One of the biggest off-the-court battles in NBA history will likely begin at the Competition Committee meetings during the off-season. The main topic—sure to provoke an impassioned debate—will be whether the NBA should move closer to standard international rules, as codified by FIBA, basketball's international governing body. Exhibit A will be the Summer Olympics, at which the U.S. will either breeze to the gold medal, thus demonstrating that NBA players can prosper under FIBA rules, or will struggle to the gold medal, thus demonstrating that the NBA had better get with the international program.
There is still much opposition in the league to internationalization, particularly to the introduction of the zone, a true four-letter word in the minds of many NBA people. "I oppose the zone defense idea 100 percent," says Hornet coach Allan Bristow. "That's what kills the college game. People come to see players slash to the hole, players cutting to the basket. Put in a zone, and you take that out. The zone will kill the pro game." Hawk coach Bob Weiss expresses the same opinion more succinctly: "Zones? Hell, no!"
However, an increasing number of voices favor internationalization. Two of them belong to Cavalier general manager Wayne Embry and Warrior coach Don Nelson, key members of the Competition Committee. Nelson has been a longtime proponent of liberalizing defensive rules—cynics say that Golden State plays mostly illegal zones anyway—but many other coaches are sick of the complicated illegal-defense guidelines. Nelson plans to introduce a proposal to simplify but not abolish illegal-defense rules. Embry advocates abolition of the guidelines entirely, thus paving the way for teams to play any kind of defense.
"That would bring another element to the game for coaches to prepare for," says Embry. (Of course, he's not a coach.) "To those who say zones would slow the game, I disagree. I don't think teams could get away with that. The way to beat a zone is to beat it down the floor. You'd see more fast breaks, not fewer."
What about the fear of Bristow and others that immovable skyscrapers like Manute Bol and Mark Eaton would simply camp out under the basket, thereby discouraging penetrating drives? With a defending championship team and two of the best penetrators in the game ( Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen), Bulls coach Phil Jackson might be expected to advocate the status quo. Yet he, like Embry, favors internationalization.
"Great players will succeed no matter what kind of defense," says Jackson. Adds Nets assistant Tom Newell, "You'd see more creative offensive plays with more creative defensive schemes."
In fact, the sight of statues like Eaton and Bol standing around on offense has led some in the league to conclude that the guidelines should be changed. If zones, or a form of them, were allowed, teams couldn't simply move their weakest offensive players completely out of the play, as Utah and Philly often do with Eaton and Bol, respectively; the defender guarding Bol, for example, could run over and assist in guarding Charles Barkley, a player who, unlike Bol, can actually shoot and dribble.
The two other major differences between the NBA and FIBA arc the three-point line and the three-second lane, which FIBA refers to as the "restricted area." FIBA would like to sec the NBA move its three-point line 3'2" closer to the basket, to the standard international distance of 20'7", and to change the lane from the 16' by 19' rectangle to FIBA's 12'-19'8" trapezoid.
Nelson says that he would not recommend moving the three-point line closer to the basket next season, although he believes "it wouldn't matter that much if you did." That's not to say another committee member won't suggest the change.