As his Houston Rockets prepared to trot back on defense after a made free throw during a Feb. 4 game at the Toyota Center, coach Jeff Van Gundy stood with arms folded, glancing down the sideline. His look, however, was anything but casual. Like a cagey catcher sneaking a peek at the third base coach, Van Gundy was studying his Bucks counterpart, Terry Porter, who was flashing a play call. "Dribble-handoff for Redd!" Van Gundy stage-whispered, alerting his players that Milwaukee's hair-trigger shooter, Michael Redd, intended to go behind point guard Damon Jones and launch a jumper. Which is exactly what Redd tried to do, except that the Rockets, forewarned, clogged up the play.
Welcome to today's NBA, where showmanship and offensive pyrotechnics are hyped but defense holds ever-increasing sway. Through Sunday the average combined score was 185.6 points, a hefty 4.6-point drop from last season and 25-9 fewer than 30 years ago, when each of the 17 teams averaged more than 100 points, a mark now surpassed only by the Sacramento Kings and the Dallas Mavericks. The Kings' 82.4 shots per game were fewer than the lowest average in 1973-74. And though franchises continue to pursue athleticism the way networks pursue reality sleaze, all that lightning-quick, high-flying talent is playing a slower game: Points in transition are in decline, from 12.9 per team per game in 2000-01 to 12.0 at week's end. Only the New Jersey Nets and the Denver Nuggets are true turn-on-the-jets fast-break teams this season.
Yes, those who cling to the notion that the NBA doesn't play defense are the same people who still groove to disco. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: It plays too much defense.
Case in point: the Rockets, who, under the D-oriented Van Gundy, were holding teams to a league-low 39.4% shooting at week's end, substantially stingier than the 43.3% they gave up last year. While that may serve Houston well in the postseason, when the pace slows and stops are key to advancement, it has made a once wide-open team into a deliberate one that, despite having All-Stars Yao Ming and Steve Francis, is less than scintillating to watch. "There are so many defensive principles to learn," says the 7'6" Yao. "Some of the offensive techniques in China were the same as here, but defensively we were not at all advanced." Van Gundy devotes three fourths of his practices to D—which is what his predecessor, Rudy Tomjanovich, spent on offense. " Rudy coached the way he played," says forward Maurice Taylor of Tomjanovich, a high-scoring forward in the 1970s. "Now coaches coach defense."
And now they can coach zones too. Scoring was already decreasing when, before the 2001-02 season, the NBA legalized zone defenses, thereby giving already beleaguered offenses something else to be perplexed about. The theory was that zones would force teams to run fewer isolation plays, in which four players stand around like mailboxes on one side of the court while their teammate goes one-on-one on the other. The new rule's impact is hotly debated—pack a bunch of NBA coaches into a room to discuss zones, and it would sound like a diner in Des Moines before the Iowa caucuses. While it's generally agreed that the rule has cut down on isolations, it hasn't quickened the game's pace. "In the NBA you always find a way to get the ball to your best players," says Taylor. The more options the defense has, the longer it takes the offense to find that way.
The zone's influence has been limited by the number of teams that use it. Only the Mavericks and the Minnesota Timberwolves are truly committed to it, and only Minnesota is proficient at it (poll, page 51). The T-Wolves run through zone rotations at practice, most of them from an instructional manual coach Flip Saunders wrote years ago. They have four basic half-court schemes as well as several extended ones; their 75, for example, covers three quarters of the court in a 2-2-1 alignment. Kevin Garnett can anchor that zone or even play out front in a 3-2, his pteranodon wingspan discouraging entry passes, though Saunders hasn't used that D much for fear of taking the NBA's leading rebounder away from the glass.
The league office has no plans to tinker with the zone rule, and Stu Jackson, the NBA's director of operations, says he is "absolutely thrilled" with the effect it has had on player and ball movement. (He may be exaggerating a bit.) But it is clearly past time for changes that energize offense. Even control freaks like Van Gundy, a man-to-man adherent who's constantly exploring ways to shrink the court and dam up offensive flow via double-teaming and imaginative rotations, maintain that more scoring and more running make for a more pleasing game. "I don't know of any coach who would rather be methodical," he says.
Jackson agrees. "I've seen some 88-86 games, and I didn't feel cheated," he says. "But, yes, I would love it to be 20 years ago when teams scored 113 points a game."
Will that ever happen again? Before we get to how it might, here are some of the reasons that scoring is down and the pace of the game has become slothlike:
?Old-timers don't like to hear this, but defenses are better and more energetic these days. Jackson has a videotape that illustrates this perfectly. The first scene that pops up is from the 1971 Western Conference finals between the Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, in which Milwaukee's Oscar Robertson dribbles the ball on the left side without being pressured. He gets it into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar near the foul line, where he is "doubled" by Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain. Actually, the 6'1" Goodrich stands in front of him with his arms up, and Chamberlain stands behind Goodrich. Abdul-Jabbar passes to Jon McGlocklin, one of the best shooters then, and he makes a jumper with no one near him. It all appears to happen in slow motion.