The NBA rule permitting zone defenses is in its third year, but the debate about its flaws and merits remains lively, with many league insiders blaming the zones for the decline in scoring by more than a point per game since last season at this time. "These zones are forcing the least-talented shooters to take more shots," complains one G.M.
Others argue that the problem isn't the myriad new defenses but the unsophisticated offenses. "Coaches were slow to embrace the zone defense," says Blazers G.M. John Nash, "but they've been even slower in their development of a zone offense."
Bucks coach Terry Porter is trying to teach his young Bucks the hard way how to attack the zone, by scrimmaging five-man units against zones of six defenders. Beating a zone requires player movement, ball reversal and drives to the basket that force the defense to collapse, leaving opponents to knock down open jump shots from the perimeter. Unfortunately, many of those shooters aren't very good at it. "There's a bigger need for shooters than there was a few years ago," Nash says. "But the coaches haven't been willing to abandon the defensive-oriented athletes in favor of the offensive-minded players that you need against zones."
That's because many teams view the zones as a temporary experiment; they don't want to revamp their rosters only to find that the league has changed the rule again. But that's not going to happen, says deputy commissioner Russ Granik, who blames the reduced scoring on the numerous personnel and coaching changes before this season. "We're seeing more ball movement and more cutting," Granik says. "We're always ready to reevaluate anything that can help the game, but you can't be changing such an important rule every few years."
"In the long run it's going to be a good tiling for basketball in our country," says Mavericks director of player personnel Donnie Nelson, "because if we're encouraging our guys to shoot and pass, then our young kids watching NBA basketball will grow up wanting to do the same things."
The Kobe Rumor Mill Turns
Changing Teams, But Not Arenas?
One rumor building up steam is that the Clippers—yes, the miserly, moribund Clippers—are planning to make a free-agent run this summer at Kobe Bryant (pending an acquittal in his sexual assault trial). Word around the league is that the Clips are serious about making Bryant an offer of $10 million to $12 million a year, which would allow him to lead his own NBA team without leaving the Staples Center.
The Clippers have a stable of lively young big men including All-Star Elton Brand, rookie center Chris Kaman, low-post scorer Melvin Ely and hyperactive power forward Chris Wilcox, who has showed signs that he might be a future star by averaging 10.5 points and 5.7 rebounds in 11 starts while Brand recovered from a broken foot. Picture them trying to pin down Shaq while Kobe dunks on his crosstown rival's head. It's fun to imagine, anyway.