To break NBA scoring ice, whisper in officials' ears

June 24, 1999|By Bob Ryan | Bob Ryan,BOSTON GLOBE

NEW YORK -- The Wise Men have convened and now they have all gone home. They gathered at 9 and broke up at 3. They talked about their game and what could be done to brighten it up. In order to maximize their time, they had your basic working lunch.

The subject was the state of the NBA, which is beset with low scores, sagging TV ratings and unspeakably ugly games that bear scant resemblance to the Boston-Los Angeles confrontations of the not-too-distant past, let alone anything Wilt and Russ ever knew.

The very existence of a 16-man Special Committee comprising owners, general managers, coaches, players, broadcast personnel, and a college coach [Mike Krzyzewski] speaks to nothing less than a crisis, right?

" `Crisis' is too strong a word," maintained deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "There was simply a mandate from the Board of Governors to make some improvements. We all recognize there are problems we need to address."

"It's a `concern,' not a crisis," echoed senior vice president of basketball operations Rod Thorn. "Scoring is down. Shooting percentages are down, and they've been going down for a long time."

So all right, already. What did they come up with?

"There were four main areas of agreement," said Thorn, who went on to explain what those areas were:

"How the game is officiated, particularly from the standpoint of contact. There is too much grabbing, holding, and impeding of progress. We're taking a close look at that."

"The illegal-defense guidelines. We need to make them more understandable to both our players and our fans."

The need for some kind of five-second rule inside the foul lane to prevent people from backing down and backing down. (Hearing this, someone said, "Has Charles Barkley announced his retirement yet?")

"A 14-second rule. The idea is that when a violation [such as kicking the basketball] or a common foul occurs, the clock will either remain at face value, if there are more than 14 seconds left on the 24, or reset to 14 if there is less than 14."

Trapezoid lane? Nope. Get rid of the three-point shot? Nope. Allow any old defense? Nope. Changing the 24-second clock, be it up or down? Nope. All were discussed and all were pretty thoroughly rejected.

Left unspoken was just what specific changes would be made to the current illegal-defense rule, which was written prior to the 1982-83 season and has been tinkered with three times.

What everyone did agree on was that the rule is part of the problem, because, as written, it invites offenses to play two-man basketball with three men standing around chatting with Spike Lee or Jack Nicholson. In addition, with three men already halfway back on defense, fast-break basketball is discouraged.

"I think the hope is if we come up with the right combination of things that allow more movement away from the ball and changing the defensive guidelines," said Granik, "teams won't have quite the same incentive on every play to throw it into the post."

The proposals will be put on paper and then sent to the committee members over the next three weeks. The Board of Governors will then act. The new proposals will be tried out for the first time at a summer league scheduled to take place in Atlanta next month.

They also will be looked at in other summer leagues, including one in Boston. If any adjustments are deemed necessary, they will take place during the exhibition season. With these dress rehearsals taking care of business, the 1999-2000 season will begin and we will see the return of the 125-117 game.

Or maybe not. We'll still need someone to put the ball in the basket.

No one can make a judgment until we see just what they do with the illegal-defense rule. But we do know from past experience that referees will do what they're told.

If the league wants a closely called game, we will get one. If the league wants a let-'em-play game, that's what we'll have. Some referees will always be better than others, but the referees can adapt to anything; more so, usually, than the players.

It turns out that a very persuasive tool employed by Thorn was a video he had made demonstrating the game's slow evolution from the smoother-flowing game of years gone by to the current mud-wrestling affair.

"The video started in the '70s," Thorn explained. "You could see through each five- or six-year period some slight changes. There were a lot of savvy people in the room. They knew what was going on. They weren't shocked. But the video sort of defined the situation. You could see, for example, that cutters cannot run freely today, nor can guys come off picks without circling. That's what we need to clean up."

Anyone wondering what the fuss is all about should understand that, with the exception of the team the nutty professor Paul Westhead put on the floor nine years ago, the last teams to take 100 shots a game were the '72-73 Celtics, 76ers, and Rockets.

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