What Happened to the NBA's Beautiful Game?
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For the better part of the last 40 years, American professional basketball has been the major sport to watch for athletic grace. But more and more, the NBA's breathtaking fluidity and movement has been hit by a Mack truck called "tackle basketball," or, said more definitively, fouling as sound defense.
Case in point: Game 2 of the Miami Heat-Chicago Bulls series. As described by my esteemed colleague Henry Abbott of ESPN.com, there were three intentional fouls in the first 21 seconds. Nine technicals overall. Two ejections. And if a stat existed for elbowing and pushing, they would have outnumbered total rebounds and assists.
I grew up watching the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys of the '80s. Trust me when I tell you guys like Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer look like the hosts of The View in comparison to today's players.
What happened? What turned a game of such beauty into a slugging and thugging contest?
Put it this way: I don't blame the players. And I don't blame the coaches.
I blame the league.
You see, when the NBA legislates away your options for good, clean defense, the only thing to do is play defense the way Malcolm X would have suggested: by any means necessary.
The problems began in 2004. The Pistons upset Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant's heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers by playing remarkable defense. The league had what I am firmly convinced was a disgustingly partisan reaction to that upset—because commissioner David Stern & Co. wanted their big-market Lakers to win it all.
What was their reaction? Having previously limited hand-checking a decade earlier, the NBA outlawed it altogether.
In case you're new to the game since the 2004-2005 season and don't know what hand-checking is, it's exactly what it sounds like: being able to physically push against a person…in other words, using your hand to keep your opponents' movement in check.
Defensive players would keep a mitt on the guys they were guarding when they tried to drive the lane, and restrict their ability to create.
Hand-checking, by definition, made the game infinitely more physical from moment to moment. It also gave the defensive player something he could actually do to counter an offensive player. Hand-checking was participatory, it was effective, and it was unequivocally a skill.
Not to mention the profound impact it had on scoring.
In the year before hand-checking was removed, one player—Tracy McGrady—averaged more than 25 points per game. A year later, no fewer than seven players exceeded the same mark. The next year, 10 players topped 25 points per game.
Essentially, the league turned the NBA into a whoever-scores-more-wins game. No wonder Phil Jackson said Michael Jordan would average 45 a game if he played today, and Larry Brown speculated to nba.com that he'd top 50.
Nowadays, in a sight that never fails to make me queasy, players, unable to hand-check when their opponent decides to drive to the rim, often lift their hands up in the "I'm not touching him" gesture and simply let their man blow by them.
Is it their fault? No. They're just following the rules.
Further, in that same year—and I believe due to that same upset—the league decided to put more emphasis on the defensive three-second rule they had imposed in 2001-02. Unbelievably, the league even spelled out its intention in the rule change: "to open up the game."
Before the defensive three-second violation, when an offensive player would drive the lane, the defensive player would be there waiting for him. Those are the only times you saw hard fouls in the old days: defensive players letting perimeter guys know if they wanted to attack the basket, they would be doing so at their own peril.
Then, they fouled to send a message. Today, they foul because it's pretty much the only thing they're still allowed to do.
Perimeter players can have their way against the league's biggest guys, because it's much more difficult to get defensive positioning. There are many perimeter players whose games depend on attacking the basket who would have never even made a pro team nine years ago.
I consider this a besmirching of the integrity of the game.
What effect did this rule change have statistically? Look at the list of players who scored the most points in the restricted area in 2003-04. Nary a guard to be seen. Now look at the same list for 2004-2005: four of the top 10 scorers are guards.
I still remember exactly where in my apartment I was standing the day I opened up my sports section and read these new rules changes. I instantly realized, as my stomach hit the floor, that not only would my hometown Pistons not repeat as champions, but also that the game I knew and loved would cease to exist.
That's how big a difference life before and after hand-checking and the defensive three-second violation makes.
There were other rule changes that limited defense too, like outlawing chucking and wrapping up. But the 2004-2005 changes are what has caused the current spate of ugly basketball we're seeing.
The league has simply removed too many legitimate defensive options from these players' arsenals. Unless you have dazzling foot speed or uncanny on-ball instincts, fouling is virtually your only remaining chess move.
Honestly, I get depressed even writing this, because there was an artistry to great NBA defense that I miss intensely. In baseball, I always preferred a pitcher's duel to a slugfest. Likewise, in pro basketball I always marveled more at impermeable defenses than I did trick-shot artists (with exceptions like McGrady).
That defensive artistry is simply not possible today.
Apparently Mr. Stern, in his infinite lack of wisdom, decided all fans wanted to see was offense, in much the same way that Bud Selig didn't raise a finger to stop steroids for almost a decade. After all, stronger players meant more home runs.
The slam-dunk is basketball's answer to the home run. And Stern, like Selig, wanted more homers.
Would removing some defensive restrictions improve the NBA game?
The commish took the defense out of basketball. But he couldn't take the heart out of defenders. Because Mr. Stern forgot something vital to his offense-is-king scheme. He forgot that it is the instinct of every competitor, be he player or coach, to do something to stop an offensive onslaught.
These players are simply doing virtually the only thing they still can do: attack each other.
It's ugly. It's brutal. It's dangerous. It's even scary, in the same way Rollerball or gladiators vs. lions were scary.
But much like speakeasies thrived during Prohibition, defense once outlawed will still find an outlet.
In lieu of legal countermoves, the players resort to these overtly physical and often violent tactics, and call them defense. It may not be "good" defense, as in virtuous. But given today's parameters, it is valid defense all the same.
That's indisputable, even as it is indefensible.
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