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NBA BASKETBALL: Fifteen Steps to a Better NBA
There's nothing wrong with pro hoops that freedom of movement and an influx of speedy short guys can't cure

By DENNIS HANS                   July 1, 2001

I first realized "Friends" star Matthew Perry had a problem when he looked in the camera and convincingly declared, "I love this game!" I don't know if it was the booze, the dope or the painkillers talking. I just knew it wasn't Perry. He simply isn't that good of an actor.

The NBA, which only an out-of-it comic actor could claim to love, has a problem: It reeks. The league features many of the world's greatest athletes and a style of play dedicated to disguising that fact. The game is too slow and the court is too congested. The Rules Committee has legislated against grabbing, bumping and banging, but there's still too much of all three. Along with the slow pace and congestion, they rob the game of the freedom of movement which once was the NBA's hallmark.

Forty years ago a typical team scored 118 points per game. Today, despite the benefit of a chip-shot three-point line, it scores 94. And when a couple of control-freak coaches clash, count on a 78-65 crashing bore. 

In recent decades, the percentage of great athletes per roster has dwindled -- less because of expansion than the new mantra: Size matters. Benches are weighted down with behemoths who have few skills and scant athleticism. The problem is that the guys who used to play small forward -- 6-6 200-pound gazelles -- now play in the backcourt. This has all but eliminated from the league the quick, exciting, do-everything 6-2 or shorter shooting guard. (One of the few, Philly's Allen Iverson, is the league's MVP.) Instead of a pair of these on each roster, teams carry an extra two backup big men -- so they'll have an additional 12 fouls to use against Shaq should they encounter the Lakers in the playoffs. 

Fortunately, the game is not beyond repair. Here is one disgusted but hopeful fan's 15-point program to revitalize the NBA.

1. Each team must have two players 6-3 or under on the court at all times. If we evaluated all the basketball players in the world on their athleticism and hoop skills, 98 percent of the top 1,000 would be 6-3 or shorter. It's not unreasonable to give them 40 percent of the court time.

2. A third teammate on the floor, most likely but not necessarily the small forward, is limited to 210 pounds. The Ray Allens, Reggie Millers, Kobe Bryants and Byron Hustons will play this position. Their subs must meet the weight limit, too.

3. A fourth player would have a weight limit of 235 pounds. Teams can have a wide-body at center or at power forward, but not both at both spots at the same time. With muscle mass no longer a prerequisite, players can devote their off-season -- and their free time during the season -- to honing their skills.

4. Admissions testing. Here's a whacky concept: To be an NBA professional, you must be able to play basketball. If testing is appropriate for students seeking admission to sixth grade, it's appropriate for the pinnacle of pro hoops. No one gets a roster spot without an acceptable aggregate score for skills (passing, shooting, dribbling and catching) and athleticism (agility, quickness, speed and reflexes, but not strength). Good riddance to the goons currently making millions to commit four hard fouls in their nine minutes of court time. 

5. No cameras on the coaches. The players are the game. Let's make the game worth watching, and then let's watch the players.

6. Ban the expression "good foul." It is -- or should be -- an oxymoron. The object of defense is to prevent a basket without fouling, not karate chop a guy to "make him earn it at the line" (to mention another cliche that is henceforth banned) or grab a guy in the backcourt to stop a fastbreak. (Heaven forbid the fans get to see a fastbreak.) Guess what? Grabbing or karate-chopping is not a basketball "skill." Avoiding contact while picking a pocket or blocking a shot is. 

7. On intentional fouls, shooting or non, the fouled player gets two shots and his team retains possession. Intentional fouls include, but aren't limited to, chops or bear hugs to prevent a layup; an obvious grab when a defender is beaten; a deliberate shove to put a bricklayer on the line; a hard foul to "send a message" (another cliche we're banning) to a talent that he can expect a mugging on every drive. Say goodbye to such warped strategies as having 24 fouls available to give at the center position. 

8. Related to Point 7, guys who waste time honing their ability to make intentional fouls appear unintentional will face severe penalties -- 5- and 10-game suspensions. Cheating -- that is, trying to deceive the officials -- will no longer be considered savvy "gamesmanship." Announcers caught praising floppers for their "acting" ability will be fired. 

9. For the benefit of youngsters and unethical coaches watching at home, broadcasters will make clear the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate acting. Legitimate acting includes looking right and passing left; loping along, then turning on the jets; playing possum, then pouncing on a lazy inbounds pass; and setting up some sap for the crossover. In each case the player's body language, eyes or facial expression aims to fool his hapless foe. Ladies and gentleman, that is basketball. Fooling refs -- the upholders of the game's integrity -- is cheating. 

10. Bring fairness and common sense to the block/charge call, which currently is interpreted to discourage the drives and runners that draw oohs and aahs and to encourage boring jump-stops and jumpshots. On the rare occasion someone attempts a running one-hander, usually there are one or two off-the-ball defenders planting themselves on the spot where the shooter will land. They're not defending the shot but some meaningless plot of wood. What does that have to do with basketball? Worse, the league hasn't figured out that the driver physically commits to his directional path on his second-to-last step. Guiding principle for refs: In order to earn a charge, the defender must be set and directly in the path before the driver plants his second-to-last step. The benefit of any doubt should go to the active party -- the artistic, athletic driver. Quit rewarding these passive flat-foot floogies!

11. Reward defenders who remain upright every second of the offensive possession; penalize those who look for opportunities to flop. One technique when guarding a dribbler is to extend one's chest to create contact. The fact that the dribbler is moving forward while the defender is backpedaling or moving laterally makes it likely that contact will send the defender sprawling. The defender doesn't even have to act; he need only offer no resistance to make it appear the driver pushed off. Karl Malone, Darrell Armstrong and Derek Fisher are among the masters of this illusion. Guiding principle for refs: zero tolerance for cute crap. Most players prefer an honest game, and they'll appreciate refs who enforce one. 

12. Don't allow low-post bullies to butt-whack their way to the hoop. At present, some officials all but force defenders to flop just to call attention to the butt-whacking. The idea is to clean up the play down low and keep fouls to a minimum. Guiding principle for refs: Strength is an asset, not a weapon.

13. Ditch the dotted line. The intent was good -- promote driving to the hoop -- but the dot hasn't delivered. Refs are so focused on seeing if the defender is outside the dotted line at the moment of the block/charge collision they don't get a good look to see if he was stationary at the time the driver committed; see Point 11. This results in countless blocks being called charges, and further discourages driving. Sometimes defenders step forward to get outside the line, moving underneath the vulnerable driver. Accidents are waiting to happen, if they haven't already. Possible solution: If Point 11 doesn't take care of this problem, put the onus on secondary, helping defenders to avoid collisions with drivers. That is, they are entitled to leave their man to defend the driver, but only to make a play on the ball. 

14. No more foul-outs. Never again will individual foul trouble determine the outcome of a game. Basketball is the only sport that routinely forces key players to sit and watch for long stretches. Nothing is more unseemly than a Dennis Rodman or Robert Horry flopping a foe into foul trouble. A guy who plays a clean game should be removed from the court by coach's decision only. The steep penalty for intentional fouling, rendering it in all cases a counterproductive tactic (see Point 7), will prevent games from turning into free-throw parades. Any player inclined to throw his weight around will quickly learn he's shooting his own team in the foot. 

15. During the last two minutes of the game, no time-outs are permitted and the shot clock is cut to 12 seconds. (Thanks to Gary Kaufman of salon.com for this terrific idea.) Games end with a flurry of action rather than an interminable series of huddles and free throws. Teams cannot foul their way back into the game (see intentional foul rule, Point 7), but they can scramble their way back with good defense. They can easily make up a 10-point deficit by shutting down the opposition while converting on most of their 6 or 7 scoring opportunities in what I call the "Final Frantic Flurry"®. 

In 15 easy steps we can put the NBA accent back on skills and athleticism. We can create a game that is fun to play and thrilling to watch. 

Bio:  Dennis Hans is a writer, an occasional college professor, and a frustrated NBA fan.  His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada) and online at Slate.com, MediaChannel.org and The Black World Today (tbwt.com), among other outlets.  He can be reached at  HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu .

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