulls-Utah Jazz series the season before, drawing 16 million viewers with an average 11.3 rating (percentage of the nation's 99.4 million homes with televisions) and a 21 share (percentage of the televisions in use). During the 1998 Finals, a record 29 million viewers watched, giving the games an 18.7 rating and 33 share.
"That, largely, is the Jordan factor," Granik said about the drop. "I think over time there will be other players, but maybe no one to attract quite the following Michael has had. . . . I think the league, and the networks covering us, have a sense that we should emphasize teams a little more. . . . There will be a concerted effort to promote teams" rather than individual players this season.
As Jordan's career wound down, league officials and even coaches had become concerned at the style of play that seemed to characterize successful teams. A defense-oriented, slow-down approach had become the formula for winning. The Miami Heat's Pat Riley and New York's Jeff Van Gundy emphasized an extremely physical style based on the league's liberal forearm checking rules. And even Jackson, whose high-scoring Bulls were masters of a free-flowing offense, preached the importance of defense.
Other teams with dominant big men, such as the Lakers with Shaquille O'Neal, operated offenses that seemingly involved nothing more than passing the ball inside, and perhaps back outside, as players rotated along the perimeter and the shot clock ticked down--not very flashy or fancy stuff. The result was a meteoric drop in scoring over the last several years.
"I think the changes are necessary," said Celtics Coach Rick Pitino. "I think the game was going in the wrong direction. . . . I think it was broken and needed to be fixed."
Said Danny Ainge, the former Celtic who is now the coach of the Phoenix Suns: "The game had become very unappealing, even for me. It's not a pretty game when your biggest and strongest players win, and the players with the skills are left out because they're not strong enough."
The most significant rule changes were designed to eliminate the forearm checking that had been used to contain offensive players and the lengthy back-in moves used by post players to get into position to score. The forearm checks have been banned, and players who receive the ball in the post now have five seconds during which to make their moves.
"In the long run, it's going to be very beneficial to the game from an entertainment standpoint," said Milwaukee Bucks General Manager Ernie Grunfeld.
"I do believe scoring will go up," Riley said. "I don't think you are going to see as many 75-point games and 35 percent field goal percentage games."
Meantime, the league has at its marketing disposal a San Antonio team featuring an incredible front line of David Robinson and Tim Duncan; the Knicks with quick guards Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell and an aging Patrick Ewing; the Portland Trail Blazers loaded with an awesome assortment of standouts in Scottie Pippen, Detlef Schrempf, Steve Smith, Damon Stoudamire and Rasheed Wallace; the Houston Rockets with Charles Barkley--playing what he says is his final season--and Hakeem Olajuwon; the Lakers with O'Neal and Kobe Bryant; and the Minnesota Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett and Terrell Brandon.
A professional league's success will always be measured in crowd size, so league officials hope last year's blip in attendance is nothing more than that--a blip.
"There's got to be a concern," Jackson said, "that we can keep fans interested in basketball by developing and enhancing the image of our game."