Teams face difficult choices when a player demands a trade
By Jack McCallum
It was an ordinary preseason game between the Bucks and Nuggets, except that a swarm of birds seemed to have invaded the World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo. At least that's what one might have thought given all the tweet tweet tweets emanating from the referees' whistles. "It seemed like the game was being stopped every 30 seconds," Bucks forward Keith Van Horn said. Van Horn, like many of his NBA peers, isn't sure what to make of all the fouls being called during this year's exhibition season.
As part of its ongoing efforts to boost scoring, the league has instructed referees to crack down on defenders who make contact with the ball-handler above the free throw-line extended. The idea is that by eliminating the hand-check, the offensive player will have more freedom of movement with which to score or set up teammates.
Unfortunately, it has at times led to confusion on the court -- with coaches and players seeking clarification from refs during breaks in the action -- and taken the flow out of many games while turning them into glorified free throw shooting contests. A whopping 86 fouls were called in one Bulls-Hornets overtime game, with a combined 104 free throw attempts. In last Friday's TNT doubleheader, the Hawks and Heat combined for 68 fouls and 81 free throws in the first game while the Clippers and Lakers combined for 63 fouls and 86 free throws in the nightcap.
Even superstar players haven't been immune from the zebras' wrath. Nets forward Richard Jefferson picked up four fouls in the first quarter of a recent exhibition against the Bobcats. And Pistons star Richard Hamilton nearly fouled out in 18 minutes the other night against the Wizards. "I guess we have to get used to it," Hamilton said. "In the exhibition season, it seems like they (referees) are trying to make a statement."
The litany of complaints from players, coaches and fans underscores the dilemma the NBA faces as it goes about trying to boost offense. Fans seem to want higher-scoring games, but they don't want radical rule changes such as a wider lane or bigger baskets. Nor do they seem to want a blanket crackdown on contact that would lead to foul-line parades and three-hour games. As Heat center Shaquille O'Neal notes, "They are looking for ways to speed up the game, but to call ticky-tack fouls is not a way to speed up the game."
Ever since the rise of physical rugged defenses such as Detroit's Bad Boys in the '80s and Pat Riley's Knicks and Heat gangs in the '90s, the NBA has been trying to keep games from turning into wrestling matches, instituting a series of rule changes -- ranging from eliminating the hand-check to the allowance of zone defenses -- to try to bring more movement and flow back into the game. That's much easier said than legislated, though.
Many longtime NBA observers contend that changes to the rule book and emphasizing particular calls have, in some cases, generated even less offense. The allowance of zones, for example, has coincided with a further decline in scoring. "Before [zones], you had to double-team and that created opportunities for others, says Bobcats swingman Steve Smith, a 14-year veteran. "Everybody got wide open looks. Now you can just sit back and wait. You never see guys create shots like in the old days. They just jump and shoot."
Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach, a 50-year veteran who helped design Chicago's championship defenses of the early '90s, says the league needs to be careful about tinkering with the rules. He recalls that the introduction of the 3-point line in the '80s was supposed to open up the floor for offenses, leading to more points. Instead, many players began settling for lower-percentage long-range bombs. "Every time they change a rule, it seems like there's an unforeseen consequence," Bach says.
But for as shrill as this year's cacophony of whistles has been at times, few coaches and players seem legitimately worried. Most believe the refs will stop calling the incidental contact once the regular season gets underway. "Every year it's the same story," said one coach who wished to remain anonymous. "Give it two or three weeks, and it'll be back to the way it was."