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The Top Five

Counting down the most influential rule changes in history

Posted: Thursday November 18, 2004 4:45PM; Updated: Thursday November 18, 2004 4:52PM
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Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain's dominance in the lane forced NBA big men to take their games farther from the hoop.
Ken Regan/ NBAE/ Getty Images

On those rare occasions when the NFL or Major League Baseball modifies its rules, worshipful purists liken it to Armageddon. The battle over the designated hitter, for example, is likely to rage into eternity. But pro basketball, perhaps because it has never been No. 1 in the hearts and minds of American fans and seeks constantly to strengthen its foothold in the culture, is a veritable laboratory. League and team execs, with input from the coaches, get together almost every year to at least consider changes, and, down through the years, quite a few have been made.

This season, under mandate from the parent NBA, the National Basketball Developmental League (the sports equivalent of C-Span in terms of viewership) is experimenting with the 3-point shot, making it count only in the final five minutes of the game. The NBA wants to see if it brings the mid-range game back into vogue and somehow increases scoring. As our weekly Fab Fives continue, herewith the five most influential rule changes in NBA history:

1.The zone defense is outlawed when the Basketball Association of America (the NBA's predecessor) begins play in 1946, then made legal again (with some restrictions) before the '01-02 season.

Those are two changes masquerading as one, of course, but then, there is no simple way to discuss the NBA's long and tortured relationship with the Z-word. Like the aforementioned designated hitter, the zone will be the NBA's eternal talking point, the debate that won't go away. The initial injunction against it recognized the need for making the league a place where one-on-one offensive skills were of primary importance. The later relaxing of zone rules recognized that coaches had found so many ways to counter illegal defense rules (primarily by isolation plays) that the game was becoming an aesthetic disaster. And the tinkering will continue.

2. Width of the foul lane doubled from six to 12 feet before the '51-52 season and increased again to 16 feet before the '61-62 season.

This was one of the most overlooked rule changes in history. Both were occasioned by the dominance of big men, George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers in the first case, Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors in the second. League officials, wisely, did not want stationary giants camped around the basket. The wider lane forced centers to develop legitimate skills that enabled them to operate far from the basket. And so the NBA, for its first few decades, came to be defined by pivotmen who had hustle to go along with muscle.

3. The twenty-four second shot clock is installed before the '54-55 season.

Next to the dissolution of the center jump after every basket, the clock is the most significant rule change in basketball history. And it was certainly the one that saved an NBA dying under rough play and offenses that put fans to sleep by freezing the ball. To reach what turned out to be the magic number of 24, Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals, simply divided the number of shots taken in a typical game, 120, into the time played, 48 minutes, or 2,880 seconds.

The effect was electric and immediate. Teams routinely began scoring more than 100 points, fan interest was renewed and "24" became the number that defined pro hoops.

(Another rule change -- limiting the number of fouls a team could commit in a quarter before a bonus free throw was awarded -- came in with the shot clock. It, too, was important in reducing the butcher-block style of play that defined the early '50s.)

4. The 3-point shot is adopted before the '79-80 season.

As with most things connected to their rivals, the NBA turned up its nose when, first, the ill-fated American Basketball League in '61, then the more legit American Basketball Association (ABA), in '67, began awarding an extra point for a long shot. But by '79 several ABA products were coaching in the NBA, and they convinced the NBA pooh-bahs that the trey was the way. The NBA really started to dig it in '86 when it added a 3-point contest to All-Star Weekend festivities. Hey, if it can be marketed, the NBA's for it.

5. The length of time offenses have to get the ball to midcourt is reduced from 10 seconds to eight before the '01-02 season.

I concede that this is a bit of a stretch; the rule has not yet had as much impact as I thought it would. But it's already accomplished one thing -- cutting out most of the transition-stopping dialogue that once went on between point guard and coach. The ball handler no longer has the time to look toward the bench.

But somewhere down the line this rule change will become important. A wise coach is bound to install a suffocating full court zone, after both makes and misses, that will severely handicap a team's ability to make it to midcourt before a violation is whistled. And if the time limit goes from eight seconds to seven (which has been discussed and which I favor), it will become even more significant.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum covers the NBA for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.