Through Sunday, in more than half (53.1%) of the NBA games this season, at least one team had failed to score 90 points. And teams had scored less than 80 points 17.7% of the time, more than twice as often as in any season since 1954-55. Not, as Jerry Seinfeld might say, that there's anything wrong with that. A well-played game that ends with an 89-86 score can be just as entertaining as a 119-116 shoot-out. The problem for the NBA is not that the scores are low, it's why they are low. The pathetic point totals are largely the result of offenses that have slowed to a crawl, of offenses in which one or two players do the bulk of the work on a given possession while the other three, as Miami president and coach Pat Riley puts it, "might as well be out in the parking lot." Remember the days when the best teams had fluid offenses, with players constantly moving without the ball? Now the only team that consistently fits that description is the Chicago Bulls, and even the usually potent NBA champions were bitten by the low-scoring bug last Saturday, in an 83-80 loss to the Heat, and again on Sunday, when they were defeated 97-89 by the Toronto Raptors.
Shooting accuracy has been declining steadily for years. At week's end the league's field goal percentage this season was 44.4%; last season it was 46.2%, the lowest it had been since 1975-76, when teams shot 45.8%. Similarly, free throw percentage had declined to 72.6%, more than a point lower than last season's. Some of the NBA's old hands blame the drop-off on youth—players who leave college after only one or two seasons and enter pro ball with marginal or, at best, unpolished offensive skills. Many are especially deficient in outside shooting. "The young kids in the league didn't grow up shooting hundreds of jumpers the way kids used to do," says Nuggets president and general manager (and, until recently, coach) Bernie Bickerstaff. "They grew up trying to copy the moves they saw Dr. J and Michael Jordan make, so they never developed the consistent jumper you used to see 10, 12 years ago." Lakers coach Del Harris says the blame isn't limited to the Generation X-ers. "Many NBA players tend not to shoot the ball in the off-season like they used to," says Harris. "They're weight-training and doing other things, like golf."
Like Bickerstaff and Harris, a growing number of NBA coaches and general managers believe the low scores are an indication that something is out of kilter and in need of a bit of tinkering. In hopes of boosting offensive production, here are a few of the proposals the league ought to consider.
Simplify the Illegal-Defense Rule
The illegal-defense violation is the equivalent of the balk in baseball: When it's called, hardly anyone understands why. Suffice it to say that any set of rules that divides the court into Upper, Middle and Lower defensive areas, refers to "areas of intersection" and calls for compliance with articles k through t might be a tad too complicated. "I'd say half the players understand it, at most," says Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "Don't even ask me how many referees understand it."
Simply put, the rule prevents teams from blatantly playing a zone defense. Thus, in our view, it is necessary, but it is also chiefly responsible for bringing offenses to a virtual standstill. The rule requires defenses to make at least a token effort to guard players who are positioned far away from the ball. If two offensive players are standing near the half-court line, for example, two defenders must stand above the free throw line or be called for an illegal defense. That's why you often see a player with the ball in the low post, simply holding the ball while defenders away from the ball check their feet to make sure they are in legal position. In other words, nothing is happening. "When players have to keep looking down at their feet," says New Jersey Nets assistant coach Don Casey, "that's not basketball."
But it is smart offense. Why not try to draw a team into an illegal-defense violation? On the second violation and on every one thereafter, the offensive team gets a free throw and maintains possession.
There is some sentiment around the league to get rid of the illegal-defense rule and allow teams to play any defense they choose, with some of the proponents arguing that teams would run more in an effort to get off a shot before the defense could set up in a zone. In a meeting last September the NBA competition and rules committee briefly discussed eliminating the rule but tabled the matter. It's safe to say it will come up again. "Fifteen years ago there were only one or two coaches or general managers in favor of letting teams play zones, but now about half would at least consider trying it in the CBA as an experiment," says Atlanta vice president and general manager Pete Babcock, a member of the rules committee. Babcock is not in favor of getting rid of the rule, but Chicago coach Phil Jackson and Indiana coach Larry Brown are among those who are. "The rules are absurd," Brown says. "If you're going to play a guy who's a stiff offensively, why should I have to guard him?"
But if zones were allowed in the NBA, defenses would sag inside, goliath shot-blocking centers like the Nets' Shawn Bradley, the Hawks' Dikembe Mutombo and the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal would never leave the area under the basket, and spectacular slashes to the goal by players like Jordan, the Magic's Penny Hardaway and the Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill would become a thing of the past. "It would close down the lane," says Jordan. "That would close off all penetration. I wouldn't like it." That's good enough for us. Also, allowing zones would almost have to be accompanied by a longer shot clock to give offenses time to operate, which would slow the game down even more.
Nevertheless, the existing rules could certainly be modified to make offenses less inclined to turn the game into a succession of one-on-one and two-on-two battles. First, make an offensive player get into realistic position to score—say, inside the three-point arc—before a defense has to commit a man to him. That would make it more difficult to draw a violation, and offenses wouldn't slow the game down so much trying to do so.