Zone D: Let It Be?
The league is open to all sorts of changes, including an end to its man-to-man tradition
TWO YEARS ago the NBA addressed its financial viability by persuading the players to accept a ceiling on salaries in a new collective bargaining agreement. Now, with criticism from fans mounting, league officials have turned their attention to the product on the court. When representatives of the 29 teams meet in Washington before the Feb. 11 All-Star Game, they will be asked to consider a major overhaul of the way the game is played.
"We need to look at the whole thing," says a high-ranking NBA official who confirms that commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Russ Granik and senior vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson are open to changes. "How does the three-point line affect the game? The illegal-defense rules? Why don't teams fast-break? Why is there so much isolation play? How is the game called by the refs? Maybe we need to look internationally for a new system."
Each team has an executive or coach on the competition committee, which will convene and submit potential rules changes to the Board of Governors—the owners—for a final simple-majority vote. Because the league is open to the most important rules changes since the introduction of the 24-second shot clock in 1954, no action is expected to be taken in time for next season.
Expect yelling and screaming at the committee meeting. The hottest topic will be the illegal-defense rule that was installed in 1981 to prevent weakside defenders from clogging the lane. While it has many passionate proponents, others deem it one of the most incomprehensible laws in sports. The fans don't understand it. "Neither do a lot of the refs," says one general manager.
"I know an illegal defense when I see it, but if s very hard for me to explain it," says another G.M. Stern, Granik and Jackson are willing to consider-abolishing the rule and allowing teams to play any defense, including—gasp!—a zone. Except for the first two months of its opening season, in 1946-47, the NBA has banned zones, fearing that they would allow shot blockers to camp under the rim and limit penetration.
The current quality of play, however, is making many team officials rethink that fear. Of the executives from 24 teams who responded to an SI survey last week, 11 favored revising the illegal-defense rule; seven of them would even allow zones. That's a sudden change," says Sonics president Wally Walker. "The proposal [to legalize zones] was brought up before the competition committee two years ago and was voted down 27-2. The only people who supported it were [Nets G.M.] John Nash and me." The pro-zone faction now has some powerful voices, including Larry Brown, the 76ers coach, and Rod Thorn, who before becoming the Nets' president last spring spent 14 years in Jackson's role.
"Five years ago I could never have imagined being an advocate of playing any defense," says Thorn. "I believed it would slow down the game. But now the game has slowed down to an extent that I don't know if it would make any difference."
Coaches have learned to exploit the illegal-defense rule by running plays that isolate top scorers on a single defender. Often they send three or four offensive players to the far side of the court, where they stand surrounded by three or four defenders—looking altogether like a group of guys waiting at a bus stop. Ball movement ceases, the pace of the game slows and the stars often wind up looking selfish.
On the other hand, some executives argue, writing new rules doesn't guarantee change. Despite a series of adjustments over the past decade, scoring is down this season for the 11th time in 12 years. "The issue is complicated," says Kings vice president Geoff Petrie, whose acquisitions of highly skilled players have shown that it's possible to field a winning, entertaining team within the current system. "We keep changing the rules every year. At what point do we stop?"