"Ninety percent of the [plays] that are being run in the NBA right now, everybody runs them," says Riley. "There aren't any more innovators. We're all basically doing the same thing." Says Sacramento Kings vice president Geoff Petrie, "There are so many teams running the same plays every night, the defense knows them all. They're not guarding the guy, they're guarding the play." In fact, in an informal survey, NBA coaches were asked to pick the most creative offensive coach in the league, and the name most often mentioned by the 14 respondents was Bulls assistant Tex Winter, 74, who in the 1940s first began running the same triple-post, or triangle, offense the Bulls use now. (The head coaches most often cited by their peers were Indiana's Brown and the Seattle SuperSonics' George Karl.)
It's obvious that there is more of a premium put on defensive expertise than on offensive creativity by those who hire coaches. Most of the highly regarded NBA coaches (such as Fratello, Karl, Riley and Wilkens) are known for their ability to teach defense, while many of the coaches known for producing high-scoring teams (Doug Moe, Don Nelson, Paul Westphal, Paul Westhead) are out of the league. "Part of it is that the perception of a coach is, if you lose 88-85, you're a better coach than if you lose 118-115," says NBA senior vice president for basketball operations Rod Thorn. "The media puts that out there by saying, 'He's teaching defense, he's organized, he's working hard.' The coaches who do that get the accolades and the jobs."
Innovation is needed to counteract one of the other forces that keeps scoring down: sophisticated, often high-tech scouting techniques. "When I was playing, our scouting reports said things like 'Force this guy right,' or 'Make him shoot the outside jumper,' " says Walter Davis, an All-Star scorer (18.9-point career average) for Denver, the Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trail Blazers from 1977-78 through '91-92 and now the Nuggets' TV analyst. "It was pretty basic stuff, and it hardly helped you against the better scorers. Today every player gets a typed report that gives the opponents' offensive tendencies, diagrams of the opponents' favorite plays, a paragraph on each opponent that details his strengths and weaknesses and his favorite moves, and a videotape that highlights the tendencies of the opponent he'll be guarding. Shoot, if I'd gotten scouting reports like that when I was playing, maybe I could have stopped my man, too."
By itself, tinkering with the rules can't end the offensive drought. "I wouldn't change the rules, I'd improve the players," says Raptors executive vice president Isiah Thomas. He has a point, of course, which isn't surprising. It's far easier to make a point in the NBA these days than it is to score one.