And this is the season that the NBA will also find out how it truly feels about another college favorite, the zone defense. For the past two years the refs kept pretending they didn't know what a zone was, which got pretty embarrassing when, contrary to the rules, just about every NBA team played one. Now, in the manner of all great institutions, the NBA has simply removed the word "zone" from its vocabulary, as if it never existed. With a chance to create a distinctive term of its own for the zone—"Hold everything, lads, we've got a sticky wickedly wandering defense by the red team. Two shots!"—the NBA instead has given us the corporate-sounding "illegal defense." This rule will prevent defenses from zoning in the area of the free-throw lane—that will constitute the dreaded illegal defense, which can lead to even more dreaded technical foul shots—while allowing them to do it almost everywhere else. "A lot of what college fans are used to—that is, zones—are now legal in the NBA." says Referee Ed Rush. "We were becoming a jump-shot league, so we went to the coaches and said, 'You've screwed the game up with all your great defenses. Now fix it.' And they did. The new rule will open up the middle and give the great players room to move. People like Julius Erving and David Thompson, who used to beat their own defensive man and then still have to pull up for a jump shot because they were being double-teamed, should have an extra four or five feet to move around in. And that's all those guys need." No one knows if this will lead the league back to the old days when teams cleared one side of the floor and let their virtuosos work one-on-one, or created an open area in the middle to be used for snappy passing, pick and roll, give and go—all those things college coaches love.
The NBA is hoping for the latter, because the very concept of one-on-one has become anathema as the league tries to stress the team aspects of its game. "There are more people who are knowledgeable about the game now than ever before," Golden State's Newell says. "And as people learn more, they become interested in the subtleties of tactics and less interested in one-on-one." Newell is probably right, and yet, like it or not, the great freelance offensive artist will always be a part of pro basketball.
"People look on one-on-one as a derogatory term." says Warrior Coach Al Attles, who never coached in college. "But in football, if you have a great wide receiver like John Jefferson, you try to get him isolated in one-on-one coverage, and nobody seems to think that's especially bad."
If there is one area of the pro game on which the college coaches have had little significant impact, it is tempo. The NBA has the heartbeat of a hummingbird, its pace dictated by the 24-second clock. "In the colleges, you've got the shuffle-cut continuity offenses in which you pass the ball around 17 times before you get the layup," says Westhead. "That's great if you've got the time. In the NBA, we haven't."
The 24-second clock doesn't eliminate the need for offensive patterns, as some of its critics insist; it merely makes the plays the pros run more complex to execute and more difficult to watch. "College teams create shots away from the ball with a lot of motion offenses," Newell says. "In the NBA you see much more screening on the ball."
Newell thinks the shot clock makes the zone defense an acceptable strategic part of the pro game. "The NBA outlawed the zone to eliminate slowdowns." he says. "But that was before the 24-second clock. I think in time we'll see the NBA play a full game of basketball, and that means zones should be allowed." Ramsay goes one step further and says that the colleges should adopt the shot clock: "The college game in the United States is the only high-level basketball played in the world without a time clock."
The NBA will no doubt keep its shot clock for the time being, and it should. But if the league is really interested in increasing the importance of passing, a 30-second clock might not be such a bad idea.
All of the ideas the pros have borrowed from the college game will be of little consequence, however, if the NBA doesn't really go collegiate and shorten its unduly long schedule. This year, because of the late start, the NBA season could conceivably run through all or part of autumn, winter and spring and up to within 11 days of summer. A growing number of league officials finally seem to be awakening to what everyone else has known for a long time: The long season—more than eight months, counting exhibition games and the playoffs—has created an emotional vacuum for both the players and the fans.
"For it to get better." says L.A.'s Magic Johnson, an authority on enthusiasm, "they're going to have to shorten it to about 60 games. Make it so you can drive all the time. It's those 82 games that are the killer." Even Westhead, who is technically management, agrees that the bloated schedule has robbed the game of some of its potential for surprise and delight: "I think the long season wears the fan down before it wears the players down. A theatergoer sees Evita just so many times, and then even though it's a great production, he doesn't want to see it anymore." The league's owners will never permit the season to be shortened, of course, as long as it is profitable to do otherwise, and this year the Celtics expect to sell out the Boston Garden for all of their 41 home games. So much for giving it the old college try when dollars are involved.
Class dismissed, but that's better than having no class at all. If nothing else, the NBA learned that much in school.