The Miami heat was desperate. Because it was trailing by 23 points entering the fourth quarter of its first-round playoff series opener against the Charlotte Hornets last Saturday in Miami, the Heat had to abandon its favorite style of play, the one that has become symbolic of today's NBA. Gone was the packed-in half-court man-to-man defense. Gone was the grind-it-out pace on offense. Miami began pressing and trapping all over the floor, trying to force the Hornets into turnovers. On offense the Heat raced the ball up the court, looking for fast-break opportunities. Charlotte, in turn, sped up its game, trying to make Miami pay for gambling on defense.
Eddie House, the Heat's quick, stutter-stepping guard, beat the Hornets down the floor for scores, while Baron Davis and Eddie Robinson answered with slashes to the hoop for Charlotte. The lead didn't shrink much—Miami never drew closer than 16—but the somber crowd turned raucous nonetheless, energized by the game's suddenly rapid flow.
Although commissioner David Stern would be more likely to appoint Rasheed Wallace supervisor of officials than to characterize his league as desperate, the NBA as a whole is in nearly as dire a situation as the Heat was. The league's version of that 23-point deficit is its dwindling television viewer-ship, and the sleepy Miami crowd was a small sampling of a public that has shown declining passion for the pro game. The expansion into Canada has failed on one front, with the Vancouver Grizzlies almost certain to relocate to the U.S. by next season, and other franchises, such as the Hornets and the Orlando Magic, are alienating their fans with requests that taxpayers help finance new arenas to replace, well, fairly new arenas. That the Grizzlies and the Hornets have both targeted small-market Memphis as a prospective home illustrates how few untapped areas of potential fan interest are left for the league to mine.
Beyond that, an NBA player or coach seems to offend some segment of the public more often than Dr. Laura. This season there has been Wallace's hotheaded behavior, a continuing travesty that earned the Portland Trail Blazers forward his 42nd technical foul of the season in Game 1 of the Blazers' playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers; rap lyrics from Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson that featured derogatory references to women and gays; and offensive comments directed at Asian fans by Sacramento Kings point guard Jason Williams. A few weeks ago New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy angered some people when he was quoted as saying that religion had become too prominent in the Knicks' locker room, and on Sunday one of New York's devout Christians, point guard Charlie Ward, was booed at Madison Square Garden after being quoted in The New York Times Magazine saying that Jews are "stubborn" and persecute Christians.
Despite those missteps, there's very little wrong with the NBA's image that the league can't fix by putting a more entertaining show on the floor. To that end, the league is taking a gamble and trying to accelerate the pace of play. The rules that will go into effect next year—including the elimination of strictures against zone defenses and die reduction (from 10 seconds to eight) of the time a team can take to cross half-court—are intended to make more games like that fast-paced stretch of the Miami-Charlotte opener. That's why these playoffs, which began last weekend with Game 1 upsets by three lower-seeded teams, the Hornets, the Indiana Pacers (page 44) and the Phoenix Suns, may represent the end of the NBA as we know it. "This will be one of the few times that whichever team wins the title won't necessarily have its style copied by the rest of the league," says Golden State Warriors general manager Garry St. Jean. "What's successful this year may not have a whole lot to do with what's going to be successful next year."
The only thing that's certain is that the league needed to do something drastic. The minor adjustments of previous seasons, including attempts to cut down on the amount of physical contact allowed, haven't been enough to stop the steady decline in an average team's per-game scoring—from 106.3 points in 1990-91 to 94.8 this season—or the erosion of fans' enthusiasm for the NBA. Network television ratings plunged from 7.7 in 1995-96 to 5.1 last season, a 33.8% dip that could get even worse when this season's final numbers are in. (The rating was 2.9 at the end of the regular season, compared with 3.3 at the same point last year.) By comparison, baseball's ratings dropped by 26.2% and the NFL's by 13.9% over the same five-year period.
Stern correctly points out that TV ratings have been falling across the board with the proliferation of channels and the growing popularity of the Internet, and that the national ratings don't measure the number of fans who keep up with the NBA by visiting its website, by tuning into regional or satellite broadcasts or by watching the league's 24-hour digital cable channel, NBA.com TV. "I think that the absolute ratings are becoming less important," he says. "Just look at what's leading prime time now. When you get past the shows that have a huge impact, like Survivor, the staples of prime time are way down from where they've been over the years. You can bet I'll be explaining to as many networks as want to listen that a product like the NBA, which can be very important prime-time viewing come May and June, is an extraordinarily valuable property to have."
It's clear that Stern also wants to be able to show the networks that the league has taken steps to address its declining TV viewership. Although the NBA's four-year, $2.6 billion television contract with NBC and Turner Sports doesn't expire until after the 2001-02 season, there is a one-month period, beginning on Sept. 15, during which NBC and Turner have exclusive negotiating rights with the league. If no agreement is reached with one or both networks, the NBA will then be free to negotiate with others.
Even some of the team owners and general managers who support the new rules believe that the changes were pushed through quickly so that league representatives could open the TV-rights talks with proof that measures are in place to make the game more entertaining. As recently as February, when the Board of Governors met during All-Star weekend, there wasn't enough support among owners to adopt the new rules, but by the time the board voted on April 12, the league had the 20 votes necessary to enact them. According to several sources, among the six teams that voted against the changes were the Heat, Knicks, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz. The Dallas Mavericks abstained.
Several team executives say that the rules passed largely as a result of persistent lobbying from Stern and Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, chairman of the committee that recommended the changes. "If there were five years left on our TV deal," says one team exec, "you can bet that a lot more time would have been taken to test these things and see if they're really going to have the effect they're supposed to have."