For those of you too young to remember the NBA of the 1940s and
'50s, when two-handed set-shooters roamed the court in canvas
hightops, consider this season an extended history lesson. This
is what it was like when scoreboards rarely needed space for a
third digit, when teams were only slightly more likely to reach
100 than Ben Hogan was. The nightly highlights this season
should be shown on grainy black-and-white film, because in the
league's 50th-anniversary season we've not only seen teams wear
throwback uniforms, we've also seen them produce throwback scores.
The paltry point totals have become so common now that we no
longer double-check to see if they are third-quarter numbers.
It's as if someone brought the Rochester Royals and Syracuse
Nationals back to life. The scores have been so low that,
through Sunday, eight times this season a team scored less than
80 points and won. Offensive production hasn't been this anemic
since Eisenhower was president: The last time the NBA's team
scoring average was lower than the 94.5 points at which it stood
Sunday night was 1954-55, when the 24-second shot clock was
introduced. This season's average is five points lower than last
season's. Here are some of the more glaring clunkers.
Nov. 4: Houston Rockets 75, Utah Jazz 72. The lowest output ever
for the Jazz franchise.
Nov. 5: San Antonio Spurs 74, Cleveland Cavaliers 68. San
Antonio ties a team record for fewest points in the first half
December 16, 1996
Nov. 10: Los Angeles Clippers 81, Minnesota Timberwolves 70.
Minnesota sets its franchise record for fewest points, and the
teams combine for the fewest third-quarter points (22) in league
Nov. 15: Atlanta Hawks 85, Miami Heat 77. Miami establishes the
NBA record for fewest points in the second half (21).
Nov. 21: Hawks 73, Milwaukee Bucks 65. Milwaukee breaks its
record for fewest points, and Atlanta scores more than 70 for
the first time in three games.
Nov. 23: Orlando Magic 76, Indiana Pacers 73. Indiana doesn't
score a field goal in the final nine minutes of the game.
Dec. 4: Cavaliers 84, Magic 57. Orlando scores only one field
goal in the fourth quarter and ties the shot-clock-era record
for fewest points in a game.
Dec. 7: New York Knicks 89, Clippers 80. L.A. scores eight
points in the first quarter--the second time it's gotten eight
in a quarter this season--and nearly wins.
Through Sunday, in more than half (53.1%) of the NBA games this
season, at least one team had failed to score 90 points. And
teams had scored less than 80 points 17.7% of the time, more
than twice as often as in any season since 1954-55. Not, as
Jerry Seinfeld might say, that there's anything wrong with that.
A well-played game that ends with an 89-86 score can be just as
entertaining as a 119-116 shoot-out. The problem for the NBA is
not that the scores are low, it's why they are low. The pathetic
point totals are largely the result of offenses that have slowed
to a crawl, of offenses in which one or two players do the bulk
of the work on a given possession while the other three, as
Miami president and coach Pat Riley puts it, "might as well be
out in the parking lot." Remember the days when the best teams
had fluid offenses, with players constantly moving without the
ball? Now the only team that consistently fits that description
is the Chicago Bulls, and even the usually potent NBA champions
were bitten by the low-scoring bug last Saturday, in an 83-80
loss to the Heat, and again on Sunday, when they were defeated
97-89 by the Toronto Raptors.
Shooting accuracy has been declining steadily for years. At
week's end the league's field goal percentage this season was
44.4%; last season it was 46.2%, the lowest it had been since
1975-76, when teams shot 45.8%. Similarly, free throw percentage
had declined to 72.6%, more than a point lower than last
season's. Some of the NBA's old hands blame the drop-off on
youth--players who leave college after only one or two seasons
and enter pro ball with marginal or, at best, unpolished
offensive skills. Many are especially deficient in outside
shooting. "The young kids in the league didn't grow up shooting
hundreds of jumpers the way kids used to do," says Nuggets
president and general manager (and, until recently, coach)
Bernie Bickerstaff. "They grew up trying to copy the moves they
saw Dr. J and Michael Jordan make, so they never developed the
consistent jumper you used to see 10, 12 years ago." Lakers
coach Del Harris says the blame isn't limited to the Generation
X-ers. "Many NBA players tend not to shoot the ball in the
off-season like they used to," says Harris. "They're
weight-training and doing other things, like golf."
Like Bickerstaff and Harris, a growing number of NBA coaches and
general managers believe the low scores are an indication that
something is out of kilter and in need of a bit of tinkering. In
hopes of boosting offensive production, here are a few of the
proposals the league ought to consider.
SIMPLIFY THE ILLEGAL-DEFENSE RULE
The illegal-defense violation is the equivalent of the balk in
baseball: When it's called, hardly anyone understands why.
Suffice it to say that any set of rules that divides the court
into Upper, Middle and Lower defensive areas, refers to "areas
of intersection" and calls for compliance with articles k
through t might be a tad too complicated. "I'd say half the
players understand it, at most," says Rockets coach Rudy
Tomjanovich. "Don't even ask me how many referees understand it."
Simply put, the rule prevents teams from blatantly playing a
zone defense. Thus, in our view, it is necessary, but it is also
chiefly responsible for bringing offenses to a virtual
standstill. The rule requires defenses to make at least a token
effort to guard players who are positioned far away from the
ball. If two offensive players are standing near the half-court
line, for example, two defenders must stand above the free throw
line or be called for an illegal defense. That's why you often
see a player with the ball in the low post, simply holding the
ball while defenders away from the ball check their feet to make
sure they are in legal position. In other words, nothing is
happening. "When players have to keep looking down at their
feet," says New Jersey Nets assistant coach Don Casey, "that's
But it is smart offense. Why not try to draw a team into an
illegal-defense violation? On the second violation and on every
one thereafter, the offensive team gets a free throw and
There is some sentiment around the league to get rid of the
illegal-defense rule and allow teams to play any defense they
choose, with some of the proponents arguing that teams would run
more in an effort to get off a shot before the defense could set
up in a zone. In a meeting last September the NBA competition
and rules committee briefly discussed eliminating the rule but
tabled the matter. It's safe to say it will come up again.
"Fifteen years ago there were only one or two coaches or general
managers in favor of letting teams play zones, but now about
half would at least consider trying it in the CBA as an
experiment," says Atlanta vice president and general manager
Pete Babcock, a member of the rules committee. Babcock is not in
favor of getting rid of the rule, but Chicago coach Phil Jackson
and Indiana coach Larry Brown are among those who are. "The
rules are absurd," Brown says. "If you're going to play a guy
who's a stiff offensively, why should I have to guard him?"
But if zones were allowed in the NBA, defenses would sag inside,
goliath shot-blocking centers like the Nets' Shawn Bradley, the
Hawks' Dikembe Mutombo and the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal would
never leave the area under the basket, and spectacular slashes
to the goal by players like Jordan, the Magic's Penny Hardaway
and the Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill would become a thing of the
past. "It would close down the lane," says Jordan. "That would
close off all penetration. I wouldn't like it." That's good
enough for us. Also, allowing zones would almost have to be
accompanied by a longer shot clock to give offenses time to
operate, which would slow the game down even more.
Nevertheless, the existing rules could certainly be modified to
make offenses less inclined to turn the game into a succession
of one-on-one and two-on-two battles. First, make an offensive
player get into realistic position to score--say, inside the
three-point arc--before a defense has to commit a man to him.
That would make it more difficult to draw a violation, and
offenses wouldn't slow the game down so much trying to do so.
REDUCE THE SHOT CLOCK TO 20 SECONDS
It's hard to score when you don't shoot, and teams have been
shooting less and less in the past few seasons. Through Sunday
the average number of shots per team was 78.7 this season, about
25 less than 30 seasons ago and 10 less than a decade ago. It's
possible for a team to make 50% or more of its field goal
attempts and still score under 100 points, which was almost
unheard of in the 1980s.
The main reason for the decline in shots is that the fast break
is going the way of the dinosaur. More teams are using almost
all of the 24-second clock before they shoot. "There's more of
an emphasis on transition defense," says Knicks coach Jeff Van
Gundy. "Teams naturally wind up walking [the ball] up out of
habit, because you're not going to be rewarded by running it."
The prevailing philosophy in the NBA once was that the team that
took the most shots was most likely to win because its opponent
would have to sink a higher percentage to beat it. The success
of methodical teams like the Cavaliers (12-6 at week's end while
scoring an average of 87.9 points and surrendering 80.1) has
helped change that. "Cleveland wishes it had a 45-second clock,"
says Orlando general manager John Gabriel. Now many coaches
think that if you limit the number of possessions by milking the
clock, you will give yourself a better chance to win.
Fine. Just give teams less of the clock to milk. A 20-second
clock would give both teams more possessions and more shots, and
it would encourage teams to push the ball down the floor in a
hurry, either for fast-break points or to get into their offense
MOVE THE THREE-POINT LINE BACK
In 1995 the three-point arc was moved in from a maximum distance
of 23'9" from the basket (where it had been established in '79)
to a uniform 22 feet. There is growing sentiment, especially
among coaches, for moving it back out. "The first thing moving
the line in did was send a message to every guy in the league
who isn't a three-point shooter that he can be one," says
Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens, mindful that the league-wide
three-point percentage was 35.7% through Sunday. "It looks so
close, they all want to shoot it. Sometimes it makes me want to
cry, and I'm not just talking about my own team. The second
thing it did was make it much easier to double-team because
you're defending a much smaller arc."
With the current three-point line, defenses can have the best of
both worlds. A particularly agile defender like Pistons swingman
Stacey Augmon can sag in to double-team Knicks center Patrick
Ewing in the low post and still get out fast enough to get a
hand in guard Allan Houston's face when Ewing passes the ball
back to Houston on the perimeter. "The old line stretched the
defense," says Cavaliers coach Mike Fratello. "The new line does
not. The old line, you had to think, Do we commit a guy out
there? Do we play off him, dare him to shoot?"
It's time to force defenses to take those calculated risks
again. The elite marksmen--Houston, the Pacers' Reggie Miller,
the Golden State Warriors' Mark Price et al.--would still be
dangerous from beyond the arc. Some of the players who are
marginal three-point shooters at the current distance, including
such high scorers as the Rockets' Charles Barkley (32.4% from
beyond the arc through Sunday) and the Dallas Mavericks' Jim
Jackson (34.4%), would be less tempted to shoot from beyond the
line and would concentrate more on midrange jumpers, which would
probably make their shooting percentages rise.
ENCOURAGE OFFENSIVE INNOVATION
"Ninety percent of the [plays] that are being run in the NBA
right now, everybody runs them," says Riley. "There aren't any
more innovators. We're all basically doing the same thing." Says
Sacramento Kings vice president Geoff Petrie, "There are so many
teams running the same plays every night, the defense knows them
all. They're not guarding the guy, they're guarding the play."
In fact, in an informal survey, NBA coaches were asked to pick
the most creative offensive coach in the league, and the name
most often mentioned by the 14 respondents was Bulls assistant
Tex Winter, 74, who in the 1940s first began running the same
triple-post, or triangle, offense the Bulls use now. (The head
coaches most often cited by their peers were Indiana's Brown and
the Seattle SuperSonics' George Karl.)
It's obvious that there is more of a premium put on defensive
expertise than on offensive creativity by those who hire
coaches. Most of the highly regarded NBA coaches (such as
Fratello, Karl, Riley and Wilkens) are known for their ability
to teach defense, while many of the coaches known for producing
high-scoring teams (Doug Moe, Don Nelson, Paul Westphal, Paul
Westhead) are out of the league. "Part of it is that the
perception of a coach is, if you lose 88-85, you're a better
coach than if you lose 118-115," says NBA senior vice president
for basketball operations Rod Thorn. "The media puts that out
there by saying, 'He's teaching defense, he's organized, he's
working hard.' The coaches who do that get the accolades and the
Innovation is needed to counteract one of the other forces that
keeps scoring down: sophisticated, often high-tech scouting
techniques. "When I was playing, our scouting reports said
things like 'Force this guy right,' or 'Make him shoot the
outside jumper,'" says Walter Davis, an All-Star scorer
(18.9-point career average) for Denver, the Phoenix Suns and the
Portland Trail Blazers from 1977-78 through '91-92 and now the
Nuggets' TV analyst. "It was pretty basic stuff, and it hardly
helped you against the better scorers. Today every player gets a
typed report that gives the opponents' offensive tendencies,
diagrams of the opponents' favorite plays, a paragraph on each
opponent that details his strengths and weaknesses and his
favorite moves, and a videotape that highlights the tendencies
of the opponent he'll be guarding. Shoot, if I'd gotten scouting
reports like that when I was playing, maybe I could have stopped
my man, too."
By itself, tinkering with the rules can't end the offensive
drought. "I wouldn't change the rules, I'd improve the players,"
says Raptors executive vice president Isiah Thomas. He has a
point, of course, which isn't surprising. It's far easier to
make a point in the NBA these days than it is to score one.