A New Ball Game?
At the beginning of this season the NBA implemented four major new rules in hopes of reducing excessively physical play and producing more points. Each rule has already had an impact, for better or worse. Here's how they stack up.
•The hands-off policy. Better. This rule against hand checking—which prohibits a defender from placing his hands on the man he's guarding whenever the offensive player is above the foul line extended across the width of the court—is accomplishing its aims. It has curtailed some of the rougher play, it has stopped defenders from steering offensive players with their hands, and it has required that players play defense by moving their feet, which is how it's supposed to be played. As hoped, the hand-check rule has helped reverse a trend toward less scoring in recent years (through Dec. 30, team scoring average was 101.8 points per game, compared with 100.4 at the same point in 1993-94). As predicted, it has also led to more fouls, an average of almost four more per game than last season. And despite preseason fears that an increase in fouls would make games significantly longer, the average time of a regulation game so far is 2:11, a mere two minutes longer than the average last season.
Players are growing more comfortable with the rule, and the referees aren't calling it as strictly as they did in the preseason. "It does a great justice to the league," says Houston Rocket Scott Brooks, the type of speedy guard who has benefited. "If you let hand checking go, you have rugby, not basketball."
But some still feel that the rule and its enforcement are too stringent. Among the detractors is Denver Nugget forward Brian Williams. "If you're a motorist traveling down the freeway and you're going 56 miles an hour, and a cop pulls you over and gives you a speeding ticket, would you like that?" he says. "No, of course not. Well, that's exactly what it's like now. You would want to smack the——out of the officer, out of the legislator, the police chief, and you'd want a refund for your tickets to the policemen's ball."
•The shorter trey. Worse. These are the world's best shooters. For them the former three-point distance (23'9" at its longest) was a test. But the new distance, a uniform 22 feet, is "too close, I don't like it," says Hornet guard Dell Curry, whose shooting range is topped perhaps only by that of the Pacers' Reggie Miller. "Too many guys who aren't three-point shooters are making them. I take regular jump shots, look down and realize that I'm behind the line."
More shooters, bad and good, are hoisting the trey. Through Dec. 30, 3,923 more three-pointers had been attempted and 1,555 more had been made than at virtually the same point last season. Among the league's worst three-point shooters last year were the Suns' Cedric Ceballos (0 for 9) and the Bullets' Calbert Cheaney (1 for 23). Already this season Ceballos, now a Laker, is 19 for 51 and Cheaney is 21 for 76.
The record for three-point shots made in a season is 192, set last season by Phoenix's Dan Majerle. Through Dec. 30, six players were on a pace to top 200: Majerle, Miller, Orlando's Nick Anderson, Houston's Vernon Maxwell, San Antonio's Chuck Person and Miami's Glen Rice.
•No more 2.9. Worse. This rule has eliminated the 2.9 seconds of decision making formerly allotted to a defender before he had to either follow his assigned man above the free throw line or help double-team another offensive player. Now a defensive player must immediately decide whom to guard, and once he decides, he can't change his mind. This has drawn shot blockers such as Denver's Dikembe Mutombo away from the basket, led to more one-on-one play and made it harder to help out on defense. It has also led to more than twice as many illegal-defense calls as last season. "I don't like it, and I think it has had the biggest impact of all the rule changes," says Spur guard Doc Rivers. "I think it's boring for the fans. It's become an isolation game, four guys standing around watching someone go one-on-one."
Chicago Bull coach Phil Jackson agrees. After his team was called for five illegal defenses against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 19, Jackson said, "People who saw this saw the wave of the NBA's future. Walk it up, smack the defense in, draw illegal defenses. It's hurting the rhythm of the game."
•No taunt. Much better. "The taunting thing is the change I like the most," says Detroit Piston guard Joe Dumars. "The finger-shaking and yelling had no place in the NBA. All it was doing was leading to the next step, which was violence. Now we're just playing basketball."
Good Hair Days
The Spurs are 7-1 since forward Dennis Rodman's return from the suspended list and are looking like a team capable of making some noise come playoff time. Rodman is rebounding ferociously (an average of 11.5 per game and 20.4 per 48 minutes) and playing monster defense. Giddy members of his Alamodome fan club have begun to chant, "Rodman for President." They even liked his Christmas hair color: bright green, with a red male symbol (his hair is now orange).
"I'm a rebel, the black sheep of the NBA, but I do my thing, it works, and it doesn't hurt anyone," he says. "People pay $200 a seat to watch us, I want to give them a show." Adds Rodman, "I'm not just an athlete, I'm an entertainer. I bring laughter."
True, he had the crowd howling on Dec. 27 when he clanged in his first free throw of the season in his 165th minute of action, then implored the crowd to cheer louder. But the same people had not been laughing when Rodman missed the first 17 games this season (during which the Spurs went 8-9) after his refusal to adhere to team rules.
If he doesn't do anything dumb the rest of the year—no guarantees there—Rodman has a chance to join Moses Malone and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to lead the league in rebounding four years in a row. He also has a chance to repeat as the league leader in technical fouls, ejections, three-second violations and delay-of-game penalties. "When I do something stupid, I only hurt myself," he says. But when he doesn't play, he hurts the Spurs.
Line of the Week
This one's the line of the season so far, actually, and it comes out of Sixer forward Tim Perry's performance on Nov. 18 against the Clippers: 11 minutes, 0-0 FG, 0-0 FT, 0-0 Reb, 0 A, 0 PF, 0 TP. That's nine zeros, and such a string is called a "trillion," a term invented by now retired journeyman center Scott Hastings. "I was the king of the two and three trillion," says Hastings (meaning a two-or three-minute stint that produced a string of box-score zeros). Hastings says Magic center Tree Rollins had a 14 trillion while playing in a game for Atlanta many years ago. "It got so bad for me I'd foul, just go to hacking, to avoid [the trillion]," says Hastings. "But an 11 trillion, that's hard. You figure you've got to get one rebound or you'd only have as many as Elvis or any other dead guy."
This season even tenacious Knick Derek Harper (above, in last season's Finals) is hands-off.
[See caption above.]
D. CLARKE EVANS/NBA PHOTOS
Rebounding from a suspension, Rodman is as colorful as ever.