Basketball is back. Not the season, the game. 'Rasslin' is gone, thankfully, replaced by weaving, cutting, fast-breaking. The rules the NBA adopted over the summer have turned around the league, almost overnight. Pushing, shoving and grabbing had increased a year ago to the point where it threatened to destroy the game's artistry. It was starting to look as if players no longer had polished offensive skills. But two weeks into the season, we're finding out it's simply that those skills were hidden by all that blocking and tackling. Last season only one team averaged 100 points; this season nearly half the teams in the league are averaging 100.
Exhibit A is the Heat. No team more defined the bump-and-grind style of basketball than Miami. Pat Riley was one of the coaches who screamed bloody murder at some of the rules changes when they were proposed. Yet, it is Riley's Heat that has increased its scoring from 89 points per game last season to 112 this season. In last year's 50-game season, Miami reached 100 points only four times, with a high of 102, and scored 85 or fewer in 15 games. In six games this season, Miami has scored 100 five times, and that includes 128 against Dallas Thursday night. Heat guard Tim Hardaway said yesterday, "I love this; it's like the old Pat Riley days with the Lakers."
There were five NBA games Thursday night. Eight of the 10 teams scored more than 100 points. In the lowest-scoring game of the night, Minnesota beat the Knicks, 93-90, which would have been a scoring orgy the last few seasons. So far, scoring is up from 91.6 points per team last year to 98.8 this season. Teams are attempting five more shots per game.
"It's early, but we're encouraged," Rod Thorn, the league's senior vice president of basketball operations, said yesterday. "There's clearly more ball movement, both bodies and the ball. There are more fast breaks, it's a quicker game, it's a more entertaining game. We needed to do something and do it quickly."
The something was calling fouls. If you touch somebody, it's more than likely going to be whistled a foul. There's no ramming your rump into a guy while dribbling for 15 seconds; the whistle blows after five seconds. But it's the calling of fouls that is making the biggest difference. The game has been taken away from the coaches who wanted to treat every 24-second possession like hand-to-hand combat, and given back to the players.
Vernon Maxwell, the 34-year-old sharpshooter, is up to 20 points per game as a role player with Seattle largely because he can get a shot without getting beat up in the process. "I love these games," Maxwell said this week. "No more grabbing and tackling like it's football. Will the refs keep calling the games this way? Yeah, apparently they have to. You know how a guy commits a touch foul and pulls his hand back because he really didn't mean to touch the guy with the ball? Now, the ref says, 'Vernon, I'm sorry, I know it was only a touch foul, but I've got to call it. If I don't call it, I'll get fined.' "
Of the pressure on referees to continue calling the games tight, Thorn said, "We have to make sure our guys don't slide back and let that clutching and grabbing back in."
Of course, calling the game tightly is part of the solution. Taking the game away from overbearing coaches is also part of it. Some coaches, sensing they didn't have many highly skilled players, tried to slow down the game by milking the shot clock and reducing the number of possessions to keep scores close. When some of the most successful coaches went in that direction--Riley, Mike Fratello, Jerry Sloan, Rudy Tomjanovich--the rest followed.
By adopting the new rules, the NBA said in effect: This tactic may work competitively for some teams, but the product is lousy. Not surprisingly, a lot of coaches balked at making changes. "It was not easy," Thorn said of lobbying to clean up the game. "Most people are resistant to change. We had to do quite a selling job." It helped that Commissioner David Stern was adamant. And a June meeting in New York of some of the game's luminaries, while offering a wide range of possible solutions, underscored the impression that the game needed fixing.
It's not perfect. Foul calls are up from 44.4 per game last season to 50.2 per game this season. That means the games take longer (more than six minutes per game) and the flow is often interrupted. But there's no arguing that aesthetically, this is a dramatic improvement.
Flyweight Reggie Miller is like a new man, now that he doesn't have to bounce off people like a pinball to get a shot. Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett, great players already, now find they are virtually unguardable. Iverson scored 46 points Thursday and seems to be sensing there's no way to limit him if you can't touch him. The book on Garnett was to muscle him around, but now the rules say you can't use a forearm to dislodge him--a defender must use his feet. How many forwards can use their feet to beat Garnett to a spot? Entire teams are benefiting, particularly Portland, Minnesota, New York and Milwaukee, because they have multiple players who have the off-the-dribble skills that are tough to defend against without touching. The Knicks have been dramatically transformed from their old three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust style to the Flying Wallendas.
And Riley, who was said to have "fought vigorously" against taking so much physical contact from the game, is doing what he always does: win. Dean Smith used to argue against almost any college basketball rules changes, then go out and use those rules to pound opponents who foolishly thought Smith would be at a disadvantage. Likewise, Riley has done what truly great coaches do: He adapted. He took the very rules he argued against, looked at what he had, and figured out a way for a small but quick Miami team to fit into the new culture. He's ahead of everybody. Riley isn't just coping with this new and improved basketball--he's thriving. So, after the early returns, is the league.