And the NBA has another defensive problem. Ironically, while many of the uninitiated believe the NBA plays no D, many of the initiated believe it plays too much. Too much team defense, too much switching, too much pressing, too much half-court trapping, too much double-teaming. Too much, in short, of what most people call "zone." Bite your tongue. The NBA rule book does not acknowledge the word zone. In its stead is something called "illegal defense."
The fact is, everyone in the NBA plays zone to one degree or another. (With the possible exception of George Gervin, who plays neither zone nor man-to-man.) "A perfectly relevant question at this point," says Bob Ryan, the veteran basketball observer of The Boston Globe, "is, does anyone in the NBA play man-to-man?"
Ryan is only half kidding. A set of illegal defensive guidelines that (theoretically) eliminates the zone takes up nine pages of the 60-page NBA official's manual but still confuses spectators all the time—and coaches and players most of the time, not to mention the refs. Darell Garretson, the NBA's chief of officials, doubts that either Dallas's Dick Motta or San Antonio's Cotton Fitzsimmons fully understands the guidelines, which would not be so bad except that they (along with Milwaukee's Nelson) created them. Pete Newell, Golden State's director of player personnel and one of the most respected minds in the business, says, "There are a lot of people who don't understand the guidelines, and some of them wear whistles."
The charge that the NBA is soft on defense is nothing new. Philadelphia's Joe Fulks averaged an unheard-of 23.2 points per game in the league's first season, and folks wondered why. Wrote Leonard Koppett in his 1968 book offensively entitled 24 Seconds to Shoot: An Informal History of the National Basketball Association, " 'There must be something funny about that pro game,' said countless reading fans, who hadn't seen for themselves. They didn't know what was 'funny,' but something must be. Perhaps pro defense was being cooperative."
What was happening then is what is happening now: Give an outstanding pro offensive player the ball, and he is going to score a bunch of points.
The NBA's detractors point to the 24-second clock as being antidefense, which is absurd. The rule was adopted in 1954 because many teams were holding the ball despite the absence of zone defense. (Remember the weave and how it could scrape off defenders in a true man-to-man?) And don't think that the college game—after years of stallball, four-corners and yawnball—wouldn't be considering a 24-second limit, were it not for the fact that the pros own the patent.
Not surprisingly, it was Boston's Red Auerbach who changed ideas about defense. His teams pressed full-court, and when the Celtic press was beaten, it really wasn't, as there down under the basket was ol' No. 6, Bill Russell.
But even in Auerbach's scheme, defense was relatively basic—enervating but basic. The widely held assertion that the pressing guards—usually K.C. and Sam Jones—"funneled" people toward Bill Russell is overstated. "If my man got by me and Bill had to pick him up," says K.C., now the Celtic coach, "you can bet I'd be hustling back and picking up Bill's man. Otherwise, I'd have those laser-beam eyes staring through me. About as fancy as we got in those days was to play denial on some of the big scorers, like [Jerry] West and Oscar [Robertson]."
"In those days, you were basically responsible for your own man," says West, a career 27-point-a-game scorer and now general manager of the Lakers. "The matchups they used to talk about—Wilt versus Russell, [Elgin] Baylor versus [Bob] Pettit, Oscar versus myself—were valid. They really were basic man-to-man matchups. That's not true today."
Today, offenses have gone high tech. A number of factors contributed to the change. The merger with the ABA in 1976 brought a flood of offensive talent that had to be dammed up. With the influx of such ex-college coaches as Jack Ramsay (now in Portland), John MacLeod (Phoenix), Fitzsimmons (San Antonio), and Motta (Dallas) came new ideas about defense. An added emphasis on scouting and videotaping led to the formulation of the defensive game plans.