One of the biggest off-the-court battles in NBA history will likely begin at the Competition Committee meetings during the off-season. The main topic—sure to provoke an impassioned debate—will be whether the NBA should move closer to standard international rules, as codified by FIBA, basketball's international governing body. Exhibit A will be the Summer Olympics, at which the U.S. will either breeze to the gold medal, thus demonstrating that NBA players can prosper under FIBA rules, or will struggle to the gold medal, thus demonstrating that the NBA had better get with the international program.
There is still much opposition in the league to internationalization, particularly to the introduction of the zone, a true four-letter word in the minds of many NBA people. "I oppose the zone defense idea 100 percent," says Hornet coach Allan Bristow. "That's what kills the college game. People come to see players slash to the hole, players cutting to the basket. Put in a zone, and you take that out. The zone will kill the pro game." Hawk coach Bob Weiss expresses the same opinion more succinctly: "Zones? Hell, no!"
However, an increasing number of voices favor internationalization. Two of them belong to Cavalier general manager Wayne Embry and Warrior coach Don Nelson, key members of the Competition Committee. Nelson has been a longtime proponent of liberalizing defensive rules—cynics say that Golden State plays mostly illegal zones anyway—but many other coaches are sick of the complicated illegal-defense guidelines. Nelson plans to introduce a proposal to simplify but not abolish illegal-defense rules. Embry advocates abolition of the guidelines entirely, thus paving the way for teams to play any kind of defense.
March 30, 1992
"That would bring another element to the game for coaches to prepare for," says Embry. (Of course, he's not a coach.) "To those who say zones would slow the game, I disagree. I don't think teams could get away with that. The way to beat a zone is to beat it down the floor. You'd see more fast breaks, not fewer."
What about the fear of Bristow and others that immovable skyscrapers like Manute Bol and Mark Eaton would simply camp out under the basket, thereby discouraging penetrating drives? With a defending championship team and two of the best penetrators in the game (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen), Bulls coach Phil Jackson might be expected to advocate the status quo. Yet he, like Embry, favors internationalization.
"Great players will succeed no matter what kind of defense," says Jackson. Adds Nets assistant Tom Newell, "You'd see more creative offensive plays with more creative defensive schemes."
In fact, the sight of statues like Eaton and Bol standing around on offense has led some in the league to conclude that the guidelines should be changed. If zones, or a form of them, were allowed, teams couldn't simply move their weakest offensive players completely out of the play, as Utah and Philly often do with Eaton and Bol, respectively; the defender guarding Bol, for example, could run over and assist in guarding Charles Barkley, a player who, unlike Bol, can actually shoot and dribble.
The two other major differences between the NBA and FIBA arc the three-point line and the three-second lane, which FIBA refers to as the "restricted area." FIBA would like to sec the NBA move its three-point line 3'2" closer to the basket, to the standard international distance of 20'7", and to change the lane from the 16' by 19' rectangle to FIBA's 12'-19'8" trapezoid.
Nelson says that he would not recommend moving the three-point line closer to the basket next season, although he believes "it wouldn't matter that much if you did." That's not to say another committee member won't suggest the change.
As for the shape of the lane, that would be mostly an aesthetic adjustment. At the point where it really matters, down by the basket, the international lane puts the players 22 inches farther from the basket than does the NBA lane.
Ultimately, the issue of internationalization comes down to this: How serious is the NBA about conforming to international standards?
Well, the league has been moving—ever so surely—toward exposing its game internationally, a concept embraced by commissioner David Stern. A standardized code of basketball rules will come—the only question is when.
Change Is in the Air
Given the NBA's record of success over the last decade, how many coaches and general managers think the game's rules should be left alone? Surprisingly few, according to the results of this week's SI poll: Only eight of 24 team representatives recommended preserving the status quo on rules. And changes to internationalize the game were only the beginning. Here are some other suggestions.
•Both Bristow and Jackson would like to see three free throws awarded to a player fouled in the act of attempting a three-point shot. The NCAA added this rule—also in the FIBA book—last season.
•Laker coach Mike Dunleavy advocates the addition of a line three feet from the basket to help officials better judge the troublesome block-or-charge question. A defensive player who positions himself in front of the line would draw the charge; if there is contact inside the line, it's a block. "This is too tough a call right now," says Dunleavy. "All you need is a line, and everyone can see it."
•Sonics coach George Karl would like to strike the rule that resets the 24-sccond clock on jump balls. "When you play good defense, you should be rewarded," says Karl. "If the shot clock is at five seconds, then it should stay that way. If the team that was on defense wins the tip, then you reset it."
•An Eastern Conference coach would like to see the elimination of the jump ball. This coach would prefer a coin flip at the outset and alternate possessions thereafter, after jump balls or at the beginning of periods.
•In the "ugh!" department, Maverick coach Richie Adubato suggests instant replay: "We should have it in the last minute of games, so decisions that are made, sometimes under pressure, can be reviewed and we can have a true winner." The subject surfaced briefly last season, but Stern quickly squelched it, and he would squelch it again.
Pistons on the Move?
On Feb. 25 coach Chuck Daly canceled the Pistons' customary morning shootaround before that night's home game against the Bulls. Normally, that time would have been spent reviewing, re-reviewing, and reviewing the re-review of ways to stop Jordan and Pippen—none of which would have been effective if the Detroit defenders had tired legs. Instead, the Pistons stayed in bed and that night beat Chicago 108-106.
One week later Detroit embarked on a 10-day, five-game road trip, during which Daly scrapped off-day practices (though he did retain game-day shootarounds). The Pistons won all five games, and Daly decided to stick with his hew system—game-day shootarounds only on the road, off-day practices only at home. Results? At week's end Detroit had won 10 of 14 games since Feb. 25. The streak moved Detroit into a threatening position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
"Chuck understands we're a veteran team," says frontcourtman John Salley. "We need our strength to play the games." That's particularly true with forward Dennis Rodman, who was averaging 40.6 minutes per game at week's end, and backcourtmen Joe Dumars (38.8) and Isiah Thomas (37.8) playing so much.
Time off isn't all that has happened to Detroit, of course. As veteran teams often do, the Pistons have undergone an off-the-court attitude adjustment after beginning the season as a second-guessing bunch, with the players angry about contracts, angry about playing time and angry about front-office decisions that left them without two popular veterans, frontcourtman James Edwards and guard Vinnie Johnson. "We were spoiled brats," says Salley. "We didn't like this, we didn't like that. Now we're a together team again."
And they've made on-the-court adjustments, too. Finding driving room for forward Orlando Woolridge and accommodating guard Darrell Walker's physical, defense-oriented style are vastly different from looking inside to Edwards or clearing the floor for Johnson's explosive one-on-one game. Still, the Pistons, who were 41-28 as of Sunday, stood little chance of passing 45-21 Cleveland and thus avoiding a meeting with the Bulls in the second round of the playoffs. Rodman's supernatural rebounding (19.2 per game) notwithstanding, is there any logical reason to believe that the Pistons can upset Chicago? Thomas is playing with a badly swollen right calf. Center Bill Laimbeer can be effective in spots but is not the player who two years ago hurt the Bulls with defensive rebounding and psychological intimidation. Reserve forward Mark Aguirre is shooting a career-low .427 from the floor, yet is the sum total of the Pistons' post-up game. And Rodman has so much responsibility as a starter that he cannot begin to approach the efficiency he once had as a sixth-man defensive specialist.
When all is said and done, the legacy of the 1991-92 Pistons might be Daly's practice schedule, which other tired and over-drilled teams would be wise to study.
Down Mexico Way
One of the 10 teams that will oppose the U.S. in the Olympic Basketball Tournament of the Americas in Portland this summer is Mexico. And one of Mexico's star players just might be Aguirre.
Aguirre met recently with Julio Ortiz, president of the Mexican Basketball Federation, which has wanted Aguirre as a national team member since he was a high school star in Chicago. (The Mexican federation also hopes to get the NBA's slam-dunk champion, Cedric Ceballos of the Suns.) It's legit because Aguirre's father, Clyde, was born in Mexico and FIBA rules permit a son to represent a parent's country as long as that player doesn't belong to another national team. Aguirre says he has not decided whether to play for Mexico, but he sounds ready to go.